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Talking about Utopia

Oded Hirsch, Halfman, 2009. Chromogenic print, 40 x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist & Thierry Goldberg Gallery, New York. 


Every fall, just after the holiday of Yom Kippur, Jews build a sukkah—an outdoor booth, open on one side, with a roof porous enough to see the stars. And here (traditionally) they eat and sleep for eight days, making a point of inviting in strangers for meals, and trusting in the fragility of the structure and the safety of their surroundings. Not unlike Burning Man, where each summer thousands of people set up temporary homes in the Nevada desert as part of a pop-up utopia, the ancient sukkah reminds us of the possibilities of a better world.

This fall the CJM presents two complementary exhibitions—one about utopia, the other about the kibbutz—that ask fundamental questions about a perfectable community. In To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History, the Museum explores the creation and evolution of this unique Israeli socialist venture. And in Work in Progress: Considering Utopia, three artists explore Israel (and art) as a stage upon which our most optimistic societal dreams get played out.

What we know about the world, and from the word utopia (Greek for “no place”), is that perfection is not within our grasp; but the struggle for perfection is. Jewish commentators often point to the moment when the biblical patriarch Jacob wrestled with the angel in the desert at Beth El, and through this painful struggle emerged with a new name—Israel, or “one who struggles.”

The state of Israel—that modern miracle of Jewish modernity—is also a place of struggle. It is a small country, beset by regional conflict and internal strife, which wrestles constantly with its own possibilities and contradictions. It is at the same time a place of endless innovation and inspiration, which has profoundly influenced American Jewish life in its sixty-five years of existence. One need only look to Jewish summer camps (the closest many have come to utopia) to see the influence of the kibbutz, with its communal dining room, emphasis on song and dance, and belief in something greater than just the individual experience.

As a community institution exploring contemporary life through a Jewish prism, The CJM is committed to bringing the best Israeli art to the Bay Area as part of a dialogue with a country that is still a “work in progress.” Contemporary Israeli art has taken a proud place in the international museum scene, representing the country’s bold, critical, and often self-critical vision of a better future. It is especially well known for its focus on video and performance art (as well as dance), collectively represented by the work of Oded Hirsch and Ohad Meromi in Work in Progress (which also includes newly commissioned art by SF-based American artist Elisheva Biernoff.)

For Meromi and Hirsch, who were born on a kibbutz, that community’s collective idealism has been transformed into art. Hirsch’s videos in Work in Progress, of kibbutzniks engaged in various communal projects, suggest that the very act of working together may be the best criterion of progress. And in Meromi’s stage-like installation, inspired by a table in the kibbutz dining room, the invitation for visitors to stop, talk, and literally act out their ideas about utopia becomes a model for “real world” social improvement.

The Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish law, stories, and wisdom, offers a saying that has inspired The CJM’s work with these two exhibitions, “You are not obligated to finish the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free from attempting it.” In other words, although no exhibition can do justice to the complexity of the Israeli experience, and no utopian art can heal the wounds of a broken and imperfect world, we are obligated to create an honest and supportive platform for conversation and engagement. What else is a contemporary Jewish museum for?


About the Author
Daniel Schifrin is Writer-in-Residence at the CJM and host of its podcast series “The Space Between.” He is a columnist for both the J: Jewish News Weekly of Northern California and the New York Jewish Week, and his articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and McSweeney’s. In 2007 he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and he has just finished his first novel, a comedy about chess, opera and orthodontia.

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