Last year, when Alla Efimova stepped down as the Jacques and Esther Reutlinger Director of UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life after ten years at its helm, she left the institution a magnificent parting gift.
“The Jewish World: 100 Treasures of Art & Culture, The Magnes Collection” traces the origins of The Magnes, which existed for 50 years as the independent Judah L. Magnes Museum before merging with UC Berkeley in 2010, and introduces readers to one of the largest, most international and diverse Jewish collections existing today. “This book,” Efimova wrote, “is my way of paying back for a decade of honor and delight in working with the Magnes collection.”
Highlighting gems from The Magnes’s rich trove — Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects, often crafted from silver and other precious materials; traditional, modern and contemporary fine art; music, rare books and manuscripts; and historical archives and artifacts — the sumptuous volume shapes a remarkable narrative of the variety and persistence of Jewish life and culture over centuries and across continents.
Objects from China, England, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Italy, Morocco, Poland, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, the United States, Yemen and other places where Jews once lived or continue to live display a fascinating range of hybrid artistries and melded cultural traditions.
Some of my favorites include a wonderful Art Deco Torah Ark designed in 1935 by the English architect Cecil Jacob Epril for the ocean liner Queen Mary (p. 45); Blood on the Doorpost . . . The Aids Mezuzah, 1996 (with a glass vial containing blood, not the usual Hebrew prayer) by contemporary American artist Albert J. Winn; a fanciful, delicately filigreed 19th-century Italian silver Havdalah spice box, and Al Farrow’s mordant Menorah (II), 2005, fashioned from guns, bullets and steel.
In addition to these and other wonders, reproductions of old photographs and faded documents evocatively trace the history of the Jewish Diaspora here on the West Coast, in Northern California especially.
Lavishly illustrated with stunning photographs by Sibila Savage, beautifully designed by Kit Hinrichs, and imaginatively organized according to themes that relate The Magnes’s collections to aspects of Jewish life and history, “The Jewish World” is not merely gorgeous to look at. The accompanying texts, by Efimova and Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo, are models of serious scholarship and curatorial insight concisely translated into graceful, accessible, often lyrical prose. The book is informative, illuminating, and delightful to read for anyone curious about Jewish art and culture in general and West Coast Jewish history in particular.
Here, for instance, is Efimova’s introduction to the section titled “Protections”:
“Numerous items in The Magnes Collection are decorative housings that contain, or once contained, written texts. They are “exoskeletons” that encase delicate parchments or textiles. Whether intended to be carried to synagogue, stored, or affixed to doorposts, they can take many forms and be made of a variety of materials. It is their protective function — shielding or fortifying the vulnerable viscera of words — that captures the imagination.”
“The vulnerable viscera of words” describes a pervasive dimension of “The Jewish World,” and of many of the pieces depicted in it.
Jews call themselves “the people of the book,” and their art abounds with language, whether in Hebrew calligraphy or Roman lettering. It’s often “text-based,” to use a contemporary art term. In many cases, the “art” is the vehicle for, or illuminates, the texts, as in the exquisite examples of Ketubbaht (marriage contracts), and amulets that guarded babies from the female demon Lilith.
“The Jewish World” also calls attention to Efimova’s contributions to the Magnes’s program when it was a private museum on Russell Street in Berkeley. During her tenure, The Magnes not only acquired art by contemporary Jewish artists, it invited Jewish artists and art world figures to create new work using The Magnes’s collections as inspiration.
One notable commissioned installation was organized by Lawrence Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It included a photograph, now in the Magnes’s collection, by the late actor and photographer Leonard Nimoy: a haunting black-and-white image of a pair of hands making the rabbinical gesture for a blessing, which Nimoy adopted on Star Trek to signify Dr. Spock’s Vulcan greeting “Live Long and Prosper.” Rinder partnered the photograph with a rustic yet elegant 18th-century Russian brass washbasin and laver from The Magnes collection, both delicately incised with the same hand blessing image.
“The Jewish World” was intended as the catalogue for a public exhibition that would showcase the treasures of The Magnes’s collection. The exhibition was planned to celebrate the Magnes’s transition from a privately held museum to a scholarly study collection, administered by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, that would still be open and available, welcoming the larger community beyond the boundaries of Cal.
That exhibition never happened. Nor did the publication party planned for September 2014. Selections from the book’s contents are, however, on display through Friday, June 26, 2015 at The Magnes’s downtown Berkeley space at 2121 Allston Way, whose hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. The installation can also be viewed digitally on the Magnes website.
Since The Magnes Museum’s merger with UC Berkeley in 2010, public access to its collections has declined. Visiting hours are shorter, the building isn’t open on the weekends, and much of the programming seems aimed more toward the university community than the general public. It’s difficult to see this battening down as anything but an incalculable loss to the cultural resources of our region in general, and to Berkeley in particular.
Luckily, we have the book, a marvelous cultural resource in itself. It’s available in time for Passover through local bookstores, including Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue in Berkeley. Check it out.