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Judaica as “Curiosities”: Are Jewish Museum’s Reinstalled Collection Galleries Good for the Jews?

I had misgivings from the start about Claudia Gould‘s appointment to the directorship of the Jewish Museum, New York. Her personal and professional backgrounds seemed more suited to directing a contemporary art museum than an identity museum. Showing the art of our time has long been an important part the Jewish Museum’s mission, but only one part.

Claudia Gould
Photo by Mackenzie Stroh

At the press preview for the misconceived reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection (opening to the public on Sunday), my misgivings were reinforced, beginning with this introductory wall text:

In these Scenes from the museum’s collection we present art and Jewish culture together, affirming universal values that are shared among people of all faiths and backgrounds [emphasis added].

Nothing wrong with that. But what I missed, as a Jew, was an illuminating, in-depth exploration of how the museum’s objects elucidate the beliefs, history, traditions, creativity and resourcefulness of the Jewish people, for whom the museum is named.

The single-floor, 600-object installation (downsized from two floors in the previous permanent-collection installation—Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey) seems less interested in exploring expressions of Jewishness than in viewing the museum’s holdings “through a contemporary lens” (in the words of the introductory text).

That strategy is exemplified by this arresting juxtaposition:

Jewish Museum installation shot
Photo by Jason Mandella

Kehinde Wiley‘s “Alios Itzhak” (an Israeli of Ethiopian origin), 2011, from the series, “The World Stage: Israel,” is flanked by two works that influenced it: On the left is Israel Dov Rosenbaum‘s (no relation to CultureGrrl) “Mizrah,” 1877, a painting on cut paper. A mizrah, as the label tells us, is “a plaque for the east wall of a home or synagogue west of Jerusalem, indicating the direction of prayer toward that city.”

The background of Wiley’s painting riffs on the mizrah’s design (but with more eye-popping colors).

Israel Dov Rosenbaum, “Mizrah,” 1877

The openwork whorls, hand carved into the pinewood of the Torah ark standing beside “Alios Itzhak” are said to have “served as the inspiration for the wooden frame” of Wiley’s painting. But the intricacies of Abraham Shulkin‘s work are more virtuosic:

Abraham Shulkin, “Torah ark from Adath Yeshurun Synagogue,” Sioux City, Iowa, 1899
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a detail from Wiley’s frame which, to me, bore little resemblance to the ark’s ornate carvings:

What I missed most during my perusal of the permanent collection was an emphasis on the most distinctive feature of the Jewish Museum’s collection—its Judaica. There were scattered smatterings of those treasures throughout, most notably at the entrance to the display, where the Judaica was upstaged by contemporary art:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

CultureGrrl readers may recognize the bronze beast on the left—a north German lion-form aquamanile (hand-washing vessel), late 12th century, which “takes its place among those rare Jewish ceremonial works that have survived from the Middle Ages,” according to its label. It was bought for $377,000 by the Jewish Museum at Sotheby’s 2013 sale of Judaica from the Michael and Judy Steinhardt collection.

But the object that most engaged me in this case was the ornate edifice at the center—a silver Havdalah spice container from Germany, used in the fragrant weekly ritual that marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath:

Spice container, c. 1550
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This “is the earliest known example,” according to its label. “The first spice containers were in the form of miniature towers, similar to Christian incense censers.”

The still online audio tour from the dismantled “Culture and Continuity” installation features commentary that is more detailed and pointed:

This silver spice container, fashioned like a miniature Gothic tower with two rose windows, was made in Frankfurt around 1550—at a time when the Gothic style no longer dominated European design. Most of the art fashioned for Jewish use in the Middle Ages did not survive, given the fact that Jews had to endure many expulsions from different parts of Europe [emphasis added].

Similarly, the previous installation’s audio tour for the Torah ark that inspired Kehinde Wiley (images above) does a better job than the current label in imparting a deep sense of how this intricately carved object relates to the Jewish experience:

It’s historically important for the light it sheds on the Torah arks of Eastern European synagogues, which clearly provided Shulkin with his inspiration. It’s a witness to whatever we cannot see today, because most of those Torah arks were burned down during the Holocaust….

The eagle at the top could be interpreted as an American eagle, but similar eagles are seen in early 20th century photographs of Eastern European Torah arks. Shulkin no doubt saw the originals in Russia.

Shulkin, the father of 12, earned a living as a peddler and junk dealer; he did all his carving in his spare time. He was a member of the Orthodox congregation Adath Yeshurun, founded in 1896 by recent arrivals to Sioux City—part of the wave of more than two million Jews who emigrated from Czarist Russia between 1880 and 1924.

Perhaps this backstory is of minor interest to the visitors who (judging from the introductory text) are the new installation’s target audience—those “of all faiths and backgrounds,” with a leaning towards contemporary art. But to many Jews, the previous installation’s narrative about the ark and its maker resonates with the history of our ancestors.

The deep concentrations of Judaica and other historically significant Jewish objects that I relished in the permanent collection galleries overseen by the museum’s previous director, Joan Rosenbaum (no relation), were mostly missing during the press preview. Part of the reason was logistics: Installation complications had delayed the opening of two sections.

One of those is devoted to Hanukkah menorahs, which were walled off from view. Here, from the previous installation, is a taste of what we may soon be able to admire:

Photo by David Heald

The other display that was off-limits during the press preview was the small, object-crammed room called, “Taxonomies,” in which pieces are being “juxtaposed in nontraditional classifications according to activities such as marking time, praying, and travel, or by material.”

From the outside, we were able to peer into the small “Taxonomies” chamber, jarringly tarted up with hot pink:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to the wall text:

This display recalls the Cabinets of Wonders that were popular in Europe in the Renaissance. Such rooms brought together a mix of rare or curious objects [emphasis added] from preserved animals and plants to exotic shells and stones, gems, clocks, and weapons, often arranged in artful ways, to demonstrate their owner’s social status and humanist erudition.

Not “curious objects” to Jews (any more than baptismal fonts or crucifixes are “curious objects” to Christians), some of these “artfully arranged” pieces had less to do with “social status and humanist erudition” than with religious observance.

The description of the previous installation of the permanent collection, which, with various tweaks, enjoyed a 24-year run (June 1993-February 2017), had a more traditionally Jewish focus:

The exhibition traces the dynamic interaction among three catalysts that have shaped the Jewish experience: the constant questioning and reinterpretation of Jewish traditions, the interaction of Jews and Judaism with other cultures, and the impact of historical events that have transformed Jewish life.

“Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey” proposes that Jews have been able to sustain their identity, despite wide dispersion and sometimes tragic circumstances, by evolving a culture that can adapt to life in many countries and under various conditions. Survival as a people has depended upon both the continuity of Jewish ideas and values and the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

There’s one ray of hope in the museum’s description of its new display:

“Scenes from the Collection” is not static: Scenes will change periodically to offer audiences the chance to see as much of the collection as possible, including new acquisitions.

Perhaps these changes will provide opportunities to overhaul the overall concept. For now, “Culture and Continuity” has given way to jumbled discontinuity: “Instead of a single narrative,” according to the museum’s description, “‘Scenes from the Collection’ is divided into seven different sections, or scenes [Taxonomies; Constellations; Masterpieces and Curiosities (which, believe it or not, is where the greatest concentration of Holocaust-related material is gathered); Accumulations; Signs and Symbols; Television and Beyond; Personas], highlighting the diversity and depth of the collection [emphasis added].”

Maybe that works for some. But for me, the installation’s fragmented, bland, general-audience approach highlights a lack of deep intellectual, scholarly and emotional engagement with the Jewish stories and traditions that inform the collection’s “diversity and depth.”

Perhaps this should be regarded as a first draft. When Gould’s appointment was announced in August 2011, the museum’s new director told Kate Taylor of the NY Times that “she was attracted to the challenge of having to decide what it means ‘to be a Jewish museum today,’ a complex question for which she has no definite answer yet. Ask her again in a year, she said, ‘and maybe I’ll be able to answer it'”…

…or maybe not.

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