Reconsidering What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Page from Nathan Englander's What we Talk about when We Talk About Anne FrankIn the past, a number of literary texts on Jewish topics contributed to Jewish culture in various ways. Some documented and revitalized oral history and folk tales in an attempt to save them from oblivion (e.g. Martin Buber’s Tale of the Hasidim); others made Jewish topics palatable to the majority society (e.g. Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family); and still others helped to build a Jewish community around shared experiences of ritual, emigration and persecution (e.g. Friedrich Torberg’s Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes).

Nathan Englander, one of the most sophisticated and provocative current writers, shares none of these intentions. His latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is a collection of eight short stories loosely bound together under the title of (and a quote from) the first story, arising from a heated conversation about genocide; it refers to Anne Frank not as a historical figure, but as a metonym of victimhood. Accordingly, the stories reflect on the effect of Jewish themes, such as religion, the Holocaust and Israel, on modern Jewish identities. The author’s perspective is from within – he was born in 1970 to an Orthodox-Jewish family in New York – and critical. His gripping, intimate theatre-like episodes are fraught with tense dialog questioning the validity of Jewish cultural practice:  continue reading


Names have meaning…

They betray the hopes, dreams, and projections of fathers and mothers,they follow trends, and foretell the future of their bearers.
For Jews many decisions are connected to the naming of a child: should the name underscore his religious affiliation, only be recognizable to other Jews, or neither? Will it be a name native to the family’s country of origin or to the child’s country of birth? Has the name been translated? Does it memorialize someone? Colleagues and friends of the Jewish Museum Berlin share their thoughts with this blog, on this and other questions.

Children's painting of the prophetess Miriam with her timbrel

Miriam dancing © Miriam Lubrich

Miriam / Mirjam
Soon there will be four women working along the hallway that my office is on, who all have the same first name that I have: Mirjam or, in some cases, Miriam. Even while the etymology is not completely unambiguous, the triumphant prophetess with the timbrel is namesake to each of us – that Miriam who roused the women to dance a dance of joy after the Israelites had fled from Egypt and divided the Red Sea (2. Moses 14, 20). With that, the sister of Moses and Aron took her rightful place among scripture’s female figures – women like both of the wives of the first man Adam, Lillith and Eve – who showed their rebellious traits: Miriam asserted the claim that God also spoke through her. She was consequently struck with a skin rash and had to wait for seven days outside of the encampment before she was allowed to live among the congregation of her desert-crossing brethren (4. Moses 12, 1-16).

Is it an accident that this combative woman lent her name to so many employees of the Jewish Museum Berlin?  continue reading


No Revolvers in the Jewish Museum

drawing of a Revolver“Weapons and Dignity” is the title of the chronicle of an object in the recently published 25th anniversary brochure of the German Historical Museum. It is about a revolver that was offered as a donation to the Jewish Museum, met with great interest there, but finally found its way into the collection of the German Historical Museum. Why?

The story: a woman in Berlin during the National Socialist era, fearing for her life because she was ‘half-Jewish,’ obtained a revolver so that, should she be threatened with deportation, she could end her life instead. She survived the era of persecution and kept the revolver as a souvenir, eventually giving it to a neighbor. He in turn made contact with the Museum when he was to be required by changes in the law regulating weapons possession to register the weapon or surrender it to authorities. For an institution like the Jewish Museum Berlin, where biographical narratives play an important role in the collections and in the permanent exhibition, this revolver would have been a very welcome ‘strong’ object, given the immediacy of its provenance.  continue reading