Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In addition to the historic photos and artifacts the museum has a series of odd, delicate, contemporary wire sculptures hanging below the skylight.  

Kehila Kedosha Jenina Synagogue and Museum

I couldn’t find any explanation for who made them or why they were there.  Google solves the mini-mystery: they’re by Judy Moonelis.

Almost all Jewish people in the U.S. are either Ashkenazi or Sephardic.  Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe, while Sephardic people lived in the Iberian peninsula, until they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella.  However, they are not the only European Judaic traditions.  Tucked away on Broome Street in the Lower East Side is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere serving Romaniote Jews, a distinct, ancient, Greek community.

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagoge and Museum, Lower East Side

The congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina occupies a modest 1927 building, currently one of the last active synagogues on the Lower East Side.  And since 1997 the building has also housed a museum on its upstairs floor– open only on Sundays as of this review– presenting photographs and artifacts describing the community and its traditions. Continue reading “Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum”

National Track and Field Hall of Fame


Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 75 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
The black and red bars near the ceiling are the world’s highest pole vaults…

The curators integrated visual depictions of track and field world records into the exhibition.  Bars mark heights of high jumps, lines on the floor show long jumps and shot puts and such.  It’s one thing to read a record, a much more viscerally impressive thing to see one in the flesh. 

This is my second hall of fame  (after the Hall of Fame for Great Americans), and the second museum in one of New York’s antique armory buildings (after the Park Avenue Armory).  However, it is my first museum devoted to a sport.  New York doesn’t have, say, a museum to baseball or football.  Or soccer.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Baseball cards at The Met

There are sports legends waxified at Madame Tussaud’s. The Jackie Robinson Museum hopefully exists in New York’s future.  And the Met has its baseball card collection, which I suspect it keeps mainly to show it’s even more encyclopedic than the Louvre.  But in general sports are an underserved museum topic in New York City.

The National Track and Field Hall of Fame resides in the 1909 22nd Core of Engineers Armory in Harlem.  The entire building is now a track-and-field complex, with a running track in the vast former drill hall.  Like most of New York’s armories the architecture is cool and castle-like.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory Continue reading “National Track and Field Hall of Fame”

Clemente Center

Edification value 2/5 
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 22 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Pat Lay’s cheery-creepy cyborg sculptures, particularly the punk-borg “Transhuman Personae #12”

Clemente Center

I’ve never been to an art gallery in 19th century school building that also housed an Escape the Room game before.  But there is a first time for everything, particularly when you’re determined to go to every museum in New York City.

Clemente Center

The Clemente Center occupies P.S. 160, a public school building dating to 1897, built in the grand institutional gothic style, all pointed arches and stone- and iron-Clemente Centerwork.  Abandoned as a school due to a fire in the pyromaniacal 1970s, the Clemente Soto Vélez Center was founded in 1993.  It operates a number of endeavors in the building, including four theaters, artist studios, rehearsal spaces, two art galleries, and the aforementioned Escape the Room game.

The vestibule features a plaque from its founding as P.S. 160, with the names of a slew of great and good late 19th C. Dead White Males who contributed.  Times have changed.  Continue reading “Clemente Center”

Museum of Sex

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 73 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A wall text in the animals exhibit about a Dutch biologist who wrote a paper on gay necrophilia in mallard ducks.  Those Dutch biologists, man…

Museum of Sex, New York

Museum of Sex, New YorkWhat can I say about the Museum of Sex?  It’s fun.  The gift shop is hysterical — if you’re at all prone to blushing, it will make you blush.  It’s immensely positive, and in a weird sort of way, innocent, maybe even willfully naive about its topic.

The Museum of Sex (MoSex for short) opened in 2002 and is, according to its website, “one of the most dynamic and innovative institutions in the world.”  Ok then. Its collection includes some 20,000 pieces, including both art and artifacts, only a small fraction of which are on display at any given time across the four floors of exhibitionist galleries in its space a few blocks south of the Empire State Building. Continue reading “Museum of Sex”

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 64 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Wax classic movie monsters, most particularly Wax Béla Lugosi as Dracula. Now that’s what a wax museum should be all about!

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Béla Lugosi’s Dead…

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareMadame Tussaud’s Wax Museum offers visitors to its Times Square location a thoughtful meditation on the transience of celebrity — and its sometimes hefty toll — in the contemporary media maelstrom.

OK.  It doesn’t do that.  Not quite.  Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected, either.

Fake Everything

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Fake Everything!

Early in my visit to Madame Tussaud’s I decided to start counting the fake things surrounding me.  Fake brick walls.  Fake wooden floors.  I thought the elevator might be fake for a while, but it turned out it was just very slow.  Fake marble in the elevator, though.  Fake champagne at the several bars throughout the exhibits. Ersatz…I don’t even know what the first room I got to is supposed to be.  Roman piazza?  Maybe.  With fake lemon tree under fake candles in front of a fake window with fake cherubs.

It reminded me of Las Vegas.

Continue reading “Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum”

Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 109 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned My favorite fun fact from the tour is that the Lower East Side got the moniker “Klein Deutschland” before there even was a unified “Deutschland.”

There are certain combinations of places and architecture that just go together.  Paris+garret; Newport+mansion; San Francisco+Victorian ; Brooklyn+brownstone.  And “Lower East Side+tenement.”  It’s almost redundant to call a place the “Lower East Side Tenement Museum.”  But New York has one of those, and redundant or not, it is a fantastic, unforgettable recreation of a slice of life in this city.

Tenement Museum

How the Other Half Lived

The word “tenement” originally referred to any multiple dwelling building, what we’d call an “apartment” today.  Very quickly, however, “tenement” came to mean a very particular type of multiple dwelling building.  One aimed at the working class and recent immigrants, crammed with people and with very limited light, ventilation, and amenities.

Like how non-New Yorkers imagine New Yorkers live today, only even worse. Continue reading “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 58 minutes (most recently)
Best thing I saw or learned A vertical tour brings you up close to the engineering of an old-school cathedral.  The building is buttressed to support the weight of an enormous tower that was never built.  

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
Above the ceiling…

To balance that buttressing, there’s literally tons of lead above the ceiling vaults, pushing down and out as the buttresses push in.

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Although I have rarely attended a service there, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has figured large in my life in New York City.

Shortly after I arrived as a freshman at Columbia, I attended an event at the Cathedral.  The Dalai Lama spoke, as did the daughter of Desmond Tutu.  I vividly remember it was right around Rosh Hashanah, and a group of monks offered a chant in honor of the High Holy Days. Tibetan Buddhist monks singing in honor of the Jewish new year in the largest Christian cathedral in the world.  To this day, that stands as one of my quintessential New York experiences. Continue reading “Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine”

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This case of Tibetan figurines.  The story is a spoiler, so I tell it in the review below.Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Oh, this one hurts me a little.  I really, really wanted the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art to be a diamond of enlightenment in the heart of Staten Island.  An amazing, secret Shangri-La in the midst of Shao-Lin.  I really did.

But it’s not to be.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
This Way to Shangri-La?

Near the geographic heart of Staten Island, high on a hill, there’s a lighthouse.  Climb the road up that hillside.  Pass the lighthouse and enter a well-to-do neighborhood of big houses. Eventually, you will reach a large stone wall, festooned on one end with distinctive Tibetan prayer flags.  Stairs lead you down to a library, exhibit hall, and a small, steep, garden.  Perched on the hill like a miniature Potala Palace, you’ve found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan ArtJacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art Continue reading “Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art”

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 28 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Chris Jones’s surreal and fascinating, 3D-ish (2.5D?) depiction of an empty house of many rooms, collaged from book and magazine pictures.  

Hebrew Union College Museum
Chris Jones, “After They Had Left,” 2016, Mixed media collage

Hebrew Union College MuseumAccording to the guard at the front desk, in order to visit the museum at Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion, you must do four things.

  1. Hebrew Union College Museum
    Visitor Pass

    Present a photo ID, which they will hold onto for the duration of your visit.

  2. Submit any bags for an inspection.
  3. Agree to be wanded down with a handheld metal detector.
  4. Wear an orange “Visitor” badge around your neck or other suitably prominently visible place for the duration of your visit.

Continue reading “Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum”

Derfner Judaica Museum & Hebrew Home Art Collection

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 67 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned It’s probably a sin that Torah pointers remind me of nothing so much as highly ornate magic wands from the Potter-verse.  

Derfner Judaica Museum, Riverdale, the Bronx

But they do.

The Derfner Judaica Museum is one of two museums on my list located at institutions that I’d generally tend to avoid.  It resides within the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a senior assisted living facility. (The other is the Living Museum, located in a mental health facility in Queens.) But it’s on my list, so off to the Bronx I went.

Let’s start with Riverdale.  There are many places in New York that don’t feel like “New York.”  Fresh Kills.  City Island.  Broad Channel.  Even among the non-New York places, though, Riverdale is special.  Surely it is as far from anyone’s mental image of “The Bronx” as it’s possible to get. Verdant and spacious, much of it feels like the suburbs, a clump of wealthy Westchester transplanted within city limits.

Riverdale, the Bronx
The mean streets of Riverdale

The Derfner Judaica Museum: An Overview

The Derfner Museum resides in a bright, 5,000-square-foot ground floor space in the Reingold Pavilion, a 2004 building on the Hebrew Home campus.   Windows connect it with the outside, with views encompassing a sculpture garden, the Hudson, and New Jersey’s palisades.  Windows also connect it with the lobby and other public spaces of the larger institution.  

Derfner Judaica Museum, Riverdale, BronxAn assortment of display cases feature Jewish ritual and cultural objects, organized largely by type, with helpful explanations for those not conversant with them.  I expect most Hebrew Home residents would have more than passing familiarity with Jewish rites and tradition. I appreciated that the curators include rare random visitors like me as part of the intended audience.

Many of the pieces on display come from the collection of Ralph and Leuba Baum.  Ralph moved to the U.S. in 1936, married Leuba in 1939, and built a successful business as well as a hefty collection of Jewish art and ritual objects.  In 1982, the Baums donated 800 pieces to the Hebrew Home to start this museum. If you’re curious why it’s not the Baum Museum, in 2008, Helen and Howard Derfner underwrote the creation of the current space.

The clear focal point of the exhibit is a single, badly damaged, Torah scroll.  It comes from a synagogue in a suburb of Hamburg, Ralph’s hometown.  The synagogue burned in 1938, during Kristallnacht, and this scroll is the only one of its 13 Torahs to survive.  In its silent witnessing way it’s as moving as anything in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and it was the object that inspired the Baums to donate their collection.

Derfner Judaica Museum, Riverdale, the Bronx

Other Things to See

When I visited the museum had two additional exhibits on display.  One was a set of 100 charmingly sketchy watercolors of residents and staff by Brenda Zlamany. The other shows Chuck Fishman’s striking black and white photographs depicting Polish Jewish life, taken from 1975 until the present.

Derfner Judaica Museum, Riverdale, Bronx

I also perused the art in the Hebrew Home’s public spaces a bit.  The Hebrew Home displays prints, paintings, and sculpture to help make the place seem less, well, institutional.

Derfner Judaica Museum and Hebrew Home
Andy Warhol, “10 Portraits of Jews”

The plethora of options in New York — the Jewish Museum, the Bernard Museum, the Center for Jewish History — made me wonder about the Baums’ decision to gift their things to a retirement community. 

However, the Hebrew Home started collecting art long before it opened the Judaica museum. The institution follows a philosophy of “if you can’t go to the art, the art should go to you.”  In that context, the Baums’ decision makes sense — the place was already partly a museum, and had a resident audience likely to enjoy and appreciate their collection.

I mentioned the sculpture garden previously. That too enriches the environment for residents and visitors alike.

Hebrew Home Sculpture Garden, Riverdale, Bronx
Bull Sculpture on the Hudson

A Trip to the Retirement Castle

Derfner Judaica Museum, Riverdale, Bronx

Sad to say, most of my knowledge of senior assisted living comes from TV: the Springfield Retirement Castle, where Abe Simpson lives.  So my view is jaundiced, biased, and not very positive.  Having the museum and the art help residents immensely, I think.

I’ve written about “gateway museums” — places like the Bronx Museum of the Arts that serve people who may not have much museum experience.  I reckon the Derfner is the opposite:  for many Hebrew Home residents, it’s the last museum of their lives.

I spent some time talking with Emily, the assistant curator at the Derfner Judaica Museum.  She spoke thoughtfully about the role that art plays in the lives of residents.  She observed that sometimes the most impactful items in the collection aren’t its one-of-a-kind treasures. Rather it’s something like a pair of mass-produced Shabbat candlesticks that prompt a visitor to remember that their parents or grandparents owned the same pair.

If you have to get old, and you have to live in assisted living, it’s a blessing if you can live in a place full of art.

Should You Visit the Derfner Judaica Museum?

Derfner Judaica Museum and Hebrew Home, Riverdale, BronxIf you’re looking for Judaica, there are better and more convenient institutions to visit.  However, the collection gains unique significance by virtue of its location.  Jewish or not, if you’re planning to grow old someday you might find it worthwhile visiting the place, the art, and the residents.

For Reference:

Address Reingold Pavilion, Hebrew Home at Riverdale, 5901 Palisade Avenue, Riverdale, the Bronx
Cost  General Admission:  Free
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