I walked out of the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “The Jewish Identity Project” thinking that identity is a strange and a slippery thing. “Identity” is where the person that you feel yourself to be on the inside intersects with the person that society perceives on the outside. “Identity” is the point at which an individual comes up against categories like skin color, class, citizenship, nationality, and religion. These are treacherous categories. They decide social status. At some points in history, they have determined whether a person lived or died. But there is always ambiguity at the boundaries of these categories. This exhibit features portraits of people whose identity as Jews challenges certain stereotypes of “race” or behavior.
As you enter the exhibit, you see huge photographs of men, women, and children, some at weddings or other obviously Jewish settings. These are faces of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones. “Are Jews white folks?” asks one exhibit. One answer to this question comes from Avishai Mekonen, an Ethiopian Israeli searching for other “Jews of color” in America. At the opposite extreme, two Jewish men strike American Gothic poses against the white railings of their Midwestern porch. They are totally indistinguishable from their neighbors in their town on the prairie. The face of American Judaism is the face of humanity. It is exciting to see the Jewish Museum exploring and celebrating the internal diversity of American Jewry.
So what if this weren’t a special exhibit? The point of the “Jewish Identity Project” seems to be: “Jewish diversity, it’s more normal than you think.” It is time to incorporate that diversity into a permanent view of who is a Jew. According to the 1990 population survey, a little over half of American Jews are married to someone who is not Jewish. This percentage is likely to increase in the next century. Jewish families and identities are becoming more complex. JOI feels that it important to acknowledge that complexity. This exhibition takes a step in the right direction by reflecting Jewish diversity back at the viewer.