Jewish World Review / March 8, 1998 / 10 Adar, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Getting lost in history

Museums are the latest Jewish battlegrounds

WHEN LARGE NUMBERS of Jews first arrived on these shores and formed communities, the first thing they did was to build cemeteries. Synagogues were usually next, followed by community centers, libraries and even universities.

In between were all the smaller institutions, such as businesses which served the observant community, like kosher butchers. Jewish newspapers - though few have stood the test of time - popped up relatively early in the process. All of these institutions have had their ups and downs (and lately more downs than ups) but the last item to fill out the roster of American Jewish achievements has only recently come into full bloom: the museum.

Museums sprouting like mushrooms

Museums are the latest cottage industry that has arisen to serve the historical memory of a people whose sense of history has long been thought Holocaust Museum to be the most keen of any group on earth. Holocaust museums and archives now sprout up across the land like so many Jewish mushrooms. Some are small one-room exhibitions located in other permanent structures. Others are massive achievements of stone and intellect such as the monumental U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Like 19th century western boomtowns - all of which boasted their own "opera house" as a symbol of their newfound importance - it would appear that American Jewish communities are following the same trend with museums. If you can afford one (and maybe even if you can't), you want one. Alongside the Holocaust museums is a growing number of Jewish history museums. There are museums of immigration as well as many restored synagogues, all vying for attention and funds.

What do we make of American Jewry's new twist on the "edifice complex?" Some of the reasons behind all this Jewish history-mongering are entirely praiseworthy. Others are less so. But as we make our way through the dizzying increase in Jewish historical institutions, we will be forced to answer some difficult questions both about the past and the present.

What will survive us? Why so many museums? As an aging, largely prosperous population, contemporary American Jews are naturally inclined to introspection and self-congratulation. We have weathered the storms of immigration, anti-Semitism and live now in a time when our power and affluence are unprecedented in Jewish history. Though I would not wish to shortchange legions of overworked and poorly paid historians and archivists, shouldn't we be a trifle suspicious of all this museum building? Isn't it a little spooky to think that just as American Jewry has begun to grasp the serious nature of its own continuity problems, we are simultaneously embarked on a drive to build or restore places which will house our memories?

If our generation's legacy to posterity is an American Jewish community which is the most Jewishly illiterate in our history, are we consoled by the idea that we will be survived by scores of stone buildings housing our memorabilia?

As we pass the exhibits of past generations, should we silently ask them to save some room for us as we subconsciously consign ourselves to the proverbial dustbin of history? Isn't the museum craze, in part, a bit of idol worship with big-giver egomania thrown in for good measure?

What to do about Charter Oak?

A case in point is the debate currently under way about the future of the first building specifically built as a synagogue in the state of Connecticut: Hartford's Charter Oak Synagogue, which housed Congregation Beth Israel from 1876-1935. Currently, the building is undergoing a dazzling restoration after being dormant for many years. It is now the site of a center which is home to some Jewish events but is primarily a successful multi-cultural performing and lecture space. That is fitting given the current population of the neighborhood in which it is located in downtown Hartford. As such, Charter Oak may be better off as a place where Jews, Blacks and Hispanics can come together to share each other's cultures rather than as an exclusively Jewish site.

Some local Jews want the building to be completely restored and become a dedicated Jewish heritage space. That notion appeals to the sentiments of many who look upon the site with nostalgia or who crave a Jewish museum of some sort for the region. But more to the point is the question of whether this particular community can afford the extravagance of a museum at a time when its Jewish schools are starving for funds. While preserving historical memory is a fundamental obligation of any Jew and any Jewish community, is it appropriate to expend massive and scarce funds on these monuments - no matter how beautiful their exteriors or educational their exhibits?

In Hartford's case, the lack of funds will surely mean that it will stay a multi-cultural center. A local Jewish museum would be nice, but the money that would go into Charter Oak would be better spent on educating Jewish children.

Holocaust Museum is now a political tool

Another problem associated with the museum craze is our inability to come to terms with the meaning of our history. Case in point is the scandal sinking the Holocaust Museum in Washington. According to recent reports, the board of the museum is divided between those who see it as a place of Jewish memory and others who are determined that it serve a "universal" purpose. That's why the latter group are forcing out the museum director, Prof. Walter Reich, over his opposition to letting Yasser Arafat use the institution as a prop in a proposed photo opportunity. They see the museum as not only a tool by which all intolerance can be combatted, they wish to use it to win their current political battles with the current government of Israel and its American Jewish supporters. Instead of reinforcing the lessons of Jewish history, this most splendid of Jewish history museums is now doing just the opposite. And since the museum's founders long ago sold its soul by accepting federal funds and land, there is nothing one can do about it. As a creature of American politics, it will always serve the interests of its masters, not the imperatives of Jewish memory.

It is inevitable that these museums - and others - will continue to serve as political battlegrounds. Like Yad Vashem in Israel, they will be the totems of our beliefs about the past. That cannot be avoided. What can be changed are own attitudes. Rather than looking to monuments or statues to commemorate the Holocaust or to celebrate our community history, let us instead invest in our children and their education. If we must choose - as I fear we must - between schools and museums, then let the choice be for Jewish education. If we can lay the foundations for future generations of committed Jews, then there will be time enough in the future for puffing ouregos.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin