“BUT WE’RE NOT EVEN JEWISH!!!” A little girl shrieks at her mother at the edge of the entrance to the Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History exhibit. Clearly exasperated, and even more embarrassed, the woman whispers something sharply in her daughter’s ear before yanking her small, squirming frame into the display room. Later, my ever-keen grandmother told me that the mother had given her daughter a stern, curt answer, “THAT doesn’t matter,” the woman had asserted.
And she was right. It doesn’t matter.
Here lies the beauty of the Jewish Museum. This beautifully decorated and curated former mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan celebrates cultural and religious Judaism in a way that is enjoyable to the masses. Like other art museums, there are collections of older, more traditional pieces, modern and mixed media projects, and a shifting array of special events, all with a Jewish spin. The juxtaposition of the old with the new, the classical with the contemporary, has been a fundamental aspect of Judaism through the ages. This, translated into art, gives visitors a taste of Jewish life, often before they realize they are experiencing it. The Jewish Museum has achieved this wonderful balance that allows patrons–Jewish and non-Jewish alike–to feel connected to the pieces.
Some exhibits are blatantly Jewish, with artifacts and religious articles from all over the world, and all throughout history. Others, however, have a more obscure connection to Judaism, and often play upon Jewish principles and ideals.
Currently, there are five special exhibitions going on in addition to the (fabulous) permanent set that is there year-round. Here are two that piqued my interest, but for more information on the rest, head to the museum’s website!
The first is a display of chandelier type structures all around the museum, part of the museum’s series Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings, created by the Brazilian artist, Beatriz Milhazes. These beaded, flowered, and sparkly confections create a Coachella meets PB Teen dreamland. Seriously. The Brazilian Carnival style décor is really something worth seeing.
The next is definitely a less conventional exhibit (which makes it even more enticing, of course). Take Me (I’m Yours) is a series created by the Jewish museum in which forty artists collaborated and sent in interactive art pieces. Yes. Interactive. The audience is encouraged to touch, closely observe, and even take home portions of each work. Visitors become part of the artwork. To the naked eye, this does not seem like a “Jewish” exhibit. There are no traditionally Jewish aspects present within the pieces. It is the atmosphere that is created by these pieces, however, that is in line with Jewish character. Sharing is one of the most inherent qualities of Judaism, and the willingness of each artist to share part of his or her work follows that very concept.
Finally, (I should have mentioned this first, but it is technically not the “main” part of the museum) FOOD! Who wouldn’t get hungry after walking around and intensely contemplating art and historical artifacts? New to the Jewish Museum is the famous restaurant “Russ and Daughters,” a traditional, lower east side style restaurant that serves up the classics like egg creams, bagels with lox, and kugel, as well as more modern treats like shakshuka and eggs benedict. Really an incredible eating experience, and its Kosher (unlike the original eatery). Needless to say, my grandparents were thrilled about the addition of the restaurant they had longed to eat in since they were just young New Yorkers.
There is so much more to say about the Jewish Museum, and its immensely fascinating set of exhibits and special features. The most important, though? Just go. The cultural passport gets you in for FREE, and an amazing time is guaranteed!