Museums focusing upon a single religious entity present a major challenge. Observant members of that religion are likely to know most of what such an institution can teach them, while non-observant members may or may not know, but are unlikely to care. It is visitors who belong to other religions who are likely to gain most. Agnostics and atheists are unlikely to be interested.
With that in mind, the most useful exhibitions here are those chronicling the rituals and observances of Orthodox Jews over a Calendar Year ( daily and Sabbath services, those for Festivals and High Holy Days), and over a life span ( birth, circumcision, barmitzvah, marriage, death. burial and mourning). All of this is easy to make interesting in text and photographs, but actual visual displays offer little scope for aesthetic pleasures compared with Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. The religion forbids figurative images of a sacred nature, much as Islam, but whereas the latter made up for this by the development of caligraphy, and the most floridly beautiful form of art based on plants, minerals, and geometric patterns executed through carpets and tiling, Judaism has no equivalent. One is left with scrolls, prayer books, oil lamps,metal and velvet dressings for the Ark, the Torah, the prayer table and the lectern. Religious trinkets such as wine goblets, candlesticks, mezzuzahs, and Passover plates offer little scope for artistic invention. An attempt to make up the deficit by including paintings by Soutine, Chagall, Modigliani, and Zadkine leave an unsatisfactory impression because they are among their more inferior works.
The other fairly successful achievement is the attempt to chronicle the actual arrival of Jews in France, their early persecution and confinement to Ghettos, their exclusion from most trades and professions, and their later emancipation beginning with the Napoleonic era. Later outbursts of Antisemitism such as the Dreyfus Case are quite well covered as is the growth of French Fascism in the Inter-World War years. The more recent instances linked to the Le Pen and similar movements on the one hand, the huge influx of Muslim immigrants on the other, and in between, the insanely misguided attacks by the Left on all religions that in the case of Judaism would wipe out two of its basic observances, circumcision and ritual slaughter of animals (both shared with Islam), are given little if any attention. The notorious role of the Vichy Authorities and other elements of French Society in the Deportation of French Jews to the gas chambers is hardly mentioned, as is the important role played by Jews in the Resistance. Both themes are very well documented in the Museum of the Resistance in Lyons. For me, the biggest deficit was the failure to narrate the tremendous contribution made by its small Jewish community to the artistic and political life of France since the emancipation, and especially in the 20th Cent. Almost nothing and nobody is covered beyond the painters/sculptor I already mentioned . The fields of omission include eminent actors and directors in the Film and Theatre Industries; Medicine and Science ( 5 Nobel Laureates); Music ( distinguished composers and performers); and Politics ( 2 Prime-Ministers and many senior cabinet ministers, as well as heads of International Organizations).
The building itself (Hotel de St-Aignan) is a complete anomaly: 17th Cent., and with absolutely no connection whatsoever to French Jews, it is classic in the most Christian sense, seriously compromising the spirit and atmosphere of the Museum. The whole enterprise pales in comparison with its custom-designed counterpart in Berlin that started Daniel Liebeskind on his path to fame.
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