PSU Prof. Natan Meir plays key role in new Moscow-based Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center
Author: Jenn Director Knudsen, Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies
Posted: February 6, 2013

A historic, new museum just opened in Moscow, and Portland’s own Prof. Natan Meir played a huge role in its very creation.

The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in early November 2012 to much fanfare and international media coverage — though very few people had even heard of the museum before the opening. Now that the word is out — thanks to comprehensive coverage by print and broadcast outlets including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Ha’aretz of Israel and Izvestia of Russia — it’s time to tell the stories behind the making of the museum itself.

Meir, the Lorry I. Lokey Associate Professor of Judaic Studies for the Harold Schnitzer Family Program at Portland State University, was one of only five international experts on Russian Jewry tapped in 2007 to consult on the massive and historic museum project.

“It’s one of the most exciting new museums to open in Russia for a long time,” said Meir, who, in addition to writing all the panels, placards, and captions in the museum, also helped conceptualize and design the spaces dedicated to migration and Diaspora, the shtetl, and the tsarist period. Meir visited the museum in late December and, though intimately familiar with its content, was struck by its sheer size and thrilling and often moving nature of its interactive components. Some of the images and films are so large that they seem to come to life.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates Incorporated, an architectural firm with offices in New York which is considered the leading museum-design firm in the world — responsible for likes of the Clinton Presidential Library and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. — asked Meir to form the backbone of a team of five academic consultants.

The first academic on this international team, Meir served on the museum’s content committee. Meir explained that the committee was charged with helping the designers to fill the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center with information and exhibits from throughout Jewish history, though most of the studios focus on the period from roughly 1772 to the present. This period covers the incorporation of about 1 million Polish Jews into Russia after the Partitions of Poland, the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II and the Holocaust, and the fall of the Soviet Union, all the way through to contemporary Russia.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, an umbrella organization representing the Chabad-Lubavitch (Hasidic) communities in the Russian Federation, initiated and funded the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, and in 2007 gained permission from the highest levels of the Russian government to break ground on the institution.

Meir said that when first tapped in 2007 to consult on this museum project he knew it was the right time and place for such an institution. But still, everything from the research to the presentation of key historical information had to be handled delicately, with the Russian public in mind.

For example, the team needed to avoid “kitsch,” such as Fiddler-on-the-Roof-type stereotypes of the shtetl — the Jewish small town of Eastern Europe — in the studio devoted to that subject.

And, the academics had to keep in mind that the museum also is titled a Tolerance Center; they needed to accurately demonstrate not just Jews’ historic persecution in Russia throughout the ages, but also how that persecution should serve as a warning for present and future generations, especially in a Russia beset by xenophobia and even violent racism. Further, Meir explained, the museum is a conduit “to set the record straight” on topics such as Jews’ persecution in light of their active role in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communist government. During the era of horrific pogroms that accompanied the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks were the only group that did not persecute Jews, so throwing in their lot with the Bolsheviks was the only obvious choice for most Jews.

“When you explain the history as clearly as possible, you demystify it,” the professor said. Meir’s work in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is especially evident in the rooms dedicated to Jewish migration through history, the shtetl, and late Imperial Russia. These and all the special exhibits rely heavily on technology, such as the use of 4-D (a theater equipped with sensory stimuli such as fog and simulated earthquakes), interactive maps, and even an electronic Torah scroll.

While the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center was Meir’s first museum project, he has since curated an exhibit on Yizkor (memorial) books at the PSU Library, and he is currently working on a 2014 exhibit for the Oregon Jewish Museum on the history of the Sephardic Jews of Portland.

Meir hopes to lead a tour group in 2014 or 2015 to the former Soviet Union; stops likely will include Kiev, on which he’s written a book; St. Petersburg; and Moscow, where the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center will be a key stop.

About the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at PSU

Judaic Studies employs the critical methodologies of university scholarship to examine all aspects of the history, religion, culture, and social and political formations of the Jewish people. Judaic Studies therefore enhances our understanding of world history, and allows critical insight into a vital strand in the tapestry of world culture. It offers the opportunity for students of all backgrounds to explore a rich civilization that is both nourished by ancient traditions, and shaped through creative encounters and ongoing interactions with other cultures. At the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University, this enterprise is conducted through a variety of academic courses and summer programming, lectures and research symposia, scholarly conferences and cultural events.