Not many people would think consider a circumcision knife a work of art. But two exhibits running at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum show the beauty, mystery, and occasional oddity of Jewish liturgical objects.
REALM BETWEEN REALMS
"Realm Between Realms," which runs through October 15, explores Jewish objects of worship through the eyes of modern artists. Occasionally, the same objects are treated in disparate manners. Two artists have chosen to paint empty prayer shawls, but their motives differ: Harvey Breverman depicts the shawls as he remembers seeing them when he attended his synagogue as a child; Ted Kliman wishes to evoke the absence of Jews after the Holocaust.
Another artist, Francia Tobacman, shows in a moving manner her family's participation in the Holocaust. On "Kaddish" – a visual representation of the Jewish prayer for the dead – she has pasted photographs of her relatives. A nearby guide to the work explains the fates of those relatives: "Roma Isakson – survived labor camps (after 4 years) & emigrated to USA about 1950." "Meyer Isakson – brother of Roma – shot by Nazi's with his father & put in mass graves." "Eda Isakson – died in Auschwitz one week before liberation." In front of the work are six unlit candles, one for each million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The predominate theme of the exhibition, though, is joy. Bright colors shine from Jonathan Mandell's glass and ceramic mosaics of a bar mitzvah and a wedding, and from two examples of Miriam cups – modern female equivalents of the Elijah cups used at Passover. Perhaps most radiant of all is Raphael Abecassis's series of paintings depicting the festival days of the Jewish year. In every painting, the stylized figures seem to whirl around the luminously colored backgrounds. For his painting of Purim, Abecassis has shown the Jewish queen Esther approaching her husband King Ahasuerus as he raises his cane-like sceptre to admit her into his presence. Nearby, Haman twirls on the gallows that he erected for the Jews. Not contented with this lively execution, Abecassis has shown all of Haman's relatives being hanged as well; their ropes twirl and interconnect like vines. Surely no hangman's nooses were ever so pretty.
TRADITIONAL LITURGICAL ART
"Realm Between Realms" complements the museum's permanent exhibit of liturgical objects. Unlike the modern art exhibit, which presupposes familiarity with Jewish worship, the traditional art exhibit is designed as a simple introduction to Judaism. Each room shows objects used throughout the Jewish year or on special occasions in Jewish life. It is an exhibit that should be sampled slowly, like a gourmet meal.
Some of the objects are captivating simply for their beauty, like the case filled with little Esther Scrolls from different periods. An 18th-century Dutch scroll, inscribed in the neoclassical style, shows tiny pictures of Esther's story. An even smaller Italian scroll from the beginning of the 19th century is brightly colored. By contrast, a 19th-century German scroll is delicately hand-colored in pastel.
Other objects are more amusing. Amidst the ram's horns blown at Rosh Hashanah, one case holds an 18th-century German smelling-salt container – this is a liturgical object? In fact, the label explains, the salts were "used in the synagogue during Yom Kippur services to avoid fainting during the final hours of the fast."
Equally striking are the amulets used to protect children from the evil eye, and 19th-century Viennese clocks with Hebrew letters on their faces (since Hebrew letters also serve as numbers). A marriage certificate appears ordinary enough – but a close-up look reveals that such figures as the rampant lions are made up of tiny Hebrew letters. Micrography is the name of this art form that was invented by the Jews.
What is clearest, though, is how worship permeated the lives of the Jews who owned these objects. In one room are a series of objects related to circumcision, from circumcision knives to a chair in which the godfather would sit while holding the baby. The swaddling cloths that the boy wore would later be removed and stitched into a long band; this band was decorated by the mother or some other relative in a folk-art manner. One example from 18th-century Germany is covered with the boy's name, the parent's name, the boy's zodiac sign, and the hands of the priest giving the blessing. Thirteen years later, the cloths were return to ritual use, this time as a binder for the Torah that the boy read at his Bar Mitzvah.
This art form is being revived today, a testament to the enduring power of Jewish liturgical objects.
B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, 1640 Rhode Island Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. Metro: Farragut North (Red Line). (202) 857-6583. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Friday. Closed Jewish and national holidays. Donation.
Permanent Collection: Jewish art.
"Realm Between Realms." Through October 15.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson