In late February, the North Carolina Museum of Art was in for a surprise.
Bill Pentelovitch was in North Carolina to help his former wife, Vivian Fischer, inspect a house she was buying. For fun, the duo visited the NCMA and its exhibit on Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor.
Then a description on a sculpture of the biblical Eve caught Pentelovitch’s eye:
“As told in the Christian Bible, Eve is the first woman and, together with Adam, is the first sinner and the cause of all suffering on Earth,” it read.
“I thought, ‘wait a minute,’” Pentelovitch said. “It does say that in the Christian Bible, but it says it in the Torah first, and it said it in the Quran, before it said it in the Christian Bible…it was sort of disrespectful to Judaism, and Islam, to claim it for Christianity only.”
Some Jews might overlook this slight. But Pentelovitch, a retired trial and pro-bono civil rights lawyer from the Minneapolis law firm Maslon, decided to take action. He emailed the museum to asked them to fix the description.
“You are right that the language on the label is not as inclusive as it could be,” emailed back the curator of the NCMA’s French collections.
Soon, the description was updated: “Christian Bible” became “the sacred texts of several religions.”
It’s a small but important victory, Pentelovitch said. His worldview is shaped by over a decade of involvement with the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“I’m very sensitive to the fact that we have freedom of religion in this country under the First Amendment, but that there is a faction of people…who believes this is a Christian nation,” Pentelovitch said. “They appropriate and attribute many things to Christianity” from other ethnic and religious groups.
The NCMA, as a public museum essentially owned by the state of North Carolina, needs to be especially careful of crossing the line set by the First Amendment.
“By ignoring the facts in the Torah and in the Quran, they [were], in my view, indirectly promoting Christianity, which is not the appropriate role for the state,” Pentelovitch said.
Pentelovitch is not surprised that the NCMA listened to his critique. There are many people who aren’t used to seeing the world outside of a Christian-centric perspective, he said, and who don’t understand when they are being disrespectful.
Once, when working on a settlement in Crookston, Minnesota, Pentelovitch was told by a lawyer, “don’t try to Jew me.”
“I said, ‘I cannot believe you just used that derogatory term. We’re done,’” Pentelovitch recalled. “I walked out, I got my car, and drove back to Minneapolis.”
Half an hour after getting back to his office, the Crookston lawyer was standing in the lobby. The lawyer had followed Pentelovitch on the several-hour drive to Minneapolis to apologize and say that he didn’t know “to Jew” was offensive — it’s a commonly used verb in that part of Minnesota, he said.
“He didn’t know many Jews, hardly any,” Pentelovitch said. “He had no idea that that was an offensive term. And once I explained it out to him, he felt terrible. And this guy later went on to have a career as a judge.”
So Pentelovitch is used to seeing his role as an educational one, and the importance of small victories.
“You don’t teach people by hammering them, you teach people by calling their attention to something, explaining why there’s injustice,” he said.
“It’s amazing how responsive people will be when you explain to them that something is hurtful, and they hadn’t really understood that before. So big change only occurs if small changes occur first.”