“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.

Skylight

Skylight

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




The President and the Wall

Posted on February 6th, 2017 by

45 years ago this month the big news around the globe was about the President and the Wall.  President Richard Nixon was going to visit the Great Wall of China.  Sitting around the JMM lunchroom the other day I realized that many staff were too young to remember this historic event.  Moreover, given the way that Asian history is so often ignored in school, many were unfamiliar with the history of the Wall itself (Mulan doesn’t count as a documentary).

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China, February 24, 1972. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. NARA 194421

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China, February 24, 1972. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. NARA 194421

Brushing off my textbooks from my days as an East Asian Studies major, I thought I might share some basic facts.  The Great Wall of China was a project started in 220 BCE by China’s first unifier, Qin Shih Huang Ti to keep out Hsiung-nu tribesmen to the north.  The Great Wall was built at a great cost, many of the corvée laborers and convicts who built the wall lie buried inside it.  The Wall was improved by various dynasties over the next 2,000 years.  The majority of the existing wall is less than 600 years old.  Over the centuries the Great Wall was a tremendous symbol of Chinese pride – but perhaps not such a success in achieving its original purpose.  Time and again, northern invaders ended up controlling territory on both sides of the Wall – most famously the Mongols, but also the Liao, the Jin and eventually the Manchu.  The so-called “barbarians” often benefited from civil strife and corruption within China – the Wall offered absolutely no protection against these ailments.  When China is finally carved up by the “Western barbarians” and later Japan, the Great Wall was totally useless.  The Wall was a defensive barrier against a singular threat, when in reality China, like all nations, actually faced multiple, evolving threats across its long history.  It turns out that China was strongest during periods when it had adaptive strategies to a changing environment.

The Great Wall of China, 1907. Photo by Herbert Ponting.

The Great Wall of China, 1907. Photo by Herbert Ponting.

In researching the topic on the Internet, I also found this rather intriguing quote from Nixon’s conversation with reporters at the Great Wall on February 24, 1972.  Nixon said:

What is most important is that we have an open world. As we look at this Wall, we do not want walls of any kind between peoples. I think one of the results of our trip, we hope, may be that the walls that are erected, whether they are physical walls like this or whether they are other walls, ideology or philosophy, will not divide peoples in the world; that peoples, regardless of their differences and backgrounds and their philosophies, will have an opportunity to communicate with each other, to know each other, and to share with each other those particular endeavors that will mean peaceful progress in the years ahead.

If you had asked me in February 1972, sitting in my dorm room at Brandeis, whether I would ever write a blog post favorably quoting Richard Nixon, I would first have asked, “what’s a blog post?” and then I would have responded “are you crazy?”

From Jericho to Venice to Warsaw, Jewish history too has had its share of experience with walls – perhaps enough to join former President Nixon in questioning their efficacy.

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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