Having been a docent since the Skirball opened in 1996, I have had numerous opportunities to talk about the many objects in the core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. One of my personal favorites is the seder plate shown above, on display in the Holidays Gallery. Made in Vienna in 1814, this beautiful silver plate has three tiers for matzah and seven screw-on cast figures who hold the ceremonial Passover foods. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the figures are different sizes and are wearing clothing from different eras. The reason for this is unknown. Continue reading
On Veterans Day, as we honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, I was inspired to look into our Museum collection for artifacts that reveal interesting stories of the wartime experiences of soldiers. Of the many items from which to choose, this small songbook struck me as a fascinating example of how World War II American Jewish soldiers doubly identified with the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. United behind a common cause, soldiers and the American people at large shared a deep sense of patriotism. For Jewish servicemen and women, defeating Germany and the Axis powers was more urgent still: the survival of European Jewry was at stake, as well as the defeat of hatred, discrimination, and ethnic persecution.
Two symbols on the cover reveal who published the songbook and hint at its purpose. “JWB” stands for the National Jewish Welfare Board, formed at the start of World War I to support Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. The JWB supplied ritual objects and miniature prayer books, as well as food packages complete with gefilte fish and honey cake.
In 1941, the JWB joined with five other service organizations—including the YMCA and the Salvation Army—to strengthen the morale of the Armed Forces. This consortium quickly became known as the United Service Organizations, or USO—the other symbol on the cover. The songbook, we can gather, was meant to bolster both the spiritual and emotional well-being of the troops.
Selected Jewish Songs for Members of the Armed Forces includes hymns and songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish “suitable for Sabbath and festival days and other social and cultural group meetings.” The book mixes patriotic songs (“God Bless America”), liturgical music (“Sh’ma Yisrael”), and even old-time spirituals (“Go Down, Moses”). The songs reflect the democracy of national, cultural, and religious identities of the soldiers who sang them. Most important in the dark years of World War II, they represented—and served—the cause of freedom.
Several months ago, the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) began an artist residency at the Skirball to develop an installation for our Ruby Gallery. Fallen Fruit’s community-based projects use fruit as a medium to explore social engagement, so we invited them to search our collection of Jewish artifacts for anything fruit related! After surveying a range of fine art and ritual objects featuring figs, etrogs, apples, oranges, and many other fruits, they could not take their eyes off of a seventeenth-century ketubbah that was richly decorated with fruit and animal motifs, zodiac signs, and biblical scenes.
In Hebrew ketubbah (plural, ketubbot) literally means “what is written.” It is the term used for a marriage contract, a custom that originated in biblical times. In an era when women were regarded as property rather than as equals, its purpose was to protect the married woman in the event that she was divorced or widowed. It specified that she must receive a material sum, including the dowry she brought to the marriage, to assure her support and well-being. Over the centuries the ketubbah has evolved in many Jewish communities from a legal document to a symbolic expression of mutual love and respect between equal partners. Today, particularly in the United States, many couples compose their own ketubbah texts and personalize the design.
The Skirball has one of the most prominent collections of ketubbot in the world, with over 430 in the collection from countries such as Italy, Egypt, Persia, Germany, and the United States. A majority of the collection belongs to the special tradition, developed in Jewish art, of the decorated marriage contract. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the custom of illuminated ketubbot flourished in areas of Sephardi settlement such as Italy, Amsterdam, London, North Africa, and the Near East. Nearly half of the entire Skirball collection consists of ketubbot produced in Italy during the golden age of the illuminated ketubbah, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
The particular ketubbah that inspired Fallen Fruit’s project is from Busseto, Italy. The traditional Hebrew text was copied by the scribe in 1677, and this text was set in its beautifully crafted frame about a century later. The frame includes an inner border constructed with an intricate die-cut technique. The contract is signed by two rabbis from the Busseto community to sanction the marriage of the bridegroom, Jacob, son of Eliezer Mogil, and the bride, Dolce, daughter of the late Isaac Navarra, on March 5, 1677. Made out of parchment (animal skin), the ketubbah features five biblical episodes and twelve signs of the zodiac set in roundels. Continue reading
The Skirball is proud to announce the recent donation of a very rare Torah ark curtain and valance saved from destruction during World War II.
An American paratrooper during World War II, Seymour Linfield, found this Torah ark curtain in an abandoned synagogue in Austria, which had been in use as a stable. He rescued the curtain and passed it on to his son, Michael, who recently donated it to the Skirball Museum for conservation and posterity.
The curtain depicts the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. The curtain and valance feature hand-sewn silk construction and intricate metallic thread embroidery. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the curtain, above the decorative fringe, reads “sound the shofar at the new moon,” which is derived from the New Year liturgy, when the scriptural reading from the binding of Isaac is read. This suggests that the curtain was specially made for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Hebrew abbreviation “Crown of Torah,” as seen on either side of the embroidered crown, refers to the sovereign authority of the Torah (the five books of Moses), which Jewish tradition ascribes to divine origin. The Hebrew inscription below the scene identifies the congregation of origin: Tagendorf (possibly a transliteration of Techendorf, a lakeside village in the south of Austria). The Hebrew numerical abbreviation just below that states the Jewish calendar year 5638, which translates to the secular calendar year 1878.
Before agreeing to accept this object as a contribution to the Museum collection, the Skirball contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (USHMM), for guidance on accepting items brought home by US soldiers during World War II. According to the USHMM, both they and the Library of Congress accept such items as long as the object is fully documented and thorough provenance research is conducted. Items looted by Nazis or their sympathizers, on the other hand, are repatriated as a matter of policy to community, synagogue, or family of origin. Continue reading
The designs of Hanukkah lamps often incorporate architectural forms. In 1985 the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, invited leading architects to submit designs of Hanukkah lamps for an exhibition entitled Nerot Mitzvah: Contemporary Ideas for Light in Jewish Ritual. The hanukkiah pictured below was designed by Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center just down the road from the Skirball. An original is on view in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America.
The obelisk on the far left represents Egypt—historically the period of slavery culminating in the Exodus story.
Second is a column of Roman style, representing the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
The third branch is a castle-like tower representing England, from which there was an expulsion of Jews in 1290. Specifically it may be the Tower of York where there was a massacre of Jews in 1190. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
It was a Tuesday morning and a group of summer interns and new hires were gathered in the lobby. We were waiting to tour the Skirball’s permanent exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America guided by the extremely knowledgeable Museum Director, Dr. Robert Kirschner. As one of only two Multicultural Undergraduate Interns, funded by the Getty Foundation, lucky enough to work at the Skirball this summer, I had the pleasure of going on this exclusive walkthrough. The tour began with Dr. Kirschner’s passionate remarks about the Skirball’s beginnings, the Skirball’s President and CEO, Uri Herscher (with whom I’ve met on multiple occasions and who is absolutely wonderful!), and Dr. Kirschner’s personal dedication to the museum.
Most importantly, he spoke of the Skirball mission as a Jewish institution that welcomes both Jews and non-Jews. As I enter the final days of my Skirball internship, I am more and more convinced that everyone is welcome here regardless of a person’s culture, religion, or race.
When Dr. Kirschner guided us to the entrance of the exhibition, I stood face-to-face with a simple yet powerful statement: “Go forth…and be a blessing” [The writer of this LA Times article about the opening of the Skirball in 1996 took note of this detail as well.] He urged us to look beyond the biblical context of the passage (it’s from the Book of Genesis) and to view it as a philosophy about inclusivity and universality—a philosophy by which all of us should aspire to live, one that encourages people of all cultures to be a blessing in the world and to all humankind. What I loved most was that this message is physically and philosophically ingrained into the Skirball’s foundations.
We walked a few steps ahead and there I saw one of the Skirball’s most prized possessions. A beautifully sewn object displayed behind glass beckoned me to take a closer look. Dr. Kirschner explained that it was a Torah case. When I was close enough to read what’s embroidered in the fabric, I became even more fascinated. Similar to the passage engraved in stone at the entrance, this object carried a biblical passage (this time from Leviticus) with a universal message: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” These words, it turns out, are also written on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a truly American treasure.
Recently I had the opportunity to learn more about this Torah case when I spoke with Adele Lander Burke, VP of Learning for Life, who oversees the Skirball docent program. She told me that in place of the object currently on view, there used to be a Torah scroll open to the exact same verse. But the Skirball decided that the Torah case, with its red, white, and blue motif and message about freedom, was more symbolic of the American values and ideals that are central to the Skirball mission. I also learned that the light tan color of the scroll image was meant to represent the lyrics “amber waves of grain” from “America the Beautiful.” All of these details underscored the Skirball’s deep interest in the American story, which brings me to my favorite part of the exhibition: the Liberty Gallery. Continue reading
This lovely bridal gown—worn first by Eva Selbin in 1912, then altered for use by her daughter for a second generation of wear in 1936—has found new life once again… as the newest addition to the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values.
We were excited to help bring this treasured family heirloom in our permanent collection back into the galleries. As we prepared to display it, we checked in with our Senior Curator, Grace Cohen Grossman, who had studied the object in depth when the Skirball presented the exhibition Romance and Ritual: Celebrating the Jewish Wedding. Grace pointed out details of the garment. “The style of the silk satin dress with high collar and asymmetrical bands of lace is typical of the Belle Époque period, prior to World War I,” she explained. “It has a romantic, ethereal look.”
But it is no simple matter to take an object from collection storage and place it on view. Often preparations begin weeks, sometimes months, in advance during the curatorial research and conservation phases, before museum staff can even consider an installation date. Once that work is done and an object has been prepped for display, the installation itself is no piece of (wedding) cake!
So how does it happen? It begins with a mannequin…
… which must be vacuumed and prepped for display. This includes measuring it for proper fit, making adjustments to its height and waist size, and removing the arms to facilitate the dressing process. Continue reading
Just a few weeks ago, the majestic Statue of Liberty celebrated its 125th anniversary. It seems like just yesterday that Lady Liberty turned 100, back in 1986. In the fall of that year, my husband, Ira, and I traveled with our sons, Dov and Ari—then aged eleven and eight—to New York City and brought them to the famed landmark. It had recently been reopened, after extensive renovations, in time for its centennial. On that sunny autumn morning, I had no idea I would be returning from Liberty Island with a Hanukkah lamp in mind.
Dov and Ari had never been on a ship before and so they were in high spirits as we waited to board the Circle Line Tour. We had prepped the boys about our family history—all of my grandparents had immigrated to the United States as children—and we encouraged them to imagine what it might’ve been like for their ancestors to catch sight of the Statue of Liberty, after a long ocean journey, and begin to fulfill their dreams of coming to America.
Of course, as a curator, I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty Museum, which presents historical information and fascinating reconstructions. It also showcases the hundreds of different ways Lady Liberty’s image has figured in popular culture, including in posters, pennants, plates, medals, spoons, puzzles, and postcards aplenty, as well as advertisements for products ranging from cars to cookies. Continue reading