A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education takes over the old craft museum space with a broadened vision and a vibrant Russian art show

In a crowded second-floor gallery at the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Park Avenue, the joint was jumpin’. Television cameras whirred in the new home of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a small jewel of a museum location that had been sitting vacant for many months. Reporters cornered curators and scribbled notes. Early birds wandered up and down the stairs of the 15,000-square-foot space’s two stories. The Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, outfitted in black from his close-cut coil of hair to his sleek sneakers, was talking about his new exhibit, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory, which was spread like a giant quilt across the main-floor gallery below. Preparations for Sunday’s free public grand opening were in full swing, and the mood was jubilant.

Bruce Guenther, curator of inaugural exhibition, and Judy Margles, director of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo: Palma Corral

It was Wednesday in the prime Pearl District space, which had been home to the Museum of Contemporary Craft until that museum was abruptly shut down by the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art more than a year ago, shocking both the city and a tightknit national craft art scene that had considered MoCC a pacesetting institution. After several months of hammering, sawing, painting, and reshaping spaces, it’s been reborn as the new home of the Jewish museum, which has moved from a space half its size and far less strategically located. Judy Margles, the museum’s longtime director, addressed the preview-day crowd. The designers took a bow. Bruce Guenther, the former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the museum’s first season of exhibitions, introduced Bruskin, whose ALEFBET he praised as taking “its place with the tapestry masterworks.” And if the bubbly wasn’t flowing (it was a Wednesday morning, after all) the coffee was: Suddenly a space that had housed an important cultural center that had died before its time seemed alive with hope and possibilities again.

Ritual and the depiction of everyday life. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

Despite the craft museum’s demise and the loss to public view of its important collections and programming, the Jewish museum’s opening comes at a heady time in Portland for museums. On Thursday Portland State University announced it will develop a new, 7,500-square foot museum of Northwest and contemporary art, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, with $5 million in seed money from the Portland philanthropist’s family foundation. (The announced name is the same as that of the University of Oregon’s art museum in Eugene, to which Schnitzer also has been a major donor.) The Portland Art Museum, though it’s facing opposition to its plans to block off a popular pedestrian and bicycle passageway from Southwest Park Avenue to 10th Avenue, is planning to build a much-needed connector between its two buildings, a project that would vastly improve the logic and flow of galleries on a united campus. And the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s new home in the core of the DeSoto Building is double the size of the space it left and puts it in a high-traffic location just off Broadway on the cusp of downtown, at the center of an important gallery cluster that includes Augen and Froelick in one direction and Charles A. Hartman and Blue Sky in the other.

Detail from Grisha Bruskin’s tapestry series “ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory.” Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

It’s a big step up for the Jewish museum, which began in 1990 as a “museum without walls” using space at the Multnomah County Central Library before moving to temporary locations at Montgomery Park, in an Old Town storefront, and in 2009 to its most recent home on a somewhat secluded stretch of old Northwest Portland. It owns its new space, thanks to $5 million in mostly large donations from a handful of supporters. And unlike the craft museum, which was devoted to craft art, the Jewish museum and Holocaust center is part art museum but also, and maybe more importantly, something more like a cultural center – a place for history, issues, and exploration of what it means to be Jewish, and Jewish in Oregon.

Grisha Bruskin, artist for “ALEFBET: the Alphabet of Memory.” Photo: Palma Corral

Art is an important aspect of the museum’s story, and Guenther’s choice of Bruskin, a Russian Jewish artist from Moscow whose exhibitions were shut down by the Communist Party in 1983 and 1984 because of their Jewish content, signals the museum’s desire to look at art and culture internationally as well as regionally. Bruskin, who has split his time between Moscow and New York since 1988, is trim and hale with a bristle of cropped beard, a small smile, and laugh lines around his eyes. At 71, he’s also something of an art world star: Just two days earlier he’d been in Venice, where he’s the featured artist in the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. His ALEFBET is a series of five large silk and wool tapestries, somehow contemporary and ancient at the same time, with hints of medieval design in its stylized figures from the Hebrew scriptures that are set against a backdrop of cursive lettering. The design is intricate and grandly scaled, mathematical and mysterious, and it took a team of skilled Moscow artisans two years to fabricate. How long did it take Bruskin to conceive and design it? “My whole life,” he replies.

Upstairs installation of “core” exhibitions. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

“My whole life” is something of the idea behind the Jewish museum, too, which seeks to explore and explain the totality of the Jewish experience locally and globally. Education about the Holocaust is key to that goal; so is providing a sense of what Jewish life means, and recognizing the challenges posed by the larger culture. Margles, while speaking jubilantly about the museum’s promise, also cited the nation’s rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, and the clear evidence of poverty and social abandonment on the museum’s nearby streets and sidewalks. “Our celebration is tempered with the understanding that our mission continues,” she said. “The tragedy of homelessness is literally at our front door.”

About 1,000 square feet of the museum’s second-floor space is divided among three free-standing “core exhibits.” The first, Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer, looks at the state’s history of discrimination against Jews, African Americans, and others since territorial days, and what sorts of resistance techniques have been used to combat it. The second, Oregon Jewish Stories, tells in brief form just that, from the earliest arrivals of Jews in the state during the gold rush of the 1840s to the later waves of immigration and the Jewish impact on the shaping of Oregon’s civil life. The third, The Holocaust, An Oregon Perspective, looks at the stories of Holocaust survivors who later immigrated to Oregon and Southwest Washington, and considers contemporary reflections of the Nazi era.

Entrance to the museum’s cafe, Lefty’s. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

The new museum space also includes a 100-seat auditorium; a gift shop; a small café, Lefty’s; and more exhibition space on the first floor: Also opening on Sunday, just steps away from Bruskin’s ALEFBET, is Herman Brookman, Visualizing the Sacred, which includes architectural drawings by the designer of Congregation Beth Israel. Brookman was a mentor of Oregon architect John Yeon, and this exhibition is designed to complement the Portland Art Museum’s current show Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collection of John Yeon.

Wandering around the museum, the intended blend of history, culture, family, and art is evident, some of it tucked discreetly into display cases, some of it speaking more emphatically. One upstairs corner, called Annie and Goldie’s Children’s Corner, is dominated by a large world map with the question, “Where did your family come from?” A display labeled “Sala Kryszek Art & Writing Contest” shows high school artists’ works in response to a prompt that reads, in part: “How could the Holocaust happen in a country like Germany, a country with abundant education and people who achieved great advancements in science, art, music, literature and philosophy?” Evidences of the rituals of special occasions and everyday life are on view: a collection, for instance, of Hanukkah menorahs and Passover cups and plates. Reminders are everywhere of the book and the word.

Detail from Bruskin’s 1992 series “Metamorphoses.” Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

Questions naturally rise. Will the core exhibitions after a few visits come to seem static? Is there a way to vary their content while keeping their focus? Will the downstairs galleries have sufficient space for temporary exhibitions – will ambitious shows sometimes be able to use some upstairs gallery space as well? As is true when moving into any new home, there’s bound to be a period of adjustment. But as Margles points out, “On a practical level, of course, we have room to spread out.”

The larger space also allows for a global as well as a local emphasis, as Bruskin’s ALEFBET makes clear. The tradition and ritual inside the five tapestries and the related gouache on ragboard series Metamorphoses are both rich and mysterious, packed with historical and mythological and cultural layers of meaning that ripple with implication and are not subject to ready interpretation. They are composed, according to the museum, “in a modular system he derived from Kabbalistic symbolism around the number four, including, among others, the four letters of God’s name, the four living creatures of Ezekiel – man, lion, ox, and eagle; the four letters that reflect the keys to the garden of Eden; the four rabbis who entered a symbolic paradise; and the four methods of interpreting the Torah.” The exhibition includes electronic “mapping” guides that allow visitors, at the push of a screen, to isolate the parts of the tapestries and see what the subjects of the blocks are. But of course, the “meanings” of the works push beyond words and facts, into the textures of the weavings and the colors and juxtapositions and shapes. At their core, it seems, they are meant to remain riddles, and that seems a good thing. One does not decode the art. One experiences it.

Small evidences of Jewish living. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

Bruskin, the curator Guenther noted in his introduction on Wednesday (the artist chose not to speak in public, although in private conversation his English was very good), “is an artist who through his life experience … embodies the journey that many Jews face.” He found his choice, Guenther added, when he was five years old and asked his father, “Am I a Jew?” This was in a Soviet system under which being Jewish was a dangerous thing. And still, Bruskin claimed it. And still, he became an artist. Guenther used the words “resilience, resistance, and invention,” and spoke of a “resolution between mind and spirit, heart and the world.” That’s not a bad template for a museum.





  • Grand opening: Noon-4 p.m. Sunday, free.
  • Address: 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland.
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, closed Mondays.
  • Admission: Adults $8; students and seniors 62+, $5; ages 12 and younger free.




  • ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory and Herman Brookman, Visualizing the Sacred, through Oct. 1.
  • Oregon/Jew/Artist, works by Jewish artists from the early 20th century to now. Oct. 18, 2017 through Feb. 14, 2018.
  • Vedem: The Underground Magazine of the Terezin Ghetto, about the legacy of a magazine produced by teenage prisoners in Czechoslovakia. Feb.28 to May, 2018.




One Response.

  1. Margaret Weil says:

    Thank you for the wonderful series of
    pictorial essays.

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