Making Jewish Culture Come Alive
Tue, 05/03/2011
Ov HoRachmon Sheet Music New York, ca. 1910 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Ov HoRachmon Sheet Music New York, ca. 1910 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

 In a recurrent dream of mine through the 1980s, I approach the YIVO building in New York at the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue—and find it reduced to a pile of rubble. The image of ruin came straight out of postwar footage of the former Jewish sections of Vilna and Warsaw, and the anxiety was almost certainly prompted by rumors that this citadel of Yiddish learning was about to be sold. I wondered what would happen to Yiddish culture without its “address” — a term used in Yiddish for a hub, a meeting place, the focal point of a movement or group.

Similar anxieties may have haunted other patrons of the institutions that came together to form the Center for Jewish History. Its five constituent partners represent as many diverse cultural communities, each with its mission to conserve and transmit Jewishness in a special form. Just as YIVO perpetuates the reality that once was Eastern European Jewry, so the Leo Baeck Institute, the American Sephardi Federation, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yeshiva University Museum represent different strands of Jewish experience. Through the millennia of their dispersion, Jews remained not only distinct from other peoples but also distinct from one another — distinctions these institutions were created to maintain. Given the recent destruction and abandonment of so many Jewish communities, were not their descendants entitled to special places where they could burrow down into their unique cultural pasts?

Fortunately, American Jews have two successful models for cultural consolidation, one from each side of what has been called their hyphenated Jewish-American identity. E pluribus unum—out of many, one—remains the defining self-image of the United States of America, which encourages as much diversity as groups are willing and eager to maintain. In fact, the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society commemorate many Jewish communities that failed to perpetuate themselves in this land of liberty. The American model reminds us how much creative energy Jews must generate, and how much education they must ensure, if they intend their grandchildren to continue to enjoy living as Jews.

Israel likewise integrated dispersed minorities — into a reconstructed third Jewish commonwealth. Compressed into an area the size of a small American state, subject to regional enmities and ecological hardships, and coping with historical pressures that Americans never had to endure, the Jews of Israel provide a model of fusion that, while far from perfect, is uncommonly dynamic. Where Jewishness is at the Center, and the heat is turned up under the melting pot, citizens generate a new blend of culture for internal consumption and export. The whole is more exciting than the sum of its parts.

How will the tension between the parts and the whole be resolved at the Center for Jewish History? Its most public unit, the Yeshiva University Museum, is ideally situated to represent the totality of Jewish experience, from biblical origins to modern artistic interpretations of Genesis. Collections of artifacts show off items from Cairo to California. Culture at the Center is not on display — it is in the making. Students excavate the Jewish past to produce works of their own. Teachers look for new ways to transmit ancient wisdom. Curators interpret Jewish cultures in contact. But it has to be said that the synergy could be much greater if a café were operative in the building. Eating is literally part of creating. You can’t talk in the library, and creators need to eat, drink and talk.

Now that its parts have been handsomely integrated, the Center for Jewish History is in the process of becoming an address, a home rather than a building, a destination rather than a mere place. The first decade was for consolidation. The cultural ferment has only just begun.