The Arty Semite

A Dutch Monastery’s Jewish Prayer Books

By Menachem Wecker

Photo: Menachem Wecker

For the past three years, mid-March has meant for me a pilgrimage to the southern Dutch town of Maastricht to cover The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, the fair offers (for a hefty price) everything from Greco-Roman antiquities and Rembrandts to Warhols, photography and modern sculpture. The best metaphor I can think of for navigating the fair’s 275 galleries is an ice cream headache that comes from too thoroughly tantalizing the eye with too many artistic treasures.

I have also, for the past three years, walked several times from my hotel to the intersection of Maastricht’s Sint Pieterstraat and Achter De Oude Minderbroeders streets, the latter of which is Dutch for “Behind the Old Franciscans.” There, I thumbed through Jewish books at a former Franciscan monastery dating back to the 13th century.

The reading room of the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg, Limburg’s regional historic center, has the soaring, vaulted ceilings and stunning windows one would expect of a monastery. Like many in Holland, the building changed hands when Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, conquered the city in 1632. The church heads were beheaded, and the building became an orphanage, military hospital, jail and even sauerkraut factory.

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A Royal Menorah in Amsterdam

By Menachem Wecker

A Hanukkah lamp that was recently given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam may have one of the most compelling provenances of any Jewish ritual object.

The lamp was created by a Christian (Dutch Reformed) silversmith, Harmanus Nieuwenhuys, for the Dutch Jewish community in 1751 — when Jews were still barred from guilds. (Harmanus’ son Hendrik also created ritual objects for Jewish patrons.)

By all accounts, it appears to have gotten a good deal of use, and a condition report from the museum identifies the object as “good (dent in back).” In 1907 Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands bought the lamp at auction and gave it as an Easter gift to her mother, Queen Emma (1858-1934).

Staff at the Jewish Historical Museum may have learned of the lamp’s existence following its inclusion in 1965 in the book “History of Dutch Silver,” according to Irene Faber, the head of collections at the museum. The lamp was given on short-term loan to the museum at some point in the 1980s, she adds. “We do not know what the occasion was, probably an exhibition on ceremonial objects or about history of the Jews in Holland.”

And now, the lamp, which this reporter recently viewed in a museum back room, has found its way to the Jewish community again through Christian hands.

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Mysterious Manuscript Owners Come To Life

By Rebecca Schischa

While a bunch of musty old books may not, at first, sound like a diverting idea for an exhibition, Columbia University has succeeded in bringing to life an illuminating collection of Judaic manuscripts.

Courtesy Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Decision from the Venetian Doge regarding the status of the Jews in Corfu, 17th century

“The People in the Books: Judaic Manuscripts at Columbia University Libraries,” on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until January 25, is all about bringing to life the stories behind the manuscripts — who were the authors, owners and real people who handled these books, papers and letters hundreds of years ago? This is all about the “paratext” — the scribbled notes written in the margins of books, the changing ownership of a manuscript, the physical aspect of text. In other words, all the bibliographical clues that lead us to visualise the interaction real people had with a manuscript during its active life.

The exhibition, broken up into sections such as “Travellers,” “Congregants,” “Mystics,” “Doctors” and “Timekeepers,” gathers together diverse and rare manuscripts such as philosophical treatises, sefarim, letters, ketubot, and calendars, which are written in Hebrew, Dutch, Judeo-German and Spanish, among other languages, each giving its own vignette of Jewish community life in Europe and beyond.

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Two Words: 'Plastic Judaica'

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Samuel D. Gruber
Plastic (phenol formaldehyde) memorial (yahrzeit) lights, replacing candles, in the collection of the Amsterdam Bakelite Collection.

For the past year I’ve been curator of the Plastics Collection at Syracuse University, and while I have not given up my research and activism vis-a-vis Jewish art and architecture, I have launched into to a new work area. Usually, I just split my interests — plastics by day, and teaching “Art and Architecture of the Synagogue” at night. But occasionally I can bring these two seemingly disparate disciplines together.

One such occasion came last July, when I was in Cologne, Germany, to comment on the ongoing archaeological excavations of the medieval synagogue and Judengasse. I took the opportunity to visit the Amsterdam, and the Amsterdam Bakelite Collection of Reindert Groot, to discuss possibilities of collaboration. Besides showing me hundreds of notable plastic objects, mostly from the 1920s to 1940s, Reindert knew I would want to see the above pictured plastic yahrzeit “candles.” Today we are used to seeing plastic lights, including memorial lamps and Hanukkah menorahs, but these are very early examples.

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Torah Arks Like Towers

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Florsheim Haggadah, c. 1465. Tall Torah Ark. Photo: Jewish Art, vol. 23-24.

Bar-Ilan University professor Ilia Rodov has written an important and useful article on medieval Torah Arks, especially those tall tower types, well known from representations in many illuminated medieval manuscripts. The article, “Tower-like Torah Arks, the Tower of Strength and the Architecture of the Messianic Temple,” was recently published in the prestigious art historical Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

Rodov’s article accomplishes three tasks. First, he has inventoried the number of occurrences and described the variety of known Spanish, Italian and Ashkenazic arks that meet a broad definition of “Tower-like Torah Arks.” These include examples shown in Spanish Haggadot, such as British Library Mss 2884, where the Aron HaKodesh is shown as a substantial fortified architectural element; to the tall ornate Gothic-style free-standing cabinet-type arks illustrated in Northern European manuscripts.

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Out and About: Israeli Judaica Thieves Nabbed; Rise of the Classical Mandolin

By Ezra Glinter

Grammy nominated mandolinist Avi Avital

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Sotheby's to Auction Historic Gibraltar Judaica

By Malka Percal

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Sotheby’s New York sale of important Judaica, an annual event featuring ceremonial metalwork, manuscripts and printed books, takes place this year on December 15. Leading the auction are a pair of Italian-made silver Torah finials belonging to Sha’ar HaShamayim, the Great Synagogue of Gibraltar. Other items such as 15th-century Torah scroll from Poland are also for auction.

Thought to be made in Turin, the finials date from 1780 to 1820, around the time of the Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779-1782), when Spain attempted to re-conquer the peninsula from England. During the siege, many members of the congregation took refuge in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy. Similar finials, also of Torinesi make, can be found today in the Comunità Ebraica in Florence, Italy, and in New York’s Jewish Museum.

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A Silversmith's Judaica Shines in Idaho

By Tara Morgan

“Myrtle Hadas” by Anika Smulovitz. Photograph by Richard Gerke.

Performing even the most mundane ritual can be calming — grinding coffee, scooping it into a filter, pouring water into the coffeemaker, turning the pot on — over time, the actions becomes so familiar that the objects pass through your hands unnoticed.

Though they can come to seem as commonplace as a coffee pot, when it comes to Jewish ritual objects, there are latent meanings waiting to be explored. In her artistic renderings of everything from mezuzot to menorahs, Silversmith Anika Smulovitz, an associate professor in the Department of Art at Boise State University, reveals the deeper significance of such objects. In the tip of a Torah pointer or the curve of a candlestick holder she explores Jewish concepts and conjures up thousands of years of history.

Smulovitz’s Judaica was recently included in the exhibition “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life” at the Jewish Museum in New York, and it made an appearance in Ray Hemachandra’s book “500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.” On August 30, she opened a solo show, “Contemporary Judaica,” in Gallery One of the Liberal Arts Building at Boise State, which is on view until October 22.

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