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The Jewish Museum makes 4,000 years feel totally modern

In the first major exhibit of its collection in 25 years, the Jewish Museum creates an exciting exploration of what happens when art and Judaism meet.
Scenes from the Collection is made up of seven rooms, taking up all of the third floor of the Jewish Museum. Credit: Jewish Museum
Scenes from the Collection is made up of seven rooms, taking up all of the third floor of the Jewish Museum. Credit: Jewish Museum

Can an exhibit about a 4,000-year-old culture feel as modern as an episode of “Orange Is the New Black”?

An episode of the hit Netflix series featuring an inmate converting to Judaism makes it into Television and Beyond, one of the seven rooms that comprise the Jewish Museum’s exciting new exhibit Scenes from the Collection.

Its first major new display in 25 years of its nearly 30,000 items manages to take over 600 of them — spanning antiquities to contemporary art — to look at what happens when art and Jewish culture meet.

“These are works that maybe wouldn’t make the cut at the Metropolitan Museum, but they’re very important to us,” says lead co-curator Susan L. Braunstein.

“What we really wanted to achieve is for people to understand the multiplicity of what it means to be a Jew and how people react to Jews, and the many ways to relate to the Jewish experience.”

Another room, Masterpieces and Curiosities, highlights the objects that came out of Theresienstadt, a concentration camp-ghetto where the Nazis imprisoned many Jewish artists, writers and craftspeople and forced them to create works of art for their captors.

But what’s on display is the art the Jewish creators kept for themselves to ensure their survival, whether toys for children or paintings smuggled out and bartered for food.

Even when it includes items specifically used in Jewish rituals, it’s in the context of art, making the works accessible to non-Jewish visitors while offering a fresh perspective to the faithful. African-American artist Kehinde Wiley painted a series of portraits while traveling through Israel, and one of them (“Alios Itzhak”) is displayed next to the mizrah (an ornamental picture hung on a home’s eastern wall) he used as a backdrop.

“That’s an example of a person who’s not of the Jewish faith looking at the Jewish culture,” says Braunstein, “and that’s very important to us, to not just be talking about ourselves but expand it out to the larger world.”

It’s not just looking at Jewish artifacts, but at their faces too. There’s Gert Wollheim’s painting of a fashionable couple at a party in 1926 with all the uncertainties of their era imbued in their expressions, and the photograph by Larry Sultan of his own parents in their Brooklyn living room in 1984, totally assimilated into secular America.

While most museums would bristle at the idea of including pieces that dilute its sacred symbols, the Jewish Museum leans into interrogating the story of the Star of David, which didn’t become associated with Jewish people until 1600.

Examples of the hexagram’s use includes an embossed ceramic flask likely made by an Irish Freemason, and an 1800s-era Passover-style platter from China in its iconic blue and white pottery style but lacking any of the usual Jewish symbols that would indicate it’s for religious use.

And then there’s Isaac Mizrahi’s giant Star of David belt buckle (next to a rainbow yarmulke) captioned with a quote by the designer: “If crosses are everywhere, why not make the Star of David ubiquitous too?”

If you agree with that sentiment, Scenes from the Collection is the treat you’ll keep coming back to — the seven rooms will change annually, while the TV room will have a new theme every six months.

Scenes from the Collection opens Jan. 21, 2018 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. The collection is included with a general admission ticket ($15 for adults, free under 18).