Jewish museum breaks new ground in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO Sun Jun 8, 2008 5:01pm EDT

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Jewish museum that opened in San Francisco on Sunday is unlike almost every other such institution in the world: It is a light-filled place focused on the future, not the darkness of the past.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum does not contain permanent space dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, housing Jewish artifacts, or recording the genealogy of the Jewish diaspora.

Instead, it is a fresh, happy site that asks the Jewish people to create new expressions of who they are, in a city where Jews have always thrived.

"This is a museum of life," Director Connie Wolf said. "It's not that we aren't embracing the Holocaust, that incredibly important and pivotal moment in world history. We just always want to be thinking about other issues as well."

The new building is designed by famed architect Daniel Libeskind, who said working in San Francisco allowed him to take a new approach to Jewish museums, which often focus on a narrative of persecution, exile and the search for redemption.

Libeskind is best-known for designing Berlin's Jewish Museum, where visitors are asked to acknowledge that the horror of Jewish and German histories are linked forever.

However, the San Francisco building is designed to resemble two letters in the Yiddish word for "life." And in a reading room painted orange and pink, children giggled as they learned about William Steig, the Jewish cartoonist who created Shrek, now the protagonist in a popular series of animated movies.

"Despite all the things that have happened, life is about celebrating," said Libeskind, also the master planner for the World Trade Center memorial in New York City. "This museum is not in the shadow of the history that will always be part of Europe. The optimism of this museum and America are intertwined."

'NEW ZION'

The sentiment could not be more welcome in San Francisco, a city founded partly by Jewish pioneers like Levi Strauss and the forefathers of Wells Fargo Bank, said Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

These men came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and because they helped build the city in its infancy, they did not face the same anti-Semitism as their East Coast counterparts.

"To Jews, California was the new Zion, and San Francisco was the new Jerusalem," Dollinger said.

As a result, Jews were largely assimilated: The San Francisco and Oakland area has the third highest number of Jews of any U.S. metropolitan area, after New York and Los Angeles. But there are no distinctly Jewish neighborhoods, and inter-marriage rates reach 90 percent, Dollinger said.

This reality is also reflected in the museum, which has taken a decisively pluralistic approach to its exhibits.

In one exhibit, two non-Jewish artists presented work inspired by the account of the creation of the earth in the Biblical book of Genesis. And parties have been held featuring a Cambodian rock group.

Several visitors said they were relieved to be in a museum focused on the evolving expression of Jewish identity.

The voice of Richard Aptekar, 66, cracked as he described the Holocaust museum in Washington, where photographs of the Nazi's victims stretch up walls four or five stories high.

"It's very powerful, but it's also an enormously draining experience just to spend time there," Aptekar said. "Why not have a place that is just an expression of joy and identity?"

(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)

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