Alex Joffe
Apr 28, 2016 · 5 min read

Irving Berlin’s Piano and the Problem of American Jewish Museums

Alex Joffe

One of the features of being an ancient people is the long inscription on the landscape. Jews have been moving across the world for almost three millennia, leaving signs of communities, their religious and cultural life, and of course, their dead. America is no exception. At the broadest level, the world is our museum. But the problem that Edward Rothstein so trenchantly analyzes is of a more human scale.

Let us reduce matters further still and focus on North America. Go anywhere in America and you are likely within a few dozen miles of some sign that Jews were once there. From Temple B’nai Abraham in Chickasha, Kansas, to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to countless cemeteries across the prairies and the cities of the dead that surround urban centers, signs of American Jewish life in the past abound. But the phenomenon of museums is unique. Where in the millennia of Jewish life in the Old World did Jews build museums, at least before the Holocaust? Why would they have?

What is a museum anyway? There is no standard or definition but all have temporal orientations; past, present or future. Museums typically speak to us in the present about the past to help shape the future. Perhaps this helps situate Edward Rothstein’s comments about American Jewish museums; they celebrate the accomplishments, contributions, and assimilation of American Jews. They are as much about America (and are addressed to America), an unusually sentimental if not anachronistic vision held by Jews who wish to celebrate a unique mutual embrace. But the Jewish future they propose is obscure.

Museums of course also celebrate museum builders. Here inscription has a personal aspect, for the plaques that adorn the museums testify to the accomplishments of a very small subset of America’s Jews. And bully for them; without their successes Jewish communal life would be vastly poorer in all senses. Synagogues in antiquity had similar inscriptions denoting the names of their patrons, who — in addition to their actual religious devotion and altruism- wanted their present and future to acknowledge their generosity. But this is also symptom of a peculiar pathology, a kind of self-celebration.

We are here, we are accepted, we give back, these American Jewish inscriptions cry. Across America today there is a veritable plague of buildings with Jewish names on them. They speak love but they demand love. From university campuses — where Jews are decidedly unloved today, except for their money- to the monuments of Jewish communal life, names leap from the lintels, and are forgotten. Such is the fate of all donors, who aspire to immortality. This is another reason why anonymous charity is the highest form.

Buildings stand as testament, but what goes on inside them, and for how long? The disparity is most acute at American universities, betrayal rather than neglect, where buildings named for Jewish donors who adored higher education and America are filled with endeavors that run precisely counter to those convictions.

Museums, because they are backward looking by default if not design, speak of accomplishments past. What kind of future do they hope to design? Rothstein notes that few have Jewish religious content. Irving Berlin’s piano at the National Museum of American Jewish History has intrinsic interest as an artifact but it is not especially Jewish, in the manner of a Torah mantle. This non-religious focus is deliberate since the American Jewish elites who create and design museums are largely cultural Jews. They are also the founders of university Jewish studies programs, which at their worst provide a sort of remedial education for Jews and Christians emphasizing Jewish history and culture, into which religion is sometimes set. Their vision for the American Jewish future is unclear.

How will Irving Berlin’s piano serve to inspire American Jewish success in the future, much less inspire Jewish solidarity? The piano, and Berlin, have ironic significance. Who under the age of 50 has even heard of Irving Berlin? His songs, including anthems to America and to Christmas and Easter, once served as touchstones, as cultural glue, for the nation itself. Berlin’s first wife was Jewish but his second was Catholic. He was an agnostic, Freemason, Republican, and dedicated civil rights advocate. He was, in short, the paragon of the American Jewish success story as portrayed in museums. He is also a parable, a cautionary tale about inevitability of cultural drift and forgetfulness.

At best we might say that the museum vision of the American Jewish future is stasis, the continuation of today, a little history, a little culture, lots of success — a sort of Manifest Destiny of bracha, hatzlacha, parnassa, and ma’asim tovim. These are happy and agreeable sentiments but will hardly ensure Jewish grandchildren, much less that such Jewish grandchildren as there are will marry one another. Nor will they inspire future American affection for Jews.

These celebratory aspects tell us much about how the American Jewish present sees the American Jewish past, an ethnic success story in the Land of Opportunity, bereft of religious roots, motives, or futures. Churlishly we might describe this as the enshrinement of Jewish deracination, but that is a bit unfair, since the motives were good, and the generosity, and inchoate hopes for the future, unquestionable. But Jews without some connection to religion seem unlikely to be moved by remembrances of Jewish culture past. Why they should remain Jewish is unclear. After all, non-Jews can appreciate Irving Berlin. Some still do.

Holocaust museums are a special case. That trauma deformed the Jews in ways that continue to unfold. The impulse to create museums is a latter day manifestation. Commemoration and mourning are not the issues, but how museums, along with devices like ‘Holocaust and genocide commissions’ generalize and relativize Jewish suffering. As every massacre becomes genocide or ‘another Holocaust’ the real Holocaust becomes more distant or worse, “white on white crime.” The paradox is that by insisting on the continuing relevance of the Holocaust, it has been diminished, dejudaized, trivialized, in short, deracinated.

What would an alternative American Jewish museum look like? How would religion be treated, given a central place in treatments of the past and future? Surely a celebration of Jewish pluralism is needed. If the story of American Jews past is heavily (although hardly exclusively) European and Ashkenazi, the present and future encompasses Jews of all colors, backgrounds and traditions. Their pasts, their journeys to America of tomorrow, must be woven into museums in ways that are rarely done.

But the biggest challenge is ‘representing’ Jewish religion, not as something arcane, obsolete and foregone but as a living thing that was, and remains, at the core of the Jewish reality. How to do so without promoting one variety or interpretation of Judaism is the problem. This is a problem shared with other faiths but not with other American ethnic groups, except perhaps Armenians and Native Americans, and paradoxically, with Protestant Americans, whose ancestors once looked to Biblical religion for guidance. Whether this is a problem to which Irving Berlin’s piano, or even the story of its player, Israel Isidore Baline, can contribute is unclear.

Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian.

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