Manuscripts, diaries, Torah binders, menorahs, amulets, coins, notary stamps, wedding dresses, Yiddish theater playbills: all of these and much more, from nearly every country and every century, are defined as “Judaica.” Many of these works will always be mysterious; it will always be impossible to know who made and owned them, or their country of origin, since Jewish craftsmen were itinerant and largely self-taught. Making things more complex, non-Jews would sometimes create Jewish works. Yet collectors and scholars appreciate Judaica’s diversity and cherish it as a connection to the past. Found in homes, synagogues and temples, objects that were part of Jewish life for thousands of years are still relevant today.
Housed at Cincinnati’s Skirball Museum, the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection contains some fascinating examples of Passover Judaica from all over the world. Some tell us a lot. Stamps punched into the back of a Passover plate made in the city of Arboga, Sweden, in 1779 reveal the initials of its maker, pewter smith Baltazar Rokus. A second set of initials may be those of the engraver—perhaps there was more than one—and/or the owner. Bold Hebrew calligraphy engraved on the plate’s lip references the order of the Seder, while a Paschal lamb—an ancient sacrifice—prances between two spring blossoms on top of the banderole.
The illustration on the early 20th-century Cup of Elijah was etched in the crystal by an anonymous but skilled artisan from Bohemia, renowned for glass-making. Here, the prophet blows his shofar for the Messiah, who rides a donkey. Similar images are found in 17th-century Italian Haggadahs, while its biblical source is from the book of Zechariah: “Rejoice Daughter of Zion! See your king comes to you…triumphant and victorious, lowly, riding on an ass.” Glimpsed at right is Jerusalem, whose high castle turrets come straight out of medieval Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts.
A Seder set inspired by…Japan? Completed in 1969, this silver Seder “compendium” does double duty as sculpture and ritual artifact. Clean geometric shapes of the bowls for the ritual foods are offset by their undulating stems, including one decorated with a gingko leaf addition, that reference 19th-century Japanese art. Mr. Fishman, a Guggenheim-winning fellowship winner on the faculty at Brown University since 1965, is known for his three-dimensional works in a wide-ranging variety of media, which have been exhibited worldwide.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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