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Skirball Jewish Cultural Center, Los Angeles, California
By Michael Schuman
“…to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” George Washington, 1790
“In America you can say what you feel without fear of a Cossack.” Jewish immigrant, quoted in Skirball Museum exhibit
In the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, in a gallery called The Pursuit of Liberty, is a particular Hanukkah lamp, also known more familiarly as a menorah, which can only have real meaning in America. In Israel, in Russia, in England, it would mean little.
Instead of nine ordinary branches for candles, this menorah has nine miniature statues of liberty, each reaching out its arm to embrace a burning candle instead of a torch. It connotes warm appreciation for a nation which in spite of periodic glitches has treated its immigrants pretty well. And it sums up what the Skirball is all about: the Jewish experience in America.
The museum, part of the Skirball Cultural Center complex located high in the Santa Monica Mountains, opened in April 1996. The museum’s purpose isn’t to tell the history of Jews in America as it is to paint a portrait of American Jewish life. In the words of Skirball Center President Dr. Uri D. Herscher, the museum’s mission is to “tell the story of how Jewish tradition, Jewish values and Jewish vision intersect with the fabric of American life.”
Yet Herscher insists that the Skirball should not be regarded as simply a Jewish museum. He urges, “We hope people from all backgrounds will see something of themselves reflected in our story. Because, even though the story is particular, the values embodied in it belong to everyone.”
Indeed, one gallery deep inside the labyrinth of interactive exhibits, titled “Struggle and Opportunity”, illustrates the adjustment of immigrants to life in America. A reproduced settlement house kitchen, cramped with a boxy white stove, a wooden table topped with cooking implements, a wicker doll carriage and other homey furnishings, represents an immigrant home a century ago. It was then that eastern European Jews poured en masse into the United States. To new immigrants, the kitchen was the center of family life.
The story told here is that of Jews and Jewish social worker Lillian Wald, who helped assimilate these immigrants into their new home. It could easily represent the lore of any other group of people whose first stop in America was Ellis Island. Wald instructed new arrivals on how to care for and keep a tenement apartment. They swore to abide by the “soap and water pledge” which included taking a bath once a week.
Many who assimilated later thrived by adapting Old World ways to the New World. Individuals are highlighted, including an eastern European peddler who immigrated to San Francisco to sold dry goods. He proceeded to build a thriving business making denim pants with copper rivets for use among California gold miners. His name? Levi Strauss.
Which is not to say it has been smooth as asphalt for Jews or other newly arrived immigrants. Italian-Americans had Sacco and Vanzetti. Irish-Americans had the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. Jewish-Americans may not have had Cossacks, but they did fight laws based in bigotry made right here in America.
One of those is expounded upon. Appropriately, it was countered by an American moral icon. During the heat of the Civil War, none other than General Ulysses S. Grant, fighting for the anti-slavery North, issued a field command expelling Jews from territory held by the Union Army in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Grant blamed Jews for rampant smuggling in that region. Grant’s command was overturned by President Abraham Lincoln.
A deepened look at the relationships of both Lincoln and George Washington to American Jews is one focus of the recent expansion. Yet, to fully understand the Jewish experience in America, one should understand the antecedent action. The Skirball’s three introductory galleries fully explain needed background: the origins of the Jewish people and where in the world they lived before discovering America. Finds from archaeological digs in Israel, such as original Roman-era busts, tools and pottery, along with a striking replica of the mosaic pavement of a third century synagogue illustrate the “Beginnings” gallery.
Those unfamiliar with Jewish history, but very familiar with contemporary headlines from the Middle East, will encounter some surprises in the next gallery, “Journeys.” For example, Jews and Moslems got along swimmingly for over 600 years in Spain during a period known as The Golden Age, from the eighth to the 14th centuries.
However, “Journeys” offers up facts to stun even the most self-assured expert on Judaica. A Torah (sacred scroll) case, dating from the 18th century and lacquered with a distinctive Chinese technique, symbolizes the little known Jewish communities of China. One reads here that the first synagogue in China was built at Kaifeng in 1163, likely by Jewish traders from Iraq and Persia.
Eventually Jews came to North America, as early as the mid-17th century. The ways American Jews have celebrated holidays are examined in a further gallery. Press a button on an interactive computer to hear the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) traditionally blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Peruse the collection of noisemakers used to wake the somnolent on the Purim, including those made of wood and dating from the 1930s, to the dime-a-dozen metal ones made in Japan that baby boomers will no doubt recall from the 1960s.
And the baby boomers’ babies? Consider borrowing one of several discovery kits that contain hands-on games, puzzles and other activities for kids ages 4 through 8, all related to specific galleries.
Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90049; (310-440-4500). www.skirball.org
The Skirball complex includes: a restaurant serving California cuisine, a museum store with upscale items relating to Judaica, and an auditorium — lecturers have included journalist Maureen Dowd, filmmakers Wes Craven and Mira Nair, poet Robert Pinsky, ambassador Dennis Ross, author Carl Hiaasen, actor Henry Winkler and political maverick Arianna Huffington. In addition, concerts, films and family workshops are regularly presented.
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|Print article||This entry was posted by Barbara Kingstone on January 18, 2011 at 6:42 pm, and is filed under North America. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|