Torah pointer (yad) marking the place early on in Chayei Sarah, the fifth parsha in the book of Genesis. Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock.
Torah pointer (yad) marking the place early on in Chayei Sarah, the fifth parsha in the book of Genesis. Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock.
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Judaica collector gives some pointers to the University of Virginia

Clay Barr began her collection of Torah “hands,” which spans two and a half centuries, to memorialize her husband 30 years ago.

Clay Barr’s husband Jay D. A. Barr had been ill for “quite a long time” when she brought him home in early 1994. “There was no more to be done, and I’m pacing around thinking this wonderful 57-year-old man needs to have some memorial so his name will keep being spoken,” she told JNS. “In the Jewish religion, if your name is spoken, you’re not completely gone.”

Then she remembered that he had gifted two antique Torah pointers—or yads in Hebrew—that he bought at Sotheby’s that January to their synagogue, Congregation Beth El in Norfolk, Va. The Conservative shul traces its origins back to 1850 and was where her husband had his bar mitzvah.

“He loved the hand in art. So it seemed, ‘Aha!’ I had an epiphany,” Barr told JNS. “This is what I’ll do to memorialize him. It will be 30 years come the second of July that he died. This has been a dedication of 30 years so far. Hopefully, I’ll hang around and make it a lot longer.”

As it approaches the three-decade mark since her husband died, Barr, who is in her early 80s, has gifted a minimum of 150 Torah yads, or hand-shaped pointers, to the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Torah pointers enable the reader (ba’al koreh) to follow along in the scroll without touching the parchment, which is religiously anathema.

For centuries, yads were made of silver and adorned with baroque embellishments. Barr’s collection includes pointers that date back some 325 years. She owns one with a ruby ring dated around 1700; an Italian pointer likely made in the 17th or 18th century; a 1789 German wood yad with three movable spheres; and an 18th-century Dutch silver one.

She’s particularly proud of one by an English artist whom Barr calls “truly astounding.”

“Hester Bateman to this day is the most renowned English woman silversmith. She inherited her husband’s business on his death—ran it for 20 years, in which time she made about 1,000 pieces,” Barr said of Bateman (c. 1709-94).

“But they were all for the home. She made teapots. She made bowls. She made creamers. She never made anything for outside the home,” Barr added. “How she ever happened to make a Torah pointer, how I was ever lucky enough to see it at auction and get it, it’s just remarkable. That’s from 1781.”

The New York auction house Kestenbaum & Company, which sold a Bateman Torah pointer for $5,000 on June 25, 2015, tells the story a little differently. It dates the pointer, which it says “perfectly demonstrates Bateman style,” to 1778 and notes that Bateman made George III silver Torah finials for England’s Great Portsmouth synagogue, which Christie’s sold for a little more than $300,000 in 1999, and a 1781 silver Shabbat hanging lamp now at the Yeshiva University Museum.

However infrequently Bateman created Judaica for use outside the home, Barr told JNS that the bulk of her energy and interest has been devoted to commissioning contemporary artists to make new Torah pointers. “That excites me,” she said.

“I really don’t haunt the auction houses,” she said, adding that her sister collects 17th-century Dutch paintings—the era of Rembrandt—which she finds dull.

Hester Bateman Torah yad
Torah pointer (yad) by Hester Bateman (1781). Barr Foundation collection. Credit: Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

“I’ll always eat the chocolate dessert and skip the lemon,” Barr said. “We all have things that please us, and certainly contemporary pleases me more at this point than antiquity, though I was raised with antiquity.”

Concrete, Legos, skateboard

As a collector, Barr is very interested in materials, and she has hired artists to create Torah pointers out of things that would have surely astounded the Jews who used the silver ceremonial objects in the 18th century, which form the chronological beginning of her collection.

Her father worked in the concrete business, so Barr commissioned the Israeli designer Marit Meisler to create a cast concrete yad in 201. Barr’s grandson made a Torah pointer out of a toilet paper roll and a chopstick, which “has caused a sensation,” she told JNS. And she recently received a yad she commissioned out of Lego.

“It’s certainly not the most gorgeous in the collection, but this is just to show this is what that man works in,” she said.

In 2004, Barr hired Wendell Castle to make a silver and stained-walnut Torah pointer that lies on a hand, made of foam board and painted with acrylic, which rests on a rosewood and maple wood table. When the furniture maker and sculptor in Emporia, Kan., died in 2018 at age 85, The New York Times described him as a “whimsical designer who coaxed wood into weird, mind-bending shapes that blurred the boundary between serviceable furniture and fine art.”

“He’s this great famous man, and I’m talking to him like I’m talking to you. He was easy to talk to,” Barr told JNS. “We went back and forth over a year, and he finally said, ‘I’m a furniture maker. I’m going to make a table. I’ll put a hand on it. And we’ll put a Torah pointer.’ I said, ‘Great, Wendell. Go.’”

Wendell Castle Torah yad
Torah pointer (yad) by Wendell Castle. Silver and stained walnut; hand: sign foam and acrylic paint; table: rosewood, maple wood. 8 in. high. (2004). Barr Foundation collection. Credit: Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

Four years beforehand, Barr commissioned Orthodox Jewish N.Y. artist Tobi Kahn—whose work, in part, is among the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.), Minneapolis Institute of Art and Yale University Art Gallery—to make a Torah pointer. Kahn’s wood and acrylic yad has an organic feel, perhaps evoking a flowering plant or a seal balancing a ball on its nose.

Barr met Kahn at a dinner party, and he invited her to his studio one Sunday in Queens, N.Y. She saw a table full of stuff he had found out on walks. “I picked up three pieces from nature and put them together and I said, ‘OK, Tobi. Make me a Torah pointer,’” Barr said. “If you look at it, there are three very distinct pieces from nature that he put together, and I think it’s wonderful.”

She also admits to being a “little addicted” to the work of jewelry maker Tom Herman—whose company is called “Seven Fingers” because he lost three in a childhood accident—and owns four of his Torah pointers. And she has a Torah pointer made out of her grandson’s broken skateboard by Norfolk artist Spencer Tinkham. (It’s shaped like a rabbit.)

“I had no idea skateboards were so beautiful,” Barr told JNS.

‘Meaningful tribute’

Barr’s gift, which is also supported by the Barr Foundation, is “the first major gift of Judaica in the university’s history,” according to the University of Virginia. The gift includes funding to “preserve the collection and support related staff as well as educational programming and touring of the objects,” per the university, which notes that the late Barr earned undergraduate and law degrees from the school.

“This meaningful tribute includes support for the collection and provides educational programming,” James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, stated in February. “I look forward to an exciting initial exhibit in 2025.”

M. Jordan Love, the academic curator of the Fralin Museum, called Barr’s “extensive” Torah pointer collection “singular for its robust catalog of both antique and commissioned works.”

Abby Schwartz, curatorial consultant and director emerita at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati, told JNS that it was of “special interest” to the museum to show Barr’s collection—it plans to do so from April 11 to July 28—“because it reflects such a wide range of artistic excellence.”

“There are no specifications for materials or style or size in the making of Torah pointers. What results is dazzling,” Schwartz said. “Not to mention the historic importance of this remarkable collection: wooden and silver yads from the 18th century on one hand and pointers made of paper, glass and found objects made very recently on the other—a testament to the enduring art of the guiding hand that brings humankind in connection with Torah.”

Barr’s husband had been wanted to own a sculpted hand by Auguste Rodin—of The Thinker fame, Barr told JNS. “I never managed.”

Spencer Tinkham Torah pointer
Torah pointer by Spencer Tinkham. Rabbit made from skateboard. 2021. Barr Foundation collection. Credit: Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

“Even when he looked at portraits, he’d say, ‘Oh, look how wonderfully’ or how ‘badly’” the hands were depicted, she said. “He just seemed to gravitate toward the hand in art. It was something he was always cognizant of.”

She began by emulating her husband’s collecting, by going to antique stores, including a “lovely” Judaica dealer “right down from Trump Tower on 56th Street in New York.” She “fell in love” with three Torah pointers and bought them, and went “right to Moriah” every time she went to New York and would “find something that I couldn’t resist.” (Moriah Galleries closed in 2015 after six decades.)

“At some point, it just dawned on me that the Judaica that is made today is far from superior, as rightly as I can put it, and maybe I can make a difference. And I have,” she said. “It’s no question that I have turned a lot of people on to what a Torah pointer is who have never heard of it.” 

At a recent craft show in Baltimore, she asked people if they knew what a Torah pointer is. “They usually say, ‘A what?’” she said. “I explain, ‘In the Jewish religion, we read from a scroll. It’s called a Torah, and it has no punctuation. It’s just almost impossible, so you need something to guide your eye to protect the sacred parchment.’”

Barr, who can’t read Hebrew but says she has the letter aleph “down pat,” reads transliterated blessings when she is called up to the Torah for an aliyah. She grew up—and has spent her whole life—in Norfolk with a “devout” atheist father and a mother who “was so in awe of him.” Sunday Reform Jewish school was “so boring,” she said. “We drew pictures of trees. It was so ridiculous.”

She says Judaism’s after-death rituals turned her on to faith. “The torn piece of cloth. The candle. All those sorts of things were so comforting,” she said. “I think that’s when I became a Jew—as a widow, at 53.”

She went to Israel for the first time in 1985 when she was 44. “You can’t go there and not be spellbound by what an amazing country it is,” she said. She has only been back once, with her daughter, son-in-law and their three children for her eldest granddaughter’s bat mitzvah.

She offered the collection to her hometown museum—the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk—but the director only wanted seven or eight, and she was loath to split the collection up. “That meant nothing to me. What’s the impact?” she said. “If you take the seven best, it diminishes the collection.”

‘I’m so enchanted by them’

A member of the Jewish Museum acquisition committee in New York, she notes that the museum has more than 2,200 Torah pointers. “At any time, you can see seven or eight on exhibition, which drives me crazy,” she told JNS. “I’m so enchanted by them.”

Torah pointers Jewish Museum
Torah pointers (yads) on view at the Jewish Museum in New York. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Barr was in the process of setting up a fund for collecting Judaica at the Chrysler, with a meeting scheduled for Oct. 9—two days after the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel. “We sort of tabled that,” she said. “Money’s going to Israel for things other than collecting Judaica at this point.”

So the collection is headed to the University of Virginia, where her late husband was in the last year of law school when they married. “We started our marriage in Charlottesville,” Barr said. “They will have it, but I have provided funding for a part staff person to make sure that it keeps traveling. I don’t want it to stay in the basement.”

Beyond the 150 promised to the university, Barr has about 75 more. She told JNS that she talked with 11 artists at the Baltimore craft show, so the collection appears poised to keep growing.

While she acknowledges being tempted by other isolated Judaica works at auction, she plans to collect nothing else seriously beyond Torah pointers. And that is all about her late husband.

“This is a memorial,” she said.

If her talks at the Baltimore show are any indication, a different kind of memorial is in the works. Barr told a jewelry designer, who works in etched lucite, about Kristallnacht, and there may well be a piece in the works that addresses that subject.

“I’m an interior designer. I work in many instances on the design with the artists. So it’s not that I see something and I say, ‘Oh, I’ll buy it,’” Barr said. “Not only do I not see it. They don’t know what I’m talking about when I start out.”

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