"Treasures of the Jewish Museum," opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Sunday, is of course for Jewish viewers; but it may be even more valuable for those who know little of Jewish history and religion, in part as a revelation of shared aesthetic and religious traditions.
"I would hope the non-Jewish viewer would come away with an understanding of what the synagogue service is and how Jews celebrate their holidays and life cycle events. Many [Jewish and non-Jewish] rites are different ways of marking similar events, such as birth, marriage and death," said Vivian B. Mann, Morris and Eva Feld chair of Judaica at New York's Jewish Museum, from which the exhibit comes, and co-author of the catalog that accompanies it.
Then, too, the catalog points out that while earlier study of Jewish art and artifacts emphasized the Jewish tradition, the works in this exhibit "were chosen for their intrinsic aesthetic value, with an eye toward their stylistic relationship to the art of their time." There are Jewish objects that are quite close to -- in fact could be identical with -- those used in other religions, such as Christianity or Islam. In the show, Dr. Mann pointed out, is a ewer and basin set from Istanbul, first made for a Muslim and later owned by a Jewish family, both of whom used it for ritual handwashing.
In view of the recent history of the Middle East it may come as a surprise to many, as Colin Eisler states in a catalog essay, that Hebrew culture "had an unusually productive time when living within . . . Islam." As Dr. Mann said, "It is very important to remember that the relationship between the Jewish people and Islam goes back to the 7th century, and that Jews had a wonderful and symbiotic relationship with Muslims. It wasn't always true, it wasn't geographically universally true, but prior to the modern period it was a far, far better thing to be a Jew under Islam than to be a Jew in a Christian country."
One example of the closeness between the Jewish and Islamic aesthetic traditions is a Torah curtain made in the Ottoman Empire with "a composition identical to that of a Muslim prayer rug," Dr. Mann said.
Viewers, Dr. Mann thinks, will be able to approach works in the show on several levels. She illustrates this with the example of a late 18th century Torah curtain from Danzig. The curtain in front of the Torah speaks to "the sacred nature and reverence that Jews accord to the basic text of their religion." Beyond that, "the use of a curtain to express those ideas is a usage that goes back to Roman antiquity."
This particular curtain, modeled after one from 50 years earlier, also is evidence that "we are a religion that emphasizes tradition and the continuity of tradition." Then there is the purely aesthetic response to the work, including its silk centerpiece and high-relief stumpwork embroidery. And finally, from the inscription on the work, people can "learn something about the history of the community" from which it comes.
The show is a smaller version of one that appeared at the Jewish Museum in 1986, but Dr. Mann says it "reflects the collection in terms of chronological and geographical breadth just as well as the original exhibition." It also includes "a few things that are associated with the history of Baltimore Jewry," such as a trio of ++ silver tea pieces presented in 1861 to "a Reverend Dr. Illowy, who had been associated with the Lloyd Street Synagogue."
So the show takes us down the centuries, across the continents, and back home.
Jewish Treasures When: Opens Sunday, then Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to p.m., Thursdays to 7 pm., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through December 30.
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets.