'Every Cultural Institution Which Isn’t Perceived as 100% ‘pro-Israel’ Is Taking a Serious Risk'

Renowned scholar and curator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a recipient of this year's Dan David Prize, talks about the pandemic, the problems of launching shows about the Jewish state – and bagels

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Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.'my perspective throughout all my work is to view the history of Polish Jews in its own terms, rather than as a prelude to the Holocaust, or in its shadow.'
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. 'Museum directors worldwide are looking for solutions until there is a vaccine, and maybe even after that.'Credit: Krzysiek Krzysztofiak
Gilad Meltzer
Gilad Meltzer

At a time that now seems like an entirely different era – during the second week of February – Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was informed that she was one of the six laureates of Israel's prestigious Dan David Prize this year. She and her husband, New Zealand artist Max Gimblett, were in the middle of moving out of their loft in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they had lived and worked for 44 years.

"My perspective throughout all my work is to view the history of Polish Jews in its own terms, rather than as a prelude to the Holocaust, or in its shadow"

They had just begun to open the first of the hundreds of cartons of books belonging to their person library. “We must have around 15,000 books,” she said, smiling. As Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was unpacking, she received the happy news that she had received the $500,000 award and that the Tel Aviv awards ceremony would be held on May 17.

The prize the renowned museum professional and professor emerita at New York University has been awarded is named after the late Israeli philanthropist Dan David, and is administered by Tel Aviv University. The Dan David Foundation annually awards $1 million prizes in three categories – past, present and future – for scientific, technological and cultural accomplishments. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a scholar of performance studies and Jewish studies, is sharing the prize in the "past" category – for outstanding contribution to cultural preservation and revival – with Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Speaking to Haaretz via Zoom earlier this month, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett recalls plans she had for the coming months that would soon be put on hold due to the pandemic.

“This is the time of year when I spend a lot more time in Warsaw, dealing with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, for which I’m the Ronald S. Lauder Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition," she explained.

"This is the time of year when our Distinguished Benefactors and Museum Council meet. From there I general go on to Krakow, to the largest Jewish cultural festival in Europe, and there I also have numerous meetings and presentations related to POLIN Museum.”

In early May she was to have travelled to the National Museum Cardiff, Wales, for a conference at which the European Museum Forum was to declare the winner of the European Museum of the Year.

“After the announcement, all the judges were going to travel to make in-depth visits to European museums that applied for next year’s prize, so we could start evaluating them. That’s something I’d enjoyed doing in recent years, and of course all that was cancelled or at least postponed,” she said.

"Abroad, Israel is a hot potato for cultural and art institutions, especially Jewish ones"

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has been active in the museum field for five decades, but was only appointed to the judges’ panel of the European forum after POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews won its prestigious prize in 2016.

“It isn’t clear what museums will look like after the pandemic, but it’s clear that during their tentative re-openings they will look different,” she told Haaretz. “Can they replicate what came before? What will they do about the permitted number of people, the organization of events, touching interactive monitors, operating the cafeteria? With warm weather approaching, they can offer programs outdoors.

“Museums are also dependent on space rentals for corporate events; at the Israel Museum, earned income from tickets, the café, shops and space rentals covers about 55 percent of their budget. At POLIN Museum, about 30 percent. For now, that income is gone. Museum directors worldwide are looking for solutions until there is a vaccine, and maybe even after that.”

Risky business

Full disclosure: Prof. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was my personal mentor when I studied for my doctorate in performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and she is one of the most fascinating people you will ever meet. The coronavirus outbreak led to the cancellation of dozens of conferences, museum openings and exhibitions at which she had been invited to speak.

"We wanted to show a dynamic Jewish world that was diverse – across class and generations, in politics and culture, in religious orientation, and in relation to tradition and modernity"

Few people understand the special niche of Jewish museums the way she does. Along with serving on the editorial board of leading periodicals focusing on a variety of research fields, including ethnography, gastronomy and cultural studies, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has advised numerous museums in the United States, Germany, Albania, Lithuania, Israel, Russia, Austria, New Zealand and elsewhere.

“I also have a lecture that I call ‘Risky Business: The Future of Jewish Museums.’ In Europe and the United States, the most charged issues are, of course, the Holocaust and Israel. I am interested in thinking about museums that take risks or, on the contrary, that hesitate," she said.

"The Jewish cemetery in Toronto was like a map of Poland. I played with the children of survivors because our house was across the street from the Jewish refugee center"

“Just dealing with Israel is an example of taking a risk: what is permitted and what is forbidden to show in museums, particularly Jewish museums in the United States and Europe, for example, with regard to the Palestinian conflict. I am amazed that there are risks that museums in Israel can take, that those in Europe or North America would think twice about. There are artists, works and approaches that can be presented in Israel, but if you try to present them in Germany or here in the United States, you take a risk.”

What, for example?

“For example, the 'Imaginary Coordinates' exhibition at the Spertus Museum in Chicago in 2008 featured eight Israeli and Palestinian women artists, including Yael Bartana, Michal Rovner, Sigalit Landau, and Shirley Shor – all of whom had exhibited and still exhibit in Israel. But in Chicago this combination was provocative.

"The exhibition was part not only of the citywide Festival of Maps, but also of celebrations of Israel’s 60th anniversary. The museum showed its collection of antique maps of the Holy Land and in relation to contemporary art that explored 'mapping' in Israel today. The museum’s major Jewish funders were outraged. The Spertus closed the exhibition, which was a critical success, and the director left not long after.

“Abroad, Israel is a hot potato for cultural and art institutions, especially Jewish ones. When museums touch on something connected to Israel they have to be very, very careful, and whoever takes the risk must be prepared for the reactions, both from the Jewish community and from Israeli embassies and consulates, and it can go all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office, all of them exerting pressure on the museum, their donors, and their supporters. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu himself pressured [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel regarding the funding for the Jewish Museum Berlin because he claimed they were presenting an anti-Israel program.”

Indeed, in June 2019, that museum’s director, Peter Schafer, resigned. “Every cultural institution outside Israel whose program, exhibition or statement isn’t perceived as 100 percent ‘pro-Israel’ is taking a serious risk,” she says.

A door to the world

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was born in Toronto in 1942 to Polish Jewish immigrants, and grew up in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood that expanded after the Holocaust.

“The Jewish cemetery in Toronto was like a map of Poland, arranged according to the towns people came from. I played with the children of survivors because our house was across the street from the Jewish refugee center,” she recalls.

Heritage and popular culture interested her from a young age. On the streets there was a mixture of Eastern European languages, and Yiddish – the bridging language – would years later lead to some of her important projects.

"After high school I wanted to go to Sweden, but my parents thought that with all the rumors of free love there it would be safer for their daughter to stay with relatives in Israel"

Beyond the vibrant neighborhood there was a big world, and her door to it was books and – perhaps surprising for a Jewish girl in the 1950s – museums.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: “Although my father’s paint and wallpaper store was open on Shabbat and although we weren’t religious, our home was kosher so that we could host my mother’s parents, and for a few years I did strictly observe Shabbat – this was during the time I attended a Talmud Torah [a religious elementary school]. It was actually this limitation that led me to the wonderful world of museums, because, like libraries, they were free. Those were times when a 12-year-old girl like me could walk in the city alone, and I discovered that I could cut through the park and get to the Royal Ontario Museum.”

Here she launches into an enthusiastic and detailed description of the exhibits on every floor.

But, she says, “what interested me from a young age was folklore. The aesthetics of everyday life. I loved stories and folktales.”

Later she discovered the city’s other museums and would walk to them on Shabbat as well. “The art museum was also interesting but not like the Royal Ontario Museum, so I applied to work at the education department there, and to my surprise they hired me at age 18.”

She came to Israel for the first time in 1961, and not for ideological reasons, although she was raised in a Zionist home and attended a summer camp run by the Habonim socialist-Zionist youth movement.

“After high school I wanted to go to Sweden, but my parents thought that with all the rumors of free love there it would be safer for their daughter to stay with relatives in Israel. So after two weeks in Bat Yam [a seaside city in central Israel], I got on the back of a motorcycle with a photographer, picked oranges at Kibbutz Revivim, toured the whole country, became friends with a Palestinian girl in the Galilee, and even taught manual training – in Hebrew – to boys with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Tel Aviv. It was an amazing year.”

"’68 and Its Aftermath,' explored the communist government’s anti-Semitic campaign, as a result of which more than half the Jews living in Poland at the time left"

One of the people she met in Israel proved instrumental in launching her career. Aviva Muller-Lancet (1921-2015) was an Israeli ethnographer who specialized in Yemenite Jewish culture and eventually helped found the Israel Museum’s Ethnography Department. She let the young Canadian assist her, and also introduced her to Karl Katz, director of the Bezalel National Museum, which later became the Israel Museum.

“Aviva told me, ‘If only you had a bachelor’s degree, I would have hired you at the museum.’ I went back to Toronto and entered the University of Toronto,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says.

With all due respect to English literature, her major, what interested her was what she calls culture in action, which she discovered at her next stop, the University of California, Berkeley. Then came her doctorate in folklore and ethnography from Indiana University, and faculty appointments at several universities until she retired from five years ago from NYU. What is less conventional about this academic route, along with all the awards Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's books have won, is the way in which she harnessed her knowledge and original thinking to practical projects and to institutions connected to Poland and Jewish culture.

Deep Polish roots

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's journey to Poland is directly connected to her father’s exceptional memory.

“When my father, whose name is Mayer, took ill at the age of 59, he sold his store – but then he got better,” she recalls. “As an active and relatively young person who suddenly had a lot of time on his hands, he looked for something to do. I had been recording interviews with him about his childhood in Poland before the Holocaust since 1967. I knew that he had a rare visual memory, a sense of design and good hands. All I had to do was convince him to illustrate what he remembered.”

"I miss Poland, Warsaw, the museum and my friends there. And here, I miss roaming the streets of New York, the small stores in Chinatown – who knows if they'll survive"

The family bought him art supplies, but they gathered dust. They registered him for courses but he refused to attend. “We pestered him for a decade. In the end, my mother, who knew that everything connected to food was important to me, told him, ‘Paint the kitchen for Barbara.’”

Her father started to paint when he was 73, but once he started, he couldn’t be stopped. The results, paintings of his childhood memories of Poland before the Holocaust, can be seen in the book, “They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of Jewish Childhood before the Holocaust,” which contains a selection of his 250 paintings and a text based on more than 40 years of interviews. The 2007 book, by Mayer Kirshenblatt and his daughter Barbara, was followed by an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that later traveled to Amsterdam.

In the 1990s her parents accompanied her to Poland, where she was teaching a seminar on Jewish culture, and together they traveled to Opatów, the town where Mayer was born.

“My father stopped people in the street to get them to tell him what they remembered from before the war,” she says. “One young man invited us to his home, which was similar to my father’s home, just two rooms. His grandmother, relatives and neighbors gathered, and they started to talk. This young man persuaded the municipality to display my father’s painting in the county seat headquarters.”

But the story doesn’t end there. “A short time after the exhibition, the town decided, for the very first time, to commemorate the deportation of the Jews to Treblinka in September 1942,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett continues.

“The local church organized a mass in memory of the murdered, and the town’s youth read out testimonies of residents who witnessed the deportation. Nearly 6,500 Jews, more than two-thirds of the town’s inhabitants, were sent to their deaths; 500 were marched to Sandomierz to a forced labor camp. The town had never before addressed its Jewish past. Since then, at their own initiative, they organize an annual ceremony, which I think is amazing. When you approach people with trust, it can bring out their best.”

One man, her father, had ignited the town’s memory: “It’s so very important to them, and that young man [whom we met], who today isn’t so young anymore, is trying to arrange for a building on the central square to be turned into a museum featuring my father’s paintings. This is a story about what I call constructive engagement.”

Dramatic decision

This approach is at the heart of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In every place decisions relating to museums of history and heritage are tense, and in Poland, when talking about Jewish history, things get even more complicated.

“Of course, you cannot think about a museum of Jewish history in Warsaw other than in the context of the Holocaust,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. “POLIN Museum stands on the ruins of the ghetto, facing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, and one of the Core Exhibition’s seven historical galleries is dedicated to the Holocaust period.”

The museum’s dramatic decision was to place the Holocaust within a 1,000-year history of Polish Jews and to bring this history up to the present, rather than end it with the Holocaust. The emphasis at the museum is the millennium of Jewish cultural life in the country.

“This history was understandably overshadowed by the murder of three million Jews. By recovering this history, the museum completes the memorial complex. You go to the monument to honor those who perished, by remembering how they died, and in the museum we honor them by remembering how they lived,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains.

Perhaps it was another breakthrough project that she was involved in during the late 1970s that led the museum’s developers to turn to her in the early 2000s. From her work in the massive photo archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, with historian Lucjan Dobroszycki, evolved an innovative exhibition, book and film called “Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864-1939," which showed the diversity and richness of Jewish life in Poland before the destruction.

“The idea was for there to be an exhibition and book that was unlike the portrait created by Roman Vishniac, whose photographs from the 1930s, for all their greatness and importance, shaped public consciousness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust," she explains.

"He was sent by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to take photographs that would help them raise money for their relief efforts. The images that became most iconic conveyed piety and poverty, a world apart. These photographs were meant to arouse empathy and raise funds. But, Jewish life in Poland was much more than that. We wanted to show a dynamic Jewish world that was diverse – across class and generations, in politics and culture, in religious orientation, and in relation to tradition and modernity.”

Roman Vishniac.Credit: Andrew A. Skolnick

The richness of the civilization created by what was once the largest Jewish community in the world is on display in POLIN Museum’s multimedia narrative exhibition.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: "Of course, the Holocaust was an overwhelming catastrophe. But my perspective throughout all my work is to view the history of Polish Jews in its own terms, rather than as a prelude to the Holocaust, or in its shadow.

"In the interviews with my father and in his paintings, in the YiVO photography project, and in my work at POLIN Museum, the Holocaust is not the lens through which we view the history of Polish Jews. When creating the Core Exhibition, we wanted to help visitors to stay in the historical moment of the story in each period, without anticipating the Holocaust, to bracket what they know happened later and to experience what it is like not to know what would happen next."

It took almost 20 years to fulfill the dream of building the museum in Warsaw, whose building opened in April 2013 and the Core Exhibition in October 2014. That exhibition, of which Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is chief curator, covers over 4,300 square meters.

"We have diverse educational programs that have won the most prestigious prizes. For example, 'Museum on Wheels' travels throughout the country and within two hours sets up an exhibition and program of activities in a town that has promised to prepare for the visit," she says.

"We produce changing exhibitions, some of which have aroused controversy. For example, 'Estranged: March ’68 and Its Aftermath,' explored the communist government’s anti-Semitic campaign, as a result of which more than half the Jews living in Poland at the time left – and did so under humiliating conditions. The almost 120,000 visitors set a record in Poland for this kind of exhibition, but displeased the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

"Now, with everyone forced to stay home, POLIN Museum had the great idea to launch its own radio station and got it up and running in a matter of weeks. It draws on our archive of recorded lectures and music as well as producing new shows."

Bagels galore

Gastronomic culture is also a central preoccupation for Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. She has a huge collection of cookbooks and books about food, "and included in it, a collection of Jewish cookbooks that is one of the largest in the world in private hands – over 1,000 Jewish cookbooks, some of which are very rare. That obsession also dates from my childhood."

She says she also has the largest collection in the world of paraphernalia connected to bagels: "I collect everything related to them: T-shirts, serving platters, bagel cutters, mugs, jokes, books, songs, napkins, posters, recipes, souvenirs, photos, everything – including the internet domain bagelmuseum.com. This icon deserves a proper history and exhibition, if not its own small museum."

What has the coronavirus done to lovers of culture?

"With institutions and restaurants closed and everyone self-isolating at home, people are creative. Who would have thought about a Passover seder on Zoom? Endless jokes, memes, a frenzy of cooking and baking. I anticipate doctorates and also exhibitions – museums are already collecting the pandemic."

Doesn't she miss the frenetic nature of the flights and the crowded schedule, and in any case is she aware that none of this will come back soon?

"I miss Poland, Warsaw, the museum and my friends there. And here, I miss roaming the streets of New York, the small stores in Chinatown – who knows if they'll survive, these family businesses that have existed for decades and are now forced to close. That said, I am eager to return to Poland and to POLIN Museum."

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