London, December 2015
Jewish Museum London is located in a townhouse on a perfectly normal street in Camden Town. Perfectly normal except that the trees along the street seem to have had their branches stumped for some reason.
Notably, it had an exhibition about Amy Winehouse a couple of years back, an exhibition later shown at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which is where I saw it. The current exhibition, Blood: Uniting & Dividing, has been developed in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism and part-designed by Tom Piper, who did the poppies installation at the Tower of London in 2014. It examines the role of blood, as substance and symbol, in Jewish life and history. Circumcision, rituals and rules concerning the slaughter of animals and the preparation of food, Passover, Christ as the lamb of God – these are some of the topics touched upon. The Eucharist and the doctrine of Transubstantiation get a look in too: Christianity is considered in relation to Judaism, since it appropriates Jewish scripture. Then there is the notorious blood libel, which later finds a strange echo in popular culture: Bela Lugosi as Dracula is seen to be wearing a Star of David.
Eugenics, once a legitimate science which even Jewish leaders subscribed to, and its tangled relations to Nazi ideology (‘no border but blood’) is the subject of one section of the exhibition. One of the exhibits here is a poster setting out a kind of racial taxonomy, according to the Nuremberg laws.
When we reach the present day there is Israel’s troubled relationship with its Ethiopian minority to consider. In particular, the curious state of affairs whereby Ethiopian Jews would donate blood to hospitals in Israel, blood which would be disposed of later as being of no value. Is this blood as symbol or substance or both? Anyway, Blood: Uniting & Dividing is a wide ranging and thought-provoking exhibition which well deserves a second look.
On other floors there is a history of Jews in Britain with, naturally, a focus on London life. Yiddish theatre, boxing, the world of work. Lots of ceremonial and religious objects in one space. Menorahs and Hanukkah lamps and the like on display.
One man’s experience of Auschwitz takes up much of a space devoted to the Holocaust; this was moving but not the full story and somehow sanitized. To be frank, all representations of the Holocaust seem wanting in the light of the work of Timothy Snyder, particularly Black Earth and Bloodlands. In his paper Commemorative Causality (2013) Snyder writes:
More east European Jews were killed within two months of contact with German power in the summer of 1941 than were German Jews during the Holocaust as a whole.
This was six months before the Wannsee Conference which took place in January of 1942, so well before the creation of death camps like Treblinka and well before Auschwitz, a concentration camp, acquired a death facility (of course, prisoners were starved and worked to death there before then). Snyder writes also that ‘some 97% of the victims of the Holocaust did not speak the German language’ – most of them shot at close range and buried in mass graves in Eastern Europe. And here’s the problem: how to represent those deaths where there were precious few survivors and witnesses. Auschwitz was horrific but it was also atypical.
On the ground floor there is another exhibition, Memory Quilts: Triumph over Adversity, consisting of quilts made by people who survived the Nazi horrors, coming to Britain in 1945 as children to make new lives. Trees feature as a motif in many quilts.
Jewish Museum London is a small museum but it puts on fascinating, high quality exhibitions. Like one of those East End boxers, it punches above its weight. Blood: Uniting & Dividing is on show until 28 February 2016. Details can be found here.