How to adequately convey the riches that rest between the broad, beautiful covers of Jewish Museums of the World: Masterpieces of Judaica — that's the challenge facing anyone who chooses to discuss this masterly compilation of erudition and breathtaking photography, all of it executed on a grand scale.
The publisher, Universe, a division of Rizzoli Publications, is well-known for the production values it brings to its art books, and it appears to have outdone itself here. Jewish Museums of the World, which has an extensive text by Dr. Grace Cohen Grossman, is several inches taller and broader than the normal art book, and once you begin dipping into its pages you understand why. The subject — the multitude of museums, large and small, that house Judaica, as well as the splendid artifacts themselves — is immense in its proportions. And so, it would seem, the publisher has let the writer and the photographers run free — there is no other way to put it — and they have taken advantage of the opportunity, displaying great erudition and taste, while also imparting an almost-giddy pleasure in their work, comparable to children let loose in a candy shop. The mood is infectious and almost dizzying in its lushness and exactitude.
The author is identified as senior curator of Judaica and Americana at Los Angeles' famed Skirball Cultural Center, which has a splendid museum space, appropriate to what is described as "one of the largest Jewish cultural institutions of its kind in the world." Cohen is the author of Jewish Art and Judaica at the Smithsonian: Cultural Politics as Cultural Model and has edited or contributed to many books and exhibition catalogues over the last 30 years.
But none of this background material is truly necessary to establish the author's bona fides. All one has to do is open the book. If the choice and placement of photos doesn't convince you, a perusal of the text will quickly win you over. Cohen Grossman begins the book with a survey of museum-making among Jews, going back as far as the clay pots that safeguarded the Dead Sea Scrolls in the hills of Qumram.
But, according to the author, it was the eminent historian of Jewish art, Rachel Bernstein Wischnitzer, formerly the curator of the first Jewish Museum in Berlin, who "placed the origins of collecting and exhibiting of objects of Jewish art and archaeology in about 1863, when Félicien de Saulcy brought sarcophagi discovered in Jerusalem to the Louvre. 'Since the excavations in Palestine and other sites of [Jewish] archaeological interest were conducted by expeditions from many countries,' [Bernstein Wischnitzer] wrote, 'Jewish excavation finds found their way into various museums all over the world.' While of course not all of these finds were related to the the Jewish cultural heritage, the significance of excavating in the Land of Israel was linked with the study of the Bible."
As Cohen Grossman notes, interest in the Bible led museums to acquire important manuscripts and printed texts and, to a more limited extent, ceremonial objects.
But, adds the author, it was only in the modern period that there has been "a concerted effort to develop museums of Jewish cultural heritage, with far-ranging collections to reflect the 4,000-year history of the Jewish people and Jewish life as it evolved in many lands among many different peoples. The establishment of Jewish museums beginning in the late 19th century followed the phenomenon of the creation of general museums that began a century earlier. Prior to that time, collecting was the province of the nobility and the wealthy."
Cohen Grossman then takes readers on a journey through museums in Central and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the United States, Israel and what she calls "from the corners of the earth." In each of these sections, there are photo spreads of such beauty and majesty that no reader could remain unmoved by the profusion of art and artistry that Judaism has given rise to over the centuries.