The new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is a hip amalgam of modern art. Daniel Liebeskind’s peculiar architectural dazzle looks like a giant Rubik’s Cube in metallic steel, standing on its tip beneath the city’s downtown skyscrapers. Beside it is the Jessie Street Power Substation, a brick and terra cotta structure in the classical revival style, a landmark building first erected in 1881 that Liebeskind adapted to the project.
The juxtaposition of the historic with the cutting-edge is an odd sight, but it does represent a spectrum of Jewish experience as a kind of past-future metaphor. The architecture—and the art—are a way of linking tradition with what is current. But once you enter the museum’s whitewashed asymmetrical orbit, the image of Judaism projected feels—well, not very Jewish.
Not that the current exhibitions aren’t provocative, interactive or innovative. Inside the new building is “John Zorn Presents the Alef-Bet Sound Project,” where various musicians and composers have written music based on the kabbalistic meaning of Hebrew letters. The result plays to great atmospheric effect inside the angular room with 36 diamond-shaped skylights that positively glow.
“In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis” is the most comprehensive exhibit, featuring a combination of historical art (Chagall, Rodin, etc.) and newly commissioned installations, where artists meditated on the modern relevance of the Genesis story. These creations are edgy, experiential and even abstruse.
Alan Berliner’s experimental film plays across separate horizontal screens that randomly flash words from Genesis in English. At the touch of a button, the word roll stops and somehow always forms a perfect (and poetic) sentence. If “God” comes up, thunder strikes and a montage of dramatic images from Jewish history play in montage (think: Holocaust).
While the offerings are stimulating and sometimes strange (check out Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “In the Beginning There Was the End, in the End There Was the Beginning,” about half-human, half-plant creatures attacked by jealous half-siblings who are then swallowed by the earth and become “Vegans”) the Jewish content is sparse.
Where is Jewish history? No destruction of the Temple? No Babylonian exile? Not even Ellis Island? No, there’s only William Steig, The New Yorker cartoonist who created “Shrek.” And don’t expect a Zionist ode to Israel. In this museum’s version of Judaism, Israel might as well not exist. And as far as any instructive on Jewish religious observance—that’s pretty much limited to some audible Torah chanting as you roam around and a couple of Torah books sitting on a table for your reading pleasure (that is, if you’re fluent in Hebrew).
Here, the closest you’ll get to Shabbat is a pair of candlesticks in the museum gift shop.
All this, and Libeskind still insists Judaism was at the heart of his creation. He offered some insights into his process during a Q&A with Heeb magazine:
How did you choose chai as the one word that ended up embedded in the design of the museum?
I think it’s probably the most famous word in Jewish tradition and it’s also a number with a lot of meaning:18. It’s about bringing life, and I think emblems of life are part of the story they communicate. In this case, the Hud and Yud are organizing volumes for a new life, a new building outside an existing power station. And then I’ve also used proportions of 18 throughout the building.
In Hebrew letters are not just signs – the letters themselves are part of the story they create and they have a deep history. Jews are the only people who can read a text that’s 2000 years old without any sort of translation. You can’t do that in Latin or Greek because the language has changed, but in Hebrew the meaning of letters is unchanged and very specific.
Do you consider yourself religious?
Religion is so distorted today – fundamentalist occurrences have distorted it – but I think everyone is a believer, you believe before you even think about it. And Jewish tradition is something I’m very much a part of. But “Jewish” is complex, there’s not just one way to be Jewish. My own family, for example, includes a Hasidic strand, a Zionist strand, reformists, anarchists – they’re all part of the family, and all of those strands are part of the Jewish tradition.
What aspects of Jewish culture did you most want to highlight with your design?
I wanted to emphasize that Jewish culture is deeply rooted in the past but has always had an incredible horizon of freedom into the future. I wanted to create spaces that simultaneously connect you to history and reinvent history. That, to me, is part of Jewish tradition and I wanted to introduce that concept through not only the design but the use of the building, which is why there are spaces programmed for a multi-purpose room, education spaces, and event areas, not just galleries.
And I wanted it to be obvious that there is a Jewish sensibility to creating such a building. All of it – from the small to the big, both in the design and the way the building operates – is symbolically and truly Jewish. That’s why the area for kids and families is at the center, the front desk welcomes you with both a literal and mystical understanding [lights create the word pardes on the lobby wall behind the front desk] and the museum is located in an urban context. I think all of those things make you think about and consider Jewish culture in America. It’s not merely an appliqué of Jewish truth, it’s an extension of many Jewish themes through architecture.
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