In May of 2015, B’nai B’rith International and Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) announced that the art and artifacts of the former B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum would be transferred to HUC-JIR Skirball Museum for the purposes of preserving and displaying this culture defining collection of sacred, secular fine and decorative arts from Jewish history.

The staff of the receiving organization has the formidable and exciting task of unpacking and documenting the nearly 1500 objects. Skirball Museum Director Abby Schwartz is organizing a series of rotating exhibits, intended to explore the breadth and quality of this outstanding expansion of the collection. Acquisitions range from antiquities and sacred artifacts to modern art.

“Ten Treasures”, the first of the exhibition series, opens the door to the glory of the collection.  “Visages d’Israel” is a portfolio of 12 lithographs by a Romanian Jewish artist with a double signed name: Reuven Rubin. Rubin’s art embraces the many facets of Jewish life and culture celebrating themes of daily life:  family bonds, farming and animal husbandry among many. Depicted in “Mother and Child” is the human bond of breastfeeding.  I found especially pleasing the simplified arms of the mother, devoid of anatomy, enveloping the child. The mother’s seated pose is in close proximity to a black sheep which is nibbling a spray of hay in the free hand of the mother. The black sheep’s simple arched shape is repeated in the small kid on her tit, leading the eye in swinging rhythm to the lower left corner of the composition.

Several litho designs depict man’s interaction with and dependence on animals. The animal husbandry theme is reflected in “The Shearer”, which depicts the intense physical focus of the sheep shearer as he envelops the animal with his legs and arms to accomplish the task. Two images address man’s interaction with fiery Arabian horses and guiding the impregnation of a fleeting mare.

A fisherman celebrates a miraculous catch on bended knee, his countenance lifted heavenward, his fish-laden hands lifted in thanksgiving. Humor also appears. A camel driver is literally knocked off his feet and appears confounded by the sheer size and obstinacy of the huge creature whose lost lead rope is whipping high overhead.

The entire series is executed boldly with red and black ink line drawing and washes. On each sheet, the lower third is splashed with both ink colors in a joyous abandon which adds to the spontaneity and life energy of the pieces.

Among the exhibited sacred pieces are a pair of Sabbath Candlesticks, crafted in Danzig, Poland in the late 1600’s. Beautifully decorated with ornate fauna, the abundance of nature is symbolized by roses and grapes. The expanded base presents several tableaux of biblical stories. These include the Judgment of Solomon, Abraham’s sacrifice interrupted by an angel, Jacob’s Dream and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. These candlesticks were once exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A pair of Torah Finials (Rimmonim) in gilt and engraved silver are modeled to resemble the architectural stylings of the great churches of Europe. Made in Rotterdam and reputed to be the oldest known pair from Holland, these rimmonim are constructed in three-tiered square columns connected by a floral patterned bridge. Bells hang in the archway of each of the 4 sides. The third story is topped with a crown and a single larger bell hangs from the center. It is modeled after the tower of Westerkerk in Amsterdam, the largest church in the Netherlands.

The Torah Shield by Franz A. Gutwein, Augsburg, Germany, ca.1801, is an example of a breastplate or metal shield traditionally hung covering the front of the Torah mantle. Its function is not simply adornment for the Torah, but rather it earmarks which Torah scroll should be used for which Torah reading on any particular Sabbath. Torah shield shapes vary according to nationality and their decorations reflect stylistic tendencies of the era.

Pause to inspect the Torah case (Tik) display. The wooden construct is faced with a dark velvet and banded with a silver decorative metal band of vining rose pattern. The crowning feature is an upturned onion shape that when opened features the commandments on one side and a Hebrew phrase on the left. The Torah housed in this tik reveals a text inscribed on prepared deerskin with impeccable letterform.

Lastly, consider the print work of 20th century American artist, Leonard Baskin. This oversized woodcut, entitled “Man of Peace” depicts a bareheaded man with barelegged anatomy, whose riveting gaze seeks the viewer from behind a barbed wire field. He holds a dead rooster above the dense barbed wire netting which visually secures the human figure to the left and right sides of the pictorial space. No ground appears under his shoeless feet. Baskin’s powerful image is a haunting contrast to the joyous Rubin images where contact with the earth is not disputed or denied.

Many wonderful additional pieces await your visit to the Skirball Museum complex.

–Marlene Steele

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