(February 11, 2021 / JNS) From boyhood into adulthood, I was never fond of museums. Whether it was a grammar-school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan or, as a young adult, the Louvre in Paris, I found the endless maze of rooms and paintings a tiresome bore. But I dutifully went along, whether because my fifth-grade teacher required it; or, years later, because my girlfriend seemed to condition our relationship on it. The only exception was the Baseball Hall of Fame, its unique version of a museum, where I delightedly admired photos and mementos of my idols (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) and my cousin (Hank Greenberg).
Eventually, once I became an American historian, my chosen past for research, writing and teaching started at the beginning of the 20th century. Coincidentally, or not, it was then that my grandparents arrived from Eastern Europe, launching our American family history in the land of freedom and opportunity. My parents eagerly assimilated as loyal Americans; I was the inheritor of their adopted faith.
My Jewish indifference was eventually upended by a sabbatical year in Jerusalem, sparked by a brief trip to Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee for “disaffected” Jewish academics (I was clearly qualified). Except for my weekly teaching day as a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University, I was free to wander through the Holy City that was becoming my home away from home.
My meandering invariably drew me to the Old City and, inevitably, to the Western Wall. Its cavernous interior chamber was endlessly fascinating. Watching and listening to bearded old men and young boys with long tzitzit as their davening echoed within the ancient stone walls, I knew that I was encountering “real” Jews, not the assimilated American Jews of my parents’ generation (and, of course, their children).
At the time, a few years after the Six-Day War in 1967, the ancient Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, destroyed during Israel’s struggle for independence, was slowly being rebuilt. I occasionally stopped by to watch the remnants of old buildings excavated in the digging. One afternoon an Arab worker approached me, holding several ancient coins that he had discovered underground and was clearly interested in selling. As yet unaccustomed to the Middle East bargaining ritual, I gladly paid his asking price. Our transaction marked my initiation into the world of Jewish antiquities.
Several weeks later, while walking along the Via Dolorosa, a shop window caught my attention. I ventured inside, wandering past keffiyehs, beaded jewelry and beautifully embroidered wall-hangings. In the rear was a fascinating array of ancient clay pitchers of various sizes and shapes. Some, with handles and spouts, clearly had been used to store and pour liquids. Others, flat and tapered with small openings, were oil lamps. There also were fascinating clay figurines: a donkey with a package bag on each side; a bird with spread wings resting on a stump; and a trio of tiny stone cats, my favorite domestic animals. They were all between 1,000 and 3,000 years old.
Most intriguing were ancient statuettes: a woman nurturing her child; another propping up her disproportionately sizable breasts; the head of a man wearing a tall pointed hat and another with his forefinger touching his chin; people and animals with huge round rim eyes. During that year, and in years and visits to come, I purchased them from Mahmoud, the knowledgeable and genial store owner, for my own burgeoning antiquities collection—or, as I ironically identified it, my museum.
In my wanderings, I discovered shops in downtown Jerusalem that sold old religious objects. As a boy, my favorite Jewish holiday—and the only one observed by my parents—doubtlessly to undermine any temptation for Christmas, was Hanukkah. But the celebration of Hanukkah in Jerusalem was unlike anything I had ever experienced. In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Sha’are Hessed, menorah candles flickered outside nearly every home. The eighth-night celebration at the Western Wall, where large vats of oil simultaneously burst into flame and many hundreds of celebrants sang “Ma’oz Tzur” together, was extraordinary.
Soon after, following my first (reluctant) visit to the Israel Museum, where an entire wall displayed more than one hundred hanukyiot of various sizes, shapes and decorations from Jewish communities worldwide, I was inspired to start my own collection. Several of my early purchases were decorated with birds—one with the Ten Commandments. After returning home, I arranged them on a wall in my study as a miniature replica of the Israel Museum exhibit. Two others, different in size and ornamentation, earned privileged location near my desk. One displays two lions flanking a tall candelabra above the words “Betzalel” (the chief architect of the Tabernacle) and “Jerusalem.” The other has an engraved backdrop of Jews praying at the Kotel; Me’arat Hamachpelah, the Hebron burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs; and Kever Rachel, where Jacob’s favorite wife and Joseph’s mother was interned.
In my explorations, I discovered two silver spice boxes: one topped by a flag, the other by a Magen David. Also two beautifully filigreed silver siddur covers, one etched with Stars of David flanking a replica of the Ten Commandments; the other with two men praying at the Kotel. I found an elaborately decorated tzedakah canister with “Betzalel Jerusalem” engraved above a bearded man carrying a Torah. I came to realize that each acquisition not only was a tangible reminder of my time in Jerusalem but a symbol of escape from my long-buried Jewish self.
Most painful—and the heartrending exception to my aversion to museums—was my visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Its Children’s Memorial, a huge dark chamber with endlessly rotating ceiling photos of 1.5 million children, my age at the time, who were murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews, was especially searing. Had my grandparents not left Russia and Romania, I might have been among them. No other museum has had or could have its deeply sorrowful and enduring impact.
These days, writing and reading in my study, I am surrounded by books about Israel and Jews, antiquities and 19th-century lithographs of the Holy Land. They stir Jerusalem memories linking past and present, the sorrows and joys of my people. Jewish antiquities have enabled me to track—and embrace—that history from its biblical antecedents to Jewish statehood. Ironically, Israel not only undermined my aversion to museums but inspired me to create my own.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” and “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.
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