September 11: The Yahrzeit’s Lessons

Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage is a sadly perfect institution to commemorate the first anniversary of September 11; it is located downtown, it defines itself as “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust,” and it was built on landfill excavated to build the World Trade Center. And Jill Vexler, a cultural anthropologist with years of experience memorializing loss of life and culture in cities around the world, was the perfect guest curator to collect the artifacts for this exhibit.

“Yahrzeit: September 11 Observed” runs until January 5, 2003. “As I asked people ‘Where were you on September 11?’ that very, very simple question opened a flood of information,” Vexler told LILITH. Vexler also said that while many in her field speak up on behalf of third world societies, recording urban life is very much in their purview too. The show’s objects include a helmet from a firefighter who died, the palm pilot from which a rabbi read the traveler’s prayer when stuck underground in the subway and children’s drawings from the days immediately following the destruction.

Vexler believes that museums have many different opportunities to spur people’s engagement with social issues. During the months when she was researching “Yahrzeit,” she found herself in the company of a variety of volunteers, including psychiatrists who were planning to travel to El Salvador when September 11 diverted their attention closer to home. Vexler, who’d lived and worked in Latin America for almost 10 years and is fluent in Spanish, caught the attention of Disaster Psychiatry Outreach (DPO), a volunteer organization that provides disaster mental health services.

Vexler has since linked up with DPO to establish, at a children’s museum in El Salvador, a mental health center that deals with the aftermath of civil war and earthquakes. At the museum, Vexler discovered 20,000 square feet of unused exhibition space, and is now in the process of giving them an exhibit she owns that recreates three traditional kitchens— from Greece, Thailand and Mexico.

“Is this activism?” Vexler asks. “It’s taking the tools we have and plugging them in to ways that can help other people. We listened carefully, asked questions and wove a fabric of problems and solutions.”