New Museum Teaches Tolerance
For 2,000 years the Jews were a people without a homeland who made the world their home. The first Jews to arrive in Milwaukee came in the 1840s from German-speaking Central Europe. They found a village at the edge of a wilderness, far from the centers of the Jewish culture. Within a generation a full community grew from the seeds of Milwaukee’s first Jewish settlers. Soon the city elected a Jew to Congress, Victor Berger, a socialist remembered for his principled stand against America’s entry into World War I. A few years later North Division High School graduate Goldie Mabowehz moved to Palestine under the inspiration of Milwaukee’s socialist Zionists.
Changing her name to Golda Meir, she became Israel’s prime minister.
“The museum is set up in such a
way that it’s not just for Jews,” says Laura Barnard, marketing and
communications director for JMM’s parent organization, the Milwaukee
Jewish Federation. “Some of the issues the museum focuses on, like
immigration, have come back into play. And the consequence of
intolerance is a lesson everyone still needs to learn.”
Displayed along JMM’s winding walk-through, around the bend from the Holocaust section, are 1930s advertisements for Wisconsin hotels and resorts. They include the once familiar phrase, “Gentiles Only.” Intolerance has infected every society, and Jews, for centuries the world’s most widely dispersed minority, often faced discrimination and persecution. The lesson of their story can be applied to any group assaulted by bigotry.
Greeting visitors in the museum’s atrium is Marc Chagall’s mural Jeremiah, a biblical allegory of the Jewish people. A documentary by Milwaukee filmmaker Douglas Love, running on a screen in the foyer, serves as an introduction to Judaism and the meaning of being Jewish.
the big question people have coming into a Jewish museum?” asks Kathie
Bernstein, JMM’s executive director. “It’s, ‘Who are they?’ Some people
think all Jews look alike and think alike. They’ll find out in our film
that this isn’t true.”
Perhaps even more important is the concept of Tikkun Olam (“Repairing the World”). In our fallen cosmos of injustice, war and environmental degradation, Judaism insists that we work to fix the problems within our reach. Many of JMM’s displays concern local Jews “who played a role in making Milwaukee a better place,” Bernstein says. Jews took part in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. Jews founded such enduring institutions as Aurora Sinai Medical Center, the Children’s Outing Association and the Milwaukee Center for Independence to assist their own community. In keeping with the universal implication of the Jewish tradition, their scope soon broadened to encompass the needs of everyone.
The Jews and the world, the local and the global—it’s a lot to squeeze into 5,000 square feet. But JMM manages to accommodate 150 years of Jewish Milwaukee against a backdrop of thousands of years into its compact setting without feeling cramped.
Museum President Marianne Lubar credits the Maryland firm of Gallagher & Associates with reconfiguring the space into a splendid journey from the past through the present. “We interviewed many designers and went to many museums to see what we liked and disliked,” she explains. “Gallagher’s use of space is brilliant. They took a flat, small area and angled it off with great use of light and cubbyholes.It’s not jangling. Some small museums have so much going on! We wanted a calmer atmosphere without a lot of flashing lights and noise.”
Among JMM’s innovations are a data kiosk, where
viewers can access a huge body of photographs and other archival
material not on the walls, and a booth where visitors
can record a video response to the ideas on exhibit. Of course, the
bones of JMM are formed from the same clay as all museums. There are
recreated displays, including the sort of peddler’s cart common on
Milwaukee streets before World War II, and authentic artifacts such as
Tables of the Law from the old Beth Israel Synagogue and Sabbath
candles and other household religious items. There are tributes to
famous Milwaukee Jews, including a poster of Naked Gun honoring
the Zucker brothers; photographs of Spic and Span, Goldmann’s and other
Jewish businesses; and wallboards with maps and timelines.
Among the most poignant exhibits is a package mailed to a Milwaukee family from their relatives, a married couple trapped in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The contents are on display, including a lovely set of colored fashion drawings by the wife, a clothing designer. The letter asked for help in gaining a visa to allow her to work in the United States. The paperwork was never approved. The couple died during the Holocaust.
Lubar stresses the role of historian Jane Avner as well as numerous focus groups and committees in conceiving the museum and choosing its contents. “Creating a community is what we’re about,” Bernstein adds, speaking not only of the genesis of JMM, but of the Jewish experience throughout history.
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Jewish Museum Milwaukee
1360 N. Prospect Avenue
Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday: Noon to 4 p.m.
For guided tours and more information, call (414) 390-5730