Jewish Time?

While visiting Berkeley recently, I learned of the Judah Magnes Museum's new exhibit, "Telling Time: To Everything There is a Season," which is the Magnes' most extensive exhibit in its 37-year history (the show remains in place through November 2001). Right before I arrived, in fact, the exhibit apparently doubled in size, and now includes a few items from other cultures, among them Tibetan, Mexican and African-American. Time seemed an excellent subject to explore the very meaning of Jewish identity and the relationship between Jewish and other cultures in a historical framework. As the museum's executive director, Susan Morris notes, "Every culture uses traditionas to mark time. The more people understand how one culture lives, the more they may understand another. By collecting and displaying works as a public trust, we hope to help fight intolerance."

"Telling Time" begins with the display of the Jewish, Islamic and Chinese calendar, and it makes reference to Tzimtzum, the contraction according to kabbalists that was necessary to form the universe. The explanation mentions the 16th-century kabbalist Isacc Luria (one of the world's first Ashkefards) and his meditation on shevirah, the shattering or breaking of vessels, which suggests the Big Bang theory; it also brought into perspective Tikkun olam, or repair of the world, and that made me think about creation and destruction as the primary cycles of life. The exhibit spends plenty of time on the various Jewish holidays, of course, most especially Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah and Pesach. Most of the Jewish artifacts and displays stemmed from the Eastern European or Ashkenazi tradition of Judaism. For example, the most-quoted sage is Abraham Joshua Heschel, as might be expected, yet I wondered how the exhibit might benefit from exploring what Moses Cordovero, Ibn Pakuda or Rabbi Uziel have written on time in relationship to spiritual practice.

Some of the items displayed included a 19th-century Torak Ark from the Paradesi Synagogue in India, and an impressive genealogy chart tracing the history of an Ashkenazi family. There was also a tape of Allen Ginsburg reading his poem "Kaddish," and the "Jews and Buddhism" video narrated by Sharon Stone. The interdisplinary exhibit includes about 250 objects, and to a small extent explores such traditions as the Mexican Days of the Dead ceremony, African-American coming of age rituals and the nature of birth and naming in diverse traditions. The cultures of the Middle East were noticably absent, however, and in view of the fact that Judaism, through its Babylonian and Sephardic elaborations, is really an Eastern religion (more akin to Islam and Buddhism, in fact, than Christianity), I suggest that a more intensive examination of Levantine/Middle Eastern ideas would enhance our understanding of time, and the rhythms of life in the Middle East.

At times it seems to me that because we have a kind of cultural amnesia about Jewish experience in the Middle East; because our sense of Jewishness has been reformed by Western acculturation (and thus the very music, the melodies of the Middle East can seem foreign to us here), we are able to see ourselves as separate from other peoples in the same region. The ability to separate or form these binary oppositions also enables us to demonize the Arabs. As Ammiel Alcalay has noted, "Any relationship to Israeli culture must include a relationship to the Middle East and its diverse cultures..." How can we examine Jewish time without attempting to understand our organic place in the Middle East?   And what will such an examination contribute to fighting intolerance? Jordan Elgrably

Judas L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley (one mile from the UC campus). Museum hours Sun.-Thurs., 10am-4pm. (510) 549-6950.