Last Thursday, I spent a lovely afternoon at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. I had a different experience there than I typically have at museums, Jewish or otherwise. Most museums I go to are very visual – collections of things you can see with short descriptions of each item’s background and importance, all of which fit into the broader narrative of each exhibit.
The CJM, however, challenged me by forgoing narrative in lieu of engaging my senses. In all but one exhibit, I had no choice but to immerse in each object or piece of music and not worry too much about what I’m “supposed” to learn.
I started with Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, one of the few ongoing exhibits at CJM. The space is perfect for this exhibit: a room higher than it is wide, the soaring ceiling broken up by twinkling skylights. The room itself was empty, save for an antique piano and a handful of cafe tables. Museum goers can sit with a menu of songs and a pair of headphones and listen to Paul Robeson boom the “Hasidic Chant,” Eartha Kitt beautifully render “Sholem” a twist on “Shalom Aleichem,” or Miles Davis pay homage to “Israel.” My personal favorite was The Temptations’ 10-minute medley of songs from Fiddler on the Roof (Matchmaker, matchmaker, tzah, tzah, tzaaaa-ah!). The sheer number of songs you can choose is itself testament to the rich collaboration between Black artists and Jewish managers, producers, and music executives.
In the decades preceding the First World War through the Vietnam War, Jewish songwriters and Black artists brought spirituals into the mainstream of American music culture, but the curators at CJM also make the point that Black artists also were deeply involved in Jewish music, incorporating traditional Jewish songs into blues, jazz, and pop. The exhibit doesn’t tell you much more about the story of the musical collaboration between Jews and Blacks, choosing instead to let you enjoy the results of that collaboration.
I then moved onto Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought. The idea behind this collection is to honor the precept of Bal Tashchit, do not destroy. Each artist created a work that connected Judaism with the environment and used the concept of trees to do it. “Blackfield” by Zadok Ben-David is among the coolest pieces of art I’ve ever seen. When you enter the gallery, you see thousands of miniature steel plant and tree sculptures in sand. They are black and look burned and ashen against the sand at their bases. But, when you walk around to the other side, you see a forest of brilliantly colored plants and trees. (I actually shouted a really loud “OH!” when I saw the color, I was so surprised. But, now you won’t be when you see it. Er, sorry about that.) Though I couldn’t take any pictures, I did find this short video of a similar installation at the Tel Aviv Museum. Behold.
I spent the balance of my afternoon in California Dreaming: From the Gold Rush to the Present, a more traditional, narrative exhibit that tells the story of the first Jews arriving during the Gold Rush to what being a Jew means to modern Jews in the Bay area. While the early Jewish settlers weren’t generally involved in prospecting, they did build businesses that supported the flood of prospectors into Northern California. (Ever hear of a little blue jean company called Levi’s?) The exhibit makes the point that the pioneering spirit was and remains the driving force shaping Jewish culture in the Bay area.
The exhibit asserts that San Francisco’s Jewish community balances tradition with counterculture and cites the House of Love and Prayer, the hippie Hasidic enclave in the 1960s, as an example of that, along with Sh’ar Zahar, Mission Minyan, and Wilderness Torah. It describes San Francisco’s Jewish community in ways that contrast it with East Coast Jewishness – the lack of a Jewish neighborhood structure anchored by synagogues and kosher restaurants, less anti-Semitism, greater influence of counterculture, higher degree of intermarriage. It left me with the impression that West Coast Judaism is more about ethnicity, culture, and secularism than it is about the Jewish religion.
I wonder if that’s true. Are there fewer religious Jews on the West Coast relative to the East Coast? Or is the move away from religious doctrine and towards a more tribal association similar, whichever coast you live on? Is it different being an East Coast Jew or a West Coast Jew? In general, I’m skeptical about any sorts of sweeping generalizations when it comes to Jews or Jewishness.
But, the exhibit, like the rest of the exhibits at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, left me with questions and piqued my curiosity. Time well spent.