Jews, Money, Myth, Jewish Museum Exhibition, Camden Town
PUBLISHED: 16:55 07 March 2019
As the issue of antisemitism continues to loom large in public life, there's no better time to tackle one of its oldest tropes, says Jewish Museum director Abigail Morris.
As the issue of antisemitism continues to loom large in public life, there’s no better time to tackle one of its oldest tropes, says Jewish Museum director Abigail Morris.
The museum’s latest exhibition Jews, Money, Myth takes a broad and deep look at the role of money in Jewish life, and the origins of its often negative associations.
From Judas’ 30 pieces of silver, to Shakespeare’s moneylender Shylock to Dickens’ Fagin, the Camden Town museum “gives a context to the stereotypes” via manuscripts, prints, ceremonial objects, art and costumes.
“The horrible stuff is out there, it’s not going away and not talking about it isn’t going to help,” says Morris.
“What we can do is to give a long view. Where do these tropes come from, what are the myths behind them? Museums can take a historical sweep, particularly on a difficult issue, allowing you to go deeper but gently into a tricky subject. People can choose to spend as much or as little time with an object and if it’s too painful move on.”
Not all talk about Jews and money is intentionally antisemitic, but the speaker might not grasp the layers of history behind it, she says.
“Hopefully we can unpick it so they see where it fits into a wider pattern. The museum is about dialogue and building bonds. Everyone is aware now particularly that people are retreating and not having the difficult conversations which clear up misunderstandings or involve hearing things you might not want to hear. The vast majority of our audience are not Jewish so, as the world becomes increasingly hate filled, we are in an important place to stand as a beacon for tolerance.”
Exhibits include Rembrandt’s 1629 oil Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, and a new commission by Turner prize winning artist Jeremy Deller.
Artworks spanning 500 years explore the changing image of Judas, who is widely presented in Christian iconography as a figure of self-seeking greed.
“FJudas was as Jewish as Matthew Mark Luke and he didn’t become the figure that we think of today until the Middle Ages. “Initially it was just part of the Jesus story and not seen as a negative - if he hadn’t betrayed Jesus, no-one would have been saved, but when the Church was trying to eradicate money lending from Christian life they used the figure in an antisemitic response, making him an archetypal Jew to say ‘don’t be grasping or usurious don’t be like the Jews.
“What’s fascinating about the Rembrandt is Judas is returning the money – the bit of the story people don’t remember is he regretted it.”
Other objects include coins from 1st century BC and 130 AD Judea, expressions of Jewish identity in resisting Roman rule and “the last time that Jews had their own currency until the state of Israel.”
Banknotes issued by the Nazis to occupants of Lodz ghetto are especially poignant.
But if the diaspora travelling to different lands brought “mercantile links” that helped them in business, Morris adds: “It’s still the myth that there were all these Jewish bankers in the 19th century. There were some, but most people were dirt poor and had to improvise a living begging or peddling cheap goods. The main item that Jews had the monopoly on was dried rhubarb.”
Even for the wealthy it was often illusory.
“The exhibition contrasts wealth with real poverty. Jews often amassed wealth but then the authorities got rid of them or took the money - or everything they owned was owned by the King.
“For Jews, money was wealth but wealth didn’t equal power.”
An 1807 board game called The Game of The Jew, portrays a “grasping Jewish banker in the centre”.
“Stephen Sondheim has a copy and says this is the game that teaches children how to be antisemitic.”
But there are also positive objects which focus on the history of philanthropy and importance of charity in Judaism.
From the same era is a charity wheel from the Great Synagogue.
“When there wasn’t enough to go around you put your name in and got a meal if it came up.” Tackling the myths and reality of the medieval Jewish moneylender and the place of Jews in commerce and finance to the present day, the exhibition shows how Jews were pushed into unpopular roles such as usury.
Later in the 20th Century this ttrope would be exploited in Nazi propaganda, which portrayed Jews as a threat to the world. Today the caricature continues to informs conspiracy theories
Morris adds: “The Holocaust is a clear example of what happens when stereotypes take hold and how dangerous, even deadly, they are. Myths about Jews and money still proliferate around the world. The visual language in the way that George Soros has been demonised is identical to a 19th century cartoon of Rothschild as a puppeteer controlling the world. It’s shocking but also powerful and it’s not going away. If we want to create a world that is free of hatred of Jews, we need to be aware of where this comes from and where it can lead.
“As a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Jews in Britain, we are more aware than ever of the importance of providing a safe space to consider and challenge such stereotypes, if we are to combat hatred and challenge ignorance.”
Jews, Money, Myth runs from March 19 to July 7 at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town. jewishmuseum.org.uk