Posts Tagged ‘Israel Museum’

Around and Around and Around We Go

December 4, 2014
Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon:

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon.

Culture is a circle of art forms, each one part of the whole that defines us and makes us human. That is one reason the art of dance need be no stranger in a museum devoted to material culture.
And that is why Israel Museum director James Snyder introduced a new exhibition there, Out of the Circle: The Art of Dance in Israel, as “the intersection of dance and all the mediums that record dance: photography, documentary films, and graphic arts.”
Suddenly the circle, the most simple and perfect of forms, was bursting with meaning. Think of the hora, that basic folk dance, brought to Palestine from the Balkans. The Jewish pioneers—who had come to create a new Jew, physically strong and connected to the land—followed their days of hard labor with ecstatic circle dances. The circle was a great equalizer that drew the pioneers together and laid the foundations for the culture of the kibbutz, according to Talia Amar, the exhibition’s curator.
In the agricultural settlements, between the two world wars, dances were combined with rituals, shifting holiday observance from the synagogue to agricultural celebrations in the fields. This was actually the completion of a historical circle, for the Jewish holidays were originally agricultural festivals. Photographs of the kibbutz celebrations typically are shot from near the ground looking up, giving the dancers’ bodies mythic proportions.
Meanwhile, expressionist dance, which was popular in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, caught on in Palestine, where it flourished and continued to develop long after it had waned in Europe. And Central European photographers who had come to Palestine, like Alfons Himmelreich, made this dance form their subject.
Some of these dancers sought local roots, which they found in biblical themes. And some turned to their own roots, like Sara Levi-Tanai, who drew on her Yemenite background. Levi-Tanai was the founder, choreographer, and artistic director of the Inbal Dance Theater—which Amar described as not a “folklore group” but rather “an art dance group” whose every movement had symbolic meaning.
As staged dance developed in Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company was founded by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham (and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year). The Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, in Tel Aviv, whose director, Yair Vardi, initiated the Israel Museum exhibition, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The circle as a social ideal did not last, and the show’s title reflects that change. Works over the past few decades have shown the shift from the ideal of the collective to individualism; again and again, individuals try to break out of the circle, at great cost. The exhibition opens with a video of Ohad Naharin’s Anaphasa, danced to the Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodea” (Who knows one?), in which the individual who steps out of line keeps falling down.
In Peh Gadol (big mouth), by and with Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor, and Keren Levi, a woman dressed in the colors of the Israeli flag keeps falling out of step with the other two dancers, in a work that explores the tension between trying to remain part of the collective and exploring one’s individual identity.
Amar explained that the show “is not a historical exhibition encompassing the entire history of dance in Israel” but that it includes several major figures in that history.
Earphones synchronized with the main videos enable visitors to hear the music without disturbing others. Many of the other exhibits, however, contribute to a relatively high noise level in the hall.
Starting on December 23 and for the next ten weeks, dance performances showcasing contemporary Israeli choreographers will take place in the exhibition space and throughout the museum.
The exhibition runs through February 28, 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


What You See and What You Get: Clothing That Conceals and (Sometimes) Reveals

March 12, 2014

In Morocco, a traditional Jewish groom would wear a white shroud under his black groom’s coat. In Yemen, a Jewish woman would receive female guests on the first Sabbath after she had given birth, wearing a regal dress adorned with pearls—a dress she would then wear on Yom Kippur and eventually be buried in.
This keen awareness of the life cycle and of human mortality is one of the themes of Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe, an exhibition that opened March 11 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. On display are some 100 items, covering about 250 years and originating in nearly 30 countries. The exhibits, all of them worn by Jews, are but a small part of the museum’s collection of 10,000 items of costume, according to Efrat Assaf-Shapira, who is making her curatorial debut with this exhibition.
Jewish women in traditional communities around the world generally wore clothing that men deemed modest. But definitions of modesty varied and were influenced by the surrounding culture. Thus, long before the Taliban came around, Jewish women in Afghanistan wore a black chader with a full-face white veil, and in Iraq both Jewish and Muslim women wore a body wrap called an Image and a full-face veil made of hair from a horse’s tail. The manufacturer of these horsehair veils was a Jew, as were many of the people who worked in the textile industry.

These garments—symbols of the vise-like grip of patriarchal societies—send chills up my spine. Yet there are women in Israel today, known as “Shawl Women,” who have adopted coverings that are as concealing as any in this exhibition. Oddly, there is a feminist aspect to their super-piety, because they are acting on their own accord, without the sanction of (male) rabbis.
Traditionally, women could at least please themselves in what they wore under their wraps. “Concealing and revealing” is another of the themes of the exhibition, Assaf-Shapira said, pointing to the brightly colored trousers worn by Bukharan women under their whole-body cover-ups. And in Baghdad, the curator added, women wore sequined and embroidered bustiers hardly different from what Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna.

One of the oddest items on display is a pair of trousers, part of the bridal costume in Tunisia. The trousers appear to be size XXXL, and the explanation is that women were fattened up—even awakened at night to eat—before the wedding, because bodily fat was considered a sign of good health.


Another very interesting, and rare, item is from Iran. Dating to the early twentieth century, it is all in maroon, and consists of a jacket, a short tutu-like skirt, and tight pants. Assaf-Shapira said the fashion was influenced by the visit of the shah and his wife to Paris, where they saw a ballet and were captivated by the tutus and tights. But the fashion was short-lived, because Iran at the time was moving rapidly toward the West.
As is obvious from the exhibition, brides did not always wear white. In fact, most of the bridal costumes displayed are in other colors. It was Queen Victoria who made white de rigueur for bridal gowns. On display is a magnificent mid twentieth century ivory gown from New York; the “something borrowed” is the fine, nineteenth-century lace veil, and the “something blue,” Assaf-Shapira revealed, is a blue ribbon tucked inside the bodice.
In traditional Jewish communities, a treasured dress that did not become a shroud might be donated to the synagogue after the owner’s death for use as a parochet (a cover for the ark). The cover would then be embroidered with the woman’s name, thus serving as a memorial for her.
Also on display is a collection of children’s clothes—nearly all of them looking like miniatures of adults clothes, because in traditional societies children were considered to be adults in the making.
Through October 25, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the images, written permission of the Israel Museum.



Dust is on my mind: Getting grave about art

December 5, 2013

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about dust lately. Any home improvement in Israel forces one to come to terms with the reality of minute particles of concrete and stone that get into your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs and finally settle on every surface.
Dust to dust. Now that’s a thought. Someday some house cleaner will be wiping bits of me off a shelf along with the bits of concrete and stone. Is it a kind of immortality?
Dust has a way of cloning itself, building little colonies, tiny mounds and valleys, creating landscapes that can even be beautiful.
Dust has a mind of its own. Despite your best efforts to capture it (and rid yourself of it), it clings, and hides, reappearing where you least expect it. And it does so with a vengeance after renovations.
So I was intrigued by a new exhibition called Collecting Dust, one of four shows of contemporary Israeli art that opened yesterday at the Israel Museum Jerusalem. I loved this show from the outset for the title alone, which reflected what I’d been preoccupied with for the past two weeks.
A few of the works in the show curated by guest curator Tammy Manor-Friedman are classics, like Bartolomeo Bettera’s still life of dust-streaked musical instruments, focusing on the transience of life. But the Israeli artists exhibited have a variety of interests.
Gal Weinstein’s “Petra,” for example, created with tiny bits of steel wool, sprayed with a mixture of Coca Cola and balsamic vinegar to induce rusting.
Petra is, of course, a huge and ancient necropolis. And rusting is a kind of decay. And yet this beautiful abstract landscape suggests art overcoming mortality.
Another, even more dramatic work, “Dust Cloud,” by Weinstein consists of a series of four still photographs of an eruption, that “gives form to something formless,” as Mira Lapidot, the museum’s chief curator of fine arts, put it.
Another photograph, by Sharon Ya’ari, captures a typical Tel Aviv sidewalk scene, including a broom and a pile of dust, signs of more home improvements.

One of the three other shows, Gideon Gechtman’s posthumous retrospective (1942–2008), is informed throughout by the artist’s sense of his mortality. Born with a heart defect, Gechtman underwent corrective surgery at age 31, following which he created an installation that included nude photographs showing his transformation from individual human being to patient/object. Later, he published newspaper notices announcing his own death and pasted up obituary notices in public places. Then he started playing with the obituary notices, creating them in various colors, even one with his name in neon lights.
Years later, Gechtman dealt with the loss of his firstborn son, Yotam, at 26, in an installation that includes mock hospital furniture and paraphernalia.
This exhibition is demanding and sometimes hard to bear, but it also arouses wonder at this artist’s ability to transform deep anxiety and grief into works that transcend time.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


A private passion becomes a source of joy for many

July 15, 2013

Color has tremendous power. It stirs the passions, uplifts the spirit. Little wonder, then, that a quarter million people lined up in 1998 to see the Israel Museum, Jerusalem’s first blockbuster show, the “Joy of Color.” Many of the works in that show of Fauve and expressionist art came from the collection of Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher.


Last week the museum opened “Color Gone Wild,” a show of forty-two Fauve and German expressionist works, all from the same collection. Werner Merzbacher was in Jerusalem for the opening and told how his interest in these artistic movements was shaped by the collection of his wife’s grandfather, Bernhard Mayer, a wealthy fur merchant who lived in Switzerland.


But Merzbacher was an art collector long before he met Mayer. He was born in Germany in 1928; his father was a doctor. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, Merzbacher’s parents send him to Switzerland, where a Christian doctor took him in. His parents died in Majdanek concentration camp.


Merzbacher won scholarships to schools, but for pocket money he did odd jobs, including working in a bakery. He already had the urge to collect art, an urge he did not attempt to explain, and by the age of twenty he could afford his first paintings, social-critical works. 


But the sight of Mayer’s collection of ten high-quality paintings from the 1920s impressed the young man and inspired him to develop his taste.


“It became a passion,” he said. “I worked a lot to be able to follow this passion.” The work was in the Mayer family’s fur business and also in finance. And the first painting to become part of the collection was “Dorfstrasse,” by Kandinsky.


The result was a home near Zurich filled with brilliantly hued works. The Merzbachers could have breakfast while looking at a Kandinsky and drink coffee under a portrait by von Jawlensky.

But the collection had its darker side: While the couple enjoyed the fruits of their shared passion for art, their older daughter, Merzbacher said, “never wanted to bring home friends because of what was hanging on the walls.”


And now, as he approaches eighty-five, he is hardly acquiring more art. “There’s no room to hang it,” he said simply.


But the works he has already collected are being shown more often. In 2015, works from the collection will be hung side by side with paintings of Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, to show the earlier artists’ influence. Meanwhile, the exhibition at the Israel Museum is scheduled to run until November 2.

P.S. Some day I will figure out how to insert images in the new WordPress format. People like me will never understand why website designers can’t leave well enough alone.


Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. 






A private passion becomes a source of joy for many

How our eyes deceive us

June 12, 2013

(Sorry. I couldn’t ge this image to load) Eran Reshef: Gates 2003–2007, oil on panel (courtesy of the Israel Museum)

All art is illusion. But many artists use illusion to undermine the idea that there is a single Truth. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem,  has kicked off its summer season with an exhibition in the Ruth Youth Wing called ArTricks.

Despite the location of the exhibition and the fact that it can be appreciated by children (probably from age five or six), “there is nothing childish about it,” said curator Daniella Shalev.  In all the works shown, “the illusion is a means, not an end.”

The 80 works predictably include an abundance of familiar pieces by Escher: birds that turn into fish, two hands sketching each other, impossible sets of stairs. But there is much more. Many of the works are by Israeli artists, including a painting of a dilapidated bathroom that is so realistic it seems one could walk right in (Eran Reshef); a gigantic cauliflower made of polystyrene foam (Michael Sperer); an English landscape made of wool on plywood (Gal Weinstein); and a tire swing in which a link is missing in each of the chains (Orly Hummel).

One room contains a work by Israeli artist Buky Schwartz consisting of an upright black chair and a red chair and a yellow chair painted on the floor. When this combination is projected on the wall, it looks as though all three chairs are standing. Children sit on or “jump off” the painted chairs, and in the projection it all appears to be happening in three dimensions.

In the courtyard of the youth wing, children can choose from among a variety of activities, including cutting Moebius strips, seeing multiple reflections of themselves in paired mirrors, and peeking into an Ames room in which the tilted floor distorts the apparent size of people inside it.

My young companions enjoyed the show. So did I.

Through February 15, 2014.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the image, written permission of the IsraelMuseum.

Art that probes and recreates the past

May 24, 2012

Memory is the most baffling aspect of being. It is often visual and physical, and yet fluid, elusive, and deceptive. Memory and its uses is the thematic link between two European artists, one Polish and the other German, whose works went on display this week at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It is the first time they have been exhibited together and the first time that many of these works have been loaned by the institutions that commissioned them, Israel Museum director James Snyder said during a preview of the show.

Remembering brings together the works in various mediums of Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990) and Joseph Beuys (1921–1986).
The exhibits are arranged so that the point at which the space of one artist flows into that of the other refers “to the glory and the horror of the twentieth century,” said guest curator Jaromir Jedlinski, of Warsaw, whose idea it was to show the two artists together.
At the meeting point, on Kantor’s side is a cross on wheels and a photo from a late performance (1988) titled “I Shall Never Return,” in which objects and figures are covered by a shroud-like black cloth. On Beuys’s side is “The End of the 20th Century,” 31 basalt slabs suggesting dead bodies; here memory is also personal, Jedlinski’s co-curator, the museum’s Suzanne Landau, said.

Kantor turned to performance early in his career; during World War II he founded an experimental, underground theater group that performed through 1944. During that war Beuys served in the Luftwaffe as a rear-gunner in a Stuka bomber and was shot down in March 1943 on the Crimean Front. Beuys constantly created and reinvented himself, and also recycled parts of earlier works, Landau said. The story he told of how he was saved—that Tatars found him in the snow and covered him with animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health—was probably one of those reinventions.

The story is reflected in one of his most powerful works, an installation titled “Palazzo Regale, 1985” which evokes an elaborate mausoleum. Seven large framed brass panels covered with gold dust hang on the walls of the room containing two casket-like display cases. The case in the center suggests a body: At the upper end of a fur coat is a black sculpted head, its larynx marked with an X, as if to indicate that the person had been permanently silenced. The other case contains what appears to be a slab of animal fat and various kinds of bandaged limbs and prostheses.

The most haunting of Kantor’s works one which also deals with memory and death, is “The Dead Class,” which was performed more than 2,000 times starting in the 1970s. The characters, who are dead, confront their younger selves—lifeless figures of children seated in rows at battered wooden desks. Kantor plays the teacher in the performance, seeming to direct the action with tiny hand gestures. In a documentary that is part of the exhibition the artist talks about his interest in the desks—the “wrecks” that are the bearers of memory. The physical objects from this performance that are exhibited are the children sitting at their desks and the figure of a dead child lying on an old-fashioned bicycle. How they were used in the performance can be seen in a version filmed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda.

A third exhibition, Drawing in the Margins, opened last week and is adjacent to those of Kantor and Beuys. It shows works spanning 45 years by Joshua Neustein, who, according to curator Meira Perry-Lehmann, “subverts the conventions of drawing.” Born in Poland and educated in the United States, Neustein has lived and worked in Israel and in the US. One work, “Taped Map of Israel, 2006” consists of an outline of Israel created with cheap masking tape that pulls away from the surface, changing the boundaries, and an additional outline that increases the territory but also suggests the temporary nature of the geographic borders.

This work, as well as the videos Neustein has created, “show how you demarcate territory, which is what all artists do,” he said.
Some of the works were made by erasing square or oval parts of graphite scribbles, then putting the erasures in a see-through envelope and attaching them to the scribbled-on paper. The erased parts are not really erased, Neustein contended, but rather created.
One two-hour video shows water dripping into a glass of Bordeaux wine, causing the wine to gradually lose its color until it takes on the color of champagne and then is completely transparent, that is, pure water. Perry-Lehmann described it as “a meditative work about identity.”

All three exhibitions are to continue through October 27, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. All images courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

What Odysseus and the Nile god said

March 10, 2012

While many Israelis took advantage of the beautiful weather to see wildflowers (and clog the roads), I took myself to the Israel Museum, a 25-minute dawdle from my house.

The shortest route passes the fortress-like Monastery of the Cross, built on the site of the tree that, according to tradition, served as the cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery is surrounded by olive trees, and today the ground was covered by a profusion of red poppies, lavender cyclamen, and assorted yellow flowers. A couple sat under a tree playing chess; others picnicked or just strolled, some leashed to their pets.

The Israel Museum, the country’s largest, sits on a hill above the monastery and across from the Knesset (our parliament). The land on which the museum and the Knesset stand, like much of the land in central Jerusalem, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, which has leased it to Israel.

I came to the museum with the intention of seeing just one smallish exhibition, a didactic history of design, and indeed I did see it, but long before I got to it my attention was caught by other things at the entrance. The museum reopened in 2010 after a three-year makeover and expansion, designed by James Carpenter with Tel Aviv-based Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. When I reported on the reopening, I wrote that some people thought the new enclosed entry passage was more suited to an airport.

Now, however, a few pieces of sculpture and mosaics enliven (somewhat) that gray passage. The three mosaics are parts of a large carpet mosaic from a sixth-century CE Jewish public building in Beth She’an, in the north of the country. One part depicts Odysseus bound to the mast to save him from the Sirens, and another depicts the god of the Nile River. The third part has an inscription in Greek.

The explanatory note states that “the use of pagan figurative images and mythological stories to decorate a Jewish public building reflects the persistence of the Hellenistic culture in Beth She’an, even during periods in which most of its inhabitants were already Christian, Jewish or Samaritan.”

It’s an important point, because today we often hear claims that in the past “all Jews did X” or “all Jews believed Y,” and especially that Jews eschewed figurative art. In fact, such unanimity never existed, and Jews did use figurative art, even in synagogues, and that is apparent from the rich trove of mosaics found in the Holy Land, which I wrote about in detail in Hadassah magazine last year.

At the end of the entry passage is Olafur Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” a 44-foot-wide rainbow of narrow painted panels representing the progression of colors in the spectrum visible to the human eye. It is one of two works commissioned for the reopening. When I first saw it, I didn’t find it very exciting, but today I noticed what I hadn’t seen before. The painting is reflected on the burnished floor in front of it, but that reflection recedes as you approach, just as real rainbows do. Suddenly the brilliance of this site-specific work was revealed to me. Click here to see it.

And on my way to the design exhibition, I stopped to see a new acquisition, a three-screen video by Hiraki Sawa, “Going Places Sitting Down,” which takes viewers on an enchanted trip of the imagination. Indeed one can go many places sitting down.

As I again passed all the wildflowers and relaxed people on my way home, my face hurt. I had been smiling for two hours straight.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Group strips for art and tourism at the Dead Sea

October 26, 2011

A new day dawns at the Dead Sea with more then 1,200 nude people floating in its healing waters. (Spencer Tunick)

More than 1,200 people ― from Israel and abroad ― stripped and floated in unison last month in the Dead Sea for an art project titled “Naked Sea,” by artist Spencer Tunick. Since 1992, Tunick has organized and photographed individual and group nude scenes in such locations as London’s Selfridges department store, Buffalo’s old central train station, and the Aletsch Glacier (the largest glacier in the Alps).

His latest installation, at the lowest point on earth, was created at dawn on September 17 to promote voting for the Dead Sea as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (a contest that ends on November 11, 2011).

Tunick has said about his installations that “the individuals en masse, without their clothing, grouped together metamorphose into a new shape. The bodies extend into and upon the landscape like a substance. These grouped masses which do not underscore sexuality become abstractions that challenge or reconfigure one’s views of nudity and privacy.”

Of his latest project, which I previewed last May, he said that Israel was the only country in the Middle East where he could create such art and that it would give the world “a new image of Israel as an open and vibrant democracy.”

Years before Tunick’s Israeli shoot, Israeli artist Sigalit Landau created art videos in which she appears nude in the Dead Sea. The first, DeadSee (2005) shows Landau floating in a spiral of watermelons that slowly unwinds. Another, Stranded on a Water Melon in the Dead Sea (2009), shows her trying to maintain her balance on a watermelon. Her work has appeared in such major art venues as New York’s MoMa, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the Venice Biennale.

Running for peace and tourism

Sprinter Giusy Versace, who lost her legs in a car accident, hands the peace torch to Israel Tourism Ministry Deputy Director-General Ahuva Zaken as they leave Bethlehem. (Israeli Tourism Ministry)

Several hundred Israel, Palestinian, and Italian runners took part in the John Paul II Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run, on October 24. The run was organized by the Vatican pilgrimage organization Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi and Israel’s Tourism Ministry. The run began at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, pausing at Rachel’s Crossing for a soccer tournament between the Italian, Palestinian, and Israeli runners. Then the marathon continued to the Notre Dame Church in Jerusalem.

Among the runners was Giusy Versace, a sprinter who lost her legs in a car accident and runs with prosthetics. Participants also included Italian football stars Albertini Demetrio, Di Biagio Luigi, Tommasi Damiano, Peruzzi Angelo, and Bonavina Diego.

The run provided a rare opportunity for Israelis to visit Bethlehem. Though tourists can move freely between Israel and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, for years the Israeli government has forbidden the entry of Israelis into Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Similarly, Palestinian entry to Israeli-controlled areas has been severely limited.

It would be nice to think that the run was a first step toward a time when not only tourists, but Israelis and Palestinians too can move freely between the two parts of the tiny piece of real estate both groups call home.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. Photograph of Naked Sea courtesy of Spencer Tunick. Photograph of the John Paul II Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run. No portion of this text may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Esther Hecht. No portion of these photographs may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Spencer Tunick or the Israel Tourism Ministry, respectively.

Illuminating the past: A look at rare Jewish manuscripts

December 1, 2010

This silver amulet was meant to protect a traveler. (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Extended loan from the collection of René and Susanne Braginsky, Zurich)

Charlotte von Rothschild created the Haggadah Frankfurt in 1842 for her uncle's 70th birthday. The Braginsky Collection (Ardon Bar-Hama)

The Rothschild family commissioned this Persian-style Haggadah from Victor Bouton in the second half of the 19th century. The Braginsky Collection (Ardon Bar-Hama)

When travelers in ancient times set out on a voyage, the only health and accident insurance they could carry was an amulet. A Jewish traveler might  take along one inscribed with verses from the Hebrew Bible, like the silver amulet from the 6th or 7th century CE displayed in a new exhibition titled A Journey through Jewish Worlds, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

“This is one of the earliest biblical texts we have” and one of just a few from the thousand-year period of near-silence between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval Jewish texts, said exhibition curator Rachel Sarfaty. On display are 120 highlights of the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books, shown side-by-side with items from the museum’s own collections.

According to Sarfaty, the exhibition is designed to take visitors on a temporal and geographic journey, with a focus on illuminated ketubot (marriage contracts), Scrolls of Esther, and other illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.

The story begins in Spain, the most important Jewish center in Europe until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. A scribe who had begun a four-volume Hebrew Bible fled to Portugal in 1491. In the colophon he writes that the work was completed two years after the expulsion of the Jews of Castille.

Many of the Jews who fled or were expelled from Spain and then from Portugal settled in Italy and prospered. According to Sarfaty, ghetto life provided a certain stability, and despite the physical enclosure, Jews in Italy were open to the culture around them. They hired the finest Italian illuminators and provided them with guidelines.

Sometimes, however, the guidelines were ignored or perhaps never existed. The Harrison Miscellany, from around 1720, includes not only nude figures but, much worse, an image of God.

“It’s a myth that Jews were not allowed to represent human figures,” Sarfaty said. “There were always representations of humans. The prohibition against graven images was invoked only where there was pressure from the surrounding culture, for example, in Islamic countries. But the image of God is really forbidden.”

With the introduction of printing, Venice became the center for producing Jewish texts. The printers and illuminators were non-Jews, but the printers hired Jewish proofreaders for quality control.

When descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain migrated to the Netherlands, Amsterdam became the next center of Jewish book production, this time with Jewish printers and even Jewish illuminators.  It was here that the printers developed the Amsterdam font, which became the standard for high-quality printing.

Even when printing was firmly entrenched, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts remained status symbols for the new class of wealthy Jews in western Europe. Scribe-artists from eastern Europe moved to the west to meet the need, and one of them even noted, with professional pride, that he had used the Amsterdam font… in his handwritten manuscript.

In the 19th century, the Rothschild family was avidly interested in illuminated manuscripts. They commissioned artist Victor Bouton to create a Haggadah in the Persian style, with exquisite geometric patterns copied from a Persian text.

Charlotte von Rothschild, who was born in London and married a cousin in Vienna, took lessons from the artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. When she decided to create an illuminated Haggadah for the 70th birthday of her uncle, “she even wrote to the Bibliotheque Nationale to ask them to send her medieval manuscripts so she could copy them,” Sarfaty said, wondering at the ease with which one could think of shipping such priceless objects.

In von Rothschild’s undertaking, she was breaking into an almost exclusively male field of endeavor; the only other exception in this exhibition is a 16th century Scroll of Esther created by Stellina (Esther) Bat Hakatzin.

For centuries ketubot (marriage contracts) have been another way for Jewish families to display their wealth and standing. When David Franco de Almeda wed Giuditta Valensin in Venice on September 30, 1649, the bride received a  magnificent, colorful ketubah. At the top, medallions depict the bride and groom in various settings to show the blessings wished on the couple. “Your wife is like a fruitful vine” is the inscription under one of them.

Below the medallions are male and female musicians. Enclosed within a double arch adorned with colorful birds and flowers, the engagement contract (tna’im) appears on the left and the marital contract on the right. And the signs of the zodiac—additional blessings—surround the entire document. This is but one of 21 ketubot on display.

The exhibition continues through April 30, 2011.

For more on illuminated manuscripts see the archive for: “Kindle can’t hold a candle to it,” posted on October 29, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.