Power of Attention: Shiviti Manuscripts at The Magnes

Posted by zlewin on Tuesday June 21 2016

Over the course of this year, our Magnes Graduate Fellow, Yosef Rosen, in collaboration with our former Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) student, Zoe Lewin, worked extensively with The Magnes’s shiviti manuscript collection. The fruits of their research and labor will be featured in an upcoming exhibition in Spring 2017, appropriately (tentatively) titled “The Power of Attention.” In addition to the PopUp exhibition both Yosef and Zoe co-presented, the two Magnes scholars co-authored the following blog post that synthesizes the historical, cultural, and religious significance and contexts of the shiviti collection at The Magnes.

Enjoy!

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Shiviti plaques occupy a rare niche among Jewish objects: portraits of and portals to the divine. Jewish graphic-art more often engages with earthy and angelic imagery, while the creation of divine images is left to the imagination and to the metaphors of poets. But in the 17th century, the spiritual intensities of Lurianic Kabbalah began to inspire Jews to search for new ways to actualize the mandate of the Psalmist – “I place [shiviti] the Lord before me, always” (Psalms 16:8). By what artistic means can the devotee place the divine before herself at all times? The Shiviti plaque is a deft artistic answer to that religious conundrum. It capitalizes on the artistic power of Hebrew letters to transform text into picture. Shiviti plaques use the Hebrew letters of verses from Psalms, esoteric divine names, acronyms of scriptural sentences, and magical formulae to craft a dense and layered object of devotional art. By offering a collage of sacred letters to the viewer, each Shiviti plaque becomes a meditative icon, calling the devotee back to religious attentiveness.

At its core, the Shiviti plaque combines two separate Jewish traditions: (1) a 17th century, Kabbalistic practice of placing a piece of paper inscribed with the ineffable name of God, יהוה, into one’s Siddur (prayer book) as an aid for concentrating on the power of the divine letters during prayers, and (2) a 14th century, Italian tradition to incorporate in the Siddur a drawing of the menorah (the seven branched candelabrum of the Temple) composed out of the letters of Psalm 67 (an attempt to artistically connect the ancient Temple service with the practice of praying Psalms). What these two traditions share is an emphasis on the virtue of visualizing and meditating upon letters during prayer. At first these two strands of traditional Jewish devotion converged within religious books, as the earliest instances of the commonly recognized Shivti are found in the opening folios of some eighteenth-century Hebrew books. Only in the late eighteenth-century did people begin to create Shiviti’s as independent plaques intended to be hung on a wall (typically for a home or synagogue). We don’t know exactly when or where these two traditions merged. What is certain is that their union generated a new, religiously robust, Jewish object that rapidly became popular across Europe, Morocco, India, Palestine, and almost anywhere else Jews lived.

As the 32 Shiviti plaques in the Magnes Collection attest,

these works of devotional art developed in a variety of regional styles and incorporated other aesthetic motifs into their devotional schemas. One of those transformations involved new interactions between amulets and Shiviti plaques. Magical formulae abound in many of the collection’s Shiviti plaques, probably because they were viewed as an appropriate, religious location for invocations of angelic powers and spells against evil powers. Some plaques

Manuscript [2007.0.49]: Alef Amulet, 'Birth certificate' Amulet with shiviti text (Greece, 1888)

in the collection even make use of the infamous amuletic angels – sanui, sansanui, and samanglaph – thought to ward off Lilith’s demonic efforts to kill children. One 20th century, Indian shiviti plaque

Manuscript [68.99.3]: Shiviti amulet for protection (India, 20th cent.)

in the collection specifically refers to itself as an amulet (kami’ah) for home protection, and makes explicit use of the magical traditions of “Sefer Raziel” (a collection of mystical, cosmological, and magical Hebrew works first printed in Amsterdam in 1701). Another 19th century shiviti from India

Manuscript [74.0.01]: Shiviti amulet dedicated to Rachel and Mosheh Avraham Sassoon (India, 19th century)

presents itself as an amulet capable of assisting its owner’s pregnancy, here, likely, a wife in the Sassoon family, influential Iraqi Jews who established an international banking and mercantile empire in Bombay (present day Mumbai), and great benefactors of the Indian Jewish community. In these examples, devotion and magic intermingle, and Jewish objects that developed with one aim are appropriated for other communal and personal needs. Like many Jewish objects, Shiviti’s can fulfill different aesthetic functions – often at once. And it is likely that this pliability helps account for their wide cultural success. As we studied each of the Shiviti’s in the Magnes collection, we found the concept of “intersectionality” a helpful one. Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, the term “intersectionality” is often used to describe the multifarious race, gender, class, religious, and other identities that an individual navigates. In investigating the myriad identities and roles of Shiviti’s, we began to understand how these perplexing, devotional objects spread throughout the diaspora and remained popular for centuries. The intersectionality of Shiviti plaques is most evident in the many plaques that combine elements of magic and letter-meditation. But we also found that many Shiviti plaques in the collection engage with a wider constellation of Jewish, art formats: memorial art (for the recently deceased)
Shiviti and memorial plaque with Mizrah text [67-19]: (Jerusalem, Israel, 1948)
mizrach art (plaques placed on the eastern wall of the home or synagogue),

Manuscript [78.4.33]: Mizrach inscribed with biblical, rabbinic, and amuletic texts, illustrated with astrological signs (Nowy Sa̜cz, Poland, 1924)
charts of biblical scenes
[Shiviti Plaque]: 2006-0-15.jpg

and synagogue plaques.

Manuscript [67-20]: Shiviti plaque (n.d.)

These morphing usages of Shiviti motifs in multiple geographical contexts
Shiviti Plaque [67.17]: Amulet written by Ya'aqov Meir bar Abba Shalom Khashiyof (Alexandria, Egypt, 1914-1915)

highlight the popularity and mutability of Jewish devotional art practices. The thirty-three Shiviti’s in the Magnes collection display an artistic diversity that can teach us about modern experimentation with Jewish devotional art. What began several hundred years ago as a drive to make the divine palpable during prayer, has, over the course of the past three centuries, become an artful exploration of the modern bonds that exist between devotion, magic, and aesthetics.

-Yosef Rosen & Zoe Lewin

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The Magnes: A Student Manifesto

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday May 6 2016

I am delighted to share an essay by Lauren Cooper. Lauren, who is graduating from UC Berkeley this Spring, with a Major in Comparative Literature, and Minors in Spanish and History, has been involved with Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) that I direct at The Magnes for the last two years. During this time, Lauren contributed to the cataloging of the collection, created the digital companions to our catalog, The Jewish World, assisted in creating several new exhibitions, co-curated one exhibition with me (Stages of Identity, on view through the end of June), and presented a public talk in our PopUp Exhibitions Series (on “The Making of From Mendelssohn To Mendelssohn).

In this post, Lauren reconstructs her work at The Magnes over the years, and offers a veritable student manifesto describing what it means to work and explore, week after week, the wonders of one of the great Jewish museum collections in the context of a research university.

Enjoy!

Francesco Spagnolo

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I came to Berkeley with some Bob Dylan albums and a backpack full of books, thinking vaguely of the 1960s and a possible English major. But about a month into my first English class, and a few pages into The Sound and the Fury, I realized that an indecipherable Faulkner presented without historical context was not what I wanted to spend four years studying. At first this was frightening. I had left my home near Chicago and travelled two thousand miles hoping my first year at UC Berkeley would give me an answer to the question of what I would be doing in ten years. Instead, I had more questions than when I had arrived.

But without the immediate pressure of fulfilling prerequisites for a major, the rest of my first year became an opportunity to try a bit of everything. I signed up for classes I might never have considered that gave me incredible opportunities to hand-print a run of books on a nineteenth century printing press, perform ethnographic folklore research, and conduct cultural interviews in Spanish. I saw in Berkeley an opportunity to explore diverse perspectives, while gaining a deeper understanding of the way humans think and express themselves.

I realized during this time that in addition to learning about other cultures, I wanted to know more about my own Jewish culture—something that was defined at that point by Hanukkah candles every December and stories of my great-grandfather, the Talmudic scholar turned junk peddler whose past in the Old Country was all but forgotten. Taking a series of Jewish history classes, I soon acquired both a History minor and an interest in not only preserving, but also resurrecting, lost history.

Having enjoyed the research element of my history classes, I started to look for research positions through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at UC Berkeley. It was through this program that I learned about the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, a research center and museum which promised both hands on experience with archival materials and opportunities to contribute to future exhibitions. I quickly signed on as a Research Assistant. Now, two years later, it is clear that this was one of the best decisions I made at Berkeley.

Work at the Magnes started fast. My first day on the job, I was given seven Israeli dolls and the name of the workshop that produced them, and was asked to write catalogue descriptions for them. The lack of information was daunting. With little cultural knowledge of Israel and no experience working with dolls or objects like them, I quickly became a detective, piecing together fragments of information so I could not only describe the dolls, but could recreate their role in the society that produced them.

This type of object research is exciting in itself, but a further benefit of working at a museum is that the research is not confined to the archives—it is presented to the public. Having become the house expert on the Israeli dolls, I was asked to contribute to an exhibition (Living by the Book, Fall 2015) that would include them. I selected several dolls, wrote labels, and created digital companions to the exhibit using social media platforms. When the exhibition opened, I had not only reconstructed histories that were nearly lost, but I was proud to have also had a hand in presenting them, physically and digitally, to a public that could appreciate them as much as I did.

My experience working with the dolls proved to be just a taste of what was to come during the rest of my time at the Magnes. At the beginning of each semester, it seems, I was confronted with some idea I knew nothing about. And each time, I jumped into my new project feet first. This past summer, I received an Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program grant award, which allowed me to stay in Berkeley and not only conduct research for the museum’s main exhibition (From Mendelssohn to Mendelssohn, Spring 2016), but also co-curate a smaller show based on my research on a series of theater posters (Stages of Identity, Spring 2016). This past April, I had my first opportunity to directly engage museum patrons and UC Berkeley scholars with a presentation on the creation of the main exhibition. Every day I am discovering something new and finding ways to share it with a wider and wider audience.

The incredible hands-on experience I have had working at the Magnes has introduced me to the museum field, and has encouraged me to explore it further. Now, in my final semester at Berkeley, I am taking a curatorial seminar in the Art History department, and looking forward to a summer internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I don’t know at this point if I want to have a career in museums. I do know that I care deeply about preserving culture, and about providing a platform for it in order to engage a public outside of the academic world. And I know that I want to find a place like the Magnes, where I am discovering something new every day.

Lauren Cooper (UC Berkeley ’16)

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Carla Shapreau awarded Palisca Award for the digital edition of looted music manuscript

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday November 20 2015

Carla Shapreau, a faculty member at Berkeley Law whose research involves the Nazi-era plunder of musical cultural property and the restitution of those possessions, a senior fellow in the Institute of European Studies and a curator at the Department of Music, as well as a member of the Magnes Working Group on Mapping Diasporas, is the recipient with two co-authors of this year’s Claude V. Palisca Award of the American Musicological Society announced this week.

The award recognizes outstanding scholarly editions or translations in the field of musicology published during the previous year. Shapreau received for the Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, published by the University of Oxford’s Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music, reconstructs the long history of the manuscript, a rare work by Guillaume de Machaut, a medieval French poet and scholar.

The manuscript was confiscated by the Nazis from its owner, Georges Wildenstein, in Paris on Oct. 30, 1940, and shipped to Germany. Later, it was taken to the German countryside for safekeeping. In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army discovered this 14th century musical, literary and artistic work hidden in a Bavarian monastery, and in 1949 it was returned to its true owner.

Read more about this here and here.

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Greg Niemeyer on The Materials of Memory | PopUp Exhibition @Magnes December 9, 2015

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Thursday October 22 2015

Greg Niemeyer is Associate Professor of Art Practice and the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media (bcnm.berkeley.edu). Born in Switzerland in 1967, he studied photography and classics, and received his MFA from Stanford, where he founded the Digital Art Center. At the Berkeley Center for New Media, Professor Niemeyer focuses on “the mediation between humans as individuals and humans as a collective through technological means, and emphasizes playful responses to technology”.

Niemeyer also participates in the Mapping Diasporas project, contributing to the Townsend Working Group on Modern Jewish Culture at The Magnes.

His presentation will focus on the materials from which the Hanukkah lamps in The Magnes Collection are made, paying particular attention to a lamp built in 1946-1948, immediately after the Holocaust, for or by survivors living in Displaced Persons camps.

Following is some preliminary research (conducted by Francesco Spagnolo) on this item.

The inscription, “Joint,” refers to the American Joint Distribution Committee:

The largest nonpolitical organization dedicated to helping Jews in distress all over the world. Generally known as the JDC or “Joint” and headquartered in New York, the organization (until 1931) was called the Joint Distribution Committee of (the American) Funds for Jewish War Sufferers. It was founded on 27 November 1914 with the aim of centralizing allocations of aid to Jews adversely affected by World War I.
(Source: YIVO Encyclopedia)

Lamp [79.70.1]: Hanukkah Lamp (Palestine, ca. 1946)

An identical lamp, with a different inscription (in Latin and Hebrew scripts), is part of the museum collections of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The inscription includes the monogram “BT” and the Hebrew words הועד המרכזי במינכן התש”ח (ha-va’ad ha-merkazi be-minkhen 5708, “The Central Committee in Munich, 1947-1948″).

The lamp at Yad Vashem is described as follows:

The truncated tree and a sprouting leaf on this Hannukah Menorah are the symbol of She’arit Hapleta (The Surviving Remnant). It was made in 1947 in the vocational workshop for Holocaust survivors established by the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee], the Jewish Agency and the Central Committee of Bavarian Jewry. This Hanukkah Menorah was among the first items made in the ceramics workshop. It was dedicated to Benarsh Thatch, a member of the vocational board. His initials – BT – are embossed in the center.

Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection, Gift of Benarsh Thatch, Southfield, MI, USA

Several copies of the lamp were made in the workshop, with different dedications to various parties — individuals and organizations — involved in the DP Camps enterprise in the Munich area.

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Living by The Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Everyday Power of Text

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday August 14 2015

Living by The Book (2015) Exhibition Catalog

The Bible stands at the very center of Jewish life, both as text and as a physical object. The Jewish Bible can be seen as a dynamic network of intersecting texts developed over a long period of time, beginning with the Bible itself, and continuing  with translations, midrash, and rabbinic commentaries that extend into the present. But the physicality of the Bible is equally central. Its words are written in manuscript scrolls and printed books, housed in synagogues and homes, embellished  with decorative objects, encased in treasured chests, and dressed with precious textiles. The text is also visually repre-sented in a multiplicity of formats, through images, symbols, reproductions, and objects that both evoke and interpret it for use in all aspects of life.
This core physical presence of the Bible has offered Jewish life definition and structure, operating in the background to color the experience of time, space, and the self. Biblical texts help navigate the physical world: Jews keep biblical time, cultivate biblical bodies (from circumcision to clothing and food), and build and imagine biblical spaces, in their synagogues, homes, and community centers, and in their attachment to the Holy Land. Even outside of ritual, Jews may lead biblical lives, and experience the everyday power of text in a variety of contexts.
Paradoxically, one can describe the impact of the Bible on Jewish life almost without books themselves, and most certainly without having to “open” a book. This exhibition brings together objects, clothing, furniture, and tourist memorabilia from across The Magnes Collection that interpret the Bible with remarkable diversity and creativity. From the most precious ornaments to the very mundane, these objects showcase the ways text can serve as an archive of possibilities and a powerful platform for shaping everyday life.
Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, Curator, and Daniel Fisher, PhD Candidate, Near Eastern Studies, and Magnes Graduate Fellow

Living by the Book (2015) Exhibition Catalog by magnesmuseum

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A Constellation of Conversations: PopUp Exhibitions at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Thursday April 9 2015

This year, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life(2121 Allston Way) launched a series of informative Wednesday noontime lectures involving members of the extended Bay Area academic community. These “PopUp Exhibitions” are one of the newest additions to the Magnes’s programs for the Berkeley academic community and the public at large.

The PopUp Exhibition Series is the brainchild of Francesco Spagnolo, Curator of The Magnes Collection. The series consists of twenty-three unique lectures this academic year, which put into conversation objects from The Magnes with scholars and the public at large. This year’s lectures have been coordinated by Daniel Viragh, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at The Magnes. The objective is to allow members of the audience an up-close and personal look at some of the rare and unique treasures in the Collection, as seen through the eyes of a specialist in the field that the objects represent, or the narratives they evoke. The objects are points of departure for the presenters, who proceed to animate discussion among the audience members.

The presentations focus on historical aspects of the Collection and also showcase a mosaic of different media.

Among this year’s presenters are many Berkeley faculty members: Andrea Sinn, John Efron, Jonathan Sheehan, David Henkin, Carla Shapreau, Keith Feldman, and Yael Chaver, as well as graduate students and undergraduates. Daniel Fisher (Near Eastern Studies) discussedBiblical Lives, an upcoming exhibition at The Magnes, and Yosef Rosen (Jewish Studies) presented on magic and amulets, while Christine Liu, Zoe Lewin, and Anna Bella Korbatov showed off their work conducted in the context of the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP).

Independent scholars, artists, and web developers are also involved in the series. Author Frances Dinkelspiel analyzed a painting portraying members of her family, who immigrated to San Francisco from Germany in the 19th century. Visiting artist Yair Harel (Jerusalem) performed poetry for the Jewish New Year, and Harriete Estel Berman discussed the role of recycled and repurposed materials in folk art. Rabbi James Brandt of the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay spoke during the Festival of Hannukah. John Fox (Findery.com) and Anne Wootton (popuparchive.com) presented on the platforms they work with, highlighting the intersection between humanities and technology in the context of The Magnes involvement in Digital Humanities at Berkeley.

The series will continue through the end of the Spring semester, and then resume in the Fall. Upcoming lectures will feature Gilad Sharvit, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies, speaking on Freud’s Moses and on related art in The Magnes Collection (April 1st); Emily Gottreich (Center for Middle Eastern Studies) on the extensive holdings of The Magnes that document Jewish culture in Morocco (April 15); Thomas Laqueur (History) on the construction of narrative in museum exhibitions (April 22); and Rabbi David Kasher (Kevah.org) on the intertextuality of Biblical commentaries (April 29). The series will conclude with a presentation by Peretz Wolf-Prusan (Lehrhaus Judaica) on the legacy of Helen Burke, an art instructor whose work is on permanent display at The Magnes (May 6).

The strength of the “PopUp Exhibitions” lies in the presenters’ ability to bring a new and fresh angle to the conversations that museumgoers usually have among themselves. This is achieved at a curatorial level by creating unexpected connections between academic expertise and objects of art and material culture, a combination that encourages immediacy and the exploration of original ideas. It is difficult for any museum to display all of its holdings to the public. The series establishes a way for audience members to converse with those objects that they would not generally encounter in a display case or a museum publication.

Presentations begin promptly each Wednesday at 12:15 pm and end at 1 pm. Refreshments are provided. The Fall lineup will be announced shortly, and can be reviewed on Facebookand at magnes.org. We hope to see you at 2121 Allston Way!

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Filed under: Exhibitions andResearch andStudents andUC Berkeley
Open for Research: Jewish Culture and the Digital Humanities in a UC Berkeley Undergraduate Apprenticeship at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday July 4 2014

We are delighted to publish an end-of-year report by Alex Makabeh, a pre-med student at UC Berkeley who enrolled in the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) at The Magnes during the the Spring Semester.

The day that I began to look for a research apprenticeship I had written up a checklist for myself that contained the suitable criteria: a wet lab geared towards the fields of environmental science and medicine and tailored, if possible, to the pursuit of the development of the modern field of psychology. At first glance, many individuals (I am not an exception) would say that a research position at a museum would have zero contribution on the development of my skillset in order to make me a well-rounded physician. With the background in the following paragraphs you may be surprised to see the true expanse of connections that I have been able to draw through the comparison of these two environments.

​At the third largest Jewish Museum collection in the nation, The Magnes, I spent an entire semester strengthening my curiosity about Jewish life, art and culture, my culture. When I initially applied to the program, I had a meek understanding about the history of the Jewish Diaspora, but I told the museum’s curator, Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, that I am willing to learn. If not for my connection to their cause and my dedication to fueling my curiosity, I do not think this invaluable experience would have ever been considered an option. This same driving force is what I feel the field of medicine needs more of and this is what this research program has helped to impart in me. The knowledge that I accumulated throughout my childhood, about Judaism and Jewish tradition, served as the backbone from which this curiosity branched.

​At UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, I was assigned the task of working with the online catalogue to conduct in-house research on artifacts that I felt personally connected to. I would then add geo-location information to collection records via the Google Maps embed module. Through this method I can use Google Maps to show the street view of the creation place of an artifact, and better understand its provenance and history.

The use of Google Map street view has provided me with an entirely new dimension in grasping the historical context of an object. I also learned how to share the inventoried items across social media platforms, such as Flickr. I worked with the Flickr photo integration software and I developed the skills to understand proper grouping techniques for historical items.

My assignment included creating a set representing a group of artifacts in the Magnes Collection related to “Jewish Life in Iran.” As my parents are both of Iranian descent, this topic felt particularly compelling to me. I conducted research on Middle Eastern Jewish artifacts focusing on the changes in the way religion and society meshed through time. As I worked on documenting a collection of 150 artifacts from Iran, I felt a personal calling to look deeper into my culture, which I found to have much richer roots.

Francesco Spagnolo, my supervisor for my apprenticeship and the Curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, provided me with nothing but encouragement to learn about what I felt passionately drawn to. My situation was unique: as an environmental science/ pre-medical Cal student I questioned the value of this research apprenticeship. He provided me with ideas of topics that would be beneficial for me to look into as well, and the more he suggested, the more I became intrigued. Francesco met with me often to not only touch base and to be a form of support but most of all he was a continual source of inspiration to me.

​Starting from the day of my interview, Francesco and the rest of the Magnes team truly inspired me. I clearly demonstrated my interest in having the apprenticeship at the museum but I felt there was one big issue: I was not sure if this experience would truly be valuable for someone that is interested in science, medicine and eventually intends to attend medical school. He proved me wrong. Francesco showed me how artifacts can give hints about their own history and that each artifact requires individual scrutiny when conducting research, all of which is in constant development.

Artifacts ironically seem to have a similarity to the patients that come to the doctor for a check-up. When I become a doctor, my patients as well would have a health history and, just like an artifact has a history that includes its provenance and uses across the Jewish diaspora, I will need to conduct research on their illnesses and symptoms.

In the course of my Research Apprentice Program, I also learned how to properly handle artifacts at the museum, under the expert guidance of the Registrar of The Magnes Collection, Julie Franklin. I soon realized that this is a skill that would be very valuable for when I become a physician and need to have a developed bedside manner.

Looking back, I am humored to see how this research experience has defied all of my expectations. The URAP program has been an all-embracing, meaningful experience for me.

Alex Makabeh

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Collection Maps: A Day at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Wednesday March 19 2014

On the occasion of the upcoming publication of The Jewish World: 100 Treasures of Art and Culture from The Magnes (forthcoming by Skirà/Rizzoli, texts by Alla Efimova and Francesco Spagnolo), I thought I’d share my summary of a day at The Magnes.

From the Curator’s Afterword:

Inhabiting the curatorial responsibilities of The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley in the 21st century is a thrilling adventure. It involves discovering and re-discovering hidden treasures on a quasi-daily basis, challenging the descriptive practices of Jewish culture and moving beyond the canonical focus on texts alone, engaging thriving communities of scholars on multi-disciplinary themes, and creating and maintaining global networks of research across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Israel.

An average curatorial “routine” of a day at The Magnes is — as Julio Cortázar would have put it — a veritable “tour of the day in eighty worlds.” It fuses in-depth research across cultural formats, describing, envisioning, teaching, dreaming, publishing, and, above all, continuously asking questions. Our treasures of manuscripts, objects, books, visual documents, archival collections, musical scores and recordings are investigated, , queried, and examined from a multiplicity of perspectives. Mysteries are acknowledged, and sometimes even solved. New acquisitions are discussed with donors, collectors, and art dealers residing in multiple countries. Classes and seminars are taught, with undergraduate and graduate students mentored in the rudiments of research and “collection work,” and thus exposed to an astounding variety of primary sources and modes of knowledge. Senior faculty and visiting researchers are consulted to collaborate on research, exhibitions, and colloquia. Visiting artists present their work, and interact with the inspiring setting of the collection storage, the galleries, and, more broadly, the UC Berkeley campus and its communities. Members of the community take guided tours through their own pasts. Publications, online and in print, constantly flow. Most importantly, core questions of how collecting institutions may continue to represent and perform the role of preserving the cultural past and shaping its future, always remain in play.

Curating The Magnes Collection not only involves exploring the many overlapping, conflicting, and contradictory Jewish worlds, but also, in a way, sketching them, charting them, one object at a time, and providing ways for others to do so as well, across cultural, linguistic, and ideological divides. It is precisely the possibility to both find new directions and to experiment, and to do so collaboratively, that informs the intricate maps that underline The Jewish World.

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Filed under: Collections andExhibitions
Attempts to Enter History: Bending the Rules of Time in Rachel Marker’s Spaces of Memory

Posted by Alla Efimova on Thursday June 27 2013

A recent visitor to the world of Rachel Marker could not help but muse about the redemptive effect of “playing history like a great orchestra (rather than as a clock), which is what I think Rachel Marker has done.”

By Lisa Wurtele

Earlier in June, Andy Shanken, an architectural historian at U.C. Berkeley, visited the exhibition. His interest in cultural constructions of memory has yielded this unique response to the exhibition’s powerful combination of music, images and words that, together, allow us to transcend barriers of time and place so that we might better share in the past.

Andy putting pen to paper

He shared his reactions in a letter addressed to Moira Roth, creator of Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker:

Dear Moira,

With the light of historical events washing over my back, I write to you, to me, of you, of me, of us all.  Funny, the film of historical events that parallel Rachel Marker’s life, they end before I began. But that is only if we accept the rule of time. I, by sitting in this chair, take away a fragment of Kristallnacht, of the Russian Revolution, of the wars & cultural revolutions of the 20th C.

How sad Berlin seems—much more melancholy than the ruins themselves or the silver mirror or the old clock in Prague that was part of the first pivotal move to make the human animal submit to the idealized, rational time that is our ruin.

So I sit with Rachel Marker’s times (& time) and try to enter history, a time before me. And I wonder how we can turn the angel of history around? What kind of soul, or secular courage, would we require?

Through the montage comes Alice’s piano playing and her oh so klar German. We can close our eyes, but not our ears. And what we hear—notes, rhythms, tone—touches us ever so differently than light or than the clock. Music is time in our viscera, kept in our hearts, our stomachs, our bones. It need not have an iota of culture (in the sense of Dada or Kafka) or history (in the sense of war or revolution) to move us, to move us forward, to move us side to side, where we might bump elbows again with our neighbors, and come back to the time and history we share with them. This, perhaps, is where redemption lies, but could it not also come through playing history like a great orchestra (rather than as a clock), which is what I think Rachel Marker has done.

Warmest,

Andy

Andy (Professor Shanken) shared these photos that he took during a recent visit to some spots within the cultural-historical landscape of Rachel Marker’s world:

Drohobych Synagogue, Ukraine—The 2nd largest extant synagogue in Europe

Frowning Hangman Jew, Zamość, Poland

Moira's friend, Vika, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, where we went with Moira, and where time begins

Jewish Cemetery in the village of Fryzstak, Poland, where Vika's grandmother was born

REMINDER: Please join us TONIGHT, Thursday June 27, 2013, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM

The Future of Rachel Marker: A Closing Program

Moira Roth in conversation with Alla Efimova and special guest John Farmer

Location: The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley

See you there!

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Filed under: Random Musings
Seeing the Same Sky Through the Remnants of Different Bombed-out Buildings

Posted by Alla Efimova on Friday June 7 2013

By Lisa Wurtele

Rachel Marker’s experiences of—and reactions to—20th-century European wars and their aftermath continue to impact those who join her on her journey through the smoke and violence of war, surviving (as Rose Hacker said of herself) “…to explore new possibilities.”

A recent visitor to The Magnes was struck by the similarities to his own, very real, experience of war in Asia, during the Vietnamese conflict, and the narrative presented by Moira Roth that allows us to see Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker.

In a letter addressed to Rachel Marker, Los Angeles physician Mike (Lương) Lý describes his reactions to the exhibition, which he understood through his own experience in a very different cultural environment:

Pasadena, CA, April 30, 2013

Dear Rachel,

It’s an astonishing and fascinating experience that your exhibition gave me during my visit at the gallery this past week in Berkeley. Starting from the beginning with the image of Rose [Hacker] and her father, through the description of your journey through files of documents, to the sound of music that Alice [Herz-Sommer] was playing in the video screen, and the pictures of wars flashing that reminds me of my own experiences as a child growing up in South Vietnam during its civil war.

As a child, my family lived in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. I had witnessed loud noise from helicopters hovering over our rooftop, the dark smoke coming from the building in front of our house, to the bullet sounds piercing through nighttime before the war ends on April 30, 1975.

After the war, my family was sent to Bình Long, An Lộc for re-education, where a village was torn by the massive bombing during what was called mùa hè đỏ lửa, “the Red Fire Summer” [battle] in 1972. Every day, I would pass by the main market of the village called “Chợ Lớng,” a large building which has only 3 walls left with many blown-out holes and a ceiling open to the blue sky as a remnant of the war. After living through many years of poverty, struggling to have enough food on table for a family of 8, my family was granted refugee status, left Vietnam, and spent 6 months in Bataan, Philippines. We lived in a small hut, sleeping as sardines in the hot and humid weather without fan or electricity at night.

However, we survived and moved to the U.S. in May 1987 with 2 sets of clothes on our back and around $100 left to our names. Many years passed, now I am a doctor practicing medicine and infectious diseases in Southern California, happily in a relationship with my partner and appreciate life each day to its fullest.

It’s like walking through your exhibition toward the end, I looked at the mirror on the wall, reflecting many images of war, but when I saw past the mirror, a whole new world is in front of me with numerous opportunities and new and exciting experiences waiting for me. Like Thich Nhat Hanh in his Buddhist teaching that life is impermanent. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us.

Much love,

Lương (Mike) T. Lý, M.D.

Dr. Lý sent along a family photo to allow us to better place his personal knowledge in a context parallel to that of the historical personalities in Rachel’s world.

You can still experience Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker | A Literary Installation by Moira Roth before it ends its run at The Magnes on June 28th.

Please join us on Thursday, June 27, 2013 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for the closing program featuring Moira Roth, creator of this project, in conversation with The Magnes Director Alla Efimova and special guest John Farmer, who has been affected by Rachel Marker’s journey for well over a decade.

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Filed under: Random Musings