Souvenirs from Israel 1948-1998

On View:
Jul 12, 1998 - Sep 12, 1998
Judah L. Magnes Museum United States
Gallery Hours:

CORNUCOPIA OF KITSCH / Museum show in Berkeley overflowing with eclectic mix of souvenirs from Israel (from SF
Debra Levi Holtz, Chronicle Staff Writer

4:00 am PDT, Monday, July 20, 1998

1998-07-20 04:00:00 PDT BERKELEY — Each year, Bay Area residents travel 9,000 miles to Israel on religious pilgrimages, business trips, vacations, political missions and cultural excursions. Some of them are Jewish, many are not.

The mementos they bring home with them are just as diverse. They range from a vial of Jordan River holy water to a “Fiddler on the Roof” pot holder.

Which objects Bay Area travelers acquire and why they keep them is the theme of a new exhibit at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. The show, titled “Souvenirs from Israel 1948-1998,” explores the evolving relationship between American tourists and the state of Israel.

Although the exhibit commemorates Israel’s 50th anniversary, it is more of a study into the psyche of the American consumer than a salute to the Jewish state.

“People buy kitsch because it’s a cheap way to get an object that reminds them of their travel experience,” said Michal Friedlander, curator of the exhibit. “But these objects have much greater significance beyond their market value.”

To solicit donations for the show, Friedlander sent out notices to Bay Area synagogues, Jewish and Catholic newspapers, Muslim and Palestinian groups and tour operators. As word of mouth spread, people called the museum to offer their keepsakes, and nearly every item was accepted. Duplicates of popular pieces such as beer bottles and Coca-Cola T-shirts with Hebrew logos were eliminated over the phone.

Friedlander said she expected carloads of Hanukkah menorahs and ritual objects with an “antique” green patina. Instead, she received many unique and whimsical items, including a protective amulet featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and a hand puppet of former Prime Minister Golda Meir.

As the exhibit points out, tourism is big business in Israel, with revenues of $3.2 billion a year.

Visitors to the show may also be surprised to learn that only about 22 percent of tourists from the western United States are Jewish, with Christians making up the majority. From the United States as a whole, 40 percent of the tourists are Jewish and 60 percent are non-Jewish.

Friedlander said she was looking for that diversity to be reflected in the donations, but few symbols of other faiths were offered to the exhibit.

Those that were are displayed in cases at the entrance of the show. They include a collection of Catholic kitsch — a hologram of Jesus nailed to the cross, a Bethlehem snow dome, a plastic see- through pen featuring the Last Supper — and holier symbols such as a rosary and a small, olive-wood crucifix in a box.

Displayed alongside are Muslim prayer beads and rose petals from Baha’i shrines in Israel.

It was the inclusion of the crucifix that led one Orthodox Jewish woman to withdraw 70 of her souvenirs, 25 percent of the entire exhibit, just two weeks before the show began. The curator scrambled to replace the items rather than agreeing to the woman’s request to move the crucifix to a less- prominent location.

Ben Welton, a Berkeley rabbi who certifies kosher food establishments such as Noah’s Bagels, said it was inappropriate to display a crucifix at the Magnes.

“There are plenty of places to see a crucifix, but not at a Jewish museum,” said Welton.

But other Bay Area rabbis said they agreed with the decision by museum officials to include the crucifix, because representing different cultures is the point of the exhibit.

“We wanted to show that Israel is a land of many faiths,” said Sue Morris, acting director of the Magnes Museum. “And Bay Area residents bring back objects of many faiths.”

The exhibit itself is designed as a Jewish home, with each room bearing a different theme. Selected traveler’s tales are placed throughout the rooms, giving souvenirs personal meaning through the memories of their owners.

Golda Kaufman, a San Francisco woman who also headed the exhibit’s patrons’ committee, tells how she brought back a pile of ancient pottery shards to remind her of two weeks she spent on an archaeological dig at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 1968.

That kind of connection to ancient history and the land is the theme of the exhibit’s living room, where olive-wood camels mingle with a large salt crystal from the Dead Sea and a souvenir hat from Masada.

Religious objects decorate the dining room with cases of candleholders, prayer shawls and skullcaps. A corner of the room is devoted to drawings and dolls modeled after rabbinical sages of the different branches of Judaism.

Consumer items familiar to American tourists become exotic when their packaging is written in Hebrew. Tony the Tiger on an empty cereal box appears alongside a postcard of the characters from the television show “Seinfeld.”

A collection of Israeli Army memorabilia includes women soldier dolls, a toy M60 tank and a 1967 Independence Day key chain with “A Lucky Bullet from the Holy Land.”

In the dressing room, visitors find textiles and crafts made by Bedouin, Palestinian and Druse artisans, including leather sandals kept by a tourist since 1956.

T-shirts like the red one bearing the San Francisco 49ers logo in English and Hebrew cover an entire wall of the show’s bedroom. The rest of the room contains teenagers’ mementos — concert posters, a travel journal and the Dr. Seuss book “Green Eggs and Ham,” which has been rewritten in Hebrew to mean “Not Hungry, Don’t Like it.”

Piedmont resident Marianne Friedman, who travels to Israel at least once a year and donated many of her own souvenirs, said the show “captures the flavor of the country and the people who visit it.”

The exhibit runs through September 20 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum at 2911 Russell St. in Berkeley. For more information, call (510) 549-6944.

Crucifix in Magnes souvenir exhibit sparks dispute (from

By J. Correspondent | July 10, 1998

The crucifix “just seems to me like a pretty non-kosher thing to put in a Jewish museum. It’s not a souvenir. It has such a powerful meaning…It’s what Christians want the Jews to bow to,” said Mitzi Rachleff Cahn, who with her husband, Dr. Micha’el Cahn, had lent the 70 items.

Cahn and her husband requested that the crucifix at least be moved to an area where museum visitors wouldn’t be forced to walk by it.

As the predicament played out over the past 2-1/2 weeks, museum officials decided they needed to keep the crucifix in the display to acknowledge the significance of Christian tourism to Israel.

Susan Morris, the museum’s acting director, said Monday that rearranging the exhibit’s layout was impossible so close to the opening date. In addition, she said, simply removing the crucifix “would negate the broad concept of the show” and wouldn’t reflect the reality of Israeli tourism.

Likewise, curator Michal Friedlander considers the crucifix “intrinsic” to the exhibit of Israel souvenirs.

“It’s part of the story. The land of Israel is holy to more than just the Jewish faith,” Friedlander said.

To fill in the exhibit’s sudden gap, Friedlander scrambled and managed to track down replacements for the Cahns’ souvenirs, which accounted for more than a quarter of the display’s approximately 250 pieces.

The olive wood crucifix, which portrays Jesus on the cross, rests in a small wooden box, along with two small vials of Jordan River water.

Even as museum officials defended the exhibit, however, they wondered how such a whimsical display suddenly became problematic.

“It was a surprise to us that this would cause a concern,” Morris said. Still, Morris added, she respects the Cahns’ beliefs.

“They loaned [their souvenirs] with the best of intentions…I am extremely appreciative of that.”

Despite an air of calm over the matter, museum officials would neither let the crucifix be photographed before the exhibit opens nor identify its owner.

The exhibit wasn’t set up until a few days ago, but the inclusion of the crucifix came up in a conversation between Cahn and Friedlander in late June.

Cahn mentioned that a relative lived in “Simcha Cruz,” her reference to avoid using the name “Santa Cruz” — Spanish for “Holy Cross.” Friedlander then decided she needed to mention that the exhibit included a crucifix.

At first, Cahn said she was nonplused. But then, she woke up three times that night feeling that the issue was unresolved.

“It seems to me they are trying to make the Christians feel good. I don’t think it’s necessary in a Jewish museum,” Cahn said.

“If it were a public museum [exhibit] on souvenirs from the Holy Land, they’d have a perfect right to hang whatever they like.”

The Cahns, who describe themselves as observant Jews, attend services and study sessions with modern Orthodox and Lubavitch Chassidic groups in Berkeley and San Francisco. Their souvenirs came from three extended trips to Israel taken over the past decade.

Part of their reason for opposing the inclusion of the crucifix is religious. Most Orthodox Jews won’t even enter a church, Cahn noted.

But Cahn said she wanted the crucifix moved as a sensitivity issue for “all the Jews who have suffered at the hands of Christians who are not of good will.”

Cahn also emphasized that she wasn’t acting like an upset child taking back her toys. She and her husband simply didn’t want it to appear that they were condoning the inclusion of the crucifix at a Jewish institution.

“They’re choosing the cross over the Jewish items,” she said.

However, Friedlander said that as the curator, she was trying to create an exhibit sensitive to everyone.

“Souvenirs from Israel” is set in the Reutlinger Gallery at the back of the museum. At the beginning of the exhibit, there are shelves with several mementos of three religions found in Israel — Baha’i, Christian and Muslim. Those objects include the crucifix, a rosary and Muslim prayer beads. An introduction notes that 88 percent of Bay Area tourists to Israel are non-Jews.

From there, the museum visitor walks through a doorway with a mezuzah into the main section of the exhibit, designed to represent a Jewish home. All of the objects in the home are either secular or Jewish.

Friedlander said she included so few non-Jewish objects in the exhibit that she actually had her own worries about visitors’ reactions.

“My concern was that the Christian people would be upset. I wanted to make sure they didn’t feel we were minimizing how important Israel is to them,” she said.

A patrons’ committee, chaired by Golda Kaufman, is sponsoring the exhibit. After viewing the exhibit site and crucifix last week with several museum staff members and lay leaders, Kaufman was satisfied with the decision to include the crucifix. To Kaufman, Christian travel to Israel is significant and must be acknowledged.

“Israel needs those tourists,” she said.

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