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Collecting the Contemporary: Documenting Modern Identity

Esther Brumberg on collecting material reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Jewish communities. 

The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust collects and exhibits artifacts of Jewish life worldwide in the 20th century. Although we are known primarily for our prewar and Holocaust collections, we also actively collect material reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Jewish communities. Our collections policy mandates that we collect only exhibitable material. In this time of social media, when so much happens electronically, we continue to search for compelling physical traces of events, for display now and in the future. Because ephemera is, in a word, ephemeral, we try to collect material before it is discarded: a demonstration sign lettered in magic marker on an unused pizza box; a place mat from a kosher McDonald’s in Buenos Aires.

One of our interests is Jewish activism for social change, both historical and contemporary. Jewish commitment to tikkun olam, the repair of the world, expresses itself in many ways. When Occupy Wall Street spawned an Occupy Judaism off-shoot in fall 2011, I contacted its organizer, Daniel Sieradski, grandson of Holocaust survivors and Jewish activist. After the holiday of Sukkot, which is celebrated by building and eating in a temporary shelter open to the sky called a sukkah, Sieradski donated the decorations he made for the pop-up sukkah in Zuccotti Park as well as printed materials distributed by Occupy Judaism. One of the decorations is a photo of Emma Goldman (1869-1940), evoking earlier generations of Jewish activists. Occupy materials donated by other participants include a Simchat Torah/American flag; and a poster from Orthodox Jews welcoming the Occupy movement to Brooklyn for a demonstration against anti-Semitism.

Our contemporary collection features a wide range of material, including posters and examples of Jewish activism against genocide in Darfur such as buttons, t-shirts, stickers, and wristbands; political buttons and bumper stickers (including Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in Hebrew, and David Dinkins in Yiddish) aimed at Jewish voters; posters for demonstrations in the US in support of peace in Israel; posters from contemporary Jewish music performances; and yarmulkes of varied designs illustrating diverse communities and identities: yin/yang from a bat mitzvah in 2008 for a girl adopted from China; rainbow from a bar mitzvah in 2000 at a gay and lesbian-founded synagogue; purple from a lesbian wedding in 2012.

We actively collect material related to the changing (and unchanging) roles of women in Judaism. Looking for material about increasing ultra-Orthodox activity in Israel to exclude women from the public sphere, I read in The New York Times that The New Israel Fund issued response posters in English and Hebrew that read: Women should be seen and heard. A request for posters was gladly answered. We also collect posters and literature framing domestic violence as a Jewish issue, distributed in the privacy of synagogue ladies rooms. We seek out examples of activism in support of agunot (Jewish women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce), including hand-drawn signs from a demonstration in Brooklyn in 2012.

In another direction, we also have a poster for a screening for women only of a film endorsed by strict religious authority. I initiated a collecting effort around another family issue, Jews who adopt interracially: how the Jewish community has changed as a result, and what new rituals have been developed to address needs of these families. Our artifacts include naming ceremonies incorporating Chinese elements. One family included a Chinese chop or seal that incorporated their daughter’s Hebrew name along with her Chinese name. Another family donated their baby naming program which illustrated how they chose a name that represented the baby’s birth culture together with her Jewish identity: Jamie Jaye Qing Qing Malka Leah Levine. Another lovely artifact now in our collection represents a Jewish/Latina quinceañera celebration, which included an invitation in Spanish and English, a ceremony at a temple, and a reception at the family’s house.

We collect material related to the Jewish ecology movement. A protest held in Washington, D.C. in July 2010 on the fast day of Tisha B’Av coincided with the three-month anniversary of the BP oil spill. By quickly contacting participants soon after the demonstration, we were able to salvage a hand-made sign. In another instance, a Go Green Megillah, created as a gift for the holiday of Purim, ties issues of ecology to quotes from the Book of Esther.

Another initiative collects material reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of modern Judaism. Volunteers gather posters, leaflets and other material that show the activities of their communities. Recent acquisitions in this field include a visitor’s guide to central Queens, showing synagogues, kosher restaurants, and the eruv (boundaries within which it is permissible to carry on the Sabbath); leaflets for “expert sukkah builders”; a flyer encouraging observant Jews to consider organ donations, and the business card of a ritual circumciser.

We also have an interest in ritual objects and their reinterpretations. For instance, the haggadah, which tells the story of Exodus, has been a part of Passover tradition for hundreds of years. Our collection contains a haggadah created by survivors after the Holocaust incorporating stories of their survival from the Nazis into the traditional Passover story of the Exodus from Egypt; and another haggadah has text adapted by Zionists to reflect their ideology. Jews today continue to use the form to express an enormous diversity of world views. A rock-n-roll haggadah for a Passover seder held at Madison Square Garden before a Bruce Springsteen concert includes new lyrics written by one of the seder organizers for Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, renamed Matzah Ball. Another, very different haggadah is a perpetual work-in-progress. The family keeps it electronically, so that they can revise it each year, literally to keep up with the times. It incorporates poems, songs, and stories from labor history, recognizes struggles against oppression throughout the world, and, in 2012, recalls the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, reminding participants that “there is much more to accomplish.”

Esther Brumberg – Senior Curator, Museum of Jewish Heritage, NYC

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