Today I Am An Art Gallery


Colorful yarmulkes suspended from the ceiling sway like mobiles. Guests kvell over montages, display cases, photographs and an ice sculpture of a giant Star of David, while feasting on chopped liver and other retro Jewish fare.

A July opening at the Center for Jewish History? An ethnic-themed exhibit at a Chelsea gallery?

Try again. “Today I Am … Jewish Coming of Age Rituals,” an exploration of bar and bat mitzvah customs and celebrations, is the 13th gallery exhibition at Congregation Or Zarua on the Upper East Side.

The Conservative synagogue’s sleek, minimalist social hall regularly doubles as an exhibition space. Metal strips from which to hang pictures and neutral beige walls “gave us the idea early on that it could work as a gallery,” says Bobbi Coller, an art historian and curator who heads OZ’s gallery committee.

Coller’s inspiration for the current exhibit was congregant Michael Schwartz’s 70th birthday reprise of his bar mitzvah haftarah. He had brought his bar mitzvah album from 1954. “The party was held in a suburban backyard: I was captivated by the charm, the nostalgia,” Coller says.

Along with pictures from Schwartz’s album, the exhibition features other personal photos and memorabilia from OZ members: a 1906 letter in Yiddish from a congregant’s great-uncle to his grandparents in Russia, lamenting their absence at his bar mitzvah; a bar mitzvah announcement with the honoree’s picture published in a 1949 New York Post, a 1953 movie of big-haired party-goers doing the Mexican Hat Dance in Providence, R.I., and monogrammed thank-you notes designed by a future architect.

There’s a photo of a congregant’s father’s 1918 bar mitzvah class in knickers from Reading, Pa., and another of OZ President Diane Okrent with confirmation classmates in flowing white robes in Wantagh, L.I. The two-year confirmation course focused on ethics and the meaning of prayer, and was “a cool continuation of Hebrew school,” says Okrent, who had a bat mitzvah, too.

Descriptive panels formatted like a Torah scroll, with text provided by congregants, document the rite’s passage from simple to glitzy, its fate during the Holocaust, and the origins of confirmation and bat mitzvah.

In earlier times, you didn’t have to be 13, says Barry Feldman, a Yiddishist and oral historian. “If a child demonstrated the spiritual maturity, willingness and ability to observe a commandment,” he could be called to the Torah at a younger age.

Such a precocious tween was congregant Ninette Lukashok’s father, who had his bar mitzvah in Morocco at age 11. His Moorish-style red velvet and gold-tasseled tefillin bag, a gift from his father, is displayed next to “The Bar Mitzvah Pulpit” by Rabbi Simon Glazer, a book that, long before the Internet, offered ready-made “sermonettes.”

Some OZ exhibits travel beyond its social hall. “Bagels, Babka and Balabustas” about Jewish food in America, was mounted at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, and “From Yankel to Yankee,” about Yiddish theater and Americanization, at Temple Beth El in Fairfield, Conn.

The exhibitions are “a beautiful mirror of congregants’ personal Jewish stories, which we continue to build and reflect on as a congregation,” says OZ’s rabbi, Scott Bolton. The display also includes tefillin from pre-Holocaust Europe, which Rabbi Bolton uses in teaching bar and bat mitzvah students.

To visit, call (212) 452-2310. Mon-Thur, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri., 9 a.m.-1 p.m.