Great Lessons from Humble Places
Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.