Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Germany/USA: Susan Hiller’s J Street Project On View at New York’s The Jewish Museum

Germany/USA: Susan Hiller’s J Street Project On View at New York’s The Jewish Museum
By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) New York’s Jewish Museum marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht with the opening of Susan Hiller’s “J Street Project,” a photo documentary project of over 300 German streets that recall a former Jewish presence through their names – Judengasse, Judenallee, and other appellation with the prefix Juden. “The Jews are gone,” Susan Hiller has said, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.”

To read about the J Street Project click here

Hiller creates a mosaic of a lost Jewish Germany – an alternative universe to that which most Germans (and others) know. This is a “Memory Project,” – in a similar vein to the Stolperstein Projectof which I have previously written. But “J Street” is but not specifically about the Holocaust, since it refocuses attention to the Jewish presence in Germany not just in modern times, but for millennia (recent archaeological excavations in Cologne, Speyer, Regensburg and elsewhere make this same point in a very different way).

Academics have been pursuing the long history of Jews in Germany for more than a century, since the birth of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the 19th century. A recent public display of this research tradition was the exhibition and conference held in Speyer in 2002 (See the collection of papers, The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages (Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries): Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Speyer, 20-25 October 2002, ISBN 9782503516974, many of which deal with medieval Jewish streets and quarters in Germany and elsewhere). Hiller’s work is an art project, but in its expansiveness and inclusiveness it points the way to long-term research plan for archivists and archaeologists. So much more can be discovered and uncovered about the history of Jews in German lands. Hiller or some imitator could do a similar project in most countries in Europe – though few are as obvious as Germany in recalling Jews in their current street names.

Hundreds of towns in Europe once had Jewish populations. References to these Jews, as well as synagogues, can be found in historic toponyms. In Southern Italy, for example, from where Jews were expelled by the late 15th century, and particularly in rural areas, such has those in Calabria documented by Sonia Vivacqua and others. we still find Monte Giudei, Casale Giudeo, Acqua Judia, Judio Sottano and Judio Suprano, and other designations which are remembered long after the passing of the Jews. Sources tell, for example, of a vicus Judeorum in Naples that may refer to both a specific place and particular legal jurisdiction over it. Similar patterns can be described for England, France, and Spain.

Project Yesod
, an ambitious but still largely unrealized project to advise local archaeologists on issues pertaining to “Jewish” archaeology, could make it a priority to list all these toponyms throughout Europe and to begin to use the methods of geographical and archaeological regional survey to better map and describe them, and to alert local authorities – the ones that allow building demolitions and excavations for sewer lines – of their presence.

We can learn from “J Street,” too. Signs are important for remembering the past – even if only the alert – like Susan Hiller – take the time to look. Collectively, we need to better define (historically) Jewish Space in Europe (and elsewhere). The first step is to identify that space, and like a biologist or botanist with a new or variant species – name it. Then we can decide – individually or collectively – if, when and how it can be (culturally) reclaimed.

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