March 1, 2007
Assume everyone is Jewish
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Both of these institutions, in their own way, are temples to Jewish life in Los Angeles.
In the great tradition of two Jews, three opinions, it should come as no surprise that Shneer's seminar had its share of dissenters. David N. Myers, director of UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies, for one, suggested that Shneer's distinctions were simplistic and that the two institutions could just as easily be seen as presenting two differing narratives of the Jewish experience, one lachrymose (the Museum of Tolerance), the other triumphalist (The Skirball).
At the same time, Tal Gozani, the Skirball's associate curator, noted that the Skirball has evolved since Shneer's research concluded in 2003. She also pointed out that the Skirball's permanent and temporary art exhibitions are but one facet of an institution that offers music, dance, film and spoken-word performances. In July, the Skirball will open an ambitious "Noah's Ark" family gallery, Gozani said, which will engage children in many subjects, including zoology and the environment, but which, save its name, will offer up no specific Jewish religious references from the Torah.
Shneer responded that both Myers and Gozani's comments on the respective institutions were, in fact, completely in keeping with their origins -- a view of Jewish history as a litany of persecutions is congruent with an Orthodox interpretation, while treating Noah's Ark as a "flood narrative with counterparts in many cultures" sounded like a Reform approach.
For my part, I saw in Shneer's comments a greater truth and a greater challenge than even he acknowledged.
Los Angeles is not only a city where Jews present their identity through Jewish museums; it is also a place where Jews have had an unparalleled role in shaping the cultural identity of the city. Jews here have been instrumental in establishing the majority of the city's art museums, including a significant number serving as trustees and professional leaders at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and UCLA's Hammer Museum. Jews have also played a role at The Getty Trust under the stewardship of Harold Williams and Barry Munitz. Add to that Eli Broad's role in the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall, and as a founding trustee at MOCA, as well as the donor of $50 million to build the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, still under construction at LACMA, and a remarkable portrait of the "Newest Jewish City" emerges.
Still, I was struck by Shneer's remark that "synagogues used to be the places in which Jews constituted their communal Jewish identities."
He's right, of course. It used to be that if you were a big shot, you gave to the synagogue.
"If I were a rich man," sang Tevye, I would "have a seat by the eastern wall." Which led me to think: Why does each Jewish billionaire need his own museum? When being Jewish is part of the culture, what if culture (and the cultured) returned the favor?
Why can't Jewish synagogues also be showcases for culture?
Imagine, for a moment if you will, if Broad, who is reportedly going to help underwrite a multi-multimillion dollar Jeff Koons sculpture of a life-size functioning steam train engine that would hang from a crane in front of the entrance to LACMA, were to give $50 million to the renovation and restoration of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple (which I have been told has the second-best acoustics in Los Angeles, after Disney Hall).
How many temples could be restored, how many liturgical, musical and cultural programs could be funded by David Geffen, Mike Ovitz, Marcia Weisman and the host of other big museum donors and creators.
Audrey Wilder just gave $5 million to create the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum; what if, instead, that theater was just down the road at Sinai Temple? More recently, Sheldon Adelson, of the Las Vegas-based Sands corporation, pledged $25 million a year for the next several years to support the Birthright program sending youths to Israel, and, in December, rumors were flying that he was planning to give as much as $200 million annually to support Israel and foster Jewish culture. He denied the rumors, and no such announcement has been made -- but, as is often the case in Hollywood, I believe the rumors will, in time, prove true. If they do, will any of these dollars go to support Jewish culture at American synagogues? (And equally important will any of it go to supporting Tommywood? Not completely on point -- but I couldn't resist.)
In Los Angeles, "the Newest Jewish City," Jews are shaping the culture, and their Jewish museums are shaping our notions of Judaism in American culture. Can Jewish culture also play a role in revitalizing our temples?
To quote Lerner and Loewe (whom you may assume were Jewish): "Wouldn't it be loverly?"
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
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