Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

By Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2980/film-chat-from-swastika-to-jim-crow

 

Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

By Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt. As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

A friend pointed out to me that W. Michael Blumenthal who served as United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter was one of these refugees.  He arrived in the United States in 1947 at age 21.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2962/book-chat-exodus-to-shanghai

How the Nazis Co-Opted Science for Their Goals

By Hannah Lee

Now on display at the Free Library’s main branch is a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Memorial Museum on how the Nazis used science to justify their contemptible work, titled “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.”  I was horrified to learn that all German geneticists believed in eugenics, including the Jewish ones such as Dr. Richard Goldschmidt (who re-established himself at the University of California at Berkeley).  This felt devastating comparable to discovering in the permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History that there had been rabbis of the American South who supported slavery.

In the time since Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, others have sought to apply his breakthrough biological concepts to sociology and politics.  Arguing that modern medicine, charity, and welfare have obstructed the natural selection of by keeping “defectives” alive to reproduce, these Social Darwinists have lobbied for legislation against free and natural procreation.

Germany was the leader in medicine and science in the early 20th century.  Dr. Alfred Ploetz, a physician and economist, published a major treatise on Rassenhygiene, the German term for eugenics.  He hoped that racial hygiene would help solve problems linked to the nation’s rapid industrialization and urbanization.

Dr. Eugene Fischer gained international renown for his 1913 study of “racial mixing” in the German colony in Southwest Africa.  He shared the “respectable” antisemitism common among Germany’s educated middle classes and academic elite during the 1920′s, though “expressed largely in private and in measured tones.”  Dr. Otmar von Verschuer studied twins for hereditary traits to criminality, feeblemindedness, tuberculosis, and cancer.  He typified academics whose interest in Germany’s “national regeneration” provided significant motivation for scientific research.

A 1920 treatise by Karl Binding, a jurist, and Alfred Hoche, a professor of psychiatry, lead to Berlin’s first eugenics bureau that certified fitness for marriage.  Although sterilization was illegal in Germany until 1933, some doctors were performing the procedure in secret.

In the United States, a 1924 law in Virginia prohibited intermarriage between whites and persons of “other blood.”  Carrie Buck was committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeblemindedness in Lynchburg after bearing a child out of wedlock.  Her mother was already on state support, so she was sterilized.  By 1933, 26 states had laws permitting sterilization on eugenic grounds.  From 1909-1933, some 16,000 people were sterilized in the United States, half of them in the state of California.  Roman Catholics and supporters of individual rights opposed eugenics.

In the 1930′s, Norway, Sweden, and Finland along with parts of Switzerland and Canada had enacted sterilization laws.  In Great Britain, it was proposed but not enacted.  But, nowhere was there the scale of execution as in Germany which included persons living at home or in private clinics and hospitals.   Hearings were pro forma and lasted a few minutes.  These routine decisions to sterilize were seldom reversed on appeal.  For women, sterilization meant full anesthesia and two weeks in the hospital.  For men, it was on an outpatient basis.  In Germany, about 5,000 died as the result of surgery and over 90% were women.  Feeblemindedness was a plastic label applied to poor, uneducated persons from large families dependent on state support.  There were over 400,000 people sterilized between 1934 to 1945.

Doctors joined the Nazi party earlier and in greater numbers than any other professional group.  German medicine was historically conservative and many, especially the younger physicians, hoped their careers would improve under a new regime as Jews were ousted from positions in overcrowded medical fields.  Many also endorsed the party’s support of eugenics and racial science.

From January 1940 to August 1941, over 70,000 institutionalized adults were killed in gas chambers in Germany and Austria.  The victims included people with schizophrenia, feeblemindedness, and epilepsy.  (Captured Soviet soldiers and Polish prisoners were used to test the operation of the gas chambers.)  Poisonous carbon monoxide gas was used, in a program code-named Operation T-4.  Dr. Friedrich Mennecke and his wife Eva expanded the inclusion criteria to include concentration camp residents too sick to work and later to the general Jewish prisoners.  By the spring of 1946, all Jewish psychiatric patients had been murdered.

Dr. Julius Hallervorden, a neuropathologist at the Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin, received brains extracted from euthanasia, many from children killed at the nearby Brandenburg-Gordon clinic.  He ecstatically wrote about the specimens: “There was wonderful material among those brains, beautiful, mental defectiveness, malformations, and early infantile diseases.”  Dr. Ernst Wentzler ran a clinic that served wealthy families and he developed methods to treat premature infants and children with severe birth defects, including an incubator dubbed “the Wentzler warmer.”  He also supported ending the lives of the “incurably ill.”

The Nazi party from 1939 to 1945 was the primary coordinator of the pediatric euthanasia (“mercy death”)  program.  It originally targeted children younger than 3 years, but it later expanded to include older children.  The methods used were: overdoses of the sedative Luminal (the brand name for phenobarbital); starvation; deadly injections of morphine; and asphyxiation by carbon monoxide.  A letter from the Reich Ministry of the Interior directed midwives and physicians to register all children born with severe birth defects.  These professionals were unaware that the information was fed to the euthanasia program.  The Final Solution of the Nazi party (the systematic genocide of European Jews) determined the first victims to be infants and children with physical and mental disabilities.  Over 5,000 such children were killed.  Parents received letters falsifying the cause of death.

Using a chart of Mendel’s law of heredity, medical experts provided Hitler a purported claim for a law prohibiting Jews from marrying persons of “German blood.”  The Nüremburg Laws and the related Marital Health Law of October 1935 banned unions between hereditary “healthy” and “diseased” persons.  About 5,000 individuals of Jewish and Jewish hybrid unions were killed, many at the Brandenburg clinic.

In 1936, the Reich Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion stepped up efforts to prevent behavior seen as lowering the birth rate while new laws permitted abortions for Jewish and genetically “diseased” women.

Scientists considered racial types as “ideal constructs” never perfectly realized.  Politically, more important than physical appearance were lineage and deep Germanic roots.  Scientists regarded most Germans to be of “mixed” European lineage, corresponding to geographic origin: Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean, and Balkan.  The psychologist Robert Ritter lent legitimacy, claiming data that showed that most Gypsies were offspring of “highly inferior” “habitual criminals.”  Dr. Eugene Fischer, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics taught courses for elite Nazi SS doctors and provided opinions on paternity and racial purity of individuals, including the hybrid offspring of Jewish and non-Jewish German couples.

In an insightful article in The New Republic from May 3, 1941, Michael Straight wrote about the protest by the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August von Galen, thus: “Persons were not killed for mercy.  They were killed because they could no longer manufacture guns in return for the food which they consumed; because the German hospitals were needed for wounded soldiers; because their death was the ultimate logic of the National Socialist doctrine of racial superiority and the survival of the physically fit.”  This article was used to drum up American support for entering the war.

After World War II, these immoral men and women of science met with mixed justice.  Dr. Paul Nitsche was executed in 1948 for his war crimes.  Dr. Carl Clauberg was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes related to sterilization experiments, released early, and died in 1957. Dr. Josef Mengele, with doctorates in anthropology and genetic medicine, fled abroad and died in Brazil in 1979.

Others enjoyed post-war careers: Dr. Eugene Fischer became professor emeritus at the University of Freiburg and he died in 1967.  Dr. Otmar von Verschuer, a mentor of Mengele, established one of West Germany’s largest genetic research centers in Münster and he died in 1969.  Dr. Ernst Rüdin, who developed the Third Reich’s sterilization law, was classified as a nominal Nazi Party member and he died in 1952.

The fruits of the gruesome Nazi experiments remained active, such as Dr. Julius Hallervorden’s specimens from the euthanasia program which were used for study at the Brain Research Institute in Frankfurt until as recently as 1990.  He died in 1965.  Dr. Sophie Ehrhardt enjoyed a long academic career and her data on Gypsies from the Nazi years appeared in journals as late as 1974.  She died in 1990.  Dr. Ernst Wentzler set up pediatric practice in his hometown.  While he was questioned over his wartime activities, he was never prosecuted.  He died in 1973.

People may recoil by the mention of this exhibit, much less attend it.  But, if we as a society are to understand the developments of such gruesome manipulations of science and medicine, we must face the evidence.  ”Never again” means understanding history and educating ourselves to prevent its repetition.

“Deadly Medicine” will be on display at the Parkway Central Library, located at 1901 Vine Street, until July 8th.  This exhibition, which is free and open to the public, will be located in the second floor gallery.

How Does Jesus Look to You?

Rembrandt’s
Head of Christ
Philadelphia Museum of Art

By Hannah Lee

When I learned that the National Museum of American Jewish History would be collaborating with the Philadelphia Museum of Art on an interfaith forum and conversation about the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibit at the art museum, I was eager to sign up.  So much has been written about this exhibit, both in secular press (New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer) as well as the Jewish press (Tablet and Forward).  It is a topic that is not surprisingly fascinating to Jews, as Jesus was born of Jewish parents and so much strife over the centuries have been waged in his name by descendants of his apostles.  It was thrilling to be in the audience  with members of the other faiths, in a harmonious conversation about a religious icon and symbol, because we usually only are taught by members of our own faiths.

Larry Silver, Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, moderated the interfaith panel discussion, and he launched it with a query from his curator friend who asked, “why not the head of Christ?”  He proceeded to answer it himself by pointing out the works of Rembrandt represented a movement away from iconography towards a more human portrayal of Jesus, and the face is the window onto the human soul.  He then presented to us in the audience and the panel members (on a separate monitor) about 13 paintings of Jesus, only one of which was by Rembrandt.

 

Regarding Matthias Grünewald’s The Crucifixion, from 1515, Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, noted that it was not beautiful in the same way that the Holocaust is too grotesque, too harsh for beauty.  Professor Silver commented that Jesus was twice the size of every other figure in the painting and Jayne Oasin, Associate Priest of the Associated Parishes of Saint Stephen in Riverside and Beverly in New Jersey pointed out that the light highlighted the darkness.


Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, Art Institute of Chicago

Regarding Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, from 1938, Reverend Oasin noted that the painting has all the woes of mankind, and it reminds her of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Chancellor Eisen taught that at the turn of the 20th century, there was much identification by Jews with the life and death of Jesus.  This was exhibited by Martin Buber and later by Elie Wiesel who wrote about Jesus in the Holocaust.  ”Jesus had become the universal figure of suffering,” not as Savior.  The figure in green in the right foreground is often depicted by Chagall as the Wandering Jew who needs to flee from calamity.  Zakiya Islam, a Muslim woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Temple University taught that a tenet of Islam is that in times of suffering, one is to run away.

Regarding a local painting by Thomas Eakins, The Crucifixion, from 1880, Chancellor Eisen noted that Jesus has no face, because the human soul is no longer there and because of the failure of ethics and goodness.  Reverend Oasin said that we can no longer turn our face away — the viewer’s eyes are riveted  to Jesus in the middle ground — reminding us of our sin, our inhumanity.  James Redington, a Catholic and Jesuit priest, pointed out that death had occurred through strangulation, as Jesus in the painting has pushed his back up against the cross in an attempt to breathe.  Ms. Islam said that there is no mention of the Crucifixion in the Koran.  There is suffering and struggle, but there is no focus on any specific suffering.  While Jesus, called the Spirit of God, and Mary are much beloved in Islam, there are no images in the Muslim religion.  Chancellor Eisen taught that while moderns refer to the Enlightenment as bringing light into the world, the previous Dark Ages, to the pre-moderns, their religions had already brought light into the darkness of the world.  In fact, to the religious, the modern world contains a little less light than much earlier in our history.

Regarding William Holman Hunt’s Jesus, Light of the World, from 1854, Reverend Oasin asked if Jesus is knocking on a door?  Ms. Islam said that this painting resonated with her, as Jesus is depicted with a mystical air (unlike the later, more human depictions of Jesus).

An amazing painting for the Jews in the audience was Maurycy Gottlieb’s Christ Preaching at Capernaum, from 1879, because Jesus is a Rabbi who is preaching at a recognizable synagogue (Capernum is on the Sea of Galilee in Israel).  Reverend Oasin pointed out that Jesus has his arms outstretched, as Christians do to celebrate the Eucharist (unlike the Kohanim’s spread-finger stance for blessing the congregation).

Regarding Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, from 1601 (a favorite scene of Jesus appearing three days after Resurrection at an inn in Emmaus), Reverend Oasin noted that Jesus is beardless, fuller than to be expected (for someone recently back from the dead), and on the whole, fairly feminine.  Jesus is a woman, she exulted!  Ms. Islam said that the Ascension is very important in Islam, quoting from the Koran, “God said, ‘I have brought him to me.’”

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, from 1940, would be recognizable to just about any modern-day person, even one who is not a Christian.  It is the most popular depiction of Jesus.  Reverend Oasin, who is black, reminisced that when she was a girl, this painting showed her that Jesus does not look like her, does not look at her.  Father Redington called this the Protestant Jesus.

One member of the audience commented that Rembrandt’s compatriots were the early readers of the Bible. No, said Professor Silver, the Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1450 and by 1637, there was already the Dutch State Bible in translation.  He added that by the 1520s, Martin Luther had already translated the Bible into German and today, we are witnessing the 400th anniversary of the King James’ edition of the Bible.  Chancellor Eisen taught us that the Calvinists loved the Old Testament and Rembrandt had lived around the block from Spinoza and Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.  Another person from the audience noted that Grünewald had the rare blend of symbolism and realism and Professor Silver concurred that it was a blend of the glorious and the suffering.  Reverend Oasin pointed out that people come to religion for comfort, so they do not relish a focus on harshness.  Chancellor Eisen taught that the artist acts in the role of spiritual narrator, thus art is a gift from God.


Rembrandt’s Head of Christ,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

A Jewish member from the audience asked about the depiction of challah in the scenes with Jesus’s final days. Wasn’t it Passover?  ”No,” said Professor Silver, “by the second century, the Last Supper had been uncoupled from the Passover Seder.”  John, the most anti-Semitic of the Gospels ensured that references to Jesus’s Jewish roots were eradicated  or at least minimized.  Reverend Oasin added that John was also the most anti-dark of the Gospels, with his numerous equations of whiteness to goodness.  When she teaches her seminarian students, she tells them they can teach about John, but they have to unpack him (of his baggage).  Professor Silver proclaimed the Dutch of Rembrandt’s day very inclusive.  The artist even painted the Ethiopian convert with Jesus, not just once, but twice.

Another member of the audience asked about the ladder in Chagall’s painting and was it a sign of hope, amidst the dire symbols in the rest of the painting.  Well, replied Professor Silver, a ladder can go down as well as up and a ladder usually is simply the means to remove the mortal remains.

After a brief intermission, there was the keynote lecture by David Morgan, who has a dual appointment in the departments of religion and art, art history and visual studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  He commenced with a rhetorical question: what does it say that a painting is of Jesus? Does he look like us? A likeness can be the resemblance of an image to an original  based on features they share.  Drawing on neuroscience, our brain looks for resemblances, matches in our surroundings– “our brain wants to see order in the world.”  A likeness is also the result of a powerful drive to emulate an archetype, such as a baby swan that mimics the preening of its parent or a pedestrian to a store mannequin.  “The engine is the desire.”  Third, to Christians, the image of Jesus presents what he was like, a recognition of an affinity between his appearance and what the faithful believes, knows, feels, and sees within themselves about him.  It is an intimate connection that the devout viewers feel between Jesus and themselves.  The basis of likeness is an archive of images composed of all the images people have ever seen in an endless chain of reference.

The Grünewald paintings we’d examined earlier in the program were unique in balancing the majesty and the personal. Traditionally, artists relied on iconography– the halo, cross, banner, book, instruments of his passion or other references to biblical narratives or events- to identify Jesus and his power.  In contrast, Rembrandt focused on the face in painting a modern portrait.  The artist takes his “historicity seriously, endowing Jesus with a new kind of reality, as a personification of humanity.”  The facial features included: a broad forehead, shoulder-length hair that is parted in the middle, a long, symmetrical nose, a short, cropped beard, widely-set eyes, the appearance of ears, and a solemn, serious expression.  Rembrandt appropriated a contemporary trend in depicting Jesus close-up, in a head-and-shoulders pose, and with eyes that address the viewer.  He also “located Jesus before the viewer as a contemporary person.”    The artist may be said to have contributed to the 20th century preference for portraying Christ in poses that highlight a direct engagement of the personality over the traditional symbolic devices used to convey theological meaning.


Janet McKenzie’s
Jesus of the People,
Haggerty Museum of Art

Professor Morgan then displayed a variety of paintings of Jesus from the Warner Sallman iconic image of 1940, to the 1977 Zeffirelli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth (in which the actor portraying Jesus looked like my brother-in-law).   In recent decades, the likeness of Jesus is no longer asserted as a universal type, but as ethnically specific.  We now have the Korean Jesus in traditional Korean garb (dopo overcoat and gat top hat); the Asian Indian Jesus with transfigurative blue skin, the beach bum Jesus, and the dark-skinned, female Jesus, the winning entry in a cover art contest conducted by National Catholic Reporter an independent newsweekly and one of the best-known Catholic publications in the country, at the advent of the 21st century.  Painted by Janet McKenzie of Island Pond, Vermont, the winning painting of Jesus of the People, shows “a robed and haloed Jesus.  Against a pale pink background are a yin-yang symbol, intended to represent perfect balance, and a feather, symbolizing the American Indian spirituality…” as reported in The Laredo Morning Times.

The visual archive that Professor Morgan referenced earlier is so strongly entrenched that when he displays iconoclastic images of Jesus–  such as an obese Jesus-  even hard-core Calvinists (with presumably less fixation on imagery) reject them.  ”We have our own images, even if they’re suppressed.”  Ms. Islam noted that Muslims do not have a tradition of imagery, but they do have the narrative.  When they come to the West, they too become influenced by the archive of imagery.

Despite the despair depicted by Chagall in his White Crucifixion, Chancellor Eisen in his parting remark said that it is hopeful that we can have an interfaith conversation about Jesus.  May the harmony and respect on display at the program carry forward into other realms of our contemporary world.