Francine Wolfisz visits Blood, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum looking at its cultural and religious symbolism throughout the ages
The notion of blood can be very useful for creating a community – but it can also be used against them.”
Anthony Bale, professor of medieval studies at Birkbeck, is talking to me at Blood, the Jewish Museum London’s latest exhibition, which was unveiled last week.
Developed in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, it’s a fascinating look at how the Jewish community is bound together by genetics – the literal blood ties – as well as its cultural and religious practices.
The exhibition also examines the more sinister connotations, the blood libels that began in the medieval ages and continue around the world in modern times, as well as the Jewish pioneers who paved the way for the study of eugenics, only to find their research turned on its head for anti-Semitic propaganda. Blood, it seems, is not without its ironies or contradictions.
The exhibition, which takes visitors on an almost-chronological journey, starts where Judaism itself began – with the covenant of circumcision. On display is a beautiful eleven-piece, silver circumcision set from 1844, presented by the Jewish community in Plymouth to Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac, as well as an amber-handled circumcision knife from the early 18th century, which shows an image of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.
Another section deals with the laws of family purity and kashrut, the latter illustrated by a rare set of butchering knives originating from Lithuania around 1900, with each inscribed in Hebrew and an image of chickens, geese, rams and cattle.
This array of first exhibits shows how blood – with the word itself appearing more than 350 times in the Torah – is viewed in a variety of ways by Jewish religious practices.
Curator Joanne Rosenthal explains: “You can talk about the blood of circumcision being pure, elevated and almost sacrificial.
“On the other hand, we have the blood of menstruation and the blood of slaughtered animals, which is the opposite. It’s taboo and considered ‘impure’.”
Moving on through the exhibition, which was co-designed by Tom Piper, the artist behind the Tower of London’s poppy installation, we come to a darkened room featuring the at-times difficult and strained relationship between Judaism and Christianity, with blood invariably at the centre of their differences.
Unusually for the Jewish Museum, the display includes a selection of religious Christian artefacts, including a 15th century painting depicting the circumcision of Christ, by the Master of the Tucher Altarpiece.
Rosenthal explains: “Lots of people might be surprised to see Christian objects in a Jewish museum, but you can’t really tell the story of Jews and blood without looking at Christianity and seeing how blood mediated that relationship.
“The circumcision painting essentially shows a brutal attack, a violation on the divine baby with a very large knife. The blood of Jesus, which is hugely symbolic, is shed by the Jews, thereby prefiguring the later crucifixion.”
Also featured is a 15th century bronze figure of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, borrowed from the Victoria & Albert Museum. This statue depicts the blood of Christ pouring into a chalice, from a wound in his side, showing that his blood is pure and redemptive – in contrast to ideas at the time of “Jewish blood”.
The exhibition shows there were few steps between ideas of “savage” Jews and the lust for Jesus’ “pure” blood. The natural development of this was the rise of the blood libels – a myth in the Middle Ages that Jews ritually murdered Christian children to satisfy their blood thirstiness.
The displays reference the well-documented examples of Simon of Trent, a boy from Trento, Italy, whose disappearance and murder in the 15th century was blamed on the city’s Jewish leaders, as well as Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, whose killing had dire consequences for the Jewish population in England.
More surprising however are the exhibits that show how the blood libel was perpetuated in modern times.
Among these is an image from The Matzah of Zion, written in 1982 by Syrian defence minister Mustafa Tlass, which renews the blood libel claim in the context of the Middle East.
Popular culture is also implicated in showing Jews as blood-lusting vampires. A still from the 1931 version of Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi, shows the character wearing a six-pointed medallion reminiscent of the Star of David.
The last section of the exhibition deals with ideas of race and medicine. It shows how long-standing anti-Semitic notions of “Jewish blood” became the focus of scientists hoping to prove racist ideas of purity.
But likewise, the exhibition highlights how a “Jewish blood” of sorts does exist, through the advancing study of genetics and DNA.
“Blood certainly has all these contradictory meanings,” adds Rosenthal. “But regardless, the exhibition shows it’s incredibly important to Judaism.”
• Blood is at Jewish Museum London until 28 February. Details: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk