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Image of the Holocaust a statement about faith


Until recently, a family trip to the art museum was more of a chore than a treat, at least for some of us. My husband would roll his eyes every time I’d suggest a museum day. “Sure,” he’d counter, “I’ll end up chasing the kids around while you get lost wandering through the Impressionist wing.” (He was right.) But he was willing to revisit the idea this year: Nobody needs a stroller or a nap anymore. One winter’s day when everyone was home and there wasn’t yet enough snow for sledding, a call to the Minneapolis Institute of Art confirmed that the galleries were lightly populated, and the price -- free admission -- was right.

The kids have been on “art adventure” museum outings on school field trips, so we let them lead. We contemplated wooden masks and totems from the Pacific Northwest, a 17th-century painting of Dante, Petrarch and their pals; and a centuries-old jade mountain carving from China. We all enjoyed a tour of period rooms decorated in holiday style: an austere Puritan Thanksgiving, a lavish antebellum South Carolina dinner party (made possible, we noted, only by the culinary talent and household labor of hundreds of slaves); a dining hall set for Elizabethan-era revelry complete with boar’s head and roasted peacock; a children’s Victorian Christmas whence came our contemporary celebration complete with tree, Santa and lots of presents.

Museums today are not my childhood idea of impenetrable collections of chiaroscuro paintings and armor. There are people in costume, interactive videos and brochures suggesting family “treasure hunts” through the galleries. There are snack bars and lots of seating, and guards who actually crack a smile now and then. I love to soak up the history, beauty and inspiration I find in walking through the ages of art.

What has moved me most over the years are certain expressions of religious experience or belief. I was deeply touched by some of Chagall’s lithographs of biblical scenes. I have puzzled over devotion to saints’ relics -- a tooth, a finger, bone fragments -- contained in beautifully crafted reliquaries of precious metals in the traveling Assisi collection shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of years ago. I was especially taken with a 16th-century carved wood statue in the Met’s permanent collection, of Mary Magdalene in fashionable late medieval dress, reading a prayer book. She seemed so full of life and beauty, so approachable compared to some haloed Madonnas and upward-gazing martyrs.

On my recent excursion with my children, we were racing through one wing to the “Americas” wing to see the Kwakiutl raven mask my daughter wanted to show us. We wanted to make the period room tour at 1 p.m., so we didn’t have a lot of time. As we rushed past a display case full of silver items, I spotted out of the corner of my eye something yellow and matte -- a complete contrast to the gleaming silver. I stopped and called the children back.

It was a Star of David, with the Dutch Jood, or Jew, embroidered in black, bordered with needle holes and fragments of black thread. It belonged here in this case alongside ancient ornamental Jewish religious objects -- Torah handles, Kiddush cups and the like -- as much as the gleaming silver a statement about faith. As I have been by Chagall’s paintings or the wooden Mary Magdalene, I was moved by a human-made object to contemplate how religious life intersects with secular experience. This yellow patch sewn 50 years ago to some Dutch Jew’s coat called to me as certainly as the Star of Bethlehem did the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem. These signs call us to meet God in all the beauty and suffering of our human condition.

My children eyed me sideways. “Mom, are you crying?” they asked, not surprised. They know Mom is wont to well up at inconvenient times. They know of the Holocaust, though I cannot imagine that they can fully grasp its horror. We reminded them how these fabric stars had been used. I invited them to imagine Catholics in our time being made to wear some symbol -- a cross? a flame? -- and prevented from getting jobs, or being served in stores or restaurants, or caused to be mocked at school or have the windows of their house broken. We didn’t need to go much further.

We went on with our day, made the 1:00 tour and enjoyed our afternoon at the museum. It was a fitting way to begin our holiday season. The image helped me to link the waiting time of Advent with the light and darkness theme of Hanukkah, and finally the bright incarnation, which we Christians consider to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to the descendants of Abraham. I will think back to this day of art and history and thank God for the Jewish roots of my faith, and for the life of one faithful Jew who never wore a yellow star but who is surely present with those who did, then and always.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001