New York City’s Jewish Museums

As the city with the world’s largest Jewish population, New York City boasts several Jewish museums. Each chronicles different aspects of the Jewish experience. The most prominent museums are the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, the Center For Jewish History in Chelsea and of course – the Museum At Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. I visited all of them.

Jewish Museum

I began my exploration at the Jewish Museum, which is housed in an early French Renaissance style mansion, originally owned by Jewish banker Felix M. Warburg. Alongside its main exhibit, the museum also hosts temporary ones. On the bottom floor, visitor can enjoy a meal at a new outpost of the famed Jewish appetizing store Russ & Daughters with no entrance admission required.

The museum redefines the definition of  a Jewish museum. All the current exhibitions feature Jewish artists. Yet, most of their art does not overtly relate to Jewish history or culture.  A highlight exhibition showcased the work of Florine Stettheimer born to a wealthy German Jewish family. She painted beautiful, colorful paintings depicting the 1920s Jazz Age. Featured paintings include self-portraits, images of her sisters, theater scenes, shoppers as well as multiple images of nude women and one Christmas scene.

Ultimately, the artist’s Jewish roots is the closest the exhibition gets to an exploration of Judaism. The Jewish Museum flips the assumption that a Jewish museum should recount the Jewish experience. Instead it features Jewish artists and others who are defined by their work rather than their faith. I am curious to return to the Jewish Museum in the Autumn once they have reinstalled their permanent exhibition. In the past the core exhibition, showcased several millenia of Jewish history, including religious documents and artifacts. How will the Jewish Museum of today decide to tell that story?

Florine Stettheimer, “Nude Self-Portrait”

Florine Stettheimer’s “Nude Self-Portrait” (ca 1915)

Museum Of Jewish Heritage

My next stop was the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust. The permanent exhibition documents the rise of the Jewish bourgeoisie and vibrant Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and the anti-Semitism which destroyed them. The exhibition was moving not only because of its subject matter, but also because of its resonance in today’s political climate. Europe was experiencing a refugees crisis and countries reacted as today – by closing their borders.

The permanen exhibition highlighted the story of the SS St. Louis cruise liner. In 1939, the cruise liner set sail from Germany to Cuba, carrying Jewish refugees. Despite the thorough documentation of persecution in their homeland, including the Kristallnacht pogrom, governments denied Jews a safe haven. When the ship arrived in Cuba, the refugees were denied entry to the country. The ship tried its luck in the United States, but they were again denied entry. As the ship returned to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and United Kingdom granted asylum. A year later, the Netherlands, France and Belgium fell under Nazi occupation. Of 528 refugees, 250 perished. Now more than ever, it’s important to visit the museum and be reminded that history threatens to repeat itself.

Belgian Anti Semetic Poster (1943)

Belgian Anti-Semitic poster, “Here are the Soviets” (1943)

Center For Jewish History

My final stop was at the Center for Jewish History. Along with exhibitions, which are open to the public, the Center houses Jewish archives from five leading Jewish Institutions including the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Its impressive documents covers more than 5 000 years, more than five miles of archival documents, and artifacts and ephemera ranging from textiles to recordings and photographs. The Center annually hosts several temporary exhibitions. Currently the Museum is exhibiting Medieval bibles from Oxford University and multimedia art made by students of Stern College For Women.

Interior of the Center For Jewish History

Interior of the Center For Jewish History

Museum At Eldridge Street

All the museums are worth visiting. They demonstrate the full breadth of the Jewish experience. Our Museum At Eldridge Street, housed in the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, adds an additional dimension. Our landmark home is the first great house of worship built in America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Yiddish signs, Jewish ritual objects, archival documents, artifacts from the building’s restoration, and excerpts from the Museum’s collection of oral histories combine to illuminate immigrant history and Jewish practice. As we say in our mission statement, “the synagogue was a tangible monument to the religious freedom and economic opportunity afforded by their new land. Today, it is a powerful symbol of the historical and cultural contributions of generations of Jewish immigrants.”

By Julia Echikson, Museum At Eldridge Street intern

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