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Posts Tagged ‘national museum of jewish history’

After our fifteen minute tour of Independence Hall and a quick peek at the Liberty Bell, we made our way to the National Museum of Jewish History. Beautiful building, very new shiny clean exhibits. The first three floors house a permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in America, and on the top floor, until Sept 2, they’re showing a special exhibit on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Now, I really must admit, I had only the vaguest idea who Bernstein was. I knew he’s a famous musician, and I’ve been to his grave actually, but that’s about it. Even so, I learned, and I found the exhibit just fascinating and wonderful. For someone so deeply involved in Jewish spirituality, music, liturgy, and philosophy, who composed so many pieces directly based upon or inspired by liturgy, to become so popular and successful in such a mainstream way is really incredible. I know some composers or musicians today who, I don’t know their career aspirations or anything, but who are definitely deeply involved in Jewish music. But if Bernstein can be accepted and loved and therefore successful in a mainstream and widespread way, and not only within the niche world of Jewish music, maybe they can too.

The exhibit was, of course, not terribly musicological. We didn’t learn much at all about precisely how or why his music was groundbreaking. How he used the devil’s interval in “Maria” in West Side Story, or how his half-speed rendition of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, featuring the harp, was so revered. Or that Mahler was Jewish, for that matter. At least, I don’t think I remember seeing any of that in the exhibit; just learned it from my gf.

One thing I really enjoyed about the exhibit was how well they included multimedia interactives. There were several listening stations and also small screening rooms, where you could listen to his music, watch segments from a performance of his “MASS,” or watch segments from all over popular culture reenacting or referencing bits from West Side Story. There were also several video screens with clips from documentaries about Bernstein, including one I found particularly interesting, on his trip to Israel in 1967.

There was also a station where a whole bunch of wooden blocks were scattered on a table; by choosing a block and putting it in a designated spot, you could activate a screen with video and audio relating to one of Bernstein’s works. By turning the block to different sides, you could get the screen to focus on the lyrics or the composition or the recording or other different aspects. They could have just done this with a series of buttons, or any number of other arrangements, but doing it with blocks was very neat, I thought. The whole thing, the whole exhibit, was just really interesting. Learning about this man’s relationship with his Judaism, but then also with African-American music and civil rights, with allegations of association with Communists – even suspicions that Bernstein was explicitly a Soviet spy. He was never actually brought up on any charges of any kind, nor subpoenaed, so far as I know, in connection with any of that, but a copy of his 800-page FBI file was on display in the exhibit. Pretty incredible.

Bernstein with the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, 1948. People who had suffered and survived the concentration camps only to be left in refugee camps for years… and yet still had enough strength, and talent, and memory of their training & skills, to perform as an orchestra. Just reading about this was terribly moving.

And, he went to Germany in 1948 and conducted an orchestra composed of DPs (displaced persons, i.e. refugees), and went to Israel just after Independence Day, going back again in 1967, when he then conducted the Israel Philharmonic, previously the Palestine Philharmonic, composed originally of some of the absolutely best musicians in Europe, members of the Vienna and Munich and Prague Philharmonics, who were given visas and documents and help to leave Europe in the late 1930s or very early 1940s if I remember correctly, escaping from the Nazis before it was too late.

Two of the three floors of permanent exhibits.

And then we turn to the permanent exhibits, which were pretty great. More than just being a “Jewish Museum,” this is a Jewish history museum, and actually really endeavors to tell the history chronologically. We learned of the first Jews in the New World – all Sephardic Jews living in South America. Some of them then relocated to North America fleeing Catholic persecution, and became the first Jews in the British colonies. The first synagogue in New York, as I already had known, was a Sephardic synagogue. After these early stages, the vast majority of the exhibits after that made little mention of the Sephardim, however, which is a real shame because I was curious and would have loved to learn more about their history.

Today, I am told, there are more Jews in New York City (or maybe it’s the broader greater NY metro area?) than in any other single city in the world. But, still, that doesn’t mean that NY Jewish history is all there is to Jewish history in the US! I found it really interesting to learn about the first Jewish communities in Charleston, SC; Newport RI; New Orleans; Detroit; all these different places. I was sad to not see any focus on LA at all, only since I’ve been spending more time there lately and would be interested to learn more about that history as well.

But, while I suppose one could write a whole blog post solely on the issue of how this compares to other “ethnic” history museums, my head’s not really in that game right now. It would certainly be interesting. The key thing which struck me and got me thinking about that was the one section on the role of Jews in the Civil War. I suppose you might not be surprised to learn that there were Jews on every side of that political / ideological conflict, as there were also in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what to say about people of any other ethnic or national background, but Jewish residents of the 13 British colonies, just like Protestant and Catholic residents, included both some loyal to the revolution and some loyal to the Crown. And I’m not at all surprised. Though we might in retrospect consider one side “patriots” and the other side “traitors” or whatever, at the time, in the moment, how the hell was anyone to know? Not just in terms of thinking strategically in terms of siding with whichever side you think is going to win, but just simply the fact that there was no simple right answer. Do you remain loyal to your country, which yes has imposed some unfair laws and whatever, but generally speaking is the only government you’ve ever known, and one which has provided some notable degree of security and stability and all of that, or do you join up with this rebellion that’s led by who exactly? fighting for what exactly? to separate from one of the great powers of Western Civilization in order to instead build a new nation (or thirteen separate ones?) in this rugged frontier? …. I think about Jews living in Europe in the 1930s, and especially those of some wealth and privilege, those who perhaps had the most freedom to actually get out (e.g. disposable income to pay for train tickets, political or civic connections to get the papers, connections elsewhere in the world to have somewhere to arrive to), but who also in a certain sense had the most to lose. I think about people invited to join the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, who had such comfortable, upscale, well-to-do lives in Vienna or Berlin or wherever, who really didn’t know what the right decision was. How could they know in 1936 just how bad it would get, and that it really was going to get like that? … And in light of that, in light of the genuine reality of people not knowing what to do amidst what turned out to be one of the most extreme situations in recent history, it’s really quite reasonable to realize that of course there would be Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Many Jews just like Protestants and Catholics were slaveowners, and many Jews were abolitionists. Many Jews were farmers and many were industrialists. Many were small-town people and many were big city people. Many braved the frontier and settled the West (and probably were pretty horrible to Native Americans and others in the process). Many did not. Is this because we were “white”? Maybe. I don’t know. But we were still an ethnic/national and religious minority. So while there are pretty stark reasons that the vast majority of Blacks, Chinese(-Americans), Native Americans, and members of certain other groups went one way politically, and very few another way, at various times in history, on various contentious issues, there are surely numerous other groups which were more divided, more diverse, in their positions and actions at such times. I’d be curious to see other ethnic history museums address this issue. I don’t recall seeing JANM or NMAI address such matters… And I can certainly understand why. But, even so, our country has been more diverse than most people realize for a much longer time than most people realize, and I’d be genuinely curious to learn more about more individuals of different backgrounds involved in the Revolution or the Civil War on both sides, people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds involved in (or in trying to stop) actions against the Native Americans, hell for that matter, people of all different backgrounds involved in overseas wars as well. After all, history is rarely so simple, as to assume that all our ancestors, in whichever ethnic or religious community, were on the “right” side of history so to speak.

Of course, such matters are by no means the central theme of the National Museum of Jewish History either. After the Civil War, the exhibits go on to talk about the origins of the Reform Movement, early 20th century immigration restriction policies, and numerous other topics and themes, before eventually getting to the Holocaust. This section was very well-done, with concurrent videos of Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches run next to each other, giving a sense of the history going on at the same time, as it indeed was.

One thing I found particularly interesting and somewhat unexpected in this section was examples of just how anti-semitic American society was at that time. We like to believe in a story of how the US was this bastion of freedom, this great hero that came and eventually rescued the Jews, and the world, from Hitler and Nazism. And of course there’s truth to that. I one thousand percent am happy to live in a world where the Nazis lost that war. But even so, to have the displays be not about conditions in Nazi Europe and about US heroism, but rather about anti-semitism here at home, was kind of eye-opening, actually. And very sad. And a lot of it echoes very strongly with what continues to go on today with other groups in the case of fears of immigrant groups overwhelming the American population and taking over the country. But a lot of it echoes with anti-semitism that continues to go on today as well. A booklet published in 1939 entitled “Am I an Anti-Semite?”, which on first glance you might think would be a good thing, a book educating people about Jews and about anti-semitism. But, no. This is a book justifying the author’s anti-Jewish sentiment through discussion of the horrors of (Jewish-associated) Communism. I’m not sure whether the author’s answer to “Am I an Anti-Semite?” is “no,” or if it’s “yes, and for good reason,” but either way, the same might as well be published today, just denying or justifying the author’s anti-semitism by talking about the horrors of Zionism instead of Communism. Or just flat-out continuing to repeat the same-old “Jewish conspiracy” lies. These days, in the era of Trump, we’re seeing some of those old canards come roaring right back, to a truly frightening extent sometimes. Some things never change.

There was so much to see, we ran out of time twice, coming back to see the museum a second day, and then even on the second day not getting to see all of it. I ended up rushing through much of it, getting very few photos of the 19th century section at all. Afterwards, we made it to the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which was fantastic, but only for a brief time there too before turning around to head home entirely. Much still left to see in Philadelphia, another time.

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