Mezuzah holding AIDS blood spurs strident calls to museum

A mezuzah containing HIV-infected blood sparked a small but intense reaction from Bay Area Jews following its installation earlier this month at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Though the exhibit's installation on Dec. 1 was a "sensitive and sobering" experience, curator Michal Friedlander said, the museum logged at least a half-dozen "horrible" telephone calls last week. At least one man wrote a letter canceling his membership.

Friedlander found it difficult to decipher whether some of the callers' reactions were based on anything more than homophobia or "AIDS phobia."

"There is so much hatred, fear and phobia," she said. "It's hard to clarify exactly what's what."

To mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the museum installed a mezuzah designed by Santa Monica artist Albert J. Winn. The mezuzah contained a vial of HIV-infected blood drawn from Winn's arm six months ago. The vial replaced the roll of parchment inscribed with two Deuteronomy passages that is traditionally found inside a mezuzah casing.

"Blood on the Doorposts…The AIDS Mezzuzah" remained at the museum for four days, as scheduled.

Museum officials said the callers' complaints ranged from fears of a public health risk and anger over the alleged desecration of a ritual object to tirades against the morality of homosexuals and wild assertions that gays with money and power invented the AIDS epidemic to evoke sympathy.

"Gays get what they deserve. They bring it on themselves," one caller said, according to a log kept by museum public relations director Paula Friedman.

The individual who canceled his membership wrote the museum a letter calling the mezuzah a "disgrace to the Jewish people" and comparing it to anti-Semitic graffiti.

The tone of some of the negative responses startled museum director Seymour Fromer.

"I was surprised, especially by those who said people who had AIDS only had themselves to blame," Fromer said. Such responses, he said, "didn't really have anything to do with the exhibit."

A national online discussion on Dec. 1 also spurred several "terribly homophobic remarks," said museum development director Brad Berman, who helped facilitate the chat.

A transcript of the hourlong event on America Online showed that two individuals repeatedly alleged that "only gays get AIDS" and that "moral ppl dont [sic] get AIDS unless by transfusion or rape or a freak blood spill."

Others, however, offered their support of Winn's artwork.

"Personally, I am very moved by the whole idea and wish you lots of luck and good press, etc.," wrote one.

After several days of negative remarks on the computer and on the telephone, Berman reached a conclusion.

"People are more outraged by the AIDS mezuzah than they are by the AIDS crisis," he said.

Winn, who is both Jewish and gay, said he created the mezuzah for several reasons — both to deal with his personal crisis as a Jew with AIDS and to rouse the Jewish community to do more for those with AIDS. He was inspired by the Exodus story about the Angel of Death who passed over homes with lambs' blood swabbed on their doorposts.

Despite the negative responses, which apparently came only from people who didn't personally view the installlation, museum officials said they didn't regret their decision to install the mezuzah.

"I think it was worth it because it got people thinking," Fromer said.

"This is exactly what a museum should be doing to observe World AIDS Day," Friedlander said.

Fromer noted that he also received favorable feedback from those who "admired our courage and leadership." But Friedlander said she would love to hear equal amounts of community support, which she believes exists.

"People aren't being vocal yet," she said.

Rabbi Allen Bennett, who affixed the mezuzah to a temporary doorpost at the museum, said the approximately 20 people who attended the event "came away from it feeling good…It was inspiring."

Though he had received a couple of phone calls — only positive ones — Bennett wasn't surprised by the negative reactions the museum received.

"Ignorance takes a lot of forms. I'm afraid this is a lot of what this is about," said Bennett, who is interim rabbi at Alameda's Temple Israel and was the country's first openly gay rabbi. "Irrational fear is not particularly susceptible to rational explanations."

Addressing concerns about a possible health risk, Friedlander said that the artist and museum did contact several doctors and health officials before finally installing the mezuzah. The glass vial, sealed with a rubber stopper and clasped in a brass mezuzah holder, was encased in a hard plastic cover.

Dr. Jay Dobkin, director of the AIDS program at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, was among those Winn contacted beforehand.

Last week in a phone interview from New York, Dobkin said, "You would really have to go out of your way" to be exposed to the blood inside the mezuzah. He added that the AIDS virus could not have survived for six months outside a human body.

Dr. Tim Livermore, an acute disease and AIDS epidemiology surveillance consultant at the Alameda County Health Department, showed little interest in the exhibit.

"It is not a biohazard," he said. "It is not going to be a hazard to anybody."