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Monday, June 6, 2011

A Second Day at the Israel Museum

I returned to the museum today to focus on Jewish culture. First the Rhythm of Life: Birth, Marriage, Death.
I was most interested in the traditions and artifacts relating to marriage, especially in Afghanistan and Yemen. I loved that bridal gowns were recycled into curtains for the Torah Ark, and that the baby bindings used in circumcision were also sometimes from bridal veils, and that some brides wore what would be their burial shrouds under their wedding clothes.

Next I went to the Illuminating the Scripts collection and was utterly fascinated by the Rothschild Miscellany. An intricately illuminated book, with biblical texts, prayers, midrash, ethics, philosophy and astronomy all bound up together in Italy in the 15th century.

In the collection of artifacts pertaining to the Sabbath and Pilgrim Festivals I found a pair of shoes (for use in the miqveh - sacred bath - environment). I don't know how a woman walked in them but I'd be willing to try.
In the section on Holidays and Days of Remembrance, I found an unexpected resonance between the practice in some communities of removing the ark curtain and draping the Torah and bema in black for Yom Kippur and the Christian practice of stripping the altar of its cloths on Holy Thursday and the use of black on Good Friday.
The highlight of the Feasts and Miracles unit was two walls of menoroth (menorahs). I couldn't pick just one; see the variety here.
The Clothing and Jewelry display was also phenomenal. (They use the word "costume" which just sounds patronizing to me.) My favorite was the Yemeni bride, apparently only the embroidery on her leggings and particulars of her tiara differentiate a Jewish Yemeni from a Muslim Yemeni bride.

The highlight, hands down was the section on synagogues. First was a collection of Torah ornaments called Holiness and Beauty. Simple breath-taking. Among those, this 17th century Venetian Torah mantle (with its crown, breastplate and pointer) enabled me to see the Torah in almost human vestments. The Torah looks very much like a medieval (European Christian) priest. Many of these artifacts were designed and manufactured by Jews and Christians who influenced each other and produced sacred objects for both traditions.
Lastly in one of the most ambitions reconstruction projects I have ever seen, the Israel Museum imported the remains of four synagogues from three continents and restored them. The project took a number of years and cost the museum its roof in one section, which had to be removed and raised.
The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue of Paramaribo, Suriname (1736) surprised me with its airy lightness.

(The German synagogue exhibit was very partial. I'm not sure if more is coming. You can see what is there, here.)

The Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Cochin (Kochi) in Southern India dates from 1539–44; it has some of the elements of the oldest synagogue in Cochi that I was privileged to visit in 2006. Some date that community back to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
One nice feature of the Indian synagogues is that the Torah reader is right in front of the women's section so that they can see the Torah, owing to the cultural respect for women in India. (Unfortunately there was no image of that online.)
The last image is of the Vittorio Veneto Synagogue from 1700. I think I have saved the best for last. The picture does not do it justice. I really had to struggle with the temptation to take pictures in there. Just gorgeous.
I have not finished the museum. I'm not sure that I will. But I will return. And there is still the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, an off-site wing of the Israel Museum in the Old City.

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