New exhibit explores Judaism in the Orient

By Ella Christoph

A new exhibit entitled “The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism” opened last month at the Special Collections Research Center in the Regenstein Library. The exhibit, organized by Divinity School History of Judaism graduate student Ruchama Johnston-Bloom, investigates the relationship between Jews and the Orient during the 19th and 20th centuries through novels, essays, sheet music, illustrations, and drawings.

Selected from the Ludwig Rosenberger Collection of Judaica, the pieces chosen are only a small portion of over 17,000 titles that comprise the collection of books addressing social and historical issues of the Jewish people. The small exhibit is a peek into the rare books collection, accenting the content beyond the text via colorful illustrations and striking photographs.

Often seen as outsiders in Europe, some Jews chose to embrace the culture of the Near East. A few individuals went so far as to disguise themselves during their travels so they could explore the Orient from an insider’s perspective. In part, but not wholly influenced by the Zionist Movement, the identification with the Orient did draw upon Zionist ideas. Proponents of the movement believed that a return to Palestine was necessary for the Jewish people to become “normal.”

In an attempt to build synagogues that would be easily differentiated from churches, architecture in the Moorish style became more popular. The style was then employed “as a way to visually represent identity.” A photo of KAM Isaiah Israel, on South Greenwood Avenue and East Hyde Park Boulevard, highlights the far-reaching influence of the Jewish identification with the Orient.

Johnston-Bloom, who describes herself as culturally Jewish, became interested in the Islamic world in college. “I’m just interested in other hybrid identities or people that are both… Jews being conceived as non-‘Western’ but also very much part of European history,” she said. “Probably, to begin with, sure, there was an autobiographical impulse… I’ve moved beyond that original impulse, and now just find the text, thinkers, periods interesting in their own right.”

The exhibit reveals the roots of the connection between Judaism and the Orient but is also relevant to Jewish identity in the contemporary world. “I think in the American context, of course, a lot of American Jews are interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so that geographical region is still very much on people’s minds. Some people feel tied to that region of the world…. For many American Jews, it’s not that big of a deal…but it’s hard to escape entirely.”

The exhibit is open through June 20, 2008, in the Special Collections Research Center on the first floor of the Regenstein Library from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9AM-12:45PM on Saturdays when school is in session.