Dedicated to preserving and exploring Jewish history and culture through art, The Jewish Museum was established in 1904 with a gift of ceremonial objects from Judge Mayer Sulzberger to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America. Initially housed in the seminary’s library, it opened to the public at the former Warburg mansion in New York in 1947. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the museum garnered a reputation for showing advanced contemporary art, mounting such seminal exhibitions as “Primary Structures,” which ushered in the Minimalist movement, before renewing its focus on art and Jewish culture in subsequent decades. A rehang of its permanent collection galleries in 2018 put greater emphasis on art and universal values. Claudia Gould has been director of the Jewish Museum since 2011.
Claudia Gould: We own 30,000 works of art, ceremonial objects, and media reflecting more than 4,000 years of the global Jewish experience. When the museum opened in 1947, the mission was to offer “insight into the traditions, history, legends, and aspirations of the Jewish people.” It’s not so very different now, but the collection is different, and also, perhaps, the way it is displayed.
In its early years, the museum’s collection was defined by gifts of Judaica from Judge Mayer Sulzberger and other Jewish families. A significant later acquisition was a group of some 300 Jewish ritual and decorative objects assembled by H. Ephraim Benguiat, a Jewish antique dealer originally from Turkey. We currently have a show of items from that collection in the Masterpieces and Curiosities gallery on our permanent collection floor. That exhibition features two ornate late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century silver Torah finials from Turkey. They have little bells on their ends, so that when you pick up the Torah it makes a sound. As objects, they are not only visually compelling but aurally compelling as well. They are just exquisite.
The museum’s holdings of ceremonial objects also include the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. They range from a silver Hanukkah lamp from the Frankfurt ghetto, from around 1700, depicting the biblical heroine Judith holding the head of Holofernes, to Peter Shire’s Memphis-inspired menorah from 1986. And one of my favorite items is a Passover set designed in 1930 by Ludwig Wolpert, who applied Bauhaus principles to Jewish ceremonial art. The seder plate with bowls for the different kinds of Passover food and the Elijah cup with its Hebrew inscription exemplify Bauhaus aesthetics, but fulfill a traditional function.
Of all the historical objects in the collection, probably my favorite is the charm bracelet assembled by Greta Perlman, a prisoner in the Nazi Theresienstadt camp-ghetto during World War II. Perlman was able to gather 20 handmade charms, each a reminder of her life in the camp, which were made in the camp workshop by other prisoners and probably traded for food. She survived Theresienstadt and later Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, but most of her fellow inmates perished. Objects like her bracelet were the product of concentration camp prisoners’ clandestine efforts to preserve their individuality and humanity in the face of their dehumanization by the Nazis.
We have a very fine collection of portraits, including an amazing Louise Nevelson self-portrait from 1935 that was probably inspired by Picasso or Matisse. In it, she looks almost like a caricature, with a large nose, high cheekbones, and a strange green ruff around her neck. And a few years ago, we commissioned a series of paintings from the contemporary artist Chantal Joffe of prominent twentieth-century Jewish women, including Claude Cahun, Gertrude Stein, Diane Arbus, and Susan Sontag.
Some of our more recent acquisitions have been commissioned from non-Jewish artists, whom we ask to make objects relating to Jewish life and the Jewish experience. For instance, we currently have on view a 2013 work by the French collective Claire Fontaine that was inspired by recorded memories of immigrants who passed through the immigration station at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Hanging from the ceiling are nine neon signs, each reading “Isle of Tears” in the nine languages most commonly spoken by new arrivals at that time: French, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, and English.
And in 2017 we commissioned Nigerian American artist Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze to create a ketubah, a traditional Jewish marriage contract. Amanze’s ketubah features a drawing of a man and a woman. The woman’s elaborate hairstyle is based on those worn by the Ibo women of Nigeria. It’s an Ibo tradition to claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Also in our collection is a painting by Kehinde Wiley from his series of portraits of Israeli men of different ethnicities and religions. The subject of this particular painting is Alios Itzhak, an Ethiopian Jew. In it, Itzhak is standing tall against an ornamental background inspired by a nineteenth-century Ukrainian paper cut—a traditional Jewish folk art—from the museum’s holdings. It’s important for us to purchase work by artists from various backgrounds as a way of expanding our contemporary holdings, even as we continue to focus on the Jewish experience.