Center for Jewish Art

Center for Jewish Art

Curious about the mission of the Center
for Jewish Art
at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, @The Source
visited the Center and met with founder, Israel Prize recipient,
Bezalel Narkiss.
In the words of Prof. Narkiss, “The mission of the
Center is to document and preserve Jewish art all over
the world that is in grave danger of being lost forever. Natural disasters,
private collectors, development, construction, decay, lack of funds and personal
issues including aging, are some of the obstacles that make the task more
difficult each day.”

Bezalel Narkiss

A courtly gentlman, founder Bezalel Narkiss began studying lost Jewish
art over 40 years ago. He earned a doctorate in art history from the Warburg
Institute in London. Indeed, art and art history are very much part of the
family heritage. Narkiss’ father was Mordechai Narkiss, the successor to
Boris Schatz who established Israel’s internationally renowned Bezalel School
for the Arts. Narkiss recalls that his father often gave signed works he
had received from artists as personal gifts to the Bezalel Museum. Narkiss
firmly believes that art belongs to the community where it can be documented
and viewed and that art placed in private collections is lost forever.

Great Synagogue of Berezhany, Ukraine.

Photographed in 1992 by CJA researchers

Preventing Jewish
art from becoming lost or forgotten is a driving passion for Dr. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin,
Director of the Center for Jewish Art (CJA) and a professor of medieval
art history. Cohen-Mushlin defines Jewish art as “anything created in
the context of Jewish life and culture.” Jewish art is not necessarily created
by a Jew.

The CJA publishes
the Index of Jewish Art and, according to the CJA website, the Index
is “the world’s most comprehensive Jewish art database, with systematic
documentation of tens of thousands of Jewish art objects from all over the
world from antiquity to the contemporary period.” Ancient Jewish art, Hebrew
illuminated manuscripts, ceremonial objects and synagogue furnishings, modern
Jewish art and architecture of synagogues and Jewish monuments are some
of the types of art documented in the Index.

Ruins of the Berezhany Synagogue

Photographed in 1994 by CJA researchers

The art is documented
by “photographs, descriptions, iconographical, historical and bibliographical
data as well as architectural plans and 3-D computer models of synagogues
and other sites.”

Three dimensional computer model of
the synagogue

created by CJA researchers

The 3-D models let viewers virtually enter a synagogue and see both what
the CJA researchers saw on their visit to the synagogue and how it probably
looked in earlier times.

CJA also leads expeditions
to see Jewish art firsthand. Expeditions have already been led to Ukraine,
Lithuania, India, Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Dagheston, Byelorussia, Vienna
and approximately 20 other countries.

According to Cohen-Mushlin
the race against time is so great that it is almost insurmountable. She is
consumed with the problem of implementing this worldwide preservation and
project documentation on a shoestring. “The first priority is to go on an
expedition, and to gather information quickly, before there is nothing left
to investigate.”

Teaching Jewish
Tradition and Values through Jewish Art

Students at
Baraam Synagogue.

Dates from the 3rd

Century [near Safed]

Every summer the Center for Jewish Art in conjunction with the Society
for Jewish Art organizes a course for Russian-speaking artists and educators.
The course, Teaching Jewish Tradition and Values through Jewish Art, now
in its ninth year, is held alternately in St. Petersburg and Jerusalem.
This year, in Jerusalem, forty participants both from the CIS and Israel
participated in August in an intensive course entitled, Symbol and Narrative:
Biblical Metaphors in Jewish Art. The course focused on the relationship
between biblical narrative, and how an object in the narrative becomes a
symbol during different time periods. The course included lectures closely
relating the subject to Jewish literature, history, philosophy, music, drama
and other elements of Jewish culture. Field trips to the Galilee to ancient
synagogues and burial grounds, as well as trips within Jerusalem, are an
integral part of the course.

Virtual opportunities

  • @The Source Israel readers can
    preserve Jewish art by sending donations to CJA.
  • In addition, a community or group can Adopt-A-Synagogue
    by underwriting a specific synagogue expedition and funding the entire project.
    This would certainly be an interesting project for a Hebrew School or Bnai
    Mitzvah to undertake!
    For more information,
    please e-mail us.

  • Related article:
    Without Jews and the Communities that Built and Used

    Article researched and written by Israel Info-Access.


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