Center for Jewish History

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 95 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, suggested the idea of an English Bible to King James.  The King James Bible, published in 1611, is maybe the most important book in English.

Yeshiva’s Oxford show has one of only four surviving notebooks from the committee that fretted and deliberated over the translation, responsible for its majestic, enduring poetry.  Who says nothing good ever comes from committees?

King James Bible Notes, Yeshiva University Museum, New York
William Fulman copy of John Bois’s notes on the King James Bible, 17th C.

Center for Jewish History, New York

The Center for Jewish History comprises five institutions under a single, Greek Revival, roof:

  • American Jewish Historical Society
  • American Sephardi Federation
  • Leo Baeck Institute
  • Yeshiva University Museum
  • YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

It’s like a food hall for Jewish culture and history.  Kosher food hall, anyway.

Accordingly, at any given time the exhibits going on there will be diverse. And there are a lot of them, spread across two floors of assorted spaces of differing sizes, shapes, and capacities, all arranged around a central atrium. During my visit I saw:

  • A tremendous show of rare books on loan from Oxford’s Corpus Christi College.
  • The work of George Salter, midcentury book designer extraordinaire
  • Impressions of Jerusalem in pictures, video, sculpture, and words
  • A brief overview of the German origins of Zionism in the early twentieth century.
  • The story of a Portuguese diplomat who defied his superiors and eventually lost his job in his effort to give exit visas to as many people fleeing the Nazis as possible.
  • A group show of art by current students at Abby Belkin Stern College.

Dusty Old Books

Oxford Show, Yeshiva University MusuemThe rare book show, billed as “Five Hundred Years of Treasures from Oxford,” blew me away.  According to the wall text, many of the books on view have never left Corpus Christi College before. I can’t imagine the relationship that led to this exhibit happening.  The title misleads, though: although it’s Corpus Christi’s 500th anniversary, several of the works on display are way older than that. Indeed, at least two date to the tenth century.  I mean seriously.  Here there be books over a thousand years old.

Oxford Rare Books Show, Center for Jewish History
St. Basil the Great, “Commentary on the Psalms & Other Works,” 10th Century(!), Greek manuscript

Jewish-Adjacent Programming

I found it particularly interesting that although the show had a Hebrew section, it wasn’t really, well, super-Jewish.  I mean, who would expect Corpus Christi to come to Yeshiva. However, in the college’s early days, its founder emphasized the “new learning” of reading holy books in their original languages –so Hebrew and Greek alongside the more usual Latin. 

But it’s not purely Biblical, either. The show also features a copy of the Iliad, and numerous significant scientific works.  In terms of Hebrew, it featured some beautiful examples of dual Hebrew/Latin manuscripts. It also had a book of Jewish daily prayers, written in Arabic but using the Hebrew alphabet, that somehow made its way to England before the 1200s.

On the science front, they had a copy of Vesalius’s Anatomy from 1555.  It’s amazingly important, the first medical book based on contemporary dissections, not just received wisdom from the Classical world.  And even better were the tons of annotations from some harried medical student.  I love margin notes.  Even if I can’t read them, I can empathize with this long-gone person striving to learn and absorb all this new, revolutionary knowledge. Try doing that on an eReader.

Andreas Vesalius, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” printed in Basel, 1555.

While a small show, it went incredibly deep. If it was at the Morgan, I reckon there would be a line to see it.  It was hard to tear myself away to check out the rest of the Center for Jewish History exhibits.  But tear I did, eventually.Rare books from oxford, Yeshiva University Museum

More Books!

George Salter, Center for Jewish History, New York
Atlas Shrugged, Salter Designed

The George Salter show was fascinating, too.  Once you see some examples of his work, you realize that he did tons of midcentury classics.  And while  you can’t judge a book by its cover, his distinctive way with typography and design must’ve helped sell at least some copies of the books he worked on.

The show speaks to Salter’s philosophy of design, from pure typographical covers to ones, like Atlas Shrugged, that capture some resonant idea of the book in simplified, graphical form.

Rare Book Library, Center for Jewish History

Other Things at the Center for Jewish History

The Jerusalem show provided glimpses and views of the city by a whole variety of artists and writers.  It included a tremendous, handmade model of old Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem, Center for Jewish History
Moses Kernoosh, “Model of Jerusalem,” ca 1880. Wood, cardboard, tin, wire, paint, rice paper

As with the Oxford show, I found it interesting (and welcome) that the perspectives on the city weren’t purely Jewish ones.  Mark Twain gets a quote, as does grumpy Herman Melville, who had much to say on the quantity and quality of the stones of Judea.  But my favorite quote came from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem is a Port City,” where he builds an amazing metaphor.  I’ll just quote the first and last lines here:

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of the ages of ages./Jerusalem is the Venice of God.

The student art show was a student art show.  A couple of clever things, a couple not-so-clever.  And “Portugal the Last Hope: Sousa-Mendes’ Visas for Freedom” and “Zionismus: The German Roots of Zionism” shows both had interesting things to teach, though both went heavy on wall texts and quotes, lighter on art and artifacts.Zionism in Germany at the Center for Jewish History

The Bottom Line

Center for Jewish History, New YorkWith its diverse institutions all pursuing their different missions, the exhibits the Center for Jewish History cumulatively deliver a comprehensive and diverse look at Jewish concerns and interests.  The Jewish Museum, by contrast, has a more narrowly artistic focus.  Which absolutely isn’t a bad thing, and puts it on equal footing with many of the other specific-culture-focused institutions in the city.  But I got  more out of visiting the Center for Jewish History. 

If the Yeshiva Museum does even one show every couple of years as deep as the Oxford Library show, I really need to make it part of my regular museum rotation.

Whatever your interests, it’s likely that something on view at the Center for Jewish History will align. Woe unto you if your interests are diverse, you’ll likely spend more time there than you intended.  I mean, woe in a good way, of course.  Seeing and learning more than you expected must count as among the best of all possible woes.

For Reference:

Address 15 West 16th Street, Manhattan
Cost  Yeshiva University Museum General Admission:  $8.  Other exhibition spaces free.
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