The Arty Semite

An Escape Artist With Daddy Issues

By Curt Schleier

It’s a bit presumptuous of me to suggest that the History cable network scheduled its two-part “Houdini” mini-series over Labor Day weekend on the theory that most folks will be away from their television. But, if by some chance, that turned out actually to be the network’s strategy, kudos to them.

Houdini is played by Adrien Brody, but not even the Academy Award winner can drum up a performance magical enough to make his character seem real.

He is burdened by Nicholas Meyer’s script, which paints a one-dimensional portrait of a man with daddy issues and who seems to talk exclusively in aphorisms. What could even the greatest thespian do with dialogue like this:

“I love my father. But he was a nobody. I’m not going to be like him.”

And:

“Fear is how I know I’m alive. Not like other people. I don’t escape life. I escape death.”

And:

“The only way to beat death is to put your life on the line. Why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?”

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The Clothes We Carried

By Michael Kaminer

Musician Rosanne Cash reminisces about a purple shirt that once belonged to her legendary father. Designer Cynthia Rowley rhapsodizes about the Girl Scouts sash that helped ignite her entrepreneurial spark. And an octogenarian Holocaust survivor named Dorothy Finger shares memories of a suit made with a bolt of cloth she took from her childhood home — her only possession touched by her late mother.

Their stories are among 67 “sartorial memoirs” in “Worn Stories” (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book inspired by the blog where visitors share their stories about clothing and life experiences. A stark, simple image of an article of clothing — many in an advanced state of wear — accompanies each testimonial.

“Most of the garments aren’t particularly extraordinary by themselves,” says Worn Stories creator Emily Spivack. “It’s only by hearing each story that you recognize the significance. And even though the memories are all very specific, the themes they touch on are universal — family, relationships, a funny moment. They’re all moments in time from a personal and cultural perspective.”

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Old Letters With New Messages

By Curt Schleier

“Shadows From My Past” is a strange amalgam of a documentary. Though it is often amateurish (it has the feel of a home movie) and dated (it includes interviews of people long dead), it is powered by its subject matter and evokes strong emotion.

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman escaped Vienna with her parents and two brothers in 1940. Luckily, the family received U.S. visas on the day they were scheduled to be deported to Dachau. Most of the rest of her relatives, including numerous uncles, aunts and cousins, did not survive. She knew them only as the titular shadows who came alive in a treasure trove of correspondence discovered among her parents’ belongings.

These letters were from desperate people describing their tenuous situations, often begging their kin for help securing visas and money for transit to anywhere but Wien. The missives were sufficiently moving that Gita and her late husband, Curt Kaufman, secured a grant from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation to create an audio-visual presentation about them, leading to an invitation to speak about the correspondence at the University of Vienna.

Gita was at first undecided about returning to the city of her birth, but ultimately did, hoping to discover if Austria had come to grips with its past, so she could come to grips with hers.

According to the production notes Gita and Curt subsequently made multiple trips to Europe.

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Bergen-Belsen Scarred Alex Colville for Life

By Michael Kaminer

Image courtesy Canadian War Museum

The hazy images take up just one small corner of a massive new exhibition on revered Canadian artist Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

But his depictions of corpses at Bergen-Belsen, where a young Colville was dispatched to document World War II atrocities, hold the key to understanding the artist’s worldview and work.

“Seeing that really marked Colville for the rest of his life,” Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, told the Forward. “More than just seeing war, what he saw at Belsen really cast a shadow over his view of the world and of what people are capable of doing.”

The experience also shaped the signatures that came to define Colville’s painting, said Hunter, who curated the exhibition. “He thought a lot about the chaos that lies under the surface of order,” Hunter said. “It sounds simple, but those who ran the camps did it in a way that was very structured. On the surface, it was all highly rational. He was conscious of how order could also lead to great evil.”

In Colville’s iconic 1967 painting “Pacific,” a shirtless man, visible from the back, stares at the ocean while a gun rests on an old sewing table in the foreground. The gun, Hunter explained, represents the possibility of chaos; the ruler built into the sewing table presents a symbol of order.

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For 25 Years, 'The Simpsons' Has Been Good for the Jews

By Mark I. Pinsky

“The Simpsons” 25th anniversary marathon on cable network FXX — now airing every episode, plus the 2007 feature film — includes a surprising insight for careful observers: The award-winning cartoon sitcom is one of the Jews’ best friends.

For millions in North America and globally who have never actually met a Jew, “The Simpsons” has showcased us in a knowing, sympathetic, yet realistic way. The series has portrayed numerous important aspects of modern (and ancient) Jewish life in brilliant 23-minute bites. If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on “The Simpsons,” they — and we — would be well served.

Jews are part of the fabric of Springfield (The Simpsons’ home town), arguably a modern American version of Chelm, Yiddish folklore’s fabled village of nitwits. On the show, a Conservative synagogue (or Orthodox; it’s deliberately vague, like much in the series) has the unlikely moniker of Temple Beth Springfield. There’s a preserved-in-amber “old neighborhood,” straight out of New York’s Lower East Side (“Tannen’s Fatty Meats”), plus a Jewish “Walk of Fame,” featuring Sandy Koufax, Joan Rivers, Albert Einstein and Lorne Michaels.

Still, Springfield has lots of clueless gentiles, beginning with Protestant minister, Reverend Lovejoy, who keeps the local rabbi in a separate “non-Christian Rolodex,” and an elementary school principal who thinks Yom Kippur is a made-up holiday. No doubt in observance of the High Holy Days, the marquee of Lovejoy’s neighboring (but unneighborly) church reads: “No Synagogue Parking.” On a visit to New York, bad boy Bart Simpson mistakes three bearded rabbis for the Texas rock group ZZ Top. Homer, the family’s lovable doofus dad, is shocked to learn from his daughter that Mel Brooks is Jewish. He is so confused, he asks, in another episode, “Are we Jewish?”

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Down the Mystical Rabbit Hole

By Curt Schleier

“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.

Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.

This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.

As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.

Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.

Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.

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David Gregory Writing Jewish Memoir

By Curt Schleier

David Gregory is writing a book about his Jewish faith, something that was presumably tested in recent weeks.

The long-time NBC newsman, who was just dumped from his job hosting “Meet the Press,” is also known in D.C. for hosting the Jewish holidays. He’s reportedly studied with a Jewish scholar.

Jonathan Karp, who heads the Simon & Schuster Publishing Group, told Politico’s Mike Allen that he met David in 2011 and the two have been working on the project ever since.

Karp said Gregory is “a natural story teller,” and the book will be published sometime next year.

“This book has always been intended as an exploration of an aspect of David’s life that viewers rarely see in his journalistic work,” he added

“[It] was never intended as a memoir about his career. That objective hasn’t changed and will not change. This book will be about the inner spiritual journey many of us take in our lives.”

Gregory may find solace in the fact that “Meet the Press” ratings decreased in its first week without him. Also, when one door closes another opens up. He will have a window this fall to speak about the political landscape and upcoming elections to a number of companies and trade associations. As a journalist, he was restricted from these lucrative possibilities by NBC.


Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”

One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.

Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?

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YA Romance and 'Hasidsploitation'

By Mordechai Lightstone

Like No Other
By Una Lamarche
Razorbill, 352 pages, $17.99

In her new young adult novel, “Like No Other,” author Una Lamarche explores the racial and religious tensions in Crown Heights through the chance encounter of a West Indian boy and a Hasidic girl and the relationship that blossoms between the two.

When a hurricane traps Devorah Blum and Jaxon Hunte in an elevator, the two Crown Heights teenagers find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance that forces both characters to re-examine their roles and communal lives. Lamarche paints Jaxon as a book-smart nerd with a heart of gold and Devorah as strong and inquisitive. Both characters speak with young, fresh voices and try to balance their own personal dreams with the values of their families.

Sadly, the narrative fails to subvert the tropes to which it falls prey. There is little reason given for why Devorah and Jaxon fall so madly in love, and Devorah’s brother-in-law, an uptight, misogynistic and racist Hasid and member of the Shomrim community patrol, is unforgivably outlandish.

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The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.

Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?

Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.

Do you mean she had stage fright?

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Getting It Right: How Hollywood Does Haredi

By Miriam Moster

(JTA) — When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.

But that approach isn’t without its challenges.

Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.

“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.

Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.

These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.

Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.

He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.

“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.

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POEM: 'BRUJA'

By Adeena Karasick

From “Salome Libretto”

Through the fercockte gawk-stalkin’ hack stackers
of antiquity trickery lexically-licked sticky flickering

Salomé, you are bringing in the big guns
Opening the sluice gates
with your hyper dramatic excess
Flexed with swishy riffs, pithy spiff grifters
Like a shattered chatter box schadenshow

like a discordant accordion
like manna from mayhem

you are ebullient as you blow
like a feisty
zeitgeist, a forever riviera

and i say hula lily hillbilly, billiard bombast
ho-hum hum de lilah bruja hoo-ha slap trap
of schizmatic revisionism

And take your slinky hijinx, pixie
fixity of prurient lure of twirly whirlers
a contretemp tempestuous extempora & lay me down in
an elixir mixer of lexically robust postulates
which say ce soir bette noir,
of gnarly parlors
in a coughing scoffed cacophony of
acrostic biscuits

a miscued skew of super cinder cendre
slippery ceiling singing
in the flotsam frayed refrain. stay


Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.

Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.

“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.

It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”

Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.

Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?

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Maggie Gyllenhaal's 'Honorable' New Show

By Gabe Friedman

On the Daily Show, Maggie Gyllenhaal told Jon Stewart that she has not received any backlash about the politics of “The Honorable Woman,” the new show that she stars in. Since it centers on the ongoing turmoil of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Stewart looked amused.

“You have very thoughtful friends,” he said.

Granted, the eight-part mini-series written by British director Hugo Blick is only a few episodes into its run on the Sundance Channel (in the UK, five episodes have aired already). There is still an ample amount of time to provoke both critics and political pundits.

However, for the moment, the series seems focused on avoiding taking a side. The first episode introduced a very complicated political murder mystery. Gyllenhaal plays Vanessa “Nessa” Stein, the daughter of a successful English arms dealer who supplied Israel with weapons and was murdered 29 years ago in front of his children. Nessa, along with her brother Ephra, has inherited her father’s company and has a plan to remodel the business as a supplier of peace, not war. The idea is to bring Internet and phone cables to impoverished Palestinian territories to enable education and communication. As Nessa says, “Terror thrives in poverty, it dies in wealth.”

The plan is jeopardized when a man is found dead in his hotel room. We learn that the victim is a Palestinian who Nessa planned to give a lucrative contract to construct the communication infrastructure. Of course, allegations from both Israelis and Palestinians ensue, and protestors hound Nessa with questions wherever she goes.

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How Nina Paley Made 'This Land Is Mine' Viral

By Roz Warren

Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up, “This Land Is Mine,“ Nina Paley’s brilliant, succinct and devastating three minute animated history of the conflict, played out to Andy William’s performance of “The Exodus Song,” goes viral.

Given recent events, Paley’s film has gotten plenty of views since she first posted it online in October 2012 — 10 million, so far, with more viewers every day.

The “Exodus song,“ explains Paley on her website, “was the sound track of American Zionism in the 1960s and ‘70s,” and “expressed Jewish entitlement to Israel.”

“God gave this land to me,“ proclaim the lyrics, penned by, of all people, Pat Boone. The problem? A succession of peoples have felt that God gave this land to them. “By putting the song in the mouth of every warring party,” Paley observes, “I’m critiquing the original song.”

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Growing Up Orthodox With Robin Williams

By Tova Ross

School was out on that wintry day around Thanksgiving of 1993, and my mother was charged with taking care of me, my siblings, and my best friend of that particular week. It was too cold to play outdoors, so my mother, car-less for the day, schlepped all of us on the B44 city bus to the Sheepshead Bay movie theatre to see some animated film. Only when we got to the theatre, it was sold out. The only other appropriate movie for the range of children my mother had assembled was something called “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“PG-13?” my mother said doubtfully, and then sighed. “Oh well, we’re here already.”

You can guess what happened next. For those two hours I sat riveted with my eyes glued to the screen as a crazy, hysterical and frenetic man-child — Robin Williams — took nary a pause in a string of Victor-Victoria antics that left the entire audience in breathless laughter. Even when I wasn’t in on the joke — and I frequently wasn’t, at only 7.5 years old — I knew this actor was hilarious as sure as I knew the sky was blue. He also sounded vaguely familiar. “He sounds like the Genie from ‘Aladdin,’” my brother whispered suspiciously to me.

Whoever he was, I fell instantly in love with him. A budding young cinephile who had to use subterfuge to get my fix in a household where television and movies were strictly regulated, I had never seen someone onscreen come so vibrantly, wonderfully alive, or display such hyper-kinetic and fast-paced energy. That the film also offered me my first taste of more salacious jokes and themes that were absent in my diet of Disney and black-and-white classic films was an added bonus.

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Should National History Museum Quit Being Jewish?

By Michael Kaminer

With attendance figures stagnant, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History should change its name, retool its mission, and target broader audiences.

That’s the message in a prickly editorial from Liberty City Press, an independent news service whose publisher boasts personal ties to the museum’s founders.

Headlined “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall,” the piece was sparked by a report from local arts organization AxisPhilly that early audience projections for several Independence Mall museums, including NMAJH, had been inflated, sometimes by as much as 100%.

Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.

“My greatest concern is that someone’s going to have to subsidize this museum,” Ken Smukler, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberty City Press, told the Forward. “And it’s not going to be the Pennsylvania government, which subsidizes a bunch of cultural institutions that are failing. The museum’s going to look to the Jewish Federation for money. They’re the subsidizer of choice. And that would be a drain on Federation for years to come.”

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Looking for the Next Philip Roth

By Rachel X. Landes

Aaron Berkowitz on left, Ariel Stein on right

Last July, the Jewish Literary Journal (JLJ) celebrated its first anniversary.

A year ago, co-founders and now editors-in-chief, Aaron Berkowitz and Ariel Stein, graduates of Yeshiva University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, realized that there wasn’t an outlet specifically designed for Jewish writing, and so set out to create their own.

“We saw one or two journals. They weren’t timely. We hadn’t heard of them before,” Stein said during a phone interview. “We wanted something that would be current, publishing online and publishing often.”

The JLJ publishes short fiction and non-fiction, and poetry. Most of the narratives revolve around Judaism and Jewish customs, but occasionally the Jewish angle is not emphasized at all. Each issue usually comprises of one or two pieces of fiction, one creative non-fiction, and anywhere from one to three poems. Authors are often free-lance writers, and come from a variety of backgrounds.

Stein and Berkowitz fund the journal themselves and edit around their full time jobs. Stein is a research specialist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, while Berkowitz just finished teaching middle and high school writing, and will be starting his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College later this autumn.

According to Berkowitz and Stein, the Jewish Literary Journal receives all kinds of submissions. Recently, people have been submitting visual art and photography, alongside their staple supply of writing.

Over the course of their first year in publication, they received a healthy supply of works. “We were getting submissions all over the country and all over the world.” Jokingly, Stein assured, “It wasn’t just our friends.”

For their anniversary, they celebrated with a different version of their journal. For the first time, they gave writers a paid incentive to submit to the Jewish Literary Journal. They provided the prize money, and asked authors to submit pieces that centered on the theme of creation and building.

Still, the road to their first anniversary was not smooth. Over the course of their first year, Stein and Berkowitz learned not to expect anything. “You’re not going to get a Pulitzer Prize,” Aaron explained. “When we started off we didn’t know if we would get any submissions,” Stein added.

But submissions they did get. “I’ve felt the pain of turning away quality submissions,” Stein said. Unfortunately, even if a good piece was submitted after the deadline, the editors-in-chief had no choice but not to include it in the issue for that month

Complications arose when Stein had to relocate to work, and Stein and Berkowitz had to figure out a new type of working relationship through phone and e-mail to maintain the Journal.

In the future, Stein and Berkowitz hope to expand the journal to include more art pieces and provide an outlet for interaction between readers and authors and artists, such as readings or galleries. However, right now they’re strictly an online journal.

Stein and Berkowitz welcome any submission that showcases the Jewish experience.

“Jews as a people have always been writers,” Berkowitz said. “Creative writing as a whole is important to define what it means to be Jewish.”


POEM: 'I Fought the Law and the Law Won (A study in pronouns)'

By Alicia Ostriker

He defied his dad and got beat up
He worked for the gang and got shot
They wished for war and the war came

She sassed her mom and got the ice treatment
We murdered the whales and our mother is furious
They wished for war and the war came

You falsified the data and the drug killed
She bribed the inspector and the building fell
They wished for war and the war came

We spent beyond our means and went broke
We pissed on Muslims and now they hate us
They wished for war and the war came
I wished for peace and the war came


Searching for My Parents' Past in Vienna

By Edie Jarolim

Courtesy Jewish Museum Vienna

I know you can’t go home again, especially if home is a country your family was forced to flee. I was under no illusion that a lilting Strauss waltz would be the soundtrack to my visit to Vienna, where both my parents were born. Still, I’d traveled to the city earlier this summer to see how my relatives had lived, not to dwell on their victimization. Which is why I was looking forward to exploring the Jewish Museum Vienna — and why I was also dreading it.

I figured that, just as the Anschluss looms over all the books I read about fin-de-siecle Vienna, the horrors of the Holocaust were bound to shadow a place devoted to tracing the city’s Jewish past. Indeed, the institution itself was collateral damage. The world’s first Jewish museum, established in 1895, it was shuttered by the Nazis in 1938, its sacred objects and cultural artifacts from throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire dispersed.

The main Dorotheergasse branch of the museum is on one of the narrow streets that thread through the city center, just blocks from such popular attractions as St. Stephan’s Cathedral. It’s only natural that the words “Jüdische Museum Wien” would appear on directional signs helping visitors navigate this maze-like tourist hub. Nevertheless, I was spooked to encounter the word “Jüdische” in bold German letters on an arrow pointing towards my destination. I felt suddenly exposed, like I had sprouted a yellow star.

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