Wednesday, July 30, 2008

am I "other"?

I´ve spent the last couple of days walking around Berlin. I´ve gone to both the Jüdisches Museum Berlin and The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

I left both the Jewish Museum and the Memorial feeling absolutely "other-ed".

The Memorial has one timeline of the persecution of Jews and the rise of Hitler and then has a series of rooms full of personal items, personal stories, and photographs. I imagine that the curator was trying to bring home that the absolutely inconceivable number of 6,000,000 is composed of real life individuals, who did normal things like eat dinner (dinner plates shown) and brush their hair (hair brush shown) and care about their children (photographs of children shown). I felt like the memorial was trying to convince its visitors that indeed, the Jews murdered were indeed people, to whom the visitors could relate. I feel that this is a worthy and understandable exercise, however, I personally do not need to be convinced that the murdered Jews were indeed human beings, each with his or her own personal story.

The section of the Jewish Museum dedicated to the Holocaust had the same theme- a smattering a personal effects to convince the audience of the humanness of the people murdered- the humanness of the Jews.

The rest of the museum was composed of amazing detail documenting the Jewish communities in the current land of Germany since the 900´s C.E. It told of contributions to society, the ever-oscillating attitudes toward the Jews, Jewish traditions and religious laws. There was even a "write your name in Hebrew" computer station. For someone who knows little to nothing about Judaism and Jews, this museum does a wonderful job in providing an awareness of our traditions, and pays tribute to many of the contributions individual Jews have made over the centuries. For me, however, it was slightly disturbing. I´m coming straight from Israel where I stayed with more some more observant friends and spent time in very observant communities in Jerusalem and Tsfat. And here I was, just a few days later, walking in a museum where "artifacts" from daily life were behind glass, with cleanly typed explanatory labels. From the meat, daily, parve stickers, pots and dishes needed for a kosher kitchen, to the prayer shawls, tzit-tzit and shabbat candle sticks. There were explanations that to me are so routine- it was like someone going through a friends house and making it into a museum. Imagine it, your kitchen dishes on display and explained, to be gawked at by museum goers, commented on, misunderstood, judged or the novelty of which to be contemplated. The clothes that your friends wear, taken from their closet, put on mannequins, and labeled. The candlesticks, the menorah/ channukiah from your own home, displayed and explained. Then, since who you are and what you do is so different, so confusing, in addition to the printed explanations to your life, your family´s history, add an audio guide tour.

I just felt so "other-ed", separated from humankind. I just felt like here we are, in 2008, still trying to convince the world that we are human, just like them. That although our traditions are different, that some members of our community further distinguish themselves with clothing or hair styles, that yes we are human and yes, for our proportionally very small part of the the human population, members of our community have made amazing contributions to the world.

Yes, I do think that exposure to other people and their traditions is the key to creating a more peaceful world. Yes, I believe that both the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are important places for building understanding and making sure future generations never forget. Despite the good intentions and the positive benefits, I just left both feeling as if I was not quite part of the human race... that I somehow belonged to the category of other... something to be studied and the observations of which to be labled, categorized and displayed.

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