Houses and Housings: Portability in Jewish Faith and Culture
Is portability only a response to historic necessity or is it a fundamental quality of Jewish art? A multiplicity of art, Judaica and books from the Magnes collection demonstrate how Jewish faith and culture were transmitted across space and time through text and ceremony. Even those aspects of faith and culture which seem least capable of visual expression—ideas, beliefs, practices which require no ceremonial art for their performance, and secular culture independent of ritual—can be described and suggested in paintings and sculpture. These works of art thus become another vessel in which Jewish heritage can be carried forward into the future.
Portability is expressed in Jewish art beginning with the very first ceremonial artifacts described in the Bible. These vessels, designed to be carried, and the desert sanctuary which contained them, became the subject of ritual art decoration in later periods. Perhaps more significantly, they became metaphors for this ritual art.
Text, the most frequently recognized vehicle through which Jewish faith and culture is transmitted, is represented in this exhibition by rare illuminated manuscripts and printed books, letters and postcards, as well as travel accounts by medieval and nineteenth century writers, all found in the Magnes’s Blumenthal Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Houses and Housings featured several text panels with illuminating quotes from religious texts and secular scholars, from the Torah to Walter Benjamin. For example, one panel quoted Jonathon Rosen’s The Talmud and the Internet (2000), “Finding a home inside exile, finding unity inside infinity, finding the self inside a sea of competing voices was an ancient challenge and is a modern one too.” Viewers were challenged by similar conceptual comparisons.
Objects on display in Houses and Housings included a velvet Torah valance with gold and silver embroidery from mid-nineteenth century Germany. A valance is a short drapery hung above the curtain on a synagogue Torah Ark. It takes its Hebrew name, kapporet, from the covering for the original Ark of the Covenant that Jews carried in the Biblical desert.
Also on view was a nineteenth century shivviti panel from Darjeeling where Jews from Calcutta often spent their summers. Shivvitis are decorated panels containing the verse “I am ever mindful of the Lord’s presence” (Psalms 16:8) and have been placed on the eastern walls of synagogues (the direction of prayer) for centuries. Motifs often include images of the Temple in Jerusalem, as in this piece.
Modern paintings, prints, and sculpture represent contemporary illustrations of portability, and continue to resonate in the same way that the ancient artifacts do. Thus, works of art become another vessel in which Jewish heritage can be carried forward into the future.
Drawing on the Magnes’s unique and varied permanent collections, Houses and Housings explores the concept of portability, framing the question of whether this constant theme is a response to historic necessity or a fundamental quality of Jewish art, life, and faith.
Collection-based exhibitions, such as Houses and Housings, are an integral part of the Magnes’s major multi-year Collection Access Project. Initially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, important funding has also been granted by Museum Trustees Suzy Locke Cohen, Gary Shapiro and Ann Nadel. Ruthellen and Monte Toole as well as Rosalie Eisen have contributed community-based support. The Koret Foundation and the Museum Loan Network provided institutional support.
Curated by Elayne Grossbard, Judaica Curator at the Judah L. Magnes Museum.