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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.

The young woman withdraws without seeming unduly chagrined by Decter's disapproval. Some who knew Decter in his earlier days believe he has become far more politic with age. Michael Berenbaum, who employed him as project director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, says Decter was not someone who worried excessively about bruising egos.

"He certainly has all the ability to go anywhere and do anything," Berenbaum said. "I'm not sure at the time that I would say he had all the polish. ... Avi was more respected than he was loved."

But Berenbaum, who considers Decter a friend, added that popularity is not necessarily a desirable trait in museum design. "Sometimes it's good not to be loved all the time. ... A good museum has to be able to take the heat."

Unsanitized history

Decter subscribes to that sentiment. Although he is succeeding in introducing his museum to a wider audience, it will always be true that its core constituency and most passionately interested visitors are Jewish. Even so, Decter says he's not interested in mounting a sanitized interpretation of Jewish history and culture.

So for instance, in one recent exhibit, next to an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish man with a massively hooked nose, Decter placed a poster from a Jewish theater troupe showing actors in blackface. The idea, he said, was to show that even as they were subject to stereotypes, Jews themselves were not immune to racial prejudice. Similarly, the current exhibit on Jewish department stores includes a section on their discriminatory practices.

It isn't that Decter is conflicted about his identity. Far from it. He describes himself as a deeply committed Jew. His father, a rabbi, witnessed death camps in Germany as a U.S. Army chaplain and was a lifelong Zionist. His mother was a Hebrew school teacher. Decter himself is the happy product of a Jewish education (as well as Columbia, Brandeis, the London School of Economics and the University of London).

Decter also considers himself a deeply committed historian, but he rejects the idea that his twin passions create an internal divide. He feels no impulse to sentimentalize Jewish life, past or present, and he doesn't believe that's what museum-goers expect - let alone want.

"It's not helpful to present history in a romanticized, idealized or simplified way," Decter says. "We don't need to celebrate our history in an inauthentic way. That's not interesting, and it's not useful. History is complicated and nuanced, and museums should reflect that."

That may not have been the obvious lesson derived from the 1995 debacle involving the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum exhibit on the Enola Gay. As originally planned, the exhibit would have explored moral issues raised in America's dropping of the atom bombs on Japan in 1945. But in the face of a ferocious campaign by the Air Force Association, which has always been intensely invested in Air and Space, the museum backed down from any presentation that questioned the righteousness of the American action.

The controversy caused much consternation among those who work in historical museums. Many privately worried that to avoid igniting similar protests, history museums would retreat to bland, superficial exhibits.

It was a justified concern, says Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society and a member of Decter's board. "Museums have gotten more gun-shy because their subject matters often get close to the bone of a museum's constituency.

"There isn't the kind of distance in a history museum as there is with other kinds of museums because you're dealing with people's lives and histories and prejudices and good points and bad points. That's why history museums are loaded with time bombs," he said.

Nevertheless, professionals say they do not perceive a mass retreat by history museums from exhibits with strong points of view. Some believe the Enola Gay flap did not suppress interpretation but prompted those mounting historical exhibits to be more outspoken about the importance of interpretation. The role of historical museums is to challenge rather than comfort.

Exhibits that provoke

"If all people are getting when they come to museums is reassurance and confirmation of what they are already thinking, then we are wasting our time," says Ken Yellis, director of the museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and a close friend of Decter's. "I think museums have to be challenging without being insulting. We demand something of visitors. Otherwise, what's the point?"

Decter says he believes he fails if his exhibits don't provoke. "If we were really doing our job, I'd get a call every day," he says.

If the calls aren't that frequent, Fiori says it's not because Decter is failing. He believes Decter knows his audience well enough to be able to present even what is ugly in a way that is illuminating without being offensive.

"He represents all sides, and he does it with warmth and understanding and not in an opinionated or authoritative way that is demeaning. He does it in a way that stimulates thought."

Most importantly, Decter's admirers believe he is a master storyteller. "He's a fabulous conceptualizer," says Kassof, his assistant director. "He knows how to get his head around the big ideas and to translate them to concepts that are accessible to the general public. He's a public historian."

The last thing Decter wants is for his patrons to suffer museum-weariness in his place. "One of the most important lessons that has come to my attention in 50 years of education is that people learn more if they are having fun. ... I love to take something that seems mindless and find something meaningful in it."

The tchotchkes exhibit - which amassed 1,100 objects and was almost certainly one of a kind - was a case in point. Seemingly trivial on the surface, Decter insists the exhibit had serious purpose, demonstrating that tchotchkes were used as "fundamental markers of Jewish identity." In other words, Jews used the objects and figurines to proclaim what they value: Jewish holidays, Jewish heroes, Israel.

"We were absolutely breaking new ground," he says.

For Decter, there seems no end to new ground. Ideas are already crowding in as potential subject matter for a future exhibit. Maybe something on Jewish marriages, which, in Decter's imagination, would have to include the potentially polarizing issue of intermarriage. He's also thinking of an exhibit on Jewish baby-boomers. What was it like growing up Jewish in Baltimore in the 1950s? And he's playing with the notion of an exhibit on "Good Jews" and what that term has historically meant to Jews and to non-Jews.

"That one," Decter says with a devilish smile, "will raise hackles everywhere."

What he leaves unsaid is that he can hardly wait.

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