Precious Legacy or Tragic Heritage?

by Jonathan Helfand

The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, ed. David Altschuler. New York and Washington: Summit Books and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1983. 287 pages.

Jewish artifacts and antiquities have come into vogue over the last decades. The motivations for this growing interest are honorable and legitimate: to recapture a lost past, to redeem a heritage almost destroyed in the Holocaust, to affirm Jewish ethnicity, or to seek a nostalgic identification with the Jewish people. Admirable though these reasons may be, they have been threatened by crass commercialism and legal controversy. Thus the popularity of Judaica collecting has sparked increased sales coupled with inflated prices and, in turn, a proliferation of forgeries, fraud, and scandal. Indeed, some years ago one of the leading collectors of Judaica on the Continent decried the sad state of affairs, depicting it as a violation of the Jewish artistic and cultural heritage. It is against this background that The Precious Legacy both the book and the exhibit is to be viewed and appreciated.

The collection, on loan from the Jewish State Museum in Prague, is truly a "brand plucked from fire" (Zachariah 3:2), a remnant of the society and culture that the Nazis sought to destroy. The authenticity of these objects, their historic associations, and their presentation in a dignified setting have done much to dispel the tawdriness associated with Judaica of late.

The exhibit catalogue, edited by David Altschuler, is a handsome and impressive volume. Indeed, The Precious Legacy is more than just a descriptive and annotated catalogue. The greater part of this richly illustrated book is devoted to a series of essays on the origins of the collection, the history of Prague Jewry, and the meaning and significance of the objects assembled in the exhibition.

The Prague Judaica Museum, as we learn in the opening essay by Linda Altshuler and Anna Cohen, was established in the early twentieth century as the project of a twenty-five-year-old teacher and historian, Hugo Lieben (d. 1942). Lieben was motivated by a desire to preserve the artifacts of a Prague Jewry that, already in his time, had all but disappeared. The authors also point out that Lieben's project for a Jewish museum was not an isolated instance of interest in Ju- daica. Inspired by the growth of scientific Jewish studies, a number of Jewish communities began to establish Jewish museums.

This phenomenon deserves more attention than the authors have accorded it. The turn of the century marked the heyday of the great Judaica collectors Sassoon, Adler, Gaster and witnessed the development of some of the great Judaica collections. In 1878, the first great exhibition of Judaica, the Josef Strauss Collection, took place at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was soon followed by exhibits in London (1887), Chicago (1893), and several other American cities. This burgeoning interest gave rise to a new genre of literature devoted to Jewish art and was also responsible for the establishment of various societies dedicated to this new pursuit.

It is more than merely ironic that this intense interest in Jewish art came in the wake of an era of secularization and religious laxity. The authors observe that as ritual objects ceased to serve their religious function, Jews began to value them as objets d'art and historic relics. This, it seems, is only part of the story. Deprived of their intrinsic religious value, Jewish ceremonial objects became part of the struggle of emancipated Jews to establish Jewish cultural legitimacy. By placing medieval Jewish manuscripts in Oxford and Cambridge, by exhibiting Jewish ritualia at international exhibitions, Jews sought to establish and secure their place in Western culture. This enterprise took on particular significance in the context of the racial polemics that dominated the period.

Responding to antisernitic charges that Jews were biologically and, consequently, culturally inferior, and that they had no claim to creative genius, Jewish polemicists sought to demonstrate the opposite in a variety of ways. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916), one of the organizers of the aforementioned Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition of 1887, devoted much of his scholarly activity to the refutation of such racist propaganda. Interestingly, work on his posthumously published volume, Jewish Contributions to Civilization (Philadelphia, 1919), was begun in 1886, paralleling his efforts on the Judaica exhibition. Thus, behind the establishment of Judaica collections such as the one begun in Prague lay a desire not just to recapture the past, but also to defend Judaism from antisernitic assaults and distortions of history.

In this, perhaps, lies the true irony of the Prague Museum. Assembled to preserve and vindicate the Jewish cultural heritage, its original purpose was subverted by the very antisernitic forces that had inspired its creation and whose ideology it sought to discredit. Yet even under the dire circumstances of Nazi occupation, as the authors point out, the prisoner-curators used the objects and symbols at their disposal to defy Nazi values and to refute Nazi distortions of Judaism. In doing so, it should be noted, they were continuing a struggle that had engaged the museum from its very inception.

Hillel Kieval's historic overview of Prague Jewry provides an indispensable introduction to the exhibit. Tracing Prague Jewry from its medieval origins through the Renaissance, the Age of Absolutism, the Modern Era, and the Holocaust, Kieval places the institutions and personalities of Prague into a proper historic perspective. While the historic merit of this chapter is unchallenged, one criticism does seem to be in order. As the essay is intended to serve as a backdrop to the exhibit and the catalogue, perhaps more emphasis should have been placed on the cultural history of Prague Jewry. For example, Kieval expends great effort describing the structure of the Prague rabbinate in the early eighteenth century and the role played by Rabbi David Oppenheim in consolidating rabbinic authority in the region. The reader, however, might have been better served if the author had said something about Oppenheim's role as one of the outstanding bibliophiles in Jewish history. Before his death in 1736, Oppenheim had amassed one of the greatest Jewish libraries ever assembled, numbering some 7,000 volumes and including 1,000 manuscripts. Oppenheim's collection, ultimately purchased by the Bodleian Library in the nineteenth century, has outlasted the Prague rabbinate he helped to shape and is at least as important for our appreciation of the history of Prague Jewry.

While Lieben's contemporaries may have ceased practicing the rituals of Judaism, many, if not most, were still familiar with the equipment of their faith. The same cannot be said of today's viewing audience. Vivian Mann's essays on "Community Life" and "Family and Home" are, therefore, requisite reading for contemporary audiences, uninitiated in Jewish life and customs. Mann skillfully explains the religious, historic, and artistic significance of the objects displayed, all the while trying to navigate between the Scylla of religious exhortation and the Charybdis of dispassionate scholarship. Even those with a general knowledge of Judaism can benefit from her historic explanations and comments.

Two points made by Mann in describing ritual objects need to be qualified. First, contrary to popular belief, not all synagogue equipment, such as Torah crowns, pointers, etc., was donated outright to the congregation. In some cases these were privately owned objects, which, as a sign of honor to the owner, were used in the synagogue on assigned sabbaths or holidays. Second, while the immediate origins of the Torah shield lie in the sixteenth century, as stated by Mann, it may derive from a much earlier usage. Victor Klagsbald has pointed out that, since the Torah scroll was the only religious object that could not have any extraneous writing appended to it, ownership or donation of a Torah scroll may have been signified by attaching a small plaque to it. Extant plaques inscribed with names and dating back to the fourth or fifth centuries, according to his theory, may have served as the first Torah shields.1

The most disappointing aspect of The Precious Legacy is, unfortunately, the exhibit itself. Hyped in the media as unique and unparalleled, it lacks both historic breadth and balance and falls far short of the great exhibitions of recent times such as Synagoga in Recklinghausen (1960) or Monumenta Judaica in Cologne (1963). The problems of the exhibition begin with the Prague Museum collection itself. While the community dates back to the Middle Ages, the preponderance of the surviving material is of relatively recent date. Within the collection, there is also an imbalance between the large number of synagogue textiles (these are among the oldest artifacts in the museum) and the number of ritual objects for synagogue and home use. In the latter category, there is yet a further underrepresentation of objects destined for home use, e.g., candlesticks. Mann suggests several explanations for the popularity of textiles in the Prague collection and the comparative paucity of other items (pp. 126-128, 136-38). Missing from her analysis is the all-important demographic consideration. Prior to their emancipation, and particularly in the wake of the anti-Jewish agitation during the revolution of 1848, large numbers of Jews emigrated from Prague. Later, towards the end of the century, the remaining community was marked by a high rate of assimilation. Privately owned ritual objects (including, as already noted, some synagogue silver) did not fare well under these conditions. Many were removed from the precincts of Prague by emigres, while others were lost or discarded by the assimilated heirs of the "precious legacy." In contrast, communal property, such as synagogue fixtures and textiles, were largely unaffected by this process and had a greater survival rate in situ.

While all this may help explain the imbalance in the collection of the Prague Museum, it certainly does not excuse its perpetuation in The Precious Legacy. Surely there were more than four Hanukkah lamps or three spice boxes or one shofar (all from the nineteenth century or later) to match against the 15 Torah curtains and Valences and 14 Torah mantles? At the least, the curators or perhaps the Czech authorities should have remedied the weaknesses in the collection by enhancing the exhibit with a few loan items. For example, in the cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals the holiday of Shavuot is unrepresented. Mann apparently is trying to excuse this when she notes that "no special ritual objects are connected with the observance of Shavuot proper" (p. 189). This is not strictly so. Mann herself points out that special decorated omer calendars for the ritual of counting the days from Passover until Shavuot were used in the synagogue and home. Why did the curators not include one of these calendars rather than leave a misleading gap in the exhibition? If none were to be found in the Prague Museum, an unusual example is held in the Einhorn Collection in Tel Aviv. Produced in Moravia in the seventeenth century, this small vellum manuscript also bears a papercut frontispiece, a folk art form unrepresented in the exhibit. Such a loan item, by its contents, relatively early date, and artistic execution, would have filled more than one gap in the collection. Another object, not mentioned by Mann, could also have been used to represent the missing festival. One of the Shavuot rituals is the recitation of selections from the Bible and rabbinic literature known as Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. A special volume of these selections, entitled Sha'ar Ha-Tikkunim, was printed in Prague in 1675. Here again, the curators missed an opportunity to fill a gap and at the same time give more historic breadth to the exhibit.

The Precious Legacy is beset by yet another serious problem. Despite the valiant efforts of some of the essayists in the catalogue, the exhibit suffers from an overpowering sense of finality and doom. Altshuler and Cohen in their opening and closing chapters emphasize the inspirational quality of the Prague collection as it demonstrates the Jews' struggle for "eternality" and their capacity to transcend tragedy but to no avail. The Prague exhibit never shakes itself loose from its mournful melancholy. Obviously, the nature of the museum itself is largely responsible for this depressing air. Beginning as an obituary for a passing Prague Jewry at the turn of the century, the Prague Museum stands today as an epitaph for the communities destroyed in the Holocaust. But here, too, the curators must bear some of the responsibility. From the moment one enters the exhibition hall, one is confronted by an overrepresentation of death. Three of the dozen or so ritual objects on display in the first room are artifacts of the hevra kadisha, the burial society. Still later, an entire room is devoted to the paraphernalia of the burial society as well as a unique series of paintings depicting its activities.

True, the curators offer these objects as evidence of the practice of gemilut hasadim (benevolence), one aspect of the threefold theme of "Torah, worship, and benevolence" that runs through the exhibit. However, the hevra kadisha was not the sole proprietor of benevolence in the ghetto. In addition to general charitable funds, there existed societies for aiding needy brides, caring for the sick, feeding and housing the itinerant poor, and others. Why this almost exclusive focus on death? The curators have allocated over 40 items to this theme while offering only nine representing birth and four representing marriage. This kind of imbalance not only distorts social reality but undermines the very goals of the exhibitors.

Under these circumstances, it is most unfortunate that the exhibition of Theresienstadt art, Image and Reality,2 has been linked with The Precious Legacy. Viewed separately, the artists of Terezin have a moving message for the modern viewer. Their creativity in the face of adversity and death is a tribute to the human spirit. Placed as an epilogue to an already depressing Precious Legacy, however, this exhibit takes on and even reinforces the morbid air that permeates the Prague collection. Finally, the juxtaposition of the burial society display and the artifacts of Terezin is all too glib and facile, even for those who argue for the inevitability of the Holocaust.

In sum, The Precious Legacy can be judged interesting but not exciting, engaging but not inspiring. The viewer leaves without a feeling for the sweep of Jewish history or the full richness and beauty of Jewish life. In the end, it is the tragic heritage that prevails. It may be that the decision to confine themselves to one city and one collection placed too many constraints on the curators and doomed the exhibit from the start. Nonetheless, The Precious Legacy has served an important function. It has reminded us that Judaica artifacts deserve a better fate than the auctioneer's block. The ritual objects that have survived the centuries of Jewish wanderings in the Diaspora should not be treated like nostalgic period pieces or morbid reliquaries of sainted martyrs. They are an integral part of Jewish history and an ongoing Jewish culture. As ritual objects they show how the Jew lived within his tradition; as artistic works they show how the Jew related to and interacted with the larger world he lived in. Perhaps The Precious Legacy will whet the appetite of American audiences for fine and distinguished Judaica and, as the 100th anniversary of the first Judaica exhibition in the United States approaches, someone will mount a centennial exhibition worthy of its subject.


1. Victor Klagsbald, "Une Plaque de Torah antique," Journal of Jewish Art 6 (1979), pp. 127-32.

2. See the brochure by the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum, Image and Reality: Jewish Life in Terezin (Washington, D.C., [19831).

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