The Metropolitan Museum of Art is open by reservation only and capacity is limited. For art-starved New Yorkers, the next best thing may be an online course with a curator, like the one being offered during the 2021 YIVO-Bard Winter Program on Ashkenazi Civilization, being held from January 5-22.
Among the presenters will be Barbara Drake Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, whose six-part seminar course will consider the artistic and cultural heritage of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. She’ll also discuss the ways art and artifacts of Ashkenaz have made it into the Met’s collection – and what’s missing.
“When I first started thinking about this, and why our collections of Jewish heritage appear so limited, I sort of naturally assumed it hadn’t been properly recognized or owed to prejudice,” Boehm told The Jewish Week. “But I realized that Jewish museums were, like the Met, a late 19th-century phenomenon. They were meant to preserve, protect and celebrate a heritage some felt might be slipping away.” Simply put, with some major exceptions (like the Judaica collection gifted to the Met by the late investor Harry G. Friedman), Jewish museums had dibs on the good stuff.
That being said, Boehm was happy to talk about treasures in the Met’s collection that tell stories about Europe’s Jewish heritage and the taste of their creators and owners, the blind spots of their collectors, and the efforts to preserve a culture that so many tried to erase.
A selection of historical ram’s-horn shofars from the Met collection demonstrates the serendipity of acquisition: Boehm said they came to the Met as part of a collection of more than 3,000 musical instruments. Like a similar object in the Met’s collections – a tea towel embroidered with the Hebrew blessing for washing one’s hands – “there was no deliberate effort to collect such things, but it just happened that way.”
Moldovan Chanukah Menorah, 1866–72
Boehm describes a 19th-century Moldovan Chanukah menorah from what is now Lviv, Ukraine, embellished with floral designs and topped with a triumphant eagle, as “spectacular.”
“There is a joyousness about the way that those flowers just spill out of it,” she said. “There’s a sturdiness with an almost lacy quality. That’s where the artistry comes in.”
Lviv, known as Lemburg in German, was once famous for its large number of Jewish and Christian gold- and silversmiths. At the start of the 20th century, there were some 40 synagogues in the city, many of which had rich collections of Judaica. The historical record, however, reveals the extent to which these buildings were destroyed and their contents looted. “To me this menorah carries a kind of burden,” said Boehm. “It is responsible for speaking up for this community that is gone. Who polished it? Who lit those candles? Who prayed there? It’s not only a beautiful work of art but it has a job to do.”
Silver Double Cup, 1325–50
At first glance, two German nesting cups from 1325–50, inscribed with the names of the Three Wise Men from the Nativity story, appear to be of Christian provenance, and were described that way by the Met for years.
During her work on last year’s exhibit, “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy,” Boehm found research showing that in fact the cups were owned and used by a Jewish family in Zurich. A coat of arms on the piece depicts three of the distinct hats worn by Jews at the time. So why the Christian imagery? The Three Kings – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — were widely invoked by Jews and Christians as a magic formula for good health, Boehm explains. “There is a record of Jewish physicians telling patients, ‘Say these names, they may help you get better.’”
The cups showed how Jews absorbed the tastes (and some of the folk practices) of the places and times during which they lived, “in the same way somebody might go to Tiffany’s today” for their Judaica.
Lidded Cup, Joachim Michael Salecker, 1724
An ornate, lidded silver cup from 1724 – likely used for Kiddush — also demonstrates how some objects can come to a great museum randomly. The cup was part of the banker J.P. Morgan’s vast collection of gold and silver work, which the Met acquired in 1917. “This piece basically slipped in alongside those,” said Boehm.
The cup also reminds Boehm of her mentorship by the late Vivian Mann, the long-time curator at the Jewish Museum. The two met when Boehm was a young curator in a program for curators who were not specialists in Judaica, and Mann “always watched after me.” In a 2008 paper, Mann wrote that the cup belonged to Issacher ben Juda Halevi (1661–1730), a court Jew who served local rulers in Brandenburg and Saxony.
Virgin and Child, ca. 1425–30
Boehm explained why a monumental sculpture of a Virgin and Child from the city of Nuremberg, Germany, ca. 1425–30, belongs in a course on the history of Ashkenaz. “We did an exhibit in 1986 about Gothic and Renaissance art in Nuremberg, which talked about how the Frauenkirche church was built on the site of a synagogue destroyed in 1349,” she said. “There was however no treatment or calling out of the Jewish community in the exhibit.”
Granted, said Boehm, a lot of Jewish artistic material of the period didn’t survive. The Virgin and Child, however, decorated the exterior of a building that belonged in the 1930s to a Jewish family named Hesslein. “They fortunately emigrated to the U.S., but their property was seized and the Virgin was confiscated by the Nazis and stored in Nuremberg Castle.” The sculpture was restituted to the family after the war, and given to the Met.
“We could have done more to recognize the ongoing Jewish presence of that city in modern times,” said Boehm. “What I have done now is get those images up on the screen and into our database, as a kind of quiet way of recognizing that gift and who those people were.”
View of the City of Prague, Johannes Wechter, 1606
Boehm says some artifacts are significant for what they leave out. One example is the panoramic “View of the City of Prague,” 1606, by Johannes Wechter. “The Jewish quarter and the Old New Shul are some of the great medieval monuments of Europe, and very prominent in the city and in the life of the city to this day,” said Boehm. And yet in this very detailed panorama, “The synagogue is not there. It is not on the map.”
Throughout her career, Boehm has seen evidence of Jewish heritage erased from the map, although not always this literally. Working on the 2005 Met exhibit, “Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437,” “I was determined that in the exhibit there would be a section talking about Jewish life in Prague during the medieval period.” Once again she turned to Mann, whose essay on the artistic culture of Prague Jewry appears in the catalogue.
Said Boehm: “What can we do at this late date, with so much destruction — how do you put this important material on everybody’s radar? To me as an art historian this is Jewish heritage, but it is also part of the world’s great artistic heritage, for everyone to see.”