Thanks to the renewal of museum philosophy and collection initiatives focused on diversity, as well as many outstanding gifts and donations, two major American fine arts museums have this month mounted installations of Judaica masterpieces on view in new galleries exclusively designated for their display.
With its definition sometimes narrowed to encompass only objects for ritual use in synagogue and at home, the category of Judaica can be expanded to include much more, calling for a wide knowledge base on the part of curators and other experts who identify and describe the artifacts, and understand their history and function. The timeline spans thousands of years to the present day.
A handmade Jewish coin from ancient times or one minted in the 20th century during the Palestine Mandate; a playbill from a Second Avenue theater; a cooking utensil used for preparing Ashkenazi or Sephardic cuisine; a B’nai B’rith membership certificate or lodge medal; a child’s book about Judaism; secular folk art from a Russian shtetl: The humble and ordinary as well as the precious and ornate can be designated as belonging to the world of Judaica. The bearers of multiple personalities, these objects, sculptures, pictures, jewelry, textiles, books, scrolls, and more can treated with reverence, as spiritual objects; experienced as historic artifacts; or viewed as stylistic examples of art by outsiders or professionals that fit in, or don’t fit in, to regional or national idioms.
At the renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the incentive for establishing a department of Judaica was sparked by a 2010 monetary bequest earmarked for the purchase, display and study of Judaica, then gained momentum with a 2013 gift of a collection that included highly significant Jewish fine and decorative arts from all over the world. Today at the MFA Boston, a curator with expertise in Judaica supervises their care and exhibition in and outside of the newly opened Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery. Museum educators will describe and contextualize the art and objects to accommodate a multi-cultural approach developed for the understanding of the wide-ranging customs and faiths practiced by communities that have impacted and enhanced Boston’s, and New England’s, persona.
On view through 2026 is “Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection,” featuring art and artifacts from around the world. Including two and three dimensional works associated with, or illustrating Jewish traditions in the public and private spheres, it showcases many beautiful items, including a fascinating portrait of a woman wearing a pearl-encrusted hairband (this accessory, the sterntichl, was a status symbol) by the famed 19th century Austrian artist Isidor Kaufmann, a compliment to the delicacy of Linda Threadgill’s modern silver, bronze and walnut menorah, (also on display) with its Deco-like floral motifs.
Not currently on view is an elaborate pair of torah finials, circa 1776, crafted by the 18th century Boston silversmith Myer Myers, a gifted artisan and contemporary of Paul Revere, which are on loan to the museum from New York’s Shearith Israel synagogue. They would certainly be of great interest to visitors; it’s hoped that visitors will soon get a chance to enjoy them.
Already a destination for art lovers in America and beyond, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston had acquired a rare illuminated medieval German Jewish prayer book in 2018 that became the catalyst for the building of a significant Judaica collection. In 2022, “Beauty and Ritual,” a large show organized and loaned by New York’s Jewish Museum as part of an ongoing partnership, included sections devoted to Shabbat, Hanukkah and the Torah. This year on Dec. 3, Houston celebrated the opening of the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Gallery for Judaica, where two dozen works, the earliest dating from the fifth century CE, illuminate the customs of Jewish peoples from Eastern and Western Europe and Asia.
An 18th century Italian brocade torah binder decorated with embroidered images of grapes and flowers and a finely rendered early 19th century German gilt torah shield are among the treasures included in the show.
Nearby galleries are dedicated to the exhibition of non-Western religious artifacts and are all part of a museum-wide World Faiths Initiative, supported by the Lily Endowment, Inc., which will explore and interpret wide ranging themes of faith and spirituality through exhibits and the mounting of special programs.
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.