Sir Moses Ezekiel, "Israel"

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, home of the Skirball Museum,  was established in Cincinnati in 1875, due primarily to the efforts of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was responsible for the organization of the College’s founding body, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  In the mid-1850s Wise moved to Cincinnati—a city which already hosted a significant German-speaking population—as part of the general movement of Central European immigrants who came to the United States largely in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. Reform Judaism, although it had its beginnings in the German lands in the first half of the nineteenth century, took hold and developed in the less tradition-bound atmosphere provided by the young country.  The center of Reform Judaism’s early growth was Hebrew Union College’s original campus in Cincinnati. The College today offers rabbinic as well as graduate degrees, and has sister campuses in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Cincinnati’s Skirball Museum, located on HUC’s historic campus, was founded in 1913 as the Union Museum,  and was the first formally established Jewish museum in the United States. After receiving a generous gift from former HUC rabbinic student and Hollywood producer Jack Skirball, whose studio was responsible for such classics as Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the museum, in 1972, took on its current name. The Skirball’s aim is to provide a compelling core exhibition, as well as important traveling exhibitions, lectures and tours. It is one of the most prestigious Jewish museums in the Midwest, and houses an extraordinary collection of art, artifacts and documents which reflect the unique and varied experience of the Jewish people from antiquity through the present.  The museum’s core exhibit, “An Eternal People, the Jewish Experience,” presents over 300 objects—art, ritual articles, textiles, photographs, documents,  jewelry and memorabilia—which reflect, and allow the visitor to relive, significant periods in Jewish history. A tour of the collection takes the guest through eight thematic galleries which together constitute this overview of Jewish history: Immigration; Cincinnati Jewry; Archaeology; Torah; Jewish Festivals and Life Cycle; Holocaust; Israel and, finally, a striking display of back-lit photographs that depict the diversity of Jewish communities throughout the contemporary world.

“People of Immigration” chronicles the acculturation of Jewish newcomers to the United States through an assemblage of objects and photographs brought from the immigrants’ native lands, as well as items which document Jews’ successful absorption into American life. The stories of eminent new Americans  such as Irving Berlin (a Jew best known for writing “White Christmas” and “The Easter Parade (that’s acculturation!) and Louis Brandeis are displayed here, alongside Civil War medals and records of the appointment of the country’s first Jewish chaplains—all powerful attestations to Jews’ embrace of, and acceptance by, their new land.

“A Home in America,” entered through a portal modeled after the doorway of Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple, treats Cincinnati as a microcosm of the larger American Jewish experience. The life of Isaac Meyer Wise is chronicled here through objects from his North College Hill farmhouse, and articles depicting the lives of many well-known Cincinnati Jews provide local interest and apprise the visitor of the importance of Cincinnati as an early center of American Jewish life.  The exhibit details the history of the Manischewitz Company, which began here in the spring of 1888 when Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz decided to take into his own hands the community’s need for Passover matzo, as well as the life of Joseph Jonas, the first Jew to settle in Cincinnati, who arrived from England in 1817 and was instrumental in the founding, in 1824, of Rockdale Temple, the first Jewish congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains.  Sir Moses Ezekiel,  the first great American Jewish sculptor, studied painting and sculpture in Cincinnati and Berlin.  His  bust of Isaac Meyer Wise resides at the college, and the Skirball (downstairs in a separate alcove) houses his Israel, a symbolic work based on the legend of the Wandering Jew. Ezekiel was the only well-known American sculptor to see combat in the Civil War, and was commissioned to create the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery.  Ezekiel received the Rome Prize for Israel in 1873, and, in recognition of the beauty of his work, was knighted by Emperor William I of Germany and Kings Humbert I and Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.

“People of the Land,” the area of the museum devoted to archaeology, simulates a home from the biblical period, and includes domestic artifacts, many of which were unearthed at the HUC Tel Dan excavations in Israel. This area also displays Mesopotamian figures (c. 1800 BCE), an ossuary inscribed with the words “Shimon the Temple-builder” (c. 100 CE), an original Qumran Jar which contained part of the Dead Sea Scrolls— the literary remains of a pious Jewish sect who lived at Qumran from about 135 BCE (although there is some scholarly dispute over this attribution)—and a wonderful Mandaic bowl (5th -6th century CE) inscribed with an Aramaic incantation. The purpose of these “incantation bowls” has only recently been determined: they are apparently a precursor of the mezuzah, and, overturned in the corners of a dwelling, the  interiors of the bowls were believed to trap evil spirits and render them harmless.

The Skirball’s central section concentrates on the Torah, and the role Torah and the synagogue have played in bonding Jews together through their years of wandering and dispersion. This is the center of the core exhibition—as the Torah is the core of Jewish life—and includes  a family Torah recovered from a Nazi storehouse and returned to HUC-JIR professor the late Werner Weinberg,  as well as an extraordinary Sephardic Torah case (Iraq, 1916) of chased silver on wood, inscribed with the words “The Supervisors of the Sefer Torah may take it to other places…” and rimmed with a crown-like setting of forty-eight scarlet beads. An important Jules Butensky (b. Russia 1871; d. New York 1947)  bronze also resides in this area of the museum, and depicts the debates of the legendary adversaries Hillel and Shammai, who lived during the 1st century BCE into the 1st century CE.  Audio phones make it possible for guests to hear a debate while viewing its representation.

The largest display in the core exhibition, “People of the Community,”  features  festivals and traditional life-cycle events.  This collection includes illuminated marriage contracts (ketubot) dating from 1728‒1973, as well as an 1863 bill of divorce (get). The text of the earliest of the ketubot, from Conegliano, Italy, is framed by the signs of the zodiac, beginning with Aries, the sign of the first Hebrew month. The ketubah (s.)  also portrays birds, flowers, vases, and a knotted ribbon of myrrh, a reference to chapter 1, verse 13 of the Song of Songs: “My beloved to me is a bundle of myrrh.”  In this section the visitor will also find memorial (yahrzeit) lamps, a gown, similar to a christening gown, of the type once worn by eight-day old boys at their circumcision ceremonies, phylacteries, an 18th century silver Seder plate, megillot (scrolls of the book of Esther, read on Purim), embroidered prayer shawls (tallitot), ornate silver spice boxes (the aroma of which is to summon up the sweetness of the Sabbath as one enters the week of work), Sabbath and  havdalah candlesticks, the latter used in the ceremony ushering out the Sabbath, and a brass relief titled “Havdalah” made by Boris Schatz, founder , in 1906, of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design  (then known as the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts). This beautiful and extensive selection of art and artifacts is crowned by a silk marriage canopy (huppah)  painted in 1990 by Corinne Soikin Strauss, who trained at Pratt Institute and has won numerous awards for her work. The brightly-colored, hand-painted design reveals Strauss’s  interpretation of Ezekiel 1:28: “As the appearance in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. That was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

One of the most striking objects in this particularly compelling collection is a huge Hanukkah lamp (early 19th c.; Central Europe), a multi-tasking ritual object which is not only useful on the eight days of Hanukkah,  but is also outfitted with Sabbath candle holders and a clock—so one can know the correct time to light the candles. The lamp’s  corners are decorated by rampant eagles, each raising a foot to its mouth in order to sound a silver trumpet. This winter, the museum received a phone call from the White House, inquiring if the Hanukkah lamp might be available for use in the Obama administration’s Hanukkah candle-lighting.  Unfortunately, it was too short notice for the lamp to be sent to Washington in time for the holiday.

Entering the area of the Skirball dedicated to the Holocaust, the visitor is met with a wall whereon appear the names of Holocaust victims who were relatives of Cincinnati residents. This area of the museum includes a painting, titled Calendar: Days and Nights,  by Hungarian holocaust survivor Alice Lok Cahana (b. Hungary 1929)—a raw work in red, black and grey which evokes the struggle to survive in the camps—and a lamp by the prize-winning artist Moshe Zabari (b. Israel 1935) dedicated to the lost six million. “Concentration camp money” from Theresienstadt, a file-folder made by the Nazis from the pages of a Torah, an unkosher Torah scroll (stepped and urinated upon), woodcuts by Ari Koch (b. Germany 1913) reminiscent of the disturbing work of Otto Dix, and paintings by DAAP’s Robert Fabe are other profoundly moving objects which exemplify the power of Holocaust collection.

The penultimate area of the Skirball’s core collection (preceding the photographic gallery) addresses the diversity of Israel through an assemblage of art and artifacts which delineate its history, languages and culture. Works include a  lithograph by Israeli artist Shraga Weil ( 1918-2009; winner of the 1959 Dizengoff Prize for painting), an anonymous Ethiopian sculpture of the Lion of Judah, a beautifully illuminated copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence by Arthur Szyk ,illustrator of the renowned Szyk Haggadah (b. Poland 1894; d. USA, 1951), and another example of the work of the prolific Boris Schatz, a bit of a chestnut depicting a long-suffering, pensive ghetto Jew, titled When Will Come the Miraculous End?

With the museum’s public presence a priority for the college’s recently appointed Dean, Jonathan Cohen, and with  an ongoing  series of important visiting exhibits, the Skirball Museum is undergoing a revitalization and a reintegration into Cincinnati’s artistic life.

Michael Gore (b. United States 1954), whose  beautiful glasswork occupied the Skirball’s revolving gallery this winter,  trained with the master glass blowers and artisans of Anfora Furnace of Murano,  and concentrates on fused glass techniques while specializing in Judaic art and design. From April 22 until July 1, 2012 the Skirball will host The Jews of Czestochowa, an exhibition which commemorates, through documents and precious objects, the Jewish contributions to the Polish city of Czestochowa, a once-thriving  community of 40,000 Jewish inhabitants before the destruction of their lives by the Nazis. This exhibit, which opened in Poland in 2004, comes to Cincinnati from Houston as part of its North American tour.

Docent-led tours of the Skirball museum, 3101 Clifton Avenue,  are available most days by appointment. (513-221-1875)

Beginning April 22,  the museum will be open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 until 4:00, Fridays 10:00 to 2:00, and Sundays 1:00-4:00.

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