Staging Protest: The New York Jewish Museum and the Soviet Jewry Movement

By Katz, Maya Balakirsky | American Jewish History, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Staging Protest: The New York Jewish Museum and the Soviet Jewry Movement


Katz, Maya Balakirsky, American Jewish History


The American protest movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the last two decades of the Cold War sought to effect change for Jews behind the Iron Curtain and, in the process, redefined Jewish identity in America. Scholars have expounded on the relationship of the Soviet Jewry movement to the political life of American Jews in a number of important studies, but the relationship between the protest movement and the cultural experience of American Jews has received only a modicum of attention. (1) We know little, for example, about the role that the movement played in the Jewish artistic scenes in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Chicago, where both Jewish activism and Jewish cultural patronage ran deep. (2) That American synagogues, Jewish day schools, and Jewish community centers developed didactic materials and planned event calendars to mobilize their membership in support of Soviet Jewry hardly requires documentation, but how and to what extent Jewish museums addressed the Soviet Jewry cause points to the relationship between Jewish political protest and artistic patronage. This essay begins with a brief summary of the deployment of the category of "culture" within the protest movement in order to then trace its reverberations in the exhibition practices of New York's Jewish museum in the 1970s and 1980s. Both representative of and a leader among other Jewish museums, New York's Jewish Museum offers an instructive case history of the ways in which Jewish museums participated in the Soviet Jewry movement and how the protest movement in turn influenced its museological practices.

Culture as a Forum for Activism

While the Soviet Jewry movement organized memorable, large-scale cultural events in American cities, the smaller and more impromptu gatherings around non-movement cultural events were also influential manifestations of American Jewish protest. Following the example of activist Si Frumkin in California, protest organizations in New York City picketed both Jewish and Russian cultural events in an effort to tie the treatment of Jews in Russia with the greater destiny of Western culture. While Jewish events, such as the 1971 debut of the film Fiddler on the Roof, provided an opportunity to demonstrate against Soviet antisemitism, Russian cultural events provided a site to advance the protest platform for cultural equality in the Soviet Union. (3) For instance, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) picketed critically acclaimed performances by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Moiseyev Dance Company, and the Bolshoi Ballet. Students sang Hebrew songs and distributed faux playbills at performances in New York City that replaced the names of principal performers with the names of Jews denied exit visas from the Soviet Union to Israel. (4) To recreate the Jewish experience of the cultural scene in these decades in New York is to recall the dozens of local cultural events in the greater New York area that staged Russian films, art exhibitions, and dance repertoires in the midst of highly publicized bomb threats made by the militant Jewish Defense League. (5) Other more mainstream organizations asked neither sponsors to cancel events nor patrons to boycott them, but insisted nonetheless on the linkage between artistic performance and politics, much as the Jackson-Vanik amendment tied human rights to foreign trade.

This focus on Soviet culture as a subject of Jewish political concern would play a decisive role within American institutions devoted to the promotion and preservation of Jewish art. Neither coincidental nor without consequence, it is notable that contemporary Soviet Jewish art initially came to American museums through protest organizations that made no pretense of disinterested aesthetic concerns. For example, the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry organized and mounted the first solo art exhibition of a Soviet Jewish artist at New York's Jewish Museum in 1972 and the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry organized the first Soviet Jewish group art exhibition at San Francisco's Judah L. …

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