Displays Of Enthusiasm

At the Jewish Museum of Maryland, director Avi Decter articulates a clear mission: to preserve and provoke.


Avi Decter has been doing some thinking about Jewish mothers lately, and that has led him to an arresting conclusion.

"You don't have to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother," the voluble director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, observed recently. "You don't have to be a mother to be a Jewish mother. You don't even have to be a woman to be a Jewish mother."

An amusing and insightful notion, to be sure, but one that wouldn't have come to much had it occurred to most of us. A witticism at the dinner table perhaps, or maybe an e-mail to a friend. Either way, a flicker of an idea quickly expired.

Luckily, though, the thought occurred to Decter, and because it did it will enjoy a rather more substantial airing. In fact, because it occurred to Decter, it will be given attention - both serious and whimsical - at his museum in a major exhibit on Jewish mothers tentatively slated for the fall of 2004.

Those surprised that a staple of Jewish comics would be considered museum-worthy are probably unfamiliar with both Decter and his little-engine-that-could of a museum in East Baltimore. Under Decter's direction, past or future exhibits include such unusual subject matter as Jewish vacations, Jews of small-town Maryland, and Baltimore's grand old, mostly Jewish-owned department stores. Most outre of all, however, was an exhibit in 2000 titled Tchotchkes!

That one, about the kitschy knickknacks collected by Jewish families, even had some members of Decter's board of directors wondering about his judgment when he first posed the idea.

"I thought it was below our dignity," said Ira Askin, the former president of the museum board. But Askin now happily admits that he was ultimately won over by the exhibit's combination of fun and scholarship. It helped that museum attendance began to climb with Tchotchkes! after a period of renovations that had driven visits down.

Askin, like others on the board, now numbers himself a huge admirer of Decter, who has brought national recognition to the museum while also securing funding in a hellaciously competitive marketplace. "He has been dynamic, full of ideas and forward-thinking," says Askin. "He was the right man for us at the right time."

When the museum's first director, the highly regarded Bernard Fishman (upon whom Decter lavishes praise), left in 1998, the museum board asked Decter to take over. But the award-winning exhibit-designer, who has earned a living as a museum consultant for 21 years, realized that giving up his lucrative Philadelphia-based business to operate the Jewish Museum would be financial lunacy. So, he counter-proposed that he take the job on a part-time basis, spending two days a week in Baltimore while continuing to hire himself out as a consultant.

Surprisingly to him, the board concluded that a little bit of Decter was preferable to no Decter at all.

`It's a gift'

Decter, whose default mode seems to be "EFFUSIVE," feels exactly the same way about the Jewish Museum. "You're dealing with someone who is lovestruck," he said recently. "I never planned to run a place again, let alone a place this great. It's a gift."

He oversees what he believes to be the largest collection of any regional Jewish museum in the country as well as two historic synagogues that flank the museum on Lloyd Street. But what he's most emphatic about is the quality of his 15-person staff, many of whom he inherited. "Top to bottom, we're about as good as anybody. For smarts, for can-do, for productivity, you can't beat this place."

For those who wonder why, if Decter is such a hotshot, he finds himself at - let's face it - not the best-known museum, Decter quickly dispenses with the idea. "I've played Broadway," he says, meaning his design work for major institutions, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (whose permanent exhibit he was instrumental in the conception of), the Smithsonian, and museums in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. His deepest experience is in Jewish-related exhibitions, but he has plowed other topical fields as well, from the Industrial Revolution to baseball to helicopters. Now, he says, "I have nothing to prove to anyone."

As he bustles about the museum after Labor Day weekend - a smallish man with a salt-and-pepper beard - he proves himself an unceasing kibitzer (could he be a Jewish mother?) and serial flatterer. In her presence, he says that Melissa Martens, the museum's curator, is "one of the finest professionals I have run into in 20 years." An hour later, with gravity and much eye contact, he tells his board, "We are blessed" to have as an assistant director Anita Kassof, for whom he says he would gladly work though, at 38, she is more than 20 years his junior.

But the flowing praise doesn't mean he is a pushover. A designer shows him the invitations she proposes to send out for next month's opening of the exhibit on small-town Jews.

"You know what, it's still not exciting to me," he tells her. "You can't even tell it's an opening." He sends her off to try again.

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