Houses and Housings: Portability in Jewish Faith and Culture – 07.25.2005

July 25, 2005

Berkeley, CA – Houses and Housings: Portability in Jewish Faith and Culture, an exhibition composed of objects drawn from the Magnes permanent collections, opens on August 29, 2005. 

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 features several text panels with illuminating quotes from religious texts and secular scholars, from the Torah to Walter Benjamin. For example, one panel quotes 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 will be challenged by similar conceptual comparisons. 

Objects on display in Houses and Housings include 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 is 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.

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