I’m involved with a wonderful collection of people in Jackson who work hard to put on Figment, a participatory arts festival that we like to describe as an “art pot luck” party. Artists are asked to install pieces that encourage some kind of artistic participation.
My project was inspired during a meeting when the Figment team was trying to figure out a way to create a border around the festival, which was taking place on the streets of Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood. Earlier this year I had received information about a wonderful exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum. It’s a Thin Line was an exhibit about the Manhattan eruv and included a fascinating short video about its history and significance. Inspired by this very public and creative Jewish tradition, I thought of adapting the practice for my Figment project.
My idea was to create a Figment Eruv that enforces the 11 principles of Figment within its borders. Really an inverse of the Jewish tradition, this eruv was intended to be a place in which people are reminded to keep the rules.
An eruv in Jackson, Mississippi? Certainly the first of its kind and I was ready for the challenge. I did a little research and figured out it would take about 3,000 feet of pink masonry twine, a 15 foot ladder and one handsome brave husband to climb said ladder. Over three days it took us about 5 hours to hang all of the string. I gained a new appreciation for ladder safety.
On the Tuesday afternoon before the festival, some guys who own the local garage along the route came out to see what we were doing. I worried they would be upset that we were stringing along the side of their building but the three men just looked up. Without questioning why we were doing it, they immediately began advising us on the best place to wind the string and how to avoid electrocuting ourselves on the transformer.
I’m glad they were amenable because it was important to me that this eruv not create barriers or borders with negative connotations within the neighborhood and its residents. I wanted it to create an inclusive temporary sacred space that separates the joyful Figment world from the ordinary and mundane.
During the weekend I had a great time watching visitors discover the eruv. They would bend down to read a short description of the project, then stand up, look to the sky and smile and they circled around to see how the string encompassed the area.
I was happy to have brought a secular interpretation of this often obscure religious practice to my neighborhood. Even my friends that have a pretty good Jewish education, probably because of being friends with me, had never heard of an eruv. It was a neat chance to talk with people about the tradition and why it works in this particular occasion.
Because one of the principles of Figment is “Leave No Trace”, on Sunday I pulled most of the string down. A few small pink knots were stuck up on the electric poles, tied around nails and staples. I decided not to worry about it. Much like a Jewish eruv represents the commandment to keep Shabbat, those tiny pink knots will represent the principles of Figment and be a reminder to sneak in just a little bit of that creative Figment spirit into ordinary mundane days.
I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…
The image above comes from a collection of photographs and papers that belonged to Adele Marcus of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. According to the narrative sent by her cousin, Adele was the daughter of Lithuanian and Russian immigrants, and lived in Pine Bluff her entire life, from 1914-2000. We have a dozen of her papers from religious school, an Arkansas Jewish Assembly program in Hot Springs and her high school diploma. Like most of our collections, we also inherited a handful of unmarked photographs.
Investigating and interpreting unlabeled photographs is both a challenge and a pleasure for museum professionals and other scholars. This one in particular (M. Wiesman? Hanging bananas? Feather head dress!?) , inspired me to use it as a teaching example on how to think critically about historical images. I like to engage students in “Be the Historian!” activities that incorporate artifacts, photos and documents to uncover stories from the past.
A favorite resource I use is called Artful Thinking and comes from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They have developed teaching methods to help teachers use works of visual art and music in their curricula in ways that strengthen student thinking and learning. While these techniques were developed for young students to think critically about art, I’ve found that the same “thinking routines” can be adapted for studying historical photographs.
Used on a regular basis, a routine like the one below not only teaches critical thinking but also encourages students to make a habit of it.
I SEE / I THINK / I WONDER
Use the following series of questions to help explore this photo.
What do you see?
What do you think?
What do you wonder?
This set of questions helps guide students towards an understanding of what they are looking at. They can make make careful observations, thoughtful interpretations and stimulate curiosity for future learning.
So now great internet community of learners, it’s your turn! Try it out!
Click on the image to make it larger, stare into those Jewish merchants’ faces and be a part of the discussion here by answering the three questions. With enough seeing, thinking and wondering we will be able to better understand who these people were, what their community was like and how their experiences might relate to our own lives.