A Museum Celebrates Its Home City
By Edward Rothstein, The Wall Street Journal
‘Gazing into the vast arena of life below him, Father Time lounges in his heavenly seat.” Has a newsletter ever begun more imperiously? Yet there it is, at the newly reimagined Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the most important Jewish museum in the Pacific Northwest. Written in 1920 by a teenager Marcus Rothkowitz, a Russian immigrant who settled in Portland a decade earlier, the essay describes Father Time pleased by something seen below, “which seems to drive the age out of his morbid and wrinkled features.” What he sees is this newsletter, published by the Neighborhood House, a Jewish social welfare institution founded in Portland by the National Council of Jewish Women in 1905.
Why, though, is it shown here? Partly because Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko, one of the 20th century’s most important artists. But the newsletter also sheds light on pioneering Jewish institutions, many of which (like this one) still exist. In their very conception, culture, politics, spiritual life, and material welfare were intertwined.
Similar ambitions are implicit in this modest, absorbing museum, which differs from many Jewish identity museums in taking the spiritual life as seriously as politics. It succeeds with so much that its flaws might be considered a reflection of its time and place, because it is about a place—Portland—as much as an identity.
The history is surprisingly rich, given that Oregon’s entire Jewish population is about 40,000. The museum began “without walls” in 1989. Then came temporary homes and institutional mergers, most recently with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, thus adding recorded testimony to a collection of materials going back to 1850. This is the museum’s fifth location and most permanent, with 15,000 square feet of space. Under its longtime director Judith Margles, the board purchased the building for $5 million and then raised another $2.3 from 400 other donors to go toward operating expenses and mounting three permanent and two temporary exhibitions.
The main exhibitions are in one large gallery: “Oregon Jewish Stories,” “The Holocaust: An Oregon Perspective” and “Discrimination and Resistance: An Oregon Primer.” The first is the most revealing, portraying Jewish life in a self-proclaimed progressive, open-minded city—a theme emphasized in video interviews. Triumphs are celebrated (Portland first had a Jewish mayor in 1869) as are renowned Portlanders (Mel Blanc brought immigrant vernacular to the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, and Barney Rubble).
In this there is the typical identity museum’s self-celebration, but here Portland’s progressivism is made to seem a warm complement to Judaism’s spiritual and communal life. In the midst of this, Judaism, in its many forms, is also taken seriously, something that also happens in the temporary exhibitions. One is devoted to the drawings of Herman S. Brookman (1891-1973), a Brooklyn-born architect, who designed a magnificent nearby synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel. Another exhibition, “Alefbet: The Alphabet of Memory,” is an exploration of a wall-sized tapestry by the Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, which combines mystical symbolism and gnomic references, geometric regularity and wild effusiveness.
The Portland perspective also gives a more intimate sense of the Holocaust, since some of Portland’s survivors are seen in early photographs as well as recent interviews. Unfortunately, displays repeat the common assertion that five million non-Jews were deliberately murdered in death camps or by killing squads aside from nearly six million Jews; the historian Yehuda Bauer has pointed out that the number “five million” was sheer invention by Simon Wiesenthal ; the truth, Bauer and other historians have argued, is closer to 500,000, though that does not include the millions more killed by deliberate starvation and siege. Another familiar Holocaust exhibition tic also appears, suggesting that study requires generalization and justification. “We study the Holocaust to examine our connections to each other,” we are told. “What forms of discrimination exist today?” the displays ask. “What lessons do you take away with you?”
The biggest problem, though, is “Discrimination and Resistance.” It has a hortatory poster-board character. In Portland’s history, we are told, there were “Tools of Discrimination” including “Intimidate,” “Appropriate” and “Segregate.” There were also “Tools of Resistance” including “Protest,” “Reform” and “Celebrate.” And there are indeed problems. When Oregon became a state in 1859, “its constitution excluded ‘negros, mulattos, and chinamen’ from owning property.” Later there were expropriations of American Indian lands and riots against immigrant workers; the Ku Klux Klan flourished.
But malfeasance was corrected, sometimes speedily. And concepts are more complex than they seem. Manifest Destiny, for example, was not, as is said here, a racial belief that “White Americans” had a “divine right” to settle the continent but a belief that the nation’s destiny was to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And when we are told, “Oregon came into existence with exclusion at its core,” what nation, apart from the U.S., has not been founded with a similar idea?
Portlandian progressivism also cannot really be treated as Judaism with a political face. One activist group, “Occupation-Free Portland,” for example, declares that its goal is to ensure “that our city has severed all ties with the Israeli occupation,” including “corporations that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.” In response to such lobbyling, the Portland City Council appointed a committee to create a “Do Not Buy” list (which would have cost millions of dollars). But in April, after protests, the City Council decided to avoid discussing particular corporations. Instead it is disinvesting in all corporations—- exchanging one form of moral blindness for another. The museum’s approach is generally far wiser, choosing to illuminate what it wishes us to see.