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In Favor of Outsiderhood

An outsider’s observation: Was Egypt really so bad for us strangers? After all, it was in Egypt where a psychic Jewish slave, betrayed and abandoned by his own Jewish brothers, rose to be second only to Pharaoh in position and power. Joseph—as is statistically borne out to this day—was far more likely to be harmed by family than by strangers. Yet we persist in warning against the stranger.

My home is Baltimore—a city that leads the country in heroin usage and venereal disease—and yet also supports the most diverse Jewish American community and an abundance of other blessings. This synchronous dance of the sublime and the hellish links Baltimore with both Egypt and modern day Israel and, heck, to pretty much the whole earth. Baltimore has always been a good place to be strange. It’s been terra firma to many extraterrestrial outsiders like Edgar Allen Poe, John, Waters, Barry Levinson, Billie Holiday, Benjamin Banneker, Henrietta Szold, and the Jewish Fuld brothers who first patented the Ouiji Board. My childhood’s most influential reading? Oscar Levant’s hilarious Memoirs of an Amnesiac, Nijinksy’s Diary, Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, and Martin Buber’s all and everything. Who are my favorite Jewish outsider heroes today? Orthodox artist Mierele Ukeles, and “Trembling Before G-d” filmmaker, Sandi Dubowsky.

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is director and founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, www.avam.org