Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Jewish Museum (July 19)

Given that my window opens right onto the courtyard where the trashcans are, I didn't expect to sleep particularly well last night, yet I didn't wake up until 7:45 am. Furthermore, the breakfast provided by the hotel was surprisingly good: not just cheese, ham, rolls, butter, and yoghurt, but also a whole variety of tasty mediterranean salads, apple torte, and real juice.

My primary goal today was to visit the Jewish Museum. In many ways the star of the museum is its unusual architecture, designed by Daniel Liebeskind. As you enter the main part of the musuem, the path is angled upwards, but also at a slant, which puts the visitor a little off balance. The way is interesected by paths relating to exile and the holocaust, but I decided to see those on the way out.

But before I reached the main exhibition, I was distracted by the special exhibit in honor of Freud's 150th birthday. In many ways, it was far superior to the exhibit in Freud's home in Vienna, because if focused almost entirely on his work and ideas. The main part of the exhibit was a series of exhibits, each illustrating and explaining key concepts in Freudian thought. It was an excellent primer in Freudian theory, with some amusing touches (the background music at one point included the song "Can't get you out of my head").

I'm sure I'm not discovering anything new if I say that what struck me the most about Freud's theories was how much they reflect the problems of embourgeoisement that the Jewish community was going through. In the third quarter of the 19th century, German (and Austrian) Jewry made a swift and radical shift into the middle class. This was not merely an economic change, but also a powerful social transformation. Jewish homes adopted the values of the 19th-century middle class and all that came with it. In many cases, this led to a radical shift in family dynamics. In her memoirs, Pauline Wengeroff described how this was often a double loss for Jewish women, as they were forced to give up their control over the home and forbidden from being involved in business. So many of the problems Freud was examining seem to have their roots in the difficulties families faced in instituting and enforcing middle class rules of decorum and parental expectations.

After visiting the Freud exhibit on continued on upstairs to the main Jewish exhibition. There's an interesting set of short film at the beginning on Jewish history in the Diaspora up to the Crusades, followed by another short 3-D film on the Worms Jewish community of 1000 years ago.

The exhibit follows a roughly linear pattern, but the flow is often interrupted by walls, side passage ways, and blind alleys. At one point, in fact, on the next floor, the exhibt actually double backs on itself. While the flow is roughly chronological, there is an interesting digression on Glikl of Hameln, which involves bringing in Bertha Pappenheim (who lived two centuries later).

By the time I reached the second floor, focusing on Jewish life from the 19th century to the present, I'd been in the museum 2 hours and needed a tea break. Rested, I continued on through the discussion of Jewish identity and Germanness, through to the Holocaust and afterwards. They also have a special exhibit right now on German-Jewish athletics in the 20th century, and I looked to see if there were any photos of my grandfather in the set on the Maccabi Berlin Jewish Boxing Club, but sadly no.

Going back down, I explored the two side aisles: the way of the Holocaust and the way of exile. The way of the Holocaust is illustrated with items originally owned by German Jews, most of whom perished in the gas chambers. At the end of the path is a heavy black door. Pushing it open, one enters into a tall, relatively narrow, concrete tower. I found myself moving towards a side wall and lookiing up at the one narrow ray of sunlight visible.

I watched as other people entered, and many, though not all, moved to the walls out of the middle. I couldn't help but think of a Kafka (very) short story:

"When I first came into the world," said the mouse, "it was so large and wide that I was frightened and I began to run, and I was glad when I finally saw walls appearing on my left and right. But now the walls have come closer and closer and I am in the final room where the trap lies in the corner into which I must run." "You must change your direction," says the cat, who ate it.

The path to exile, leads up to the garden of exile, which consists of 49 nine pillars, all at an angle, with willow trees growing out of their tops. 48 have the soil of Israel in them, the last from Berlin. The pillars are meant to disorient the visitor, so he or she feels the disorientation of exile, but what I noticed was the way the floor is slanted at a diagonal from the paths, so one is never on level ground and one is always off balance.

After a quick sandwich in the cafeteria, I went for a walk through Kreuzberg. I'd been in the museum nearly 4 hours, and I got to wondering how I would bring students through it. I would like to take them through quicker, but I was also wondering if it wouldn't be better just to let them go through at their own pace.

I also got to thinking about my blog on vengeance yesterday. Perhaps the reason I feel anger is that the discussion of the bombing of Dresden is a criticism of "my side" during the war, and my discomfort at such criticism in turn generates anger at the criticizer: how dare you complain about what the Allies did, you did much worse. Yet most individual Germans didn't do much worse. Most did nothing at all. And was their nothing worse than the nothing that Americans did when given the opportunity to rescue in the years before the Holocaust when 100,000s could have been saved?

After that I went to the Schwules Museum, which I had tried to visit in 1998, but had come on the only day it was closed. This time I checked its hours to make sure it was open. I talked to one of the people who worked there about donating a photo of my great-aunt and her girlfriend (if I can find it, my grandfather destroyed almost all his photo collection in the year prior to his death).

I spent almost all of today inside, as the weather continues to warm. All of Western Europe is in the grip of a terrible heat wave and the hot air is due to reach here tomorrow with temperatures in the high 30s (that's high 90s F). Tomorrow, I'm going to try to stay inside again with visits to the Pergamon Museum, and maybe one of the new art museums in the Tiergarten.

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