Notes (and Thoughts) From the Museum Of Jewish Heritage

I went in to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City all excited, expecting a fantastic history lesson filled with hitherto unknown facts. What I got was not a mindblowing experience, but was interesting nevertheless.

To start off, the security to get into this museum is one notch more detailed than at the Met. It kind of heightens the solemnity of the experience.

Then, after you buy your entrance pass, you begin at the first section of the museum. Called “Jewish Life A Century Ago,” it is a collection of things used by Jews in the 19th and 20th century. There are ancient Torahs, articles used in daily life, articles of religious significance used in rituals, images of weddings, and other such glimpses into traditional Jewish life.

I saw here so much pride in Jewish heritage that I – like many other Indians who saw this and other such exhibitions must have – was filled with mixed thoughts. At the cost of sounding like a “bhakt”, I was struck by the contrast between this museum and the modern young Hindu’s keenness to disown his/her religion and culture.

Most of our families, if not all, still have a set of customs, rituals and traditions, that have been handed down generations. So many of our daily practices, however modernized, have fairly strong ties to the ancient, and are worthy of documentation in a museum. Keeping aside all that is wrong with Hinduism, even seemingly non-religious tasks have (or started out as having had) some significance, that our generation mostly doesn’t know, but that would make for interesting study. And my interest in making these collectibles comes from a mostly cultural perspective.

Anyway, back to the museum. The pride in Jewish heritage underlies every exhibit. From articles used in ceremonies, to descriptions of rituals and their cultural significance – there seemed to be a lot of regret that the old, pristine way of Jewish life is dying. There was also some text about how staunch Jews still practice their religion the old way; and this was said terms that were anything but disparaging.

The emotional transition to the next section of the museum is interesting. This section, titled “The War Against The Jews”, talks how the Germans were proud of their heritage. It amazed me how two different communities, both with very strong ethnocentric beliefs, have had completely opposite journeys. The difference, obviously, was that Nazi nationalism involved eliminating “unwanted” communities, whereas Judaism concerned nobody other than its own believers.

The horrors and ridiculousness of Nazism is described in this section. It’s quite heart-rending. For instance:

This was how Nazi officers cheated innocent people into entering gas chambers – by telling them they were safe places they could take refuge in.

This narrative talks about how the Jews were hunted down, how the World War II escalated, how other countries like US lived in denial about Nazi oppression of Jews, and how political correctness of these countries worsened the situation.

One event that is particularly tragic is the voyage of the St. Louis (read about it here). The short version of the story is that in 1939, 908 Jewish refugees from Germany got onto a ship called St. Louis, to sail to Cuba. In Cuba, the ship was denied entry, and so it sailed to Florida, US. The US denied entry to the ship. The US was busy keeping out immigrants because of its own issues with The Great Depression. Finally Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium and France took in the refugees. The cruel irony is that most of these people who came back to the continent, found themselves once again under the rule of their oppressors, when Germany invaded these countries.

The section also has stories of heroism, of Jewish resilience amidst helplessness, and also of the kindnesses of German citizens who helped out Jews.

The next section is called “Jewish Renewal”. It talks of how the oppressed community resurrected itself. It’s a fascinating study in itself, about how the US became the biggest refuge for Jews, and how Jews went on to prosper in this country. The formation of Israel and the Zionist philosophy is also discussed here. There are lots of books in the museum gift shop about Jews in various countries (I didn’t pick any, but hope to read about this later on).

There was also a temporary exhibition on “Nazi Persecution Of Homosexuals”, which is another world of weird.

On the whole, it was a pretty interesting exhibition, especially if you’re not all clued in to this part of history.

Visiting information: The Jewish Museum Of National History is located in Battery Place, New York City. You can see the timings on the official website.

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