Annual 3 Correspondence

To the Editors of the SWC Annual:

Professor Helfand's review of The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, both catalogue and exhibition, contains much useful historical information for readers unfamiliar with the history of Jewish museums and the collecting of Hebraica and Judaica, as well as some valid criticism. Unfortunately, he has also constructed contexts for the exhibition and its catalogue that are misleading and then proceeded to find The Precious Legacy wanting in relationship to them.

His opening paragraphs are an example. Professor Helfand sets The Precious Legacy against a background of "crass commercialism and legal controversy" and "the tawdriness associated with Judaica of late." No one will deny that there is a relationship between the activities of art dealers and auction houses and the world of museums, but it is a limited one. The commercial houses are only one source for museum acquisitions, and although to some extent there is a shared public, the percentage of visitors to any museum who are collectors of the art displayed there is small indeed. Why then choose a commercial context for The Precious Legacy? Where is the context of museum exhibitions of Jewish art to which it rightfully belongs?

The Synagoga and Monumenta Judaica exhibitions held in Germany in the 1960s, cited by Professor Helfand, provide the proper context for The Precious Legacy. They were exhibitions devoted to Jewish art, accompanied by well-researched catalogues whose introductory sections provided a framework for the works on display. More recent examples might include Danzig 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Community mounted at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980 and thereafter circulated to eight other museums in the United States, three in Germany, and one in Tel Aviv, of which only four are Jewish museums,1 and Kings and Citizens: the History of the Jews of Denmark 1622-1983 which was created to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the rescue of Danish Jewry.2

There is, however, a significant difference between the Synagoga and Monumenta Judaica exhibitions, which Professor Helfand does cite, and The Precious Legacy, and it is this crucial difference which makes much of his criticism invalid. Whereas the earlier exhibitions were composed of works drawn from many public and private collections that were brought together to give the viewer "a feeling . . . [for] the full richness of Jewish life" (Helfand's words), The Precious Legacy is an exhibition drawn, as the subtitle to the catalogue clearly states, "from the Czechoslovak State Collections," i.e., from that one museum among the state collections devoted to Jewish art, the State Jewish Museum in Prague. Sixteen years of negotiation were required before the Czechoslovak government allowed The Precious Legacy to occur. From the first, the exhibition was limited to the resources of the State Jewish Museum in Prague. To suggest, as Professor Helfand does, that loans should have been added to broaden the exhibition is to deny the premises upon which it was allowed to take place. In the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York, is the earliest glass burial beaker from Bohemia, dated 1691, nearly a century earlier than those on display, yet there was no possibility of including it in the exhibition. For Professor Helfand to further suggest the loan of a manuscript omer calendar from a Tel Aviv collection is thus sheer nonsense, given the state of current relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel.

Let us then place The Precious Legacy in its true context. It is an exhibition drawn from a single public museum collection devoted to Jewish art, and, furthermore, the lending museum is not simply a storehouse, but a living and vibrant institution that draws over 800,000 visitors annually. The needs of the State Jewish Museum had to be borne in mind when the curatorial team of The Precious Legacy made its loan requests. True, there are no papercuts in the exhibition, but is Professor Helfand aware that at the same time that the loan exhibition was mounted in the United States, the State Jewish Museum in Prague was itself preparing a major exhibition of Folk Art to which all of its important papercuts were consigned?

What then is the nature of the collection from which The Precious Legacy is drawn? Like all Judaica collections throughout the worldand I refer now to ceremonial objects and not to manuscripts-its "surviving material is of relatively recent date" although the community it documents "dates back to the middle ages." From all of medieval Europe, there are only some two dozen ceremonial objects extant and this total requires extending the Middle Ages into the sixteenth century. How, then, can any reviewer suggest that the chronological imbalance in the exhibition is the fault of its curators? I am also amazed that the reviewer, who has not been through the drawers, cabinets, and stores of the State Jewish Museum, can write that the curators created an imbalance in the exhibition by virtue of the loans selected. "There is yet a further underrepresentation of objects intended for home use, e.g., candlesticks ... surely there were more than four Hanukkah lamps, three spice boxes, or one shofar." The collections of Hanukkah lamps and spice boxes in the State Jewish Museum are small and relatively undistinguished. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to choose less in these categories and to let the choices be outstanding, for example, types of Hanukkah lamps peculiar to Bohemia and Moravia. Yes, there were many more shofarot than one in the Prague Museum; they are strung in bunches and heaped in baskets. But what is the point of more than one shofar if all are the same in form and artistry? What is to be gained from showing more than one black and white tallit, if all of the 150 in the State Museum's collection are nearly identical? The point of numbers was made graphic in the photo murals of the introductory section and in the documentation of the wartime museum at the end of the exhibit. As for "the underrepresentation of candlesticks," there are 30-odd pairs of candlesticks in the Prague Museum's collection. One hundred and fifty-three Jewish communities existed at the beginning of World War 11, and we are left with only 30-odd pairs of candlesticks. No one who has worked in the storerooms in Prague can fail to be struck by this discrepancy. I really don't think it necessary to spell out the reasons.

Faced with the needs of the host museum and the limits of the Czech collection with all its relative strengths, weaknesses, and imbalances, the curatorial team of The Precious Legacy decided to choose the most beautiful, the rarest, and the most historically significant of what was available. In part, that meant choosing as many textiles as possible and much of the extensive material associated with burial societies. The esteem accorded the Hevrah Kaddisha of Prague and those in surrounding communities led members to commission fine works of decorative art for their societies' meetings and functions. If so many artifacts associated with burial became part of the State Museum's collection in contrast to artifacts associated with birth and marriage, it is precisely because it was the community, rather than the family, that concerned itself with death and most of the Prague collection comes from communal holdings as Professor Helfand correctly notes. Rather than associating all objects commissioned by a burial society with morbidity, as the reviewer does, one could equally associate many of them with the virtues of communal service and benevolence, especially the beakers and pitchers for annual meetings of the society that are displayed in the first section of the exhibition. Members of the society are depicted carrying out their duties with dignity and even cheerfully, as for example on a Prague beaker of 1783-1784, a reflection of the Jewish view that respect for the dead arises from a deep reverence for life.

There are some minor points I would like to mention. The article by Victor Klagsbald cited as proof of the early existence of Torah shields is a highly speculative essay in which the author seeks to assign a particular function to two dedicatory plaques. Nothing in their inscriptions indicates these plaques were made for a Torah; they could have been attached to other objects or parts of the synagogue building as well. However, even if we allow that the early plaques under discussion were meant for the Torah, they are not shields of the type which were created in the sixteenth century. The Torah shield in the modern sense was both a functional device for indicating the place to which the scroll was turned by means of a series of interchangeable plaques inscribed with the names of the lections, and also a fine example of the silversmith's art. That such a shield did not exist earlier is clearly indicated by a responsum of Rabbi Israel ben Petahiah Isserlein (1390-1460), in which he complained that the plaques affixed to the Torah to indicate the readings did nothing to enhance the beauty of the Torah.3 The transformation of the once functional shield which first appeared in the sixteenth century into mere decoration in our time is, perhaps, the reason for the reviewer's confusion.4

Finally, Professor Helfand makes the interesting point that many early Judaica collections and museums founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a means of establishing cultural legitimacy and a response to racial bias. He then ascribes this general imperative to the first Jewish Museum in Prague (est. 1906) thereby allowing an ironic contrast with the fate of the museum during World War II. But the Prague Museum was established because of a specific event in that city, the clearing of much of the former Jewish quarter as part of an urban renewal campaign and because of the historian Lieben's desire to preserve important works. There is absolutely no mention by Lieben in his writings of the motives suggested by the reviewer.5

It is also important to emphasize that in contrast to the peaceful birth of the original Prague Jewish Museum, the enormous expansion of its collection during World War II was directly due to the most destructive antisernitic forces in history. The Nazis ordered the gathering of Jewish art in the Prague Museum. Their systematic and thorough confiscation of Jewish artifacts during World War II resulted in the present collection with all of its duplications and imbalances. It is not a museum collection formed under the usual criteria of selectivity and comprehensiveness, as the first chapter of the catalogue clearly details. The character of the State Jewish Museum's collection is largely the product of a unique and terrible history, and The Precious Legacy exhibition could but reflect that. In this, as in so much mentioned by Professor Helfand, it is necessary to place the State Jewish Museum and The Precious Legacy in the proper context.

Vivian B. Mann
Curator of Judaica
The Jewish Museum, New York


1. New York, The Jewish Museum, Danzig 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Community, exhibition catalogue, 1980.

2. New York, The Jewish Museum, Kings and Citizens: The History of the Jews in Denmark, 1622-1983, exhibition catalogue, 1983.

3. Terumat ha-Deshen, no. 225.

4. The same confusion, between a dedicatory plaque and a shield indicating the place to which a Torah was turned, which generally bears its own dedication, also occurs in Mr. Klagsbald's article. (Ibid., pp. 131-32.)

5. S. H. Lieben, Das Judische Museum in Prag (Prague, n. d.).

Professor Helfand Replies:

Dr. Mann's response to my essay "Precious Legacy or Tragic Heritage?" offers some insight into the difficulties faced by the curators of The Precious Legacy, but skirts the real issue, i.e., the failure of the exhibit to live up to its promise. The publicity for the exhibition spoke of "treasures that reflect every dimension of community and family life" and "works representing virtually every medium of folk and fine arts" [emphasis mine]. And the format for the exhibition called for sections devoted to the cycle of holidays and the cycle of life. Clearly, the strictures placed on Dr. Mann and her colleagues by the Prague authorities, as well as the very nature of the collection, made these impossible goals from the outset. Surely, considering the variety of restrictions now revealed by Dr. Mann, a more modest exhibit plan and publicity campaign were in order. Furthermore, even allowing for the difficulties presented by the Prague collection, it would seem that more could have been done to create a better historical and topical balance. For example, the Prague Museum has a number of older pieces that would have added historic breadth to the exhibit, e.g., an early seventeenth-century Torah pointer; a silver box from Augsburg (c. 1675) that was used as an etrog container; a late seventeenth-early eighteenth- century Hanukkah lamp-all of which, by the way, were loaned by the Czech government to the University of Manchester for an exhibition of Jewish art treasures from Prague held in 1980. Indeed, a brief perusal of the catalogue of that exhibit reveals an interesting and rich variety of ritual objects that would have lent some much-needed relief to the overly morbid Precious Legacy (C.R. Dodwell, ed., Jewish Treasures from Prague [Manchester, 19801).

I am sorry that Dr. Mann took exception to my mention of auction houses. My purpose was not to link the museum to these establishments but to contrast the crass commercialism and unsavory practices associated with auction houses with the edifying goals of museum exhibits.

On the origins of the Prague Museum I do not doubt that the incidents cited by Dr. Mann led to the founding of the museum by Lieben at that time and place. I was simply placing this single event into its historical context by explaining the causes and forces that influenced a broad pattern of which the establishment of the Prague Museum was but one of several parallel events.

It is obvious that there are many areas of judgment-historic and artistic- where Dr. Mann and I disagree and, since I remain unconvinced by her response, will continue to disagree. However, to attribute such divergence of opinion to "confusion" is to beg the question and to do injustice to the scholarly pursuit.

Jonathan Helfand
Department of Judaic Studies
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

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