Monday, November 17, 2008

Selling Jews, Judaism, Jewishness and Anne Frank (again)

Selling Jews, Judaism, Jewishness and Anne Frank (again)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Using Jews as commodities is nothing new. Depictions of Jews, usually unflattering, were a staple of the printed broadside in Early Modern Europe. Venders in Poland still sell their carved wooden figures of Hasidic rabbis and Klezmer musicians to all sorts of buyers – Jews and non-Jews alike. For some these are anti-Semitic depictions, for others part of a long folk carving tradition in which everyone is caricatured.

Remember in 1993 the Hasidic-inspired line of clothing Jean-Paul Gualtier where models wore yarmulkes and payes (sidelocks)? There are plenty of more recent – but less controversial – Jewish-inspired fashion statements (see Alana Newhouse, “Shmatte Chic: The rise—finally!—of Jewish fashion”). Today, all sorts of jewelry makers and even tattoo artists have made a mini-industry out of Jewish symbols – traditional and kabbalistic. Jews are a big part of this system, too. They make and sell all kinds of commodities linked to perceptions of Jewishness. Some are fine art, some are kitsch. Some are steeped in tradition; some are irreverent (though not always disrespectful). And, of course, Jewish buyers fuel the market in Judaica fakes.

In the last 2 generations young Jews in America and Israel – and now in places like Hungary – have developed an in-your-face Jewish aesthetic that aims to shock all viewers, including (and sometimes especially) traditionally observant Jews. It’s a new kind of Jewish assertiveness – like a cultural version of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), or at least perhaps the assertive but less belligerent Anti-Defamation League (ADL). If Jews can be “Too Jewish,” (in the terms of the 1996 Jewish Museum exhibition) perhaps they can inoculate themselves against the most the slings and agonies of everyday anti-Semitism. Sometimes it works and “too Jewish” becomes the new hip, and sometimes it backfires and is a pain embarrassment to everyone.

For embarrassment (or should it be revulsion), see the link that Ruth Ellen Gruber has posted for an Amsterdam garret apartment where “one can live like Anne Frank” (What happens to the tenant when the lease is up?). This type of branding, like the trend in European “Jewish style” cafes (which Ruth has written about) that stereotype Jews (as Africans, American Indians, and others are also still stereotyped world in advertising worldwide) is mostly disgusting and sometimes dangerous.

Its one thing when Gene Wilder plays a rabbi and dons payes in The Frisco Kid – a funny film that actually is both an affirmation of Judaism and a historic corrective – since there were plenty of Jews who helped shape the American West. And the case can be made for Barbara Streisand dressing up as Yentl. But it is quite another thing when an Ukrainian café owner encourages customers to dress up as Hasids to laugh and eat and drink on the very site the Lviv’s destroyed Beth Midrash, in the shadow of the ruined Golden Rose Synagogue, whose worshipers were rounded up an murdered. No matter what one thinks of the strictures of the Hasidim, the place of their death is no place for caricature. There is no one to answer back.

Commercializing Holocaust suffering (or stoicism or heroism) – through ignorance or malice cannot be condoned. Even when done in way that is meant to celebrate the victim (Ann Frank), such exploitation actually belittles her. Maybe the apartment owner figured if Broadway, Hollywood and publishers around the world could make money selling their version of Anne Frank “why not me, too.” After all, the Ann Frank House is a big Amsterdam tourist destination. Why shouldn’t the neighbors cash in? For the real Anne Frank apartment, click here.

Some of my (Jewish) friends do not feel quite as squeamish about this as I do. They delight in a post-modern deeply ironic (and often self/Jewish-deprecating) style that views these episodes of exploitation and misappropriation as specimens to be collected and analyzed but not criticized or eradicated. Maybe in America or Israel, where there is so much real Judaism, and so much reliable information about Jews is available. In Europe, however, we cannot be so sanguine. Ignorance about the what, who, when, where and why of Jews and Judaism is so overwhelming that even a few well placed stereotypes can win the debate.

What does all this have to do with Jewish art and monuments? Its about the way people read things Jewish - and the care that needs to be taken in presenting selected aspects of the Jewish past. Culture experts and historians do not just collect information, we must know how to present it. Good history and thoughtful presentations must compete in the marketplace not just of ideas, but of commodities.

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