What’s a Shofar? Ask Marcus Jonas.

Shofar and Case, Maker: Marcus Jonas. Oakland, California, ca. 1870s. Wood and ram’s horn. From the collection of the Skirball Cultural Center. Photograph by John Reed Forsman.

What’s a shofar? It’s a ram’s horn that is hollowed out (through a pretty messy process) and polished. In Jewish tradition, it is blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some interpret the shofar’s blast as a call to reflect, a call to repent, a call to listen to the voice of one’s own conscience, a call to do good deeds, or a call to express prayer with breath.

When I take high school students through the Holidays gallery of our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, we make sure to stop at the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur case. Inside is this shofar and case (pictured above), which like many objects throughout the gallery tell a fascinating story.

Marcus Jonas was a teenager, just like our visiting students on the tour, when he came to America from Germany in 1860. He came seeking opportunity in California, and he ended up in Oakland. His father had given him the shofar, a family heirloom, to take with him on his journey. Marcus treasured it so much that he decided to make a case for it when he got to California. He crafted it out of a native California wood. To me, this story represents one of many similar narratives in our collection: the unique and personal blending of Jewish traditions with American ideals. The students on my tour understand the complex merging of identities in seemingly ordinary objects because for many of them, the immigrant story resonates with their own lives. To varying degrees, we all have similar American “cases”—the values and beliefs we all share in freedom and opportunity—though each of us carries within us the unique cultural heritage handed down from our families.

I also explain that most shofars don’t come with a case, which is why I find this one so interesting. I like that this shofar and case reflect the Old World and the American West in equal measure. In an act of ingenuity, Marcus created a new precious object to safeguard the one he inherited. In doing so, he preserves his family history and Jewish heritage while utilizing one of California’s precious resources, wood.

Wishing everyone a sweet, resonant, and happy new year. L’Shanah Tovah.

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