Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Delayed Architecture Review: Yad Vashem and the New Zionism

There's something about the Arrivals Hall at Ben Gurion which always draws me. Maybe because I compare it with the dreary arrivals building at JFK--which though also a gateway for immigants just doesn't compare. Getting to Ben Gurion early means more time watching the spectacle--where the airport guards sometimes seem less interested in security than overseeing family reunions. It also gives me more time to imagine and embellish the stories of the arriving passengers: the Beis Yaakov girl back from her first trip abroad away from her family; the high-tech executive returning from Silicon Valley to his wife and balloon-bearing twin daughters; the squat Bukharin women walking tentatively as their flag-waving family members, upon sighting them, let out shouts of joy. There's a common set of fantasies expressed in the financial pages of the newspapers here: if only all of the Jewish CEOs and CFOs would come to Israel, then the Israel economy would really be strong! But it's not Steve Jobs and Stephen Spielberg that I want here (though they can come also), but all of my friends and relatives! When a longtime friend of mine left Israel, I felt not only the loss of a friend, but the loss of a particular lens through which to experience Israel. And so when a friend visits, it's a new lens on Israel.

So naturally, when an old colleague and friend of mine came to town for an academic conference, I was happy to put aside my current research on British Church history (exciting as it) and make the trip to the holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. When I was in high school, I remember writing an article for the school paper called 'Museum Madness'--which was about the experience of culture overdose I used to feel after about thirty minutes in a museum (I've been scouring the net, thought to no avail, for late seventies web archives of the Hilltop Beacon). Nowadays, I can usually go about forty-five minutes of concentrated museum-going, but then it's back to that old 'museum madness' state. At Yad Vashem, 'museum madness' sets in quickly. I have a hard time concentrating for long on the exhibits: all of those galleries!; the written testimonies (such small print!); so many oral histories! But in Israel, there's always so much more going on (just my bus ride to the library this morning included several mini-dramas). Like the exhibit of a pre-war living room (replete with dining room table and embroidered wall-hangings) destined to be abandoned in the late thirties, but now filled--with a kind of awkward triumph--by kippa-wearing soldiers in their green khakis, some of them looking as if they stumbled into the wrong movie. And in the Auschwitz galleries, an American in a Boston Red Sox hat volunteered: 'If any one has any questions, my father can answer,' pointing to the man beside him, 'he was there.' And the girl in the Def Leppard T-shirt, with one of her IPod earplugs dangling, sobbing uncontrollably in the Hall of Names.

If that wasn't enough to keep us busy, there's also, like any really great museum, the amazing architecture of the place--and, in the case of Yad Vashem, the contrast with its predecessor. You can still see the the old museum, the two-panel scruptural frieze adorning the squarish building's outer walls. On the right side is the image of a procession of Jews--weak, shrowded and downcast. Here are the old Jews of exile, and at the center, a Moses-like figure, carrying the Torah in his hands.

On the left side (remember the Hebrew-reading mind moves from right to left) is a very different vision: the Jew is no longer downtrodden, but standing upright and noble. The cylindrical centerpiece of the previous tableau--the Torah--is replaced in the second image by a machine gun: from Revelation at Sinai to the Uzi.

As it turns out, the second sculpture was created as a commemoration for the fighters of the Warsaw Rebellion. Whatever the original intention, on the old museum facade, it's part of a 'before and after' story: the 'before': the old weak European Jew wed pitiably to the Torah; the 'after': the new strong Israeli Jew independent, defiant in his own might and military strength.

In the new museum--not in a frieze, but in the architecture of the building itself--the before and after story is re-told. Walking into the museum, there's a continuous film-loop--projected on the triangular wall that serves as one end to the long prism-like structure of the museum--with scenes from the World That Was Lost, the Europe of before the war. In these fantastic grainy old images, there is so much more than the story told by the old museum frieze. There are still the pious Jews marshalling their horse-drawn carts down shtetl paths, but also Jewish trade unionist marching on modern city avenues. Then there's the Hitchcock-like Rear Window sequence which peaks into various windows of Jewish life: two women framed by a door sporting the latest fashions, an older man seated at a piano practicing, a chassidische boy fehered (tested) by his rebbe. The Jew of Europe is portrayed in a diversity absent from the corresponding image on the frieze; what replaces the machine-gun bearing modern Jew is even more arresting. True, in the last exhibit hall, there are the children of Munkatch, trundled up in their winter coats outside of a school, singing what would become the Israeli National anthem Ha Tivka--interspersed with the footage of May 14, 1948, Ben Gurion's declaration of the State.

But this more recognizable ending to the zionist story is in one of the side galleries--subordinate to another story which becomes clearer as one emerges from the dark low center of the museum which brightening into another triangle, a window, directly opposite the projected images at the museum entrance. Opening the glass doors, the burst of wind, the view of the Jerusalem Forest: my friend Ken turned to me and said what I felt: "exhilirating!" One walks through the doors not to the polemical zionist triumph of the old museum frieze (though there are those who continue to thive on the tired antagonism represented there), but to the zionism of the endless horizon of possibilities. Turning away from the iconic story of Israeli military triumph of כחי ועצם ידי, the new Yad Vashem opens up a story for a zionism without idolatry. This is the zionism of the land of Israel and the many lenses--like the Torah with its many faces--by which, with every one who enters the Arrivals Hall at Ben Gurion, a new face of Israel is revealed.


Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

This is really interesting. What makes a building unique. How do you come up with a design for a building which is to be a tribute to 7 million dead.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

Sorry here it is again.

Go to and search for Moshe Safdie. Absolutely inspiring. Brad

Josh said...

And how beautiful you write.Your profession of literature fits you'hasameach bechelko,'.
How about using it also to amplifying what you have written on this post.I think it would be a major contribution.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I have never been supportive of March of the Living. My father did everything he could to escape Poland and now we're paying Jewish children to go there?

My response to people who ask me what's better is exactly what this post described: Go through Yad VaShem and walk out the final door to see Yerushalayin in the Israeli sunshine. When you walk out of Auschwitz, you still see Poland. When you walk out of Yad VaShem you see that the dream of returning to Tzion didn't die in Europe but is starting to come true.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

Well said Garnel. I totally agree with you. Brad (Father to Shira SMA Type 1, 3 years old, Yahoo!)