Riding The Hyphen


When I was in college, a professor blew my mind when he explained the birth of modernism this way: In the old days, when artists looked out a window, they saw a garden. Today, when they look outside, they see the window.

In other words, the process of looking — or the presence of the “frame” — is what now captured people’s attention.

I had another moment like this recently — a feeling that the frame of my cultural attention had shifted — after hearing New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein discuss “Identity Museums and the Jewish Question” as part of Stanford University’s Charles Michael Lecture Series.

Rothstein, who writes primarily about museum culture for The Times, presented a brief history of modern European and American museums, identifying three stages. The first is the imperial stage, where major powers presented art and objects to emphasize their political and cultural influence. The second is the enlightenment stage, in which understanding other cultures and knowledge for its own sake was the dominant impulse. The last decade has witnessed the flowering of the third stage, represented by the “identity museum.”

Rothstein is disappointed with the results of these “hyphenated,” identity-based museums, the product of two generations of identity politics that prioritize a political story over historical texture or artistic excellence. Most of them also focus too much on the “American side of the hyphen,” his primary critique of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

What struck me most in the language of Rothstein’s analysis was the emphasis on the hyphen itself, a symbol whose importance we have only begun to consider.

In a way, the hyphen — connecting enormous categories like “Jewish” and “American” — functions for us now the way “melting pot” did a century ago, and the “salad bowl” has for the last generation. The melting pot, of course, was Ellis Island, where Hungarian or Romanian Jews smelted themselves into New Yorkers; the salad bowl is multiculturalism, in which one’s “American” identity and “native” culture of origin existed in an uneasy relationship.

The value of the hyphen is that it doesn’t mush every identity together, nor does it prevent different aspects of identity to cut off all connection with each other. And its practical utility can be seen in the functioning of most of today’s museum education departments.

The museum model has evolved dramatically in recent years from a curatorial-based institution, in which one voice presents the truth, to a conversation-based program, in which art and objects create a space for reflection and feedback. Museum visitors are asked to view their host institutions less as temples to art, and more as experiences connecting the museum’s vision and their personal biography. Visitors are often asked, during their visit, to ride the hyphen, figuring out where on the infinite number of points between categories they might reside — ethnically, artistically, or even imaginatively.

Rothstein suggests that the hyphenated museums (with or without the actual hyphen) may have become a signature institution of American liberalism, prioritizing political identity over cultural experience. But I wonder if that slender line of punctuation can be recast as an invitation to consider the dynamic, ever-changing relationship between different aspects of our ethnic and political presentations.

When I mentioned the hyphen theory to my grandmother, who grew up in Europe where a Jew was a Jew was a Jew, I thought she would agree with its novelty. Instead she said, “It’s like the Akedah, isn’t it? We can’t tolerate God’s command to kill Isaac or Abraham’s acceptance of it, so we have to work with the conversation between them, the hyphen connecting the divine and the human.”

Theologically speaking, perhaps she is right. One can also consider Martin Buber’s formulation of “I-Thou,” a landmark in 20th-century Jewish philosophy, which privileged the hyphen, asking it to do the heavy lifting as it mediates the spiritual connection between one person and another, or between an individual and God.

Existentially speaking, of course, the hyphen is not sufficiently robust to capture the complexity of the human experience. Our multiple voices can’t be constrained on one line, connecting only two identities (Whitman got both America and the human condition right when he said “I contain multitudes.”) But the appearance, in black and white, of a metaphor that flexibly communicates between two branches of our identity is still a gift.

In other words, I’m proud to be a hyphenated-Jew.

Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, hosts its new podcast series, “The Space Between.”