The Contemporary Jewish Museum: What’s Inside Libeskind’s Box

Categories: Arts

By Masha Rumer

How is this museum different from all other museums, I wondered on my way to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which opened just over a week ago on June 8, smack in the middle of the Yerba Buena complex, drawing 4,000 people on the first day.

I found that the museum, after finally moving from its smaller Embarcadero location, lives up to the “contemporary” part of its name (enter the giant blue cube) and tackles Jewish history and culture from refreshingly diverse and inclusive points of view.

Its director and CEO, Connie Wolf, says that staying relevant is the museum’s goal: “We’re asking each other, regardless of our own experiences, to be open to looking at things from a new perspective.”

One of the museum’s major draws is the building: it was designed by the famed Daniel Libeskind, the man behind the Jewish Museum Berlin and the initial Freedom Tower concept for the WTC site. The design is based on the phrase “l’chaim,” which means “to life” in Hebrew, or rather on its two letters, “chet” and “yud.”

Libeskind’s signature deconstructed geometry has made its mark with the towering cube propped up on one of its corners. The cube is covered with 3,000 shimmery blue steel panels that change their shade based on the time of day. It’s “a metal-clad jewel, like a beacon glowing into the future” according to Libeskind’s statement.

But the nifty thing – attesting to the museum’s mission to fuse the old with the new – is the fact that the rest of the building’s exterior looks – well, normal. It’s got the whole classic Romanesque thing going – the red brick façade, the pretty cherubs, the towering doorways. In fact, the walls look almost like a continuation of St. Patrick’s Church next to it, on Mission and 3rd. That’s because the museum is nestled inside the brick shell of the abandoned PG&E Jessie Street Power Substation from 1907, a historic landmark. The museum bought it for $1 from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and transformed it $47.5 million later, with initially bigger plans scaled down after the dot-com bust.

Inside, Libeskind kept the original catwalk, beams and crane by the ceiling, retaining the substation’s industrial feel (and putting many a-hipster, bragging about their lofted ex-soap or candy factories, to shame). These old elements are contrasted with white walls, some tilting, and giant glowing Hebrew letters of Kabbalistic significance in the lobby.

All installations are temporary and showcase both Jewish and non-Jewish artists. In one, artists, rabbis, priests and scientists try to get the skinny on creation and Genesis with fine art, animation, medieval religious texts, filmed interviews and interactive gadgets. The discourse is beautifully crafted and non-didactic.

One Genesis exhibit I enjoyed is a group of silk screen prints by Jacob Lawrence, depicting scenes from the church he attended as a kid in Harlem: as the congregation listens in awe, the pastor invokes some Biblical drama outside.

In another, visitors are invited to promise to make the world a better place, in writing, and in exchange take a mirror from dozens of mirrors along the walls, to the recorded chanting of holy texts. (If you poke around, you’ll discover other people’s oaths, ranging from someone’s promise to recycle to many others pledging to vote in November 2008 and get this country out of trouble.)

My favorite was the music installation. The vast, angular white insides of the cube are teeming with moody and melodic guitar riffs and the abstract booming, hissing and contemplative notes, exploring the meaning of the Hebrew alphabet. The installation is curated by the avant-garde musician John Zorn and includes recordings of the likes of Lou Reed, Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson.

The museum also touts its families’ and kids’ programs, including free admission for people under 18 and the current installation of the drawings of William Steig, creator of pre-Hollywood book Shrek! (which apparently means “fear” in Yiddish).

I got even more of that family feeling when someone inquired with kind concern how come I’m not married yet.

Sandee Blechman, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, expects the museum’s new central location to “add to the (Jewish) community and the dialogue with the broader community.” The Museum does make for an inspiring venue for visitors – bris or no bris – to explore art and Jewish culture and to ponder some universal questions, particularly if 42 has always left them hanging.

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