Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Open the Gates of Righteousness for Me, and I Will Enter Through Them into a Surrealist Museological Comedy Sketch

I've been reading literary material from the Cairo Genizah with my students in my upper division seminar, particularly the literature of and biographical sources for Judah ha-Levi. Coincidentally, a beautiful exhibition (co-curated by the Walters Museum in Baltimore) has just opened up that features the ark doors from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in old Fustat, the building where the Genizah was kept.

The exhibition is gorgeous and really does a nice job contextualizing a sacred Jewish artifact in its Islamicate cultural context by, for example, comparing the geometric designs on the door to those on contemporaneous book bindings.

But when I arrived at the gallery, it turned out that it was closed that day for docent training. I was a little panicked that my plan for class was going to fall through, but I managed to talk my way in. The folks at the museum were really gracious and allowed my students to join the trainee docents; and so they got a really unusual gallery tour.

Almost all of the trainee docents were middle- or retirement-aged Orthodox Jewish women. This is an exhibition co-curated by a secular museum and a museum affiliated with a religious institution; and we were getting the religious iteration.

The few cringe-worthy moments that I observed were more to do with the tour being led by someone who's not a scholar and not totally up-to-date on the state of the question, and not to do with the fact of this being a religious institution. That said, they did use a lot of terminology and references freely that assumed a Jewish audience and the docents, in particular, conversed and asked questions in a way that (as is to be expected) made it clear that this was far more about their own heritage than anything else. The gulf was perhaps not as wide as one might have expected; and stopping to think about it, if a group of people is claiming an intellectual figure who comes from a completely different cultural tradition, lots of the blind-faith issues are going to be pre-resolved.

It touched on something I've been thinking about a lot lately, namely the place and role and activity of Jewish scholars in Jewish studies topics. This didn't make a clear case one way or another for me, but it was an interesting thing to file away for later. I'll be really curious to see what my students have to say next week. In a certain respect, I had more in common with the docent trainees than with my students despite superficially coming more from the same perspective as the latter group, and despite the fact that  I'm trying to train my students to think in a modern, western, academic, secular mode. Yet what excites me as icing on the intellectual cake — like the fact that we have autograph exemplars of Judah ha-Levi's handwriting — were religiously exciting and meaningful for these women and a lot less impressive to my students.


Visually, the scene was a bit surreal. The above photos are from the exhibition web site (which I would definitely recommend taking a look at). These two were snapped on my cell phone during the docent training tour:

The door can be seen, in situ, on the far right of this photo.

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