Above photo: Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff installed the mezuzah in the official Washington, D.C. residence. Photo courtesy of The White House
A sterling silver mezuzah from The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life now hangs at the official Washington, DC residence of Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff.
In what Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo called a “curatorial mission impossible,” the ritual object needed to be anchored in the history of the Jewish American community, have relevance to the second couple, and be suitable for display in the official residence.
With a case originally designed in 1939 by sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (1900-1981), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who taught at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem prior to moving to New York City in 1956, the mezuzah has an interesting story on its path to the doorpost of the first Jew to live in an American executive mansion.
“It is a mezuzah that connects with their personal history,” Spagnolo said. “It is a rare example of a Jewish ritual object that has touched the lives of several women in service. And it really intersects history with a capital H.”
The mezuzah once belonged to Alice Grossman, an immigrant who served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, and later worked at the Israeli Embassy prior to moving to San Francisco, where she was an active member of the San Francisco Chapter of Hadassah and of Congregation Ner Tamid.
While at the Embassy, Grossman was the English-language secretary to Yitzhak Rabin, who served as an ambassador there just before becoming the 5th Prime Minister of Israel in 1974.
The day after Rabin became Prime Minister, his wife, Leah Rabin, gifted the mezuzah inscribed in Hebrew with “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings” to Grossman, celebrating her move to a new apartment. Grossman eventually brought the mezuzah to San Francisco, a city where, years later, Harris would get her political start.
After Grossman’s death in 2007, her sister, Molly Grossman, donated the mezuzah to The Magnes. “As curator, the gift interested me precisely because of the connection with the Rabins, which is documented in materials that accompanied the gift, and are now at University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. It also immediately stood out as a rare case of a traditional Jewish ritual object that has a historical connection to women, and I remember how inspiring that was at the time I collected it for The Magnes,” stated Spagnolo.
In September Spagnolo brought the mezuzah to Washington D.C. for an installation ceremony led by the Second Gentleman.
With a group of DC area university students, Spagnolo and George Washington University Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator Rabbi Dan Epstein joined the Second Gentleman in conversation followed by a reception and the presentation and installation of the sacred object.
Using the transcendent principle encompassing the whole Torah, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Rabbi Epstein initiated discussion around the meaning of love, neighborhood, and social consciousness.
Inscribed in the parchment placed inside the mezuzah case, Spagnolo explained at the event, are also the words “you shall love.” He correlated this along with the purpose of a mezuzah as found in Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20, “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our house and on your gates,” to speech act theory in action, the words present information and carry out actions — you do what the words say and the words say what you do.
The mezuzah was affixed by Mr. Emhoff inside a second entrance to the residence. The Magnes Collection object is currently expected to be on loan through 2024.