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For centuries, Jews have considered medicine a calling—an occupation of learning and good deeds, vital to all communities and worthy of high respect. Historians point out that “few occupations are as immediately linked to a group as medicine is to the Jews,” a connection that has become “the stuff of legend and stereotype, both positive and negative, and a source of pride, amusement, entertainment, and folklore.” At the same time, Jewish bodies and behaviors have been the subject of medical scrutiny and debate. The exhibit will examine how medicine has shaped the way Jews are seen, and see themselves. Focusing on the Jewish experience in the US, Jews and Medicine in America will show how the field of medicine has been a vehicle, by turns, for discrimination, acculturation, and strengthening Jewish identity.
Jews and Medicine in America contributes to the contemporary conversation about health and medicine by illuminating the social meanings and values intrinsic to medical interactions. The exhibit will surprise diverse audiences by uncovering the often-overlooked cultural history embedded in a scientific enterprise. It probes questions important to all Americans: how do medical categories shape identity; what are the impacts of medical authority; where did our current health care institutions come from; and how does culture influence the medical construction of biological difference. The experiences of Jews, as both practitioners and patients, offer a case study in the formative impact of medicine on cultural and social identity, as well as the impact of cultural values on medicine.
Each section of our immersive exhibit explores an aspect of American Jews’ experience with medicine, as well as the broader relationships between medicine and identity: the use of admissions quotas to regulate who enters medical school; the ritualized roles of patient and practitioner in the office visit; the sectarian hospital as a refuge from discrimination and a locus of community pride; the search for biological definitions of identity in the laboratory; and presentation of self in the fitness center. Our aim is to offer visitors experiences that will encourage critical inquiry into present-day issues in medicine that pertain to their own lives and communities.
While the exhibit emphasizes the experiences of individuals and institutions operating in the secular world, it also explores Jewish practice and belief. A series of strategically-placed panels will address visitors’ curiosity about the interplay between religion and science. Topics include: What are the issues in the contemporary debate over circumcision? Why is kosher food thought to be healthful, while the Ashkenazi diet is sometimes called a “heart attack on a plate?” How are religious laws about the body applied to new technologies, such as organ donation? Even: does chicken soup relieve the common cold? Few of these questions have definitive answers, but they serve as intriguing entry points for deeper engagement.
The exhibit will be on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland through January 16th, 2017. Get your tickets now!