Graven Images

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.


The civil war was long since over.  One side had won.  One side had lost.  But in 1929, the defeated commissioned a statue to honor the bravery of their ancestors.

The plaque below the statue reads in part:

This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of


who, after the Declaration of Independence, came into British North America from the seceded American colonies and who, with faith and fortitude, and under great pioneering difficulties, largely laid the foundations of this Canadian nation as an integral part of the British Empire.

Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of inprisonment could break their spirits, or divorce them from a loyalty almost without parallel.

No country ever had such founders —
No country in the world —
No, not since the days of Abraham. – Lady Tennyson

Yes, the “civil war” I’m talking about is the “civil war” for British North America.  A war in which American loyalists supported the king and American rebels supported independence.  The statue is located in Hamilton, Ontario.  I think you would be hard pressed to find a statue to the bravery of loyalists inside the USA.  This does not mean there were no brave loyalists.  It does mean that as a nation we have decided to celebrate the cause of Independence as the American cause.  In fact, we started taking down statues at the very start of the revolution.

Most famously, the statue of King George III was toppled by the mob (otherwise known as “the Sons of Liberty”) on July 9, 1776.  To the best of my knowledge, no one made speeches about “erasing history” or the loss of British “heritage.”  It was simply that the new nation stopped venerating kings, so keeping up a statue of a king in the public square seemed completely inappropriate.

America’s second civil war, the one in the 1860s, might have ended the same way.  The initial reaction of the United States army on to how to deal with General Lee was not to put up a statue but to transform his beloved home into a cemetery.  The National Republican reported in 1864:

The ‘powers that be’ have been induced to appropriate two hundred acres, immediately around the house of General Lee, on Arlington Heights, for the burial of soldiers dying in the army hospitals of this city. …. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartily thank the initiators of this movement…. This and the contraband establishment there are righteous uses of the estate of the rebel General Lee, and will never dishonor the spot made venerable by the occupation of Washington.

Though Arlington Cemetery is today a place of honor, its origins were in part a punishment for Lee’s decision to join the rebels.

Most of the statues that honor the Confederacy were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the war but rather decades later as part of an ongoing effort to normalize the rebellion as a “war between the states” rather than treason against our national government.  This was an effort that coincided with the interests of those who wished to persecute and marginalize African-American citizens.  So for those genuinely concerned with efforts to change history, I would suggest reexamining the origins of these statues in the 20th century.

The events of the last ten days have me thinking not only about American history but about my Jewish roots as well.  As a kid, I always remember thinking that the Ten Commandments were rather uneven – mixed in with injunctions to avoid murder, theft, adultery and other behaviors that clearly harmed people was a prohibition on “graven images.”  Back then I thought that this commandment was not only easy to keep but probably unnecessary in the modern world.  After all, I didn’t know many idol worshipers.  But seeing statues turned into quasi-religious vessels has caused me to reevaluate the merits of aniconism (prohibitions related to idolatry and sculpture). In addition to multiple references in the Torah itself, there is an entire section of the Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the topic.  The prohibition is said to broadly apply to creating an image of “anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”   I feel reasonably confident that statues of generals, both Confederate and Union, are covered by this ban.  Personally, I am comfortable with statues as art (if art was truly their purpose) and I am ok with statues as symbols of shared values (see my last post on the Statue of Liberty), but statues are not a substitute for history and we should not confuse respect for history with veneration of graven images – in my view that’s as problematic today as it was 5000 years ago.

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“Originalism” Run Amuck

Posted on August 4th, 2017 by

Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

This week’s remarks by White House policy advisor Steven Miller seeking to disassociate the Statue of Liberty from the poem by Emma Lazarus at its base has touched a nerve for many people.  On the extreme right it has led to a spate of anti-Semitic tweets and posts directed at the historic figure of Emma in specific, and at Jewish support for immigration more generally.  In the media it has resulted in a number of clever lampoons, perhaps none more pointed than the recent “rewriting” of the Lazarus poem by Stephen Colbert.

I wanted to pull back for a moment and look at what this exchange says about the way we understand history and especially historic icons.  At the heart of Miller’s argument is the notion that an icon, symbol or manifesto belongs to the people who originate it, and that subsequent use or abuse or amendment is irrelevant.  I am fully committed to the investigation of the origins of everything, from the American Revolution to lox and bagels – believing that an understanding of how things begin can yield useful information about often complex relationships.  But I also believe it is a fallacy to ignore the subsequent history or even treat it as of secondary importance.  After all, if the American Revolution had only resulted in a change in British tax policy would anyone remember it ever happened?

"Liberty enlightening the world," courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Liberty enlightening the world,” courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Origins can be benign and then perverted.  I am reminded of the fact that the swastika was a Sanskrit symbol of “good fortune” centuries before it was used by the Nazis.  This does not mean that someone in the 21st century who scribbles it on a wall is wishing me good fortune.

In the opposite direction, origins can be tactical and transformed by time into powerful icons.  The Emancipation Proclamation is introduced by Lincoln as a “war measure”, a promise of economic punishment to the Confederacy and a means of recruiting African-American troops.  Time and again, the argument has been made that few slaves were actually freed as a result of the Proclamation.  This ignores the fact that at the time it is finally issued, the Proclamation had become a galvanizing symbol for a promise of freedom yet to come.

"Emancipation from Freedmen's viewpoint"; illustration from Harper's Weekly 1865. Via.

“Emancipation from Freedmen’s viewpoint”; illustration from Harper’s Weekly 1865. Via.

In the case of the Statue of Liberty, a token of international friendship, a gift of the government of France, was transformed into a powerful symbol of welcome by generations of immigrants.  As several commentators have pointed out the Lazarus poem actually predates the installation of the statue.  Its use in a fundraising campaign for the pedestal is an indication that even at the point of origin there was some thought that the statue would serve the function of welcoming newcomers.  The millions who came around the Statue to Ellis Island reinforced the message of the poem both before and after it was formally attached to the statue.

Manuscript of the sonnet "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883.  Via.

Manuscript of the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883. Via.

When those immigrants became citizens they attained equal status with those who had been on this continent since before the Revolution.  Their children and grandchildren helped shape the great nation we have become.  We fulfilled the promise of the poem, creating a home for those “yearning to breathe free” and we should not easily let it be demeaned as an afterthought.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Great Lessons from Humble Places

Posted on March 24th, 2017 by

Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists?  Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?

Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.”  In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.

On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that.  Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.

Entering Vilna Shul

Entering Vilna Shul

The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston.  Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination.  It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there).  Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.

Vilna's stained glass window

Vilna’s stained glass window

The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk.  It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street.  The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church.  But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater.  The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.



There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul.  As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere.  Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center

The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl?  The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik.  The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.


The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed.  Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language.  A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language.  A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.

Check out that address

Check out that address

Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display.  There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address.  The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania).  An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.

What a fun "madlibs" style interactive!

What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!

It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England.  If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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