July 18, 2008
The not-so-Jewish museum by the bay
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: