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
Other Relevant Links


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