Man Ray and Jewish Identity

Though in retrospect it seems ridiculously daft, it did not occur to me that the reason the Man Ray exhibit was up at the Jewish Museum this past winter was that Man Ray himself was Jewish. When I saw the ad, the words “Man Ray” completely overrode the word “Jewish,” which I later learned is exactly how Man Ray would have wanted it.

I tend to avoid the Jewish Museum. In fact, I have an aversion to anything specifically Jewish. There are a number of exceptions, including but not limited to: the rest of my family, my childhood best friend, lox, talking loudly and constantly and returning items with which I am not satisfied with impunity. But overall, I eschew culture in favor of subculture. I bristle at identity politics, at categories formed solely on the basis of religious or ethnic identity. Not so much for me with the Hillel.

There are so many unavoidably Jewish things about me that I feel no need to do anything to amplify or more deeply experience this aspect of myself. For me, every day is Jewish cultural awareness day. I prefer to let my Jewishness just remain a strange and exotic mystery ingredient to those outside New York City. “You’re so funny,” people will say. “Look at all those curls.” “You sure have a lot of nervous energy.” Clueless Californians will attribute all of this to “New York,” not even realizing that “New York” itself is a euphemism for “Jew.”

So when my personal physician and museum-going buddy had a rare Saturday off from the hospital and we set out on one of our usual expeditions to blow our minds and see some art, I thought nothing of our destination—at least not consciously. But as we took our pre-museum constitutional in Central Park, our conversation turned to matters of Jewish identity, as if pulled there by the museum we were about visit—not the Metropolitan, nor the Modern, nor the Guggenheim, but today the Jewish. Admission was free on Saturdays, a day of the week I noted that strangely, no Shabbos-observing Jew could attend.

I remarked to my personal physician that my Dutch friend, whom I had just seen the previous evening, is always especially inquisitive about my “Jewish identity.” Was I a Jew and what did it mean to be a Jew and did I think the Jews were a racial category and if so did I count myself in it? I rarely ponder all this as deeply as when she probes me on it.

“I think Europeans have a weird guilt-fascination thing with the Jews,” diagnosed my personal physician. “Because of the Holocaust and the somewhat accepted level of anti-Semitism in Europe that allowed it to happen. It’s not like in New York, where even the non-Jews identify themselves as partly Jewish. Jews in Europe are still more Other.” Spoken like a true Brown graduate, and she wasn’t even a humanities major.

Already thus veering in an appropriately Semitic direction, we crossed Fifth Avenue and entered the museum, passing through a metal detector. I was immediately irritated. Of course the Jewish Museum was the one museum in New York with a metal detector. Of course the Jewish Museum believed itself to be a potential object of terrorist attack. Now maybe the Jewish Museum received daily threats from a plethora of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and neo-Nazi operatives, who knew? But to me, the metal detectors were indicative of something deeper–the generalized Jewish anxiety that is one of the main reasons I find myself instinctively struggling against the powerful grip of my cultural identity. This generalized anxiety has some benign outcomes, like the Jewish parental propensity for overprotective hand-wringing, and some quite nefarious outcomes, like the perpetration of violence against others, purportedly in self-defense but actually in the very same vein of xenophobic aggression that has caused the Jews themselves so much suffering throughout history.

If you want to do evil to the Jews, the Jewish Museum is a poor target. It specializes in Jews that are dead already. It was not until we were inside the exhibit, contemplating the text on the wall that explained how Man Ray had been born Emmanuel “Manny” Radnitzky in Brooklyn, that I put it all together and realized that Man Ray was one of these dead Jews. It was at this moment that I was forced to face some unpleasant facts about my own worldview.

I had always thought of Man Ray only as a Very Important Artist. It had never once crossed my mind whether or not he was a Jew. My image of Man Ray, gleaned from other museum exhibits, was one of a wild-eyed man with a thin moustache who wore a beret and bedded his models. I fully accepted Man Ray as the embodiment of an artistic archetype, but I had never related to Man Ray as a Jew, or as a Jewish artist, only as an artist.

According to the text accompanying the exhibition, this is exactly what Man Ray would have preferred. Renaming himself as he did, shedding the telltale ethnicity of “Emmanuel Radnitzky,” the wall copy said, he asserted himself as human first, quite literally Man, not specifically Jewish. He escaped his Jewish identity.

The Jewish Museum, predictably, was bent on reapplying it. Every placard next to every piece of art listed the name of the artist as “Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky).” The exhibit was entitled, “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention.” The whole thesis of it was that Man Ray had worked to throw off his Jewish identity, but this was only an alias, a fake name. They did not consider the fact that a person compelled to choose a new name might feel that his new name was the real one, that his old name had been the alias of his true self.

With their neat little placards, the Jewish museum happily and posthumously re-Jewed Man Ray. I took offense at this. The artist who made the art on the Jewish Museum’s walls named himself Man Ray. It was for him and no one else to disclose the facts and names of his birth. No doubt they would have parenthetically noted that Bob Dylan was born “Robert Zimmerman.”

It has all gotten very complicated, because the same act can have such different meanings. Unearthing the Jewish roots of a name, and with it, a person, can be an act of pride or incrimination, depending on the political climate. In Nazi Germany to reveal a Jew as such was to condemn him to death. On the walls of the Jewish Museum it is to claim him and his work for the purposes of ethnic pride. While one outcome is certainly more dire, I do not really agree with the intentions behind either act.

If Man Ray had made art about being Jewish, used Jewish symbols, maybe stuck some nails on the bottom of a loaf of challah, so be it. I write quite a bit about being Jewish, I am doing it right now. But it is the worst imposition of identity politics onto art to force everything through the lens of Jewish identity when it is not presented as such. It is interesting to know that Man Ray changed his name to hide his origins. But once I know that I want to forget it, to see the placard name the artist as he named himself. Let the artist live as he chooses through his art. Don’t do him the disservice of claiming him for your tribe when he may well have chosen another one.

And yet knowing that Man Ray was a Jew was instantly inspiring to me, yes, as a Jew. I felt an immediate kinship to him, a deepening of my own hopes. Even if you were a New York Jew, you could just run off to some distant city of your dreams and reinvent yourself any time you liked. It was a move I was pondering at that very moment, and knowing that Man Ray had done it gave me strength. Like me, Man Ray had well-meaning Jewish parents, who “were always proud of him and did support him financially when they were able, despite their upset with his decision” to be an artist and not a successful architect, as they had once imagined he would be. I had never before thought about what Man Ray’s parents might have been like, but now I thought the Radnitzkys might be something like the my own parents, the Weinsteins—fiercely loving, overly anxious and sighingly supportive of their child’s outlandish choices.


After the iron full of nails and the famous photographs of Lee Miller’s eye and upthrust chin and Kiki Montparnasse with the cello squiggles on her back and some paintings I didn’t really like all that much, there was a recessed television showing a documentary about Man Ray’s life, featuring an interview with the artist as an old man.

I had never heard Man Ray speak or seen him captured on film. In my mind he spoke in a theatrical European accent, like many an incompetent young actor in a badly written biopic. But he didn’t! He had the distinctly nasal intonation of a New York Jew! He sounded just like one of my elderly relatives, the Jews born in the early 20th century who were his original peers and contemporaries and my very own predecessors.

When we came upon the video, Man Ray himself was narrating his own life. “And so,” he said, “I went to Paris, where I was reborn. I was immediately introduced to the whole Dada group.”

It’s nearly impossible to render accent and intonation on the printed page, but it sounded more like, “And sooooo, I went to Pah-ris, wheah I was re-bawn. I was im-eeeeee-diate-ly introduced to the whole Dadah group.”

My personal physician and I could no longer contain ourselves. At sound of these words in that accent, accompanying as they did slow pans over black-and-white photographs of Dadaists looking moodily into the camera, dangling their cigarettes and canes, we collapsed into hysterics. Middle-aged ladies raised eyebrows. Fur-clad senior citizens glared.

It was the chattiness of Man Ray’s account of it, the sheer incongruity of his accent with the subject at hand. He was describing how he became one of the most important artists of the 20th century in both Europe and America, how he cross-pollinated the worlds of photography and painting, the movements of Dadaism and surrealism, but the voice issuing from the museum wall was exactly the one you’d expect to be praising the dessert table of a particularly lavish wedding at Leonard’s of Great Neck. Of course it was I who was imposing these stereotypes, nearly a century after Man Ray had so consciously tried to evade them. To my knowledge, Man Ray never attended any weddings in Great Neck. He changed his name, kept his accent and left New York.

“I made it my business to get to know interesting people,” continued Man Ray. I grabbed my personal physician’s arm and giggled uncontrollably into her shoulder. Man Ray sounded exactly like my grandmother reporting on one of her many Elder Hostel experiences. “I met some very interesting people,” she would always say, going on to describe a podiatrist from Miami or a retired school principal from upstate New York and their exploits together in a music appreciation seminar. Man Ray was talking about meeting the likes of Marcel DuChamp, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, but in that voice he made it sound like they had all played a few especially exciting hands of bridge, rather than constituted the artistic elite of the early twentieth century.

Man Ray was a Jew! Not only a Jew, but a Jewy Jew McJewstein, as one of my other personal physicians would call him. Hearing him talk about his life like that, seeing his seemingly endless capacity for reinvention and yet hearing the undeniable evidence that after decades abroad he remained, in his vocal patterns, unchanged, I felt wild hope bursting in my chest. There was some level of me that had believed that my Jewishness, as much as I tried to escape it, would always overpower any other identity I tried to take on. Perhaps this was why I always tried to resist and escape it even as I inhabited and embraced it. But hearing Man Ray lilt nasally about his exploits, I came to some cliché realizations. One was that you could take the boy out of Brooklyn but you could never take the Brooklyn out of the boy. Two was that you could be anyone you wanted to. I could be anyone I wanted to. Three was that I could place myself among a proud heritage of Jewish artists, if I so chose, and learn from them. What I was learning from Man Ray, specifically a Man Ray placed in the context of his Jewishness, was that if you were a great enough artist you would be an artist first and everything else second, that everything else would become part of your art. I begrudgingly admitted that the Jewish Museum had in fact brought me to a deeper understanding of myself, as a Jew, an artist and a person.

In the text accompanying the exhibition, the Jewish Museum got one thing very wrong, however. Quoting Man Ray as saying that “Perhaps the final goal desired by the artist is a confusion or merging of all the arts, as things merge in real life,” the Museum concludes that this is “an apt metaphor for assimilation.” I am not so sure about this. I disagree with the idea that Man Ray was only attempting to efface his Jewishness in creating an identity defined not by ethnicity but by artistic pursuit. To seek a merging of “all things” is not the same thing as “to assimilate.” To me this merging is universal, spiritual, divine—the sort of wholeness and oneness that is only possible when we deliberately throw off the smallness of our confining categories. I do not believe that the artist’s attempt to merge with all art, all life is any kind of an assimilation. A sublimation, a dissolution, a transubstantiation, a transcendence, maybe. Only in the small-mindedness of wanting to preserve a largely invented bloodline could someone read this highest of goals—to merge with all things–as merely assimilation. The pursuit of the merging of “all the arts,” a merging with all the arts, requires that the artist walk a lonely path, creating for himself a community defined foremost by the pursuit of those same ends. Man Ray didn’t assimilate—there was just something far more important to him than being Jewish.

That is what gets me in the end, about the Jewy Jew McJewsteins. They think the most important thing is being Jewish. The most important thing is art, you schmucks.


After the video we entered the last gallery of the exhibit. In here were paintings Man Ray had made while he was waiting out the war in Hollywood. Why was he waiting out the war in Hollywood? Because he was Jewish and Hitler would have had him killed.

“How surreal would that be?” wondered my personal physician. “You’ve lived in Europe all these years, and then suddenly you are exiled back to America and spend the whole war in Hollywood, where nothing is real and everyone lives in a fantasy, knowing that if you were still in Europe you’d be in a concentration camp.”

That is another uncomfortable fact of Jewish identity—the idea that there have been many wrong places and wrong times to be Jewish. But again, I bristle when it is suggested that this is solely a Jewish experience. Sometimes, I wish the Jews would merge a little more with all things, all life, and stop acting like we’re the only people anything bad has ever happened to.


We ambled out into the late winter gray, met up with our personal scientist and chose to dine extravagantly that night in Fake France, which is what we call any of New York’s many approximations of Parisian cafés and bistros. If we all share a single meal and ask shamelessly for extra bread, we can afford to eat like queens. We had escargot and filet mignon, drank rose, finished off with crème brulee.

My personal scientist and personal physician are very romantic types. They cure diseases by day and dabble in literature and painting in their spare time. Despite their southern and midwestern childhoods rife with horseback riding and ice-skating and being tall and/or blond, they do uncanny old Jewish lady accents that we will sometimes lapse into for whole afternoons or evenings at a time. “This crème brulee is to die for,” we drawled in our best Great Aunt Miriams. I was getting confused about who was the artist, who were the scientists, and which one of us was the real Jew. Were we still in Fake France or had we finally time-warped to Paris?

I beckoned the waitress and ordered a Pernod. If Man Ray could be a Frenchman and a Brooklyn Jew and so many other things all at once, then so could I.

One Response to “Man Ray and Jewish Identity”
  1. Serge says:

    By the way. Saturday is free day because then you can walk in without handling money. Which is the only thing about a museum which would be incompatible with Shabbat. Unless you’re really really far from the museum.

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