A Hyphenated Identity

Schoolchildren of the early 19thcentury were punished for speaking any language other than English. We’ve come a long way in our tolerance of differences. (My mother-in-law says that someone who speaks English with an accent knows at least one other language, a dig at the monolingual Americans.) We’ve changed our perspective in cultural assimilation and the iconic image is no longer of the melting pot, but the salad bowl, in which the ingredients are separate and distinct.

A running series in the New York Times on racial identity in America highlights the growing comfort that young Americans have in declaring a multiracial background. According to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities. The latest installment in the series looked at how different institutions tally these racial data. In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean to the person when she identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent (a college student in the 2/10/2011 article). How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said in passing in class this week that the fancy new Jewish museum in Philadelphia is very good at depicting how successful Jews have become in America, but it fails at telling how Jews in America are Jewish. A critic from the New York Times asked at the time of its opening, if this country needed another monument touting the success of Jews (which is better, I say, than another monument about the death of Jews). So, my friend asked me, are there any U.S. museums that does what my Rabbi thinks the one in Philly should? Well, the Yeshiva University Museum puts on exhibits that highlight aspects of Jewish history, but it’s an institution that’s not well-known outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

At least once a year, I love to visit the Museum of the Chinese in America (MoCA) in a tenement building re-designed by Maya Lin, the Chinese-American architect who established her reputation while still at Yale with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial. It has an extensive permanent display of notable Chinese-Americans, with more details and more personages than in any other setting or book. There are other informative displays from American history, which are unsettling because of the prejudice the Chinese have faced. There is also a replica of the historical Chinese store, which once served as a community center for its compatriots. The current traveling exhibit is on Chinese puzzles—tangrams, linked rings, sliding block puzzles, and Burr puzzles (see www.ChinesePuzzles.org). The museum succeeds in educating visitors regardless of their background. The books available for purchase in the gift shop are of particular value to me, as these titles are not promoted in the mainstream media.

The difference between MoCA and the National Museum of American Jewish History— or rather the difference between what the latter museum is and what it could be– may lie in the difference between ethnicity and religion. The donors and board of trustees of the Jewish Museum chose to depict Jewishness as a cultural trait. My Rabbi defines Jewishness as Yahadut, a religion. Ergo, it’s a difficult balance to reach out to a wider audience. My husband noted that the donor list of MoCA included corporate and government sponsors, who were comfortable with the idea of a cultural museum about the Chinese. Similarly, it seems the sponsors of the new Jewish museum wanted to tell the cultural story of the Jews in America.

Finally, what is the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew? It lies in the value the person places on the relative labels. Someone who declares herself an American Jew says that being Jewish is more transcendent than being American. And such as person identifies as a religious Jew. So, the National Museum of American Jewish History needs to live up to its chosen name. It needs to also educate the public about the religious history of Jews in America.

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