The problem with New York’s Jewish Museum
EditorialJewish Art & Culture

The problem with New York’s Jewish Museum

Guest Columnist

If not in Jewish museums, where can we find Jewish art and culture?

Menachem Wecker, an art critic who often writes about Jewish and religious art, recently published an essay entitled “The Wreck of the Jewish Museum,” which appeared in Mosaic Magazine. It is a scathing critique of the renovated permanent collection on display at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The exhibition, “Scenes from the Collection,” is broken into several thematically arranged galleries so that historical objects are placed alongside contemporary art. Idiosyncratically arranged objects are one thing, but Wecker sees a bigger problem — that is, Judaism, or more precisely the lack of it.

This problem has two big elements. First, the museum insists on universalizing Jewish values. Wecker notes the opening wall text “asserts categorically that… [by] mixing together works by artists of various provenances… the museum is ‘affirming universal values that are shared among people of all faiths and backgrounds.’”

Second, there exists, according to Wecker, curatorial bias against the main subject of the entire museum. Even when an opportunity to become curious about traditional Judaism arises, Wecker believes the staff seems to ignore the opportunity.

Wecker’s ire is directed at whoever wrote the wall text for Anna Shteynshleyger’s photograph “City of Destiny (Schneur and Ester),” an image of a newly married Orthodox couple standing on the balcony of their home. The text describes their union as an “arranged marriage” and their community as “insular.” Wecker dislikes this description.

“A dispassionate curator, let alone an informed one,” Wecker challenges, “would have scrapped this throwaway reference to a non-existent arranged marriage,” a fact that could have been researched easily online and in so doing evince an “entry-level professionalism” on the part of the museum curatorial staff. This is a very nice way to say that the curatorial descriptions attached to this work and others are ill-informed and prejudicial against certain forms of Jewish expression. The appeal to “universal values” announced at the entrance is so endemic that any curiosity directed toward Jewish traditions, be they marginal or mainstream, is dismissed.

Wecker’s critique made me think of several questions that might only be answered with a Pew-like survey. The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” provided data on the composition of the Jewish population. It showed the percentage of people that associate themselves in each denomination, levels of traditional religious observance, and other information.

What if we designed a similar survey around the appreciation, use and creation of Jewish culture and art? Perhaps we might find out interesting things. For example: What percent of people who visit Jewish museums are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated? Who watches “Shtisel”? What is the largest age bracket that listens to the Maccabeats, 613, Shai Tsabari or Netta?

In other words, if Jewish museums, the institutions that purport to preserve, educate and challenge us regarding Jewish culture and art, are becoming less Jewish, and their audiences will eventually (if not already) reflect that, where do the affiliated, educated and practicing Jews go for art and culture? How exciting would a museum of that stuff be? pjc

Ben Schachter is a professor of visual art at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and author of “Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art.”

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