Temple Beth El, which houses the Jewish Museum of São Paulo, in the center of the city. Photo: Fernando Siqueira/ Publicity

PFor nearly 80 years, Templo Beth-El, in downtown São Paulo, has served the city's Jewish community. Designed in Byzantine style by the Russian architect Samuel Roder, it housed the Beth El Congregation synagogue from 1932 to 2010 – now based in Jardins -, founded by immigrants from Eastern Europe in the interwar period. Now, after a decade closed for renovations, the building has opened up in another way to the capital of São Paulo, aimed at a much wider audience: “From the beginning, this project was designed not to be a museum aimed at the Jewish community, but a museum for the city, for the country, open to everyone”, says Felipe Arruda, 41, executive director of the Jewish Museum of São Paulo (MUJ).

Somehow, the building comes to live up more clearly to the phrase that is written on its facade, in Hebrew letters: “May this be the house of prayer for all peoples”. According to Arruda, the writing that has been there since 1932 is still very necessary in a world dealing with growing prejudice, intolerance and a series of violence against minorities. In Brazil alone, says the director, there are currently around 530 active Nazi cells.

Arruda, who was Director of Culture and Participation at the Tomie Ohtake Institute for six years, makes a point of emphasizing, at this point, that the focus of the MUJ is the fight against all types of prejudice, not only against Jews: “Brazil is a country that has lived through almost 400 years of slavery, an indigenous genocide, few decades of dictatorship, and it has a very recent and fragile democracy, still in formation. This requires the strengthening of democratic institutions and reparation for all those peoples who have been oppressed, subordinated, and who are victims of systematic violence”.

One of the ways to combat prejudice, for him, is not to reduce people to a single, superficial identity, which creates simplifications and stereotypes. “There is no 'the Jew', but an astonishing multiplicity of Jews. And the testimonies we showed – from the elderly, young people, children, trans people, people of African descent, people of Asian origin, Orthodox rabbis, etc. – show how diverse is the expression of this Jewishness”. And he adds: “You are not going to leave the MUJ and say: Ah, so this is Judaism!”.

The director of the Jewish Museum of São Paulo, Felipe Arruda. Photo: Beatriz Costa/ Publicity

The visitor will not fail to delve, however, into an infinity of aspects of the history and culture of Jews in Brazil and in the world. The museum, with around 40 employees, opened with two long-term exhibitions – The Jewish Life e Jews in Brazil: Twisted Stories – and two temporary – Inquisition and New Christians in Brazil, until May 31, and From the letter to word, until April 10. The latter, with the participation of 32 contemporary artists, shows the MUJ's willingness to work with the most diverse types of languages ​​and supports – objects, documents, videos and sound testimonies, among others, are on display in the exhibitions.

Among the upcoming exhibitions scheduled are one by the artist and researcher Giselle Beiguelman and one by female photographers of Jewish origin who arrived in Brazil in the first half of the last century – such as Madalena Scwhartz, Hildegard Rosenthal, Alice Brill, Stefania Brill, Lily Sverner, Gertrudes Altschul and Claudia Andujar. Entitled Modern! – São Paulo seen by them, the show is a partnership with Instituto Moreira Salles.

In a long conversation with arte!brasileiros, Arruda also spoke of the importance of the educational sector and the MUJ Memory Center – which since 2015 has housed the valuable collection of the USP historical archive; the search to develop dialogues with other spaces in the region (from the 9 de Julho Occupation to the Augusta Park); the difficulties in raising funds under a federal government that attacks the cultural area; and the flirtations of the Bolsonaro government with an “imaginary Israel” – “which is this idealization of a white people, of an arms and religious country”. Read the full text below:

ARTE! – We can start by talking about how the Jewish Museum of São Paulo emerged, a project of almost two decades that finally opens its doors in December 2021…

Felipe Arruda – The museum is the result of a civil society initiative. This is important to point out, because it does not come from a family with resources, nor from a company, and it is not a public museum either. It is a private museum and part of an association of friends that projects this dream of having a museum to represent Jewish culture here in Brazil – a country that has a community of more than 120 Jews, 80% of them here in São Paulo. Voluntarily, this group builds a project that takes almost two decades to develop, with the mobilization of many people. This period includes first the cession of the Beth-El temple, which is a former synagogue, to the museum; then fundraising to restore the building, which is a heritage listed by the city hall in 2013; and the construction of the annex, which is attached to the synagogue. This process also includes hosting the collection of the historical archive of the University of São Paulo (USP), which is the largest Jewish archive in Brazil. It is what we now call the Museum's Center of Memory (CDM) and it will physically come here this year. Then came the whole stage of museology, expography, etc. And in May of last year, after a selection process, I was invited to come here, when, in fact, there was not even a fully formed team. Then we started the whole process of finalizing the implementation, the exhibitions, an opening plan, a strategic planning for the museum, a renewal of the Council, making the website and visual communication and so on. All this structural part to be able to inaugurate.

Internal area of ​​the museum where the old synagogue used to be. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – The amount invested in this entire process was around R$ 60 million reais. How was the fundraising process for a project of this size?

Basically companies, via the Rouanet Law or direct donation, and donations from individuals (which represents a smaller percentage). Interestingly, most of the donations came from people outside the Jewish community. This is important to say because from the beginning this project was designed not to be a museum aimed at the Jewish community, but a museum for the city, for the country, open to everyone. On the facade of the temple is written: “May this be the house of prayer for all peoples”, a phrase written in Hebrew in 1932 and which remains much needed. Even my choice as executive director shows that openness, being someone who is not Jewish on the board. Obviously it could have been a Jewish person, this is not an essential point, but it seems to me that the project was born with this spirit, this willingness to connect.

ARTE! – Entering this aspect of the thinking that moves the museum, the search for a dialogue with the past, but also with the contemporary, with a Judaism that is not static, that transforms along with society, and that also has peculiarities in the Brazilian context. Makes sense?

The MUJ is a secular museum, not a religious museum, and it seeks to present the multiple expressions of Jewish culture. He has this mission of cultivating the expressions of Jewish culture and keeping them alive – not as something that is in the past and that can be understood as something fixed, monolithic. We think of memory as something that belongs to the present, which is in motion. And we do this in dialogue with the Brazilian context, in dialogue with the contemporary debate and with the aspirations of different audiences, through the idea that a museum is built with people, with the participation of its audiences. This is fundamental for any cultural institution today.

So here, in the long-term exhibition, we seek to present basic aspects of Jewish culture, which have to do with traditions, festivals, values... But it is interesting that before that, right at the entrance, the visitor is faced with videos in which people respond about What is a Jew. And this is a fundamental question for the MUJ, because there is no “the Jew”, but an astonishing multiplicity of Jews. And the testimonies – from the elderly, young people, children, trans people, people of African descent, Asian origin, Orthodox rabbis, etc. – show how diverse the expression of this Jewishness is, it cannot be reduced to a single thing. [Emmanuel] Levinas himself says that the Jew is always an unfinished being, which has to do with becoming, with becoming a Jew, with the impossibility of always being the same, with a constant search. And it is essential to emphasize that Judaism is not just a religion. It is also a religion, but it is rather a people, a culture and a range of expressions – something millenary, but in transformation. So this is not a museum that seeks to assert an identity, but to cultivate a culture.

On the original facade of the temple, the phrase “May this be the house of prayer for all peoples”. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – This aspect of multiplicity and otherness is very present in the shows…

In the testimony we collected from Deborah Colker, she says: “The more I mix, the more Jewish I am”. In other words, the closer she gets to the Afro-Brazilian culture, the Arab culture, the Japanese culture, the more Jewish she feels. Because according to several theorists, Jewish identity is founded on the idea of ​​otherness. And we believe that this can be a contribution of the MUJ to the identity debate today: that it is less a propensity for the isolated affirmation of a certain identity - of a people that is historically the target of persecution and oppression - but more a perspective of alterity of someone who is interested in making relationships, dialogues, who is porous and interested in the other. A museum that is part of the world with its challenges and important issues to be debated – and we believe that there are values ​​and experiences within Jewish culture that can contribute to contemporary debate.

So, talking about our axes, there is this dimension more linked to festivals and traditions; the more historical dimension, about the Jewish presence in Brazil in these more than 500 years; and in the temporary exhibitions we have more documentary exhibitions, which will drink a lot at the Memory Center, as well as a space dedicated to contemporary productions. The latter is a space that will move the MUJ a lot, because it brings current debates in productions mainly of art, but not only. We have the idea, for example, of doing an exhibition linked to psychoanalysis. There is an author, Betty Fuks, who argues that the birth of psychoanalysis is intrinsically linked to Freud's Jewishness - because if Jewishness is this relationship with otherness, the quest to become someone from the relationship with the other, psychoanalysis it is also born of this search, of needing the other to recognize oneself.     

ARTE! – You said earlier that a museum is built with the participation of its audiences. I would like you to talk a little more about this aspect and how the educational work, the collection and the space for research come into it.

The Museum's Memory Center is a very rich archive of research: it has 1 million pages of documents, 100 photographs, 20 books - 8 of which are in Yiddish -, records, objects and oral history testimonies of families who migrated to the Brazil. Rabbi Henry Sobel's file is also with us and that of Professor Anita Novinsky – one of the world's leading Inquisition experts – is coming to the MUJ. We have this treasure that is already accessible today, but the MUJ will open a public notice for researchers from all over Brazil to be able to carry out their research in the archive with support and grants. And not just research of Jewish interest, because you can, for example, research the history of the textile industry in Brazil or in São Paulo from a series of documents that deal with these industries, stores, etc. There are many possible paths to this archive, with which we have already made traveling exhibitions in libraries and schools.

Long-term exhibition of the museum, with material from the collection of the Memory Center. Photo: Disclosure

And in the educational part, we already have a team formed that serves visitors and groups of schools and institutions on a daily basis. We have mediated visits, visits in pounds, dramatized visits, storytelling and reading mediation for young children. And for all these visits, our idea of ​​mediation is not an explanation, it is always critical, reflective, includes the visitor, his repertoire, and maintains an open field of dialogue. And the museum's next step is to strengthen this participatory dimension, establishing more links with the territory: with the 9 de Julho Occupation, with Parque Augusta, with the collectives of artists in the region and so on. So we are starting these seams, because in our view it is essential to have a museum inserted and with well-established links with its territory, which is at its service and where the public has the possibility to create, to produce, to express themselves.

We have to create instances of participation and leave a hierarchical position that a museum can have, as if it were a maximum authority. The museum has to practice listening a lot, also learning from outsiders. There has been a great debate in recent decades about the democratization of access to cultural facilities, so that more people attend them. This is important, even more so in a country like Brazil – where there is a great lack in the cultural area –, but it is insufficient. The idea of ​​participation is linked to another perspective, which is called cultural democracy, which is when people not only have the possibility of having access to equipment, but also to the production itself and the circulation of their expressions. And that's what we want to develop better this year, as the MUJ is still very young. So there are already plans for 2022, among other things, to hold a literary festival, debates, film screenings, book launches; and we already have a partnership started with São Paulo Companhia de Dança to do Gaga workshops [a dance technique created by Israeli Ohad Naharin].       

ARTE! – Thinking about this aspect of dialogue with the territory, with the surroundings, many of the spaces linked to the Jewish community in São Paulo (and in other cities) find it difficult to open up to the city, generally because of security concerns. At the MUJ you can see that the doors are open to the street, but there are also armored glass walls around the museum and a metal detector at the entrance to the exhibitions. Do these types of mechanisms create a distance between the museum and the city and public space?

I think the word there is "balance". We are recognized as a Jewish institution, inside an old synagogue, and with the growth of anti-Semitism in Brazil and in the world, it is our responsibility to guarantee the safety of visitors and employees. That's premise. And although in Brazil there is no history of attacks on Jewish institutions, we are not immune to this, it has already happened in Argentina, for example. Today, mapped by researcher Adriana Dias, from USP, there are around 530 active Nazi cells in Brazil, and of course this is a cause for concern. On the other hand, we are a museum, which should be a friendly, welcoming space, as open as possible. So we seek to balance these two issues. The museum's doors are always open and we have a warm welcome; the security apparatus, which is the metal detector and the x-ray, is now quite common in several cultural institutions in the city, and is there in the least intimidating way possible; and passing through it we have a space like any other, including a large glass side that favors transparency with the city. And I can say that the conversation with the security team goes in that direction, that here is a humanizing place, where relationships have to be cordial and welcoming.

Bishop of the Rosary
In the center, work by Bispo do Rosário in the temporary exhibition “From the letter to the word”. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – We have already dealt here with education, research and cultural diversity, that is, ideas that go in the opposite direction to what the current federal government proposes. We have, among other things, clear attacks on cultural institutions, an unprecedented stoppage and control of the Rouanet Law. How do you see the context and how does the funding of the MUJ take place from now on, given this complex scenario?

Complex, to say the least. Because we are experiencing the overlap of several crises in the country: an economic crisis, a health crisis, an institutional crisis and we are also experiencing an emotionally challenging time, with a pandemic mourning and many lives lost, especially of the most vulnerable people. And we see unemployment, people on the street, a socially dramatic moment. And in our sector, the crisis is also acute, with the cultural area being very fragile in its public policies. For the MUJ, an institution that is neither public nor owned by companies, this resilience of civil society is essential, since we do not have public policies that can sustain or support the life of the institution. We make a huge effort to present the project to people and companies that can support via the Incentive Law or direct funding, but at this moment it is especially challenging, even because of this instability in the operation of the Incentive Law.

ARTE! – One of the topics covered in the new edition of arte!brasileiros (number 58) is the concept of reparation, in the sense that it is only possible to have a true democracy if there is some kind of historic reparation in relation to the violence perpetrated against historically oppressed peoples. In Brazil, this refers especially to indigenous people and Afro-descendants, but reparation is a theme that permeates a lot in the history of Jews. Can the Jewish case serve as some kind of example, bring lessons to this debate?

Brazil is a country that has lived through almost 400 years of slavery, an indigenous genocide, a few decades of dictatorship, and has a very recent and fragile democracy, still in formation. This requires the strengthening of democratic institutions and reparation for all those peoples who have been oppressed, subordinated, and are victims of systematic violence. So this is our commitment as a society, whether museums, citizens, institutions, companies or government. We need to create a new country paradigm that understands the size of its debt and creates reparation policies. In this sense, there is a Jewish concept called Tikun Olam, which is the “repair of the world”, an improvement, an improvement. Because things are not going well, they are not comfortable, there is a lot to be done. So, from the MUJ's point of view, we defend not only the reparation and safeguarding of the rights of the Jewish people and Jewish culture, but of all peoples. A perspective of a more egalitarian, more solidary, less violent society.

Entrance to the section dedicated to the Holocaust. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – On one of the walls of the exhibition, next to the part about the Holocaust, is written in large letters: “remember and not forget”… 

Yes, and we insisted there, at this point in the exhibition, to remember other forms of violence as well, perpetuated against indigenous, black, transsexual people... to exceptionalize the Jewish question. On the contrary, we understand much more from a perspective of alliance, of joining forces so that everyone can exist with their full rights. So before getting into the Holocaust section there is this highlight, to point out that just as it happened with the Jewish people, this happens with many other identities. But it is worth mentioning that it is not a question of prioritizing pain, it is not possible to enter into a measurement system about it.   

ARTE! – We recently had the case where the then presenter of the Flow Podcast, Monark, said that the existence of a Nazi party in Brazil should be allowed. In a recent interview you said that Nazism is not just a problem for Jews and that we are seeing a growth in prejudice, violence and oppression in the world. Could you talk a little about that?

I think there is a tendency in our society to reduce the other to a very simplified version. People cannot be reduced to a single identity, we all have many layers of identity and they are always on the move, they are sometimes even contradictory. And when the person is reduced to a single facet, several of his human dimensions are annulled, and this is even a reason for violence. The MUJ wants to show this, that identities are complex and multifaceted. Spaces for education and culture are essential to form an awareness of a more tolerant society that values ​​diversity. And we discussed at the museum that if anything can be taken away from this most unfortunate episode of Monark, it's the pedagogical opportunity. It was important that the institutions manifested themselves, that this person was criticized and that this created an awareness that public communication requires responsibility - this type of discourse cannot be allowed, which ends up reaching thousands of people and influences the formation of a violent culture. And, of course, where there is crime, the correct referrals must be given, but we don't just believe in punishment, but in the need for education.

The exhibition “From Letter to Word”. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – In this sense, we have a government that, on the one hand, uses symbols of Judaism – through a relationship that goes through the evangelical community and a supposed brotherhood with Israel -, but on the other hand flirts with fascist thoughts, even Nazis. We had the case of Roberto Alvim, the visit of German neo-Nazi representatives and so on. How do you see the situation and what role can the MUJ play in this context?

It is a broad and complex subject. What we understand is that there is a series of mistaken imaginaries about what the Jew would be and also about what the relationship between the Jews who live here in Brazil and the Israeli government would be. There are Jews in many parts of the world, a large part in Israel, but the policies of a government in Israel are something else. Our government sought a rapprochement with the government of Israel, also motivated by an understanding of an “imaginary Israel” and an “imaginary Jew” - as Professor Michel Gherman says -, which is this idealization of a white people, of an arms country. and religious. And this is a misappropriation of imaginaries that do not necessarily correspond to reality and that serve to co-opt symbols for a political project. And this is a process that has been going on and that makes everything very muddy… because it is a government that does not support minorities and at the same time has this relationship of admiration or flirtation with Israel. It can all seem very confusing.

In the case of MUJ, we work much more with a cultural perspective. I think there are other institutions in the country that are very well prepared and that are discussing this issue of a political nature more deeply, which also involves Israel. And in our mediation and education, we try to put things in their place, because it's really quite complex. Finally, about the flirtations you spoke of the current government with fascism or Nazism, this is simply unacceptable. Even more, as in the case of Alvim, a sector that deals with culture. So it is our role to face this type of manifestation.     

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