Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned From a 2007 exhibit on Jewish cemeteries, I learned that they are sometimes called Beit Hayyim in Hebrew, House of Life.  More than just a euphemism, it affirms ties between the living and the dead, and an eternal existence to come.

Hans Beyer Photograph, Bernard Museum
Hans D. Beyer, “Interior of the Schmidl Family Vault,” Budapest, Hungary, 2006

I loved this photograph of the Schmidl family vault in Budapest.  An art nouveau extravaganza from 1904, covered in mosaics, I’d like to see it in person someday.

Temple Emanu-El, New York CityTemple Emanu-El is a beautiful, imposing synagogue, one of several great houses of worship on the green stretch of Fifth Avenue opposite Central Park. The temple itself is shut tight like a fortress between services,  However, if you go around to a side entrance on East 65th Street and ask the guard, you can visit the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum, which hosts temporary exhibits on various aspects of Jewish life, faith, and culture.

The museum occupies three smallish rooms on the second floor. A life-sized, somewhat cartoony Golda Meir sculpture currently greets you at the door.  She seems nice, though somewhat off-putting, like the Jewish museological equivalent of the fiberglass Ronald McDonalds that help to dissuade me from ever eating chicken mcnuggets.

Bernard Museum, Temple Emanu-El, New York City
Golda Guards the Door

 A Meta-Exhibition

The Bernard Museum celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, and decided to do something interesting to celebrate.  Its current exhibit provides a “trip down memory lane” (quoting from the wall text). It recaps all 20 of the museum’s exhibits, with one or more objects on display related to almost all of them.  In my typical M.O., I review places by extrapolating based on the current show.  However, the Bernard Museum’s meta-exhibition affords me a unique ability to review it based on all its shows.Bernard Museum, Temple Emanu-El, New York

I’m impressed by the museum’s depth and diversity across its timeline.  Its exhibits have examined topics as diverse as:

  • A contemporary maker of beautiful illuminated books
  • Unexpected Jewish communities around the world
  • Fashion
  • Jewish marriage contracts (ketubot) as art objects
  • Golda Meir (hence her presence at the door)
  • Jewish life in the early 1900s as reflected in old postcards
  • Kabbalah
  • Stereoscopic images of the Holy Land in the 19th century

Bernard Museum, Temple Emanu-El, New York

The third of the three rooms holds a variety of beautiful treasures of Temple Emanu-El, objects associated with the traditions and rituals of Jewish worship.  Lots of silver, menorahs galore, things from across time and around the world.  One of my favorite objects was an 1891 silver, copper, and gilt torah case from Calcutta.  Silversmiths in China made it for use by a congregation of Jewish expats from Baghdad.  It’s beautiful and extravagant, and hard to imagine something more cosmopolitan.

Torah Case, Bernard Museum, Temple Emanu-El

Should You Visit?

The Bernard Museum may occupy a small space, but its curators work well within the confines. The pulled off the meta-exhibition concept well, though if I were visiting for other than review purposes I would’ve preferred to go deeper on one topic than to get a taste of twenty. 

I appreciate the diversity that the museum portrays.  Moreover, like the American Indian Museum, the Bernard Museum appropriately emphasizes Judaism’s living, contemporary culture as much as its traditional, timeless heritage.

Certainly everyone interested in Jewish history or culture should visit.  But I think anyone spending an afternoon on Museum Mile might enjoy stopping in.  It’s moderate stroll or short bus ride south of the Jewish Museum, making a natural pairing.

I wish visitors could see the synagogue proper, as at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine [review to come].  But I understand that security concerns in the modern world make that sadly infeasible.  (The Museum at Eldridge Street provides an opportunity to visit a less grand, but still lovely, former synagogue.)  That notwithstanding, the Bernard Museum executes on its mission really well, illuminating diverse facets of a diverse people.

Menorah, Bernard Museum, Temple Emanu-El
Many Menorah

For Reference:

Address One East 65th Street, Manhattan
Cost Free
Other Relevant Links

3 Replies to “Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El”

Comments are closed.