Tony Oats doubled over in laughter when he heard our request. Never before in his ten years as a museum employee, had he received such a funny inquiry.
“Could you show us some uncircumcised penises, please? We’re a bunch of older Jewish ladies and most of us have never seen one.”
Straightening up, he shook his head and resumed his staid tour-guide stance. “Sure. Right over here is a good example of one. In another room we’ll see a six-foot one. Just follow me.”
And so the eleven women from the L’Chayim Hadassah Chapter followed him into the next room, gathering at the waist of a life-size bronze statue. “Here’s one,” he said, pointing toward a well-endowed, but obviously not Jewish, naked man. Leaning forward, we gazed at the first of what would turn out to be about one thousand more penises — big ones, little ones, cut and un-cut ones on men of all races and from all time periods — on view at the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach.
Learning about male anatomy was a bonus, but not the primary reason for our presence here. Rather, Naomi Wilzig, the 80-year-old Jewish grandmother and fellow lifetime Hadassah member who founded the museum in 2005, had offered to show us her collection of 4,000 erotic art pieces. Unfortunately, Wilzig died two weeks before the scheduled tour, leaving Oats, the museum operations manager, as our last-minute substitute guide.
If it had been Wilzig, she most likely would have been un-phased by our request. I had the pleasure of meeting “Miss Naomi,” as she was known, on several earlier tours of her collection. She would usually begin her lecture by reminding visitors that sex is nothing to be embarrassed about. “After all, it’s how we all got here.”
A formerly-Orthodox Jew, Wilzig began her unorthodox avocation when her son asked her to return from a European trip with a piece of erotic art for his new apartment. He rejected her initial selection, but as a good Jewish mother, she kept trying to please him. She even took to wearing a hand-scrawled sign on her chest, “Buying Erotica,” while antique shopping because she realized dealers hide the good stuff. Thanks to her unusual buying habits and her son’s finicky taste, Wilzig ended up amassing the largest, privately-held erotic art collection in North America.
Several of us knew of Wilzig’s story, but asked Oats to provide some background about her husband. The late Siggi Wilzig, a Holocaust survivor, made his fortune in oil and banking. He was embarrassed by her hobby and would periodically demand that she stop, which she would —temporarily — only to resume again. “It was an obsession,” explained Oats. “She loved the hunt of it.”
Though Wilzig did not create the museum as a specifically Jewish institution, the Hadassah members spotted several Jewish items among the collection. A pewter cup engraved with Kama Sutra positions was declared to be a kiddush cup by one. “You are supposed to ‘do it’ on Shabbos,” she noted. “Maybe that’s to get everyone in the mood.” A Jewish star, along with other symbols, appeared on a floor-mounted candle-like white phallus. A small glass penis mounted in the center of stained glass elicited from one woman, “Oh, look. It’s a mezuzah.”
As we made our way through the twenty exhibit rooms, Yiddish became our language of commentary. A full-frontal Beatles poster brought forth, “Would you take a look at George Harrison. Kinehora.” “Oy veh, that would really hurt,” was repeated often when we viewed the bondage room. “Oy, yoy, yoy,” became the mantra in the fetish room, especially when we stood before a picture of a meat grinder like our mothers used to make chopped liver grinding the “meat” of a very-much-alive man.
In the biblical section we saw paintings of Adam and Eve more graphic than anything we had ever imagined in Hebrew school. One painting of Adam rising fully-formed from the earth was reported to be Wilzig’s favorite. Eve sensually tempted Adam in several paintings, but as one astute member noted, Eve’s mid-rift erroneously included a belly button. If Eve was not born from a mother, no umbilical cord would have formed this indentation.
Apples and other luscious-looking fruits were common motifs, with the fruit half taking the shape of a woman’s private parts. “An apple a day keeps the OB away,” said one member. “I’ll never be able to eat a pear again,” said another. To our surprise, pieces from art masters such as Picasso, Rembrandt, Dali and Rodin were on display. “This is like a real museum,” said one member, who obviously had expected something quite different. Indeed, it was like any other art museum, but in this one all of the art dealt with one subject.
And that subject was overwhelmingly male genitalia. At one point (no pun intended), the women became blasé about all of the erect penises. Disgruntled employees had drawn them on a Little Mermaid video box cover and a Renuzit air freshener canister. Cigarette lighters, pipe tampers, letter openers, match boxes all incorporated male members body parts. Chess sets gave a whole new meaning to “let’s play.” Edible objects such as popsicles and hot dogs were drawn as delectable dishes.
Perhaps it was all that food that inspired us to finally bring the tour to an end so we could go for lunch. Over piping plates of herb-crusted bread at the Greek restaurant next door, we reviewed what we had just seen. We all agreed that the overriding “take-away” from having viewed the collection was that sex inspired people of all cultures and races to produce art. Men in particular have been obsessed with representations of their sex organs. Though female parts were on display a-plenty, it was the masculine part of reproduction that we saw reproduced over and over again.
“I’ve seen enough to last me a lifetime,” said one woman.
“I obviously saw too many,” confessed another. “I know because this olive oil jar here looks like one to me.”
But even with our newfound knowledge, we couldn’t tell whether or not the jar was circumcised.