A Visit to the Mémorial de la Shoah

In my last post, I mentioned that I was leaving for vacation. What I didn’t say there was that I was on my way to France, where I participated in the Paris Writers Workshop and tried to begin transforming a failed short story into a novel.

Beyond that, I was able to stroll around my beloved Paris. Many years ago, I made my first visit to the Mémorial de la Shoah located there, and I returned to its museum last week.

This time, I went to the museum especially to see a current exhibition titled “ALYAH-BETH: L’Emigration clandestine des juifs depuis la France vers la Palestine.” As you might discern even without knowing French, this exhibition focuses on Jewish emigration from France to Palestine, particularly in the years between the end of World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel.

If you can read French, and plan on being in Paris before the exhibition closes on September 28, I highly recommend a visit. If you’re limited to a virtual tour, you can get a sense of what the exhibition offers here (but you’ll still need to read French).

It’s also worth mentioning that on the English version of the museum’s Web site, Anglophones will find the following note: “For the benefit of a growing number of English-speaking visitors, the Shoah Memorial is organizing on the second Sunday of every month, a guided tour in English, free of charge. Start of the tour at 3.00 pm in the lobby. Prior reservation is not required.”

A Visit to the Center for Jewish History

Last Sunday my parents and I headed downtown to the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street. We had two goals: to visit the exhibit on “Alfred Dreyfus: The Fight for Justice,” and to see the one on “Jewish Chaplains at War: Unsung Heroes of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ 1941-45.”

For those new to it, the CJH is, according to its Web site, “a unique partnership of five major institutions of Jewish scholarship, history, and art: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.” The Dreyfus exhibit belongs to the Yeshiva University Museum segment; “Jewish Chaplains at War” is linked with the AJHS.

Since the exhibit on the chaplains was on the main floor, we started there. The story of Jewish chaplains in World War II is not entirely new to me. Still, I was incredibly moved by the photographs and objects on display. One photograph of a Jewish chaplain leading services for Buchenwald survivors was overwhelming. (Although much of the exhibit appears to be online, that piece of it does not seem to be.)

Then we continued on to the Dreyfus exhibition. According to the brochure I picked up there, the exhibition was organized by the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris. Which might explain the fact that I was able to read/understand much more of what was on view than were my (non-French-speaking) parents.

I’ve known a lot about this historical episode for a long time. And yet, it still affects me profoundly. Maybe it affected me even more this time, seeing some of the actual fabric ripped from Alfred Dreyfus’s uniform during his dégradation in January 1895.

It’s an extensive exhibition, one that will take you much more time to absorb than you’ll need for “Jewish Chaplains at War.” You can catch it until February 17. And while it will help you to have some facility with French, that’s really not required. Je vous le promets.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I don’t live very far from The Jewish Museum, and yesterday, a gloriously sunny early autumn Saturday, I finally made my way over to see two exhibits: Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson, and Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country.

What a terrific way to spend part of my Saturday.

Especially in the immediate aftermath of the latest Nobel literature award, I appreciated the chance to learn more about Singer (1904-91), who won that prize back in 1978. “His” exhibit occupies just one large room filled with Davidson’s photographs, with a corner reserved for screening a film on which Singer collaborated, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard.

The black-and-white photographs capture a world of which Singer was very much a part, but Davidson found subjects beyond the writer as well. One of the most affecting pictures shows an elderly rabbi, tefillin wrapped around his arm and only partially concealing the numbers tattooed there.

As for the Pissarro (1830-1903) exhibit, I had only dimly realized, if at all, the artist’s singular status as “the Jewish Impressionist.” Most of the works I associated with him came from his decidedly Impressionist approach; I hadn’t realized how much he had stretched himself with “newer” styles that reminded me more of Seurat or Van Gogh than Renoir or Monet. And much as I’ve studied the Dreyfus Affair (and believe me, with a Ph.D. in Modern French history, I have studied it), I didn’t realize how anti-Dreyfusard some of Pissarro’s fellow artists turned out to be, and how some of his friendships suffered at that time.

Taken together, the two exhibits also made me think of a recurrent question (see this post for some background): How do we define “Jewish” artists/writers? Singer quite clearly wrote of Jewish characters and Jewish settings; Pissarro’s work, at least what I’ve seen of it, reveals no such focus. And yet there they are, featured together on the second floor of The Jewish Museum. Pissarro died when Singer was two; together, their lives spanned 171 years of history.

There’s still time to see both exhibits–they’re both around until February 3, 2008. (If you can’t get to New York, you can take a virtual tour of the Pissarro show here.) But do try to catch them!