Symbols take on odd, sometimes offensive, meaning out of context

The bed and breakfast in Point Reyes Station was even nicer than it looked on the Web site. The room was big and clean, the common area comfortable and tasteful.

What gave me pause, however, were the stained-glass doors to the kitchen.

Their design was intricate. White and blue glass refracted the morning light in geometric patterns: stars — Stars of David. Something was off. Were these doors from a synagogue? And what about the handles, silver and ornate?

Over fresh-baked scones, eggs and fruit, the owner confirmed our suspicions. These were formerly the handles for a Torah. The glass had come from a bankrupt synagogue. He had bought the door complete at an auction and he had asked his Jewish friends if they thought there was anything offensive about it. They had assured him that there was not.

The experience left me perplexed. And so did another encounter with a charged image in an unexpected context.

Have you been to the Asian Art Museum in downtown San Francisco? For me, it was love at first sight with the hundreds of Buddhas and the architectural fusion of the classical old library and the sleek, airy new building.

One night my wife and I were at a concert in the performance hall. Something out of the corner of my eye made me do a double take. Bright red swastikas?

Right there, plain as day. But they were on a centuries-old Korean tapestry. When they were woven, Nazis weren’t even a possibility. Germany wasn’t even a nation yet. But here were the symbols nonetheless, refusing to let go of their hold on my imagination.

To whom does a symbol belong? Our God has no symbol and no name that we can pronounce; our God is transcendent. Yet we kiss and revere the Torah, we take pride in Magen Davids, we cringe at signs of Nazi hate.

I think the key is that Jews know how to simultaneously question and acknowledge the power of an object. I looked at the Korean swastika-like symbol with a lump in my throat because of the chalk swastikas my stupid neighbor scrawled all over our front porch when I was a child. But then I look at the tapestry in the context of its history, its geography, and I realize how much bigger the swastika is than simply a Nazi symbol. It is a set of lines that, drawn by one hand, represent evil, yet by another communicate noble designs.

I tell myself that it comes down to awareness of context. Should I feel bad about the stained glass door and its handles? It would be better if the handles were on a Torah, the glass designs in a sanctuary. But there is nothing profane about their existence as objects of beauty in a bed and breakfast.

Better there than destroyed or sold for scrap.

This line of reasoning made more sense to me after walking through the Mission District on a Sunday afternoon.

Once again, something caught my attention in my peripheral vision. Across the street were Magen Davids painted on a storefront surrounded by lots of Spanish writing. When I crossed the street I also saw the Hebrew letters for Israel. It took me another few seconds to realize that the Spanish was mainly about Jesus and some pretty intense evangelical Christianity.

Here was a case of a symbol feeling smaller than its history. In a way I felt like the symbol was being destroyed through distortion, crushed into a messianic Christian context that was deceptive much like the manner in which Jews for Jesus utilize Jewish concepts to lure Jews into the Christian faith.

I guess I’d rather see a Magen David in the nonreligious scene of a B & B than in the storefront of someone who thinks Jews are going to hell unless they convert.

But back to the swastika and its cruel history. I know someone who had swastikas tattooed on his feet. Was he a neo-Nazi? No. He said was trying to reclaim the power of the ancient Asian symbol as a force of goodness.

I was disgusted, and told him so. He said that as a Jew I should be especially proud of him as a “a spiritual activist.” Here the lesson was clear: A symbol can live past its history, but it takes more than wearing something profane to make it sacred.

Perhaps the spiritual activist could use a visit to one of the few places it’s useful to display Nazi swastikas: a Holocaust museum.

Jay Schwartz can be reached at [email protected].