A matter of life and death: the cultural history of blood

A dramatic new exhibition at the Jewish Museum reveals the troublesome part that blood has played in the history of ideas.

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Whatever is most meaningful to you; whatever it is that you have always known; whatever is truest to you. “It’s in my blood,” you’ll say. If she is fearful, her blood runs cold. He is excitable, volatile: he is hot-blooded. Long before the English physician William Harvey discovered the manner in which blood circulates through the body in the 17th century, cultures across the world, from time immemorial, understood blood as both an actual and a symbolic element, the very essence of life.

Blood has a complex and often troublesome part to play in the human history of ideas; particularly so when one considers the way the Jewish people define themselves – and the ways in which, crucially, they have often been defined by others. It is these ideas, and these problems, that “Blood”, a challenging exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London, seeks to explore.

The exhibition – not yet installed when I visited the museum – will be designed by Tom Piper and Alan Farlie, who last collaborated on the British Museum’s acclaimed “Shakespeare: Staging the World” in 2012. More recently Piper, with Paul Cummins, won a South Bank Sky Arts Award for their astonishing Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in 2014.

I spent a couple of hours with the exhibition’s curator, Joanne Rosenthal, among the rolling metal shelves of the museum’s archive, discussing the papers and objects that will be displayed. The show explores Jewish ritual, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and the connection of blood to race and “racial purity”. The objects range from a 15th-century bronze statuette of Jesus with blood leaping from the wound in his side through an 18th-century Moroccan manual for koshering animals to a chilling poster that set out, in careful fractions, just what it meant to be Jewish according to the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.

Indeed, what does it mean to have “Jewish blood”? On the surface – and certainly since the Second World War – the mere question seems offensive; and yet blood, its presence and absence, is central to Judaism. “The life of the flesh is in the blood,” Leviticus says, a truth that leads to the practice of koshering meat: draining away the blood. “No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.” The practice of circumcision and a woman’s immersion in the ritual bath, the mikvah, following menstruation, are blood rituals, too. An 18th-century German circumcision knife shows the scene of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son Isaac. One act of faith is linked to another, down the generations.

Christianity transformed Jewish ritual into a new kind of blood sacrifice: the transubstantiation that turned bread to flesh and wine to blood. There are artefacts here which demonstrate how, during the Middle Ages, a strange reversal led to the creation of the “blood libel”, the falsehood that Jews required Christian blood in order to make Passover matzoh. A boy, William of Norwich, was alleged to have been the victim of such a murder right here in England in the 12th century. His story was sung in folk songs that reached as far as Appalachia in the 20th century; recordings are among the exhibits. Here, too, is a 1934 special “blood libel” edition of Der Stürmer, the Nazi Party’s tabloid, on loan from the Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive.

The blood libel has haunted Jews and Judiasm for centuries, and so an exhibition called “Blood” is, in itself, a provocation. But the question “Whose blood?” can be seen from the other side, as in a rare edition of the American Jewess, a magazine created in the US at the end of the 19th century and now in the archives of Princeton University. Rosenthal is delighted with this loan, which contains a story by Friedrich Kolbenheyer, printed in July 1896, called “Jewish Blood”. It is the tale of a young Jewish man who wishes to marry a Catholic girl. His family fears his blood will be diluted, his Jewish identity erased, by such a marriage. How does one consider this against a document from 1637, during the era of the Spanish Inquisition, which elucidates the laws of “blood purity” to prevent “authentic” Christians from becoming corrupted by those Christians who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism? And how do we view the collaboration between Francis Galton, a 19th- and early-20th-century pioneer of the discredited “science” of eugenics, and Joseph Jacobs, who applied Galton’s theories to his own people in order to defend them? Jacobs’s Studies in Jewish Statistics: Social, Vital and Anthropometric (1891) described “the Jewish type”; his use of images echoes Galton’s and now seems prejudiced rather than celebratory, to say the least. It was also a Viennese Jewish doctor, Karl Landsteiner, who first classified blood types in 1909; his discovery banished the idea that human beings were defined by their blood, and won him the 1930 Nobel Prize in Medicine. In the 21st century the topic for discussion has changed to how our genes define us, because people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have a higher prevalence of genetic mutations that can lead to breast cancer in women – but then so do Norwegian, Dutch and Icelandic people.

This exhibition is a marked departure for the Jewish Museum, now under the leadership of Abigail Morris, who was for many years the artistic director of Soho Theatre in London. There’s no doubt that the show – created in collaboration with the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck, University of London – has a theatrical flair. Blood will have blood: the blood of belonging, the blood of division. Judaism, Morris said to me, is a faith that springs from questions. “Blood” will provoke a great many of those.

"Blood: Uniting and Dividing" is at the Jewish Museum, London NW1, from 5 November to 28 February 2016.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?