I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.