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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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N.Y. museum explores diversity of Jewish culture

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A Statue of Liberty Chanukah lamp [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

NEW YORK — Housed in an imposing French Gothic chateau-style building on New York’s Fifth Avenue, the Jewish Museum is doubtless one of the great museums in the United States.

Its permanent collection of 26,000 pieces, ranging from paintings and sculptures to archeological artifacts and ceremonial objects, constitutes a veritable treasure-trove. And its temporary exhibitions are no less interesting.

Dedicated to exploring the diversity and scope of Jewish culture and history from antiquity to the present, the museum, adjacent to Central Park, is in a mansion that once belonged to the financier and philanthropist Felix Warburg. His wife, Frieda, donated the building in 1944, seven years after her husband’s death.

The permanent collection, one of the world’s most important, is on the top third and fourth floors, artfully displayed in connecting well-lit galleries.

I started my tour on the fourth floor and worked my way down to the ground level, which has a wonderful gift shop.

The first object I saw was an impressive replica of a third- or fourth-century CE marble burial plaque adorned with a menorah.

Moving on, I stopped to admire photographs of an Israelite female figurine, a 16th-century Iranian synagogue mosaic wall from Isfahan and a series of rare objects: an 18th-century gilt silver Chanukah lamp from Frankfurt, Germany; Israelite cast bronze and wrought iron-spearheads (1000-586 BCE); terra cotta wine and oil storage jars (800-586 BCE); a late 19th-century Torah scroll from Ioannina, Greece.

A wheel-ground glass bowl from the eastern Mediterranean basin (second to third centuries) led me to the remarkably preserved mosaic floor of an Israelite synagogue (fourth to fifth centuries CE).

Five ceiling tiles from the fabled Dura Europos synagogue, discovered in Syria in 1932, were riveting, as was a silver Viennese decorative tray, circa 1925, with scenes of the Exodus.

A Statue of Liberty Chanukah lamp, hewn of wood and fabric and featuring moulded plastic figures, struck my fancy, as did a glazed terra cotta figurine of a Semitic merchant in mid-18th-century China.

Menorahs from all corners of Europe, plus an engraved silver sugar bowl presented to a rabbi from his grateful congregation in Baltimore (1861), rounded out the collection on the fourth floor.

The objects on the third floor were also showstoppers, starting with a 19th-century Tunisian Torah scroll, a 16th-century Italian Torah made of linen and embroidered with silk thread, and a carved and painted 18th-century Bavarian Torah Ark fashioned from pine.

A mid-19th-century Austrian Empire  burial comb and a nail pick were interesting enough, but an upholstered wedding sofa of birch, pine and linden, manufactured in Danzig in 1838, was downright intriguing.

Still more amazing was a Torah Ark from 16th-century Italy, its teal blue and gold hues complemented by fluted pilasters and gilded inscriptions.

A Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) oil painting, The Return of the Volunteer, portrayed a wounded German Jewish soldier back home after fighting against Napoleon’s army in the Wars of Liberation.

More poignant still was a memorial plaque from a synagogue in Danzig commemorating 56 Jewish soldiers who laid down their lives for Germany in World War I. The inscription read: “These dead will live.”

Another Oppenheim work, from the year 1842, was a prim portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix – the famous German composer – and a composer in her own right.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s oil painting of David Camden de Leon (1815-1897), the Confederate’s first surgeon-general, brought to mind the U.S. Civil War, whose 150th anniversary was recently observed.

Grotesque antisemitic masks from 18th- and 19th-century Germany and Austria were displayed in another gallery.

The 20th century was represented by exhibits on, among other topics, Nazi concentration camps, Lodz ghetto currency and displaced persons camps in postwar Germany.

The Holocaust as an event was depicted by George Segal’s stark and eerie tableau of white plaster figurines.

A video presentation charts the formation of the Zionist movement and the emergence of the State of Israel.

The museum’s temporary exhibits, located on the first and second floors, explore worthy ideas and subjects.

A current exhibit on the illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (Katz) runs until Jan. 29, and an exhibition on Chanukah lamps ends on Jan. 29.

An exhibit on the Dreyfus Affair was mounted in 1987, and exhibits on court Jews in Europe and Berlin Jews in Weimar Germany took place in 1996 and 1999.

The museum, situated at 1109 Fifth Ave., is open almost every day from 11 a.m. It is closed on Wednesdays and major Jewish holidays.

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