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Friday, May 9, 2008

New Museum Teaches Tolerance

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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 stories of Berger, Meir and hundreds of other Jewish Milwaukeeans have been assembled into a three-dimensional visual narrative, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (JMM), housed in the Helfaer Community Service Building on Prospect Avenue.

“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.

Defining Judaism
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.

“What’s 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.”

But there are ideals from the Jewish heritage that are generally held in common, even when expressed in many different ways. “Education is a core value of Judaism,” Bernstein says, pausing before an exhibit with photographs and memorabilia of local Jewish academies as diverse as the Folk Schull of the Socialist Zionist League and the stately Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study near the UW- Milwaukee campus.

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.

Brilliant Space
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.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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.
Closed Saturdays

For guided tours and more information, call (414) 390-5730

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