Portrait of a People
Jewish heritage at the Grad Library
by Laura Bien
Cloves. The sharp brown smell lingers in the dainty silver spice box, resembling a cross between a pagoda and a chalice, and is released when event coordinator Harriet Teller unlatches the tiny door for a sniff. Like this vessel emanating the enduring fragrance of its history, other items in the exhibit an ivory-plated prayer book, an embroidered matzo bag, a frayed map tracing the route of the Exodus preserve a rich, vivid essence of Jewish life from many cultures and centuries.
Lifelong and shrewd collector Constance Harris's surprise recent bequest to the U-M, the 2,000-item collection of prints, posters, clothing, and religious artifacts excerpted in this exhibit ranges from a baroque Italian silver menorah with glittering lion's-paw feet to a humble yet graceful wooden matzo cutter resembling a toothed pizza wheel.
Portraits of Jews include an engraving of the late-eighteenth-century pugilist Daniel Mendoza, the first Jewish prizefighter to become a champion. The work shows a fierce yet dapper boxer in elegant shined leather shoes, standing in front of a roped ring. There's a large colored French print of an intrepid traveler, the "Wandering Jew" archetype, complete with a poem. Another more recent print shows a man on a stool in a city alley, lost in thought over a book. A crowd of distracted urbanites hustles by, oblivious, as artist Fritz Eichenberg's figure ponders Die Schrift (The Writing).
Some items show the varied influences of their creators' environments. One wooden dreidel glows in florid Russian- or Ukrainian-style painted flowering vines. A brass Moroccan chest meant to hold the Sukkoth etrog (holiday citron fruits) bears a lacy arched pattern strongly reminiscent of geometric Islamic art. An ornate cream satin matzo bag blooms in lush red roses suggesting Polish culture.
Other holiday items include a modernistic silver plate ringed in fish, with a glass bowl for an apple and a well for a pool of honey, for Rosh Hashanah's custom of dipping apples in honey for a
sweet new year. A somber image of tanks, painted by a nameless inmate in a displaced-persons camp after World War II, memorializes the 1946 Rosh Hashanah. A set of five Hanukkah dreidels includes a delicate blue-and-white Limoges porcelain version, with a hinged secret compartment. An ivory Purim gregor (noisemaker) glows in weathered cream-yellow, lined with black geometric carvings.
My favorite work was a large print showing a Hasidic man and woman dancing. Rendered in choppy lines bristling with static energy, the work shows a man extending a handkerchief to the long-skirted woman, whom it would be improper to touch directly. The work captures the pregnant moment before she seizes the handkerchief and whirls together with him in the dance.
Portrait of a People: The Jewish Heritage Collection is on display at the U-M Graduate Library's special collections area April 11 through August 19.
[Originally published in April, 2005.]