There were no Jews in my little Bavarian village when I was a child in the 1970s. According to my paternal grandmother the Jews had all mysteriously disappeared from Baiersdorf at the end of the 19th century. “Where did they go?” I asked her. “To America,” she said. Our town still had a Jewish cemetery, and it had had a synagogue until Kristallnacht. There is still a Seligmann-Kindergarten, named after the Jewish banker and philanthropist Henry Seligmann, and a Judengasse (Jew Alley). The village historian I spoke to a few years ago—after I had moved to America myself—told me that more than a quarter of the residents were Jewish in the mid-19th century, but that by the time my grandmother was born in 1910, most Jews had indeed fled Baiersdorf because of rising anti-Semitism.
When I was little, I often climbed up onto the stone wall to catch a glimpse of the Jewish cemetery. My teachers told me it had been locked to protect it from vandalism. My tiny body perched on crumbling sandstone, I looked for the ghosts of a long-ago people who seemed to hover restlessly and colossally over our little town. I wondered if they had been untidy people. While my Protestant grandmother tended to her husband’s grave as if her life depended on it—and maybe it did—the Jewish cemetery looked messy, with brush covering most of the crooked and sinking gravestones. Who were these people my grandmother hated so much—“these people” about whom I had heard townspeople say, “Why, if a Jew stands on his bag of money, he’s just as tall as we are”? I pictured a very small man looming over our town on a very large bag of money. I am very short myself, I thought as I stood on the high wall. Maybe I needed to go where the untidy, little people lived. Maybe my parents had given birth to a monster.
These were my thoughts when I recently visited Masterpieces & Curiosities: Diane Arbus’s Jewish Giant, the second in a series of “intimate ‘essay’ exhibitions” organized around single works from the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection. In the middle of the room was Arbus’ “A Jewish giant at home with his parents, in the Bronx, N.Y.” displayed in a glass box.
Arbus photographed “A Jewish Giant” in 1970. It portrays Eddie Carmel and his parents in their living room, the place where a family’s intimacy and drama unfolds. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel suffered from acromegaly, a syndrome that causes the body to produce an excess of a particular growth hormone. The photograph was taken a couple of years before his death—and one year before Arbus committed suicide. In it Carmel leans on a cane, his back bent as to not bump his head on the ceiling. Carmel had long outgrown his parents and slowly but surely was outgrowing their apartment. At 34, he looks down at his little people with a small smile on his face. His mother looks up in what to me looks like horror; his father, it seems, can barely look at his son. The lamp behind Carmel is covered in plastic; the couch and chairs are covered in cloth. The curtains are drawn, ominously, preventing the outside from looking in while emphasizing the atmosphere’s intimacy.
Instead of climbing up on a ladder to meet him on the same level, Arbus photographed Carmel from below. By meeting his parents on their eye level and by including the banal interior of their living room, she stresses the ordinary. As in all her photographs, Arbus is present, her camera strategically placed in the space between parents and son, between normalcy and abnormality. She shares the room with her subjects; the distance between them is negligible. “The best thing is the difference,” Arbus once said. “I get to keep what nobody needs.”
But the context the Jewish Museum provides in an attempt to “rethink the piece on view” is one-sided and shallow. Two accompanying glass vitrines are filled with André the Giant action figures and Hulk memorabilia, while a third contains the Jewish giant’s gigantic shoes. The first thing that came to my mind was the heap of 4,000 shoes of murdered Jews exhibited behind glass at the Holocaust Museum in Washington; it was there that I saw my husband cry for the first time. How could the Jewish Museum, of all places, exhibit a pair of shoes in a glass case without realizing the implications it might have for many people in 2014? But that wasn’t the only problem.
Instead of helping Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant, escape his freakdom—or at least portray the nuances that Arbus painstakingly carved out in her work—the exhibition seemed to only reinforce it. Accompanying the image was a series of family photographs showing the giant as a normal-looking child (he began growing abnormally as a teenager); a photograph by Lisette Model of Albert-Alberta, the transvestite who performed alongside Eddie Carmel at “Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus” in Times Square; and a novelty single of Carmel’s songs “The Happy Giant” and “The Good Monster.”
Here he was, Carmel the freak, nothing more, nothing less.
Diane Arbus grew up wealthy and privileged in New York City. Her parents owned Russek’s, a famous department store on Fifth Avenue. Under the pseudonym Daisy Singer, she told Studs Terkel in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Depression, “I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity.” Arbus was known to flip the predictable and play with the enormous and extreme. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” she said. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
Arbus didn’t abhor or isolate otherness; her photos expose what lies in the narrow space between us and others. She placed her camera between herself and her subjects, many of whom had been exposed to hardship from birth. With her photographs, she created a reflection of the ghost that hovered between her and the transsexuals, giants, nudists, midgets, and retarded with whom she spent time.
While her attempts to materialize the ghosts that linger between normalcy and abnormality, between us and “them,” were audacious, critics and observers have often interpreted Arbus’ pictures as exploitative and voyeuristic. But would it really have been better—or more humane—if Arbus had looked away?
The answer is no. In fact, it is the exhibition at the Jewish Museum that’s exploitative and voyeuristic. The curators accentuated Carmel’s freakishness at the expense of his humanity. If we really wanted to talk about “context,” it would be interesting to elaborate on the notion that Arbus’ giant wasn’t just any giant. He was a Jewish giant. Like many Jews before and after him, Carmel was tragically caught between his socially assigned freakdom and his desired normalcy, between persecution and adaptation.
The exhibition picks up the fact that Carmel was Jewish only superficially, by means of an artwork depicting Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel’s Golem of Prague. According to folk tales, Rabbi Loew created a Golem out of river clay. The Golem eventually turned into a violent monster until the rabbi managed to turn him lifeless again and store him in the attic of Prague’s Old New Synagogue. It is always one or the other, it seems: violence or annihilation, adaptation or expulsion. Either we are forced to watch helplessly as the Jewish giant turns against us or we manage to dissolve him completely. One would expect a Jewish museum to tackle its giants more gently.
Arbus’ work is proof that getting to know the other and recording their fate truthfully is an exercise in vulnerability—for both sides. It strengthens you in an odd way. “Her photographs offer an occasion to demonstrate that life’s horror can be faced without squeamishness,” Susan Sontag wrote. Shouldn’t we all climb up and balance on the stone wall more often? Shouldn’t we look at the other side and face the ghosts?
Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.