Saturday, August 9, 2008

Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Austria Revamped

I just received a copy of the thick new catalogue for the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Austria, which reopened last year after a complete renovation and revamping of the permanent exhibition. The Museum, which was founded in 1991, now goes by the name "At Home: Diaspora." I haven't seen it yet -- but the catalogue is a more than 360-page collection of essays and photographs linking history, personal history, memoir and analysis.

Hohenems is in the far western corner of Austria, near the Swiss border -- a few years ago I wrote an article about the town and an exhibition at the Museum on cantorial super stars called "Kantormania" for the International Herald Tribune. It is the birthplace of one of 19th century Europe's biggest cantorial super stars, Solomon Sulzer, and the exhibit formed part of celebrations marking Sulzer's bicentennial .

"Sulzer was not only a cantor," Hanno Loewy, the director of the Museum, told me at the time. "He was a composer; he was a public figure; he was a teacher. He had his own school, he had his chorus. He led probably the best chorus in Vienna in the 19th century."

What's more, he added, "He was celebrated because of his wonderful voice by most of the celebrated musicians of his time, from Schubert to Liszt. They all came to the synagogue to listen to his voice." Not only that, Sulzer also became the center of a personality cult, to the point where admirers even copied his famous long-flowing hair style.

The Museum, on the other side of the country from Vienna, forms part of the cultural scene in the Lake Constance area, which also encompasses parts of Switzerland and Germany. It also has forged strong bonds with descendants of Hohenems Jews -- each year the town and museum host a gathering of Jews with links to the town. The first such gathering took place in 1998; this year it took place last weekend.

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