Museum’s Vision: West Coast Paradise

SAN FRANCISCO ? When deciphered, the jagged lights on the sloping lobby wall of the new Contemporary Jewish Museum that opened here on Sunday form four Hebrew letters that spell out pardes. That word has the same Persian root as the English word paradise. It alludes to a park, a garden, an orchard, and thus invokes the pastoral promise of Eden as well.

This is the kind of esoteric symbol much beloved by the museum?s architect, Daniel Libeskind. In the heart of downtown San Francisco, his $47.5 million building, with its skewed blue-steel structures jutting out of a landmark 20th-century power plant, may not live up to the word?s impossible promise, but it will certainly gain attention for the institution.

Like so many other new museums, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is dedicated to a hyphenated American identity, in this case one that has flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a Jewish population of 200,000 that ranks third among United States metropolitan regions. Jews lived in San Francisco from at least its early boom days, when they streamed in with other settlers during the Gold Rush. So their sense of belonging is not tentative; they are comfortably at home in a Western pardes.

In this atmosphere a particular style of American Judaism developed. It is highly assimilated, with many interfaith families; Judaism is treated more as a culture than a religion. History becomes less important than the issues of the present; and Jewish culture is closely associated with leftish political leanings.

That is also the identity embraced by the museum. Founded in 1984, it was first housed in the Jewish Community Federation and called the Jewish Community Museum (later renamed the Jewish Museum San Francisco). Since 1999, under the direction of Connie Wolf, its ambitions have grown. In 2002 a merger was announced with another major Jewish museum, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in nearby Berkeley, which has the third-largest collection of Judaica in the United States. But within 13 months the union was off: perspectives and personalities clashed. The budget was slashed; Mr. Libeskind scaled down his plans.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum was thrust back to its community origins. But it is not concerned with recounting the origins of that community, nor with chronicling its triumphs and trials. You won?t find exhibitions about Levi Strauss, who began the jeans empire here and became a Jewish philanthropist. You also won?t find shows about Diaspora life over the millennia. This is not a history museum. It has a $25 million endowment and a $6 million to $7 million annual budget, but no collection.

And while other identity museums celebrate the particular, this one actively avoids anything that might seem too particular, seeking instead to leap into aesthetic or cultural realms in which Judaism is an element or influence. The museum, like its audience, is interested in assimilation, even in the ways in which the larger culture assimilates Jewish ideas and associations. It focuses not on the substance of Judaism, its laws, or history or ritual objects, but on perceptions of them.

In a modest inaugural exhibition, ?Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait,? the museum pays tribute to its community. Backs of display cases are covered with photographs of Jews of differing races, ages, degrees of observance. The objects displayed are associated with Jewish life in its local incarnation: a contemporary denim Levi Strauss yarmulke, a Jewish marriage contract for a lesbian couple, a program from a 1943 meeting to protest ?Nazi extermination of Jews and other minorities,? at which Thomas Mann, Isaac Stern and Eddie Cantor appeared.

The major opening show is ?In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,? in which a mixture of clever, callow, challenging and barren contemporary artworks aggressively rub shoulders with an original Blake drawing, a 15th-century Prague Hebrew Bible, Rodin?s sculpture ?The Hand of God? and ? movingly ? a grainy 1968 Christmas Eve television broadcast from Apollo 8 orbiting the Moon, in which the astronauts read the opening verses of Genesis.

The museum also offers the superb exhibition from the Jewish Museum in New York: ?From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.? And there is a music installation of compositions inspired by Hebrew letters, organized by the composer John Zorn, and mounted in the building?s most unusual space ? a white, angular, asymmetrical structure in which glints of sunlight from 36 diamond-shaped windows turn the room?s dimensions fluid. Overall, these are solid, imaginative, and vigorous presentations and ideas.

But why, then, is there an impression of something unsettled and unsettling here, as if something crucial were missing? The problem is evident first in Mr. Libeskind?s architecture. In a new book , ?Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum,? he points out that San Francisco, with its culture of ?freedom, curiosity, and possibility,? must inspire a far different museum than the Old World, which is haunted by the tragedies and traumas of the Jewish past, traumas evoked by Mr. Libeskind in three other Jewish-theme museums he has designed: in Berlin, Copenhagen and Osnabr?ck, Germany. Yet surprisingly, his San Francisco building is not particularly comfortable or reassuring.

Its skewed geometries are unsettling; the effect is more vertiginous than harmonious. Alienation rather than stability is suggested, despite the self-conscious symbols being grasped at. Mr. Libeskind says his building is shaped to form two Hebrew letters spelling chai, or life. Yet if so, they are so abstract as to be invisible.

Lines in the ceiling of an auditorium are apparently based on paths to the Holy Land on a 15th-century map ? a purely private conceit. And even the lobby, where the word pardes is illuminated, is such a long narrow space that the word is all but unreadable. It seems as if Mr. Libeskind had been so distracted by secret signs and allegories that he overlooked the fundamental meanings his building was supposed to have.

The museum does something similar. An introductory wall panel tells us that in the Jewish mystical tradition the four letters of pardes each stand for a level of biblical interpretation: very roughly, the literal, the allusive, the allegorical and the hidden. Pardes, we are told, became the museum?s symbol because it reflected the museum?s intention to cultivate different levels of interpretation: ?to create an environment for exploring multiple perspectives, encouraging open-mindedness? and ?acknowledging diverse backgrounds.? Pardes is treated as a form of mystical multiculturalism.

But even the most elaborate interpretations of a text or tradition require more rigor and must begin with the literal. What is being said? What does it mean? Where does it come from and where else is it used? Yet those are the types of questions ? fundamental ones ? that are not being asked or examined here about Judaism itself.

How can multiple perspectives and open-mindedness and diverse backgrounds be celebrated without a grounding in knowledge, without history, detail, object and belief? Can a museum serve its community without leading it into the unknown past as well as into speculative realms? Can the Jewish thrive without Judaism?

This is asking the Contemporary Jewish Museum to be more than it is ? not just to reflect identity but to inform and reveal it. Too much? Perhaps. It might have been possible had the merger with the Magnes Museum, with its extensive Judaica collection, taken place. Right now the Contemporary Jewish Museum celebrates a vision of Judaism as a kind of freewheeling allegory, a pardes of open-mindedness and diversity and artistic enterprise. But for all the institution?s considerable appeal, Judaism?s fundamental, literal meanings ? texts and laws and beliefs and history ? are left outside the gates of paradise.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open daily except Wednesdays; 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, (415) 655-7800 or


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