Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Secret Lives of Interns: Writing and Writing Over at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

A blog post by Rachel Ellis

This past March, before I was an intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I visited San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Rainy San Francisco is best remedied by museum visits!

Two of their exhibitions juxtaposed each other quite beautifully: “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf” and “As It Is Written: Project 304,805.”

In the former, artist Linda Ellia’s responds to Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. She invited hundreds of individuals to reclaim a page by painting, drawing, writing, or otherwise altering it. The exhibition interacted with themes of emotion and materiality. “Writing over” the pages allowed Linda, the other artists, and museum-goers to interact with Mein Kampf by acknowledging its existence and participating in their own way.

The above “from the project Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Jean Dobritz; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.”

Moving upstairs, “As It Is Written: Project 304,805” presents facts, history, and objects related to the Torah. Like the exhibition downstairs, the Contemporary Jewish Museum uses this space to interact with powerful words that are both historically meaningful and culturally central.

Julie Seltzer, a trained female scribe, is writing a Torah, all 304,805 letters, in front of our eyes. As she writes this text, Seltzer creates a living document for the Jewish people. It is amazing to watch as something holy, in a process so heretofore obscure, is revealed right before us.

Scribe Julie Seltzer writes the Torah, letter by letter.
Photo courtesy of

The last of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) is to write a Sefer Torah. This mitzvah has been interpreted in many different ways; the Contemporary Jewish Museum has found one way to achieve this commandment right in their exhibition space. The People’s Torah takes a photograph of the museum visitor’s hand and morphs it electronically into one letter in the Five Books of Moses. After 304, 805 people have a “hand” in making a 3-D Torah, it will be a contemporary and collective way to participate in the mitzvah.

Here is my hand, and the letter it wrote in Genesis 4:2!
Image found HERE
– Click the link then click my hand,
and watch it transform into ה

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is hip, young, contemporary. In their exhibitions, Judaism interacts with the modern world in innovative ways. With Mein Kampf, we are reinterpreting the pages. With the People’s Torah, we are using a new method for a tradition that is thousands of years old. In the former, we are making profane a text sacred to the Nazis. In the latter, we are making a sacred text for ourselves.

These two adjacent exhibitions present a compelling juxtaposition of writing and rewriting. They reveal the power of words and different avenues for participation in making meaning.

“Our Struggle” closed on July 15, 2010. “As It Is Written” will remain open until March 29, 2011 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

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