Treasures of New York

FULL EPISODE

The Jewish Museum

For more than a century, The Jewish Museum has served as a cultural nexus in the heart of New York City’s art scene. Treasures of New York: The Jewish Museum brings viewers inside the world-class institution to explore some of the most powerful and important works drawn from its collection of nearly 30,000 works that reflect the global Jewish experience that spans 7,000 years.

AIRED: June 24, 2019 | 0:25:56
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

>> Inside an historic mansion on

the Upper East Side, a storied

institution preserves centuries

of heritage and tradition.

>> We're telling the history of

Jews through an object.

That's a very different way of

looking at something.

>> For more than a century, the

Jewish Museum has served as a

cultural nexus in the heart of

New York's art scene.

>> We're an art museum, and we

explore Jewish culture.

So, it makes us unique in the

world of art museums, and it

also makes us unique in the

world of Jewish museums.

>> We're also using Jewish

culture as a lens through which

to examine broader universal

issues and experiences.

>> Now this distinguished

collection is explored up close,

uncovering personal stories of

triumph and adversity.

>> It is the repository of a

great cultural tradition of

objects that have seen a lot of

woe in the world.

>> Step inside this world-class

institution and explore artwork

that reaches across religion,

community, and culture...

>> We have stories to tell that

relate to everybody.

It is not just the Jewish story.

>> ...in "Treasures of New York:

The Jewish Museum."

>> This program has been made

possible by...

♪♪

On a chilly December afternoon,

families gather at the

Jewish Museum on the

Upper East Side of Manhattan to

celebrate the Jewish holiday of

Hannukah.

Inside this historic mansion and

former private home, children

explore galleries filled with

Jewish ceremonial artwork,

create their own Hannukah lamps,

and dance to the sounds of a

kids jam band.

[ Up-tempo music playing ]

One might find this an

unexpected sight for a

century-old Jewish organization

or even for a prestigious

Manhattan art museum, but here

at the Jewish Museum, culture

and history come together in

unexpected ways.

>> We like to say that we are

a Jewish museum that is unique

among Jewish museums because of

our focus on art and we are

unique among art museums because

of our focus on a specific

culture.

>> It's the intersection of art

and Jewish culture and the

Jewish people, and it tells

numerous, numerous stories

about Jews, non-Jews, and

parallel lives that are

happening at the same time.

>> It's a place where there's

active engagement with ideas.

And we are exploring works of

art, and we are also at the same

time thinking about what those

artworks mean in terms of Jewish

culture, but also using Jewish

culture as a lens through which

to examine broader, universal

issues and experiences.

>> The Jewish Museum strives to

chronicle the Jewish experience

through art, from religious

ritual to cultural identity.

>> Collecting treasures,

collecting history is

so important.

How do we know who we are if we

don't know where we came from?

How do we know what happened if

we don't have some physical

evidence of it?

And each thing tells multiple

stories.

>> Our works of art tell stories

not only about the people who

made them, but about the people

who were living at that time and

the context in which a work of

art was made.

So, if you have a portrait by

Kehinde Wiley, for example,

that's a portrait of a young

man, that tells us something

about him, but it also tells us

about immigration, about

identity, about self-esteem

and power.

>> We have stories to tell that

relate to everybody.

It is not just the Jewish story.

>> In order to tell a myriad of

stories, the Jewish Museum

bridges the past and present

through its unique collection of

nearly 30,000 works of art, from

antiquities to contemporary

painting, sculpture, digital

media, and more.

>> The museum's collection is

encyclopedic.

We have a wide range of media

and genres in the collection,

from Paleolithic hand axes to

abstract contemporary art.

So, it's very broad.

It's very rich.

It's also very deep.

We have many, many examples and

variations on the same object,

which makes it great for study

purposes for scholars.

>> The museum reflects over

4,000 years of Jewish heritage,

boasting one of the world's

largest collections of Jewish

ceremonial objects, commonly

known as Judaica.

>> Judaism is unique in having a

number of ceremonies, and unique

objects have developed to be

used for them -- and also things

that are used in the life-cycle

events, such as birth and

marriage and even death.

>> You can look at these objects

as being decorative arts, and

oftentimes stylistically they

are very akin to objects that

were created in the same time

and place as other practical,

functional objects.

>> This exquisite collection of

religious ceremonial art

represents the Diaspora of the

Jewish people over centuries.

>> Judaism has, on the one hand,

survived, and it has survived

because it's always been

flexible, always had a sort of

portable religion that could get

up and move through various

Diasporas.

And at the same time, Jews have

found themselves in host

communities and have been able

to adapt, to develop new ways of

living and thinking and become

part of communities while still

holding true to their own

identity.

>> So, we find this wonderful

mixture of, let's say, a form

like a Hannukah lamp, which is

unique to Jews, but it may be

decorated with motifs and styles

from the culture around it,

sometimes completely

incongruously.

You don't know what this is

doing on there.

>> We're telling the history of

Jews through an object.

That's a very different way of

looking at something.

>> And while some items

illuminate the past, the

Jewish Museum also explores

modern themes, prominently

showing works by a range of

contemporary artists.

>> We work with living artists,

and we do monographs of artists

who perhaps are no longer with

us.

Some of those are Jewish

artists.

Sometimes we'll discover an

artist who has dealt with some

Jewish types of themes.

>> Examining the intersection

between art and Jewish culture

has been the museum's central

mission since it was founded

over a century ago.

♪♪

In 1904, a prominent lawyer and

judge, Mayer Sulzberger, donated

his personal collection of

ceremonial objects to the

Jewish Theological Seminary

in Manhattan.

>> Judge Sulzberger said at the

time to the seminary that he

hoped that these ceremonial

objects might form the very,

very beginning of a Jewish

museum.

>> Over the years that followed,

the seminary added more pieces

to its humble collection.

>> I think probably one of the

tipping points was in 1925 when

the Benguiat Collection was

purchased, which included

ceremonial objects from all

sorts of areas, from Asia, from

the north of Africa, from

Europe.

So, it became one of the

founding, sort of core

collections of the

Jewish Museum.

Another person who's really

important that plays a major,

major role in building the

collections, and that was

Harry G. Friedman.

Harry G. Friedman was an émigré

from Poland.

He was an investment banker.

And he was also really dedicated

to preserving ceremonial

objects.

And Harry G. scoured local

antique shops.

And whenever he found objects

that had Jewish content, he

would acquire them and give them

to the museum.

>> But there were other ways

that the museum acquired works.

>> A lot of it has to do with

historical events, things that

came into the collection often

because of the Holocaust.

♪♪

>> Poland, September 1939.

The German foe begins its

ruthless march of conquest and

sets the stage for World War II.

>> Through the late 1930s,

Adolf Hitler's army tore through

Europe, imprisoning Jews and

decimating their homes,

businesses, and houses of

worship.

Jewish communities attempted to

hide their ceremonial objects

and religious texts from the

Nazis.

Some even sought help from

fellow Jews in America to

temporarily safeguard their

treasures.

>> In 1939, 10 crates containing

objects from Polish community of

Danzig arrived.

They sent their objects for

safekeeping to New York, to the

Jewish Theological Seminary,

with the idea that, if the

community survived, that the

objects would be returned.

And of course that did not

happen.

The community didn't survive,

and so the collection has stayed

here at the Jewish Museum.

>> Along with ceremonial art

that had belonged to Jews before

the war, the museum also

contains objects representing

the Jewish experience during

the Holocaust.

This menorah carved out of

stolen lumber by a prison in the

Theresienstadt concentration

camp and ghetto is a rare

surviving example of ceremonial

artwork made inside the camps.

>> The lamp was so well hidden

that it was left behind when the

camp was liberated.

It was discovered by someone

from a Jewish organization who

was cleaning out the camp.

And it just enables us to tell

this incredible story of human

courage and the artistic drive

and the need to observe ritual

in the worst conditions.

>> Around 2/3 of Europe's Jewish

population perished in the

Holocaust.

Their cultural landmarks were

mostly abandoned or destroyed.

♪♪

>> These communities were

devastated.

They were gone.

Synagogues were destroyed.

And so there were a lot of just

homeless objects.

>> There was an organization

called the Jewish Cultural

Reconstruction, which gathered

together all these orphaned

objects and tried to find new

homes for them in Jewish

institutions, synagogues,

or museums.

And actually the staging ground

for the Western hemisphere

operation was in the basement

of this museum.

>> Some of these pieces became

part of the Jewish Museum's

collection.

>> One of the pieces on view is

the world's oldest ice

container.

It's an object that is used at

the end of the Sabbath.

There's a custom of smelling

sweep spices at the end of the

Sabbath.

And what I love about it

is that it has this history

that continues to tell a story.

>> By the middle of the 20th

century, the collection had

taken up new residence in a

Gilded Age mansion on

5th Avenue.

The opulent townhouse had been

built for prominent Jewish

financier and philanthropist

Felix Warburg and his family.

>> What's interesting about the

Warburgs and the Warburg mansion

is that not only did a family

live here -- they really did a

lot during the war to bring

people here to safety.

It's not just someone's home.

It has a lot of historical

meanings that are socially

relevant and very meaningful

to the Jewish people.

>> Felix's wife, Frieda Warburg,

later bequeathed the home to the

Jewish Theological Seminary,

with the provision that it

become a museum for the public.

>> And in 1947, the collections

were transferred, and

1109 5th Avenue, the Warburg

mansion, opened as the

Jewish Museum.

>> With its encyclopedic

collection now located along

Manhattan's storied Museum Mile,

the Jewish Museum began to

expand in size and scope.

>> There was a lot of discussion

during the 1950s, and this

continues to this day, in many

ways, about, you know, "What is

the role of a Jewish museum?"

And a lot of these discussions

take place in the 1950s, the

same time the museum starts

collecting fine art.

And during this era, the museum

starts to show the work of

living, contemporary Jewish

artists and starts to mount

sort of monographic shows

while still showing the

ceremonial collections.

I think the leaders of the

museum at this time realize that

to engage an audience here in

New York City, showing the work

of living artists becomes

really, really important.

>> The Jewish Museum took on new

endeavors, showing work by

emerging artists just on the

brink of their careers.

>> In 1963 and 1964, the museum

mounts major retrospectives of

two young, up-and-coming

artists, Robert Rauschenberg

and Jasper Johns.

These are sort of some of the

days that many fans of the

Jewish Museum remember with

great, great passion.

>> In the '60s, it was this

place that had nothing to do

with Jewishness.

It was sort of a radical museum.

>> The Museum of Modern Art, the

Metropolitan Museum aren't being

quite as adventurous at this

point in time, nor is the

Whitney.

So we become this sort of focal

point, a place where people feel

that they can see the work of

emerging artists, they can be

really on top of new

developments, what's happening,

things that haven't been tested

yet.

But the museum also starts to

take on sort of really tough and

interesting subjects, and in

1987 one of our great

exhibitions is about the

Dreyfus Affair.

>> The Dreyfus Affair, where

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was

falsely accused of treason,

was something that polarized

the French nation.

>> And this a moment when the

Jewish Museum tackles

anti-Semitism and Zionism.

>> Over the past few decades,

the Jewish Museum has presented

some of the New York art world's

most distinguished shows, from

ones that examine society and

politics to one of the first

museum exhibitions of

minimalist sculpture to

mounting retrospectives of

influential artists.

Recently, in the spring of 2019,

it hosted a multimedia

installation about

Leonard Cohen, drawing upon a

diverse group of artists to

explore themes within the music

icon's life and work.

>> ♪ Pour la nuit nous a caché

>> That's what we do here.

We constantly ask, "Why?"

every single show.

Why us? Why now?

Who's going to care?

Why should we do this?

Why somebody else wouldn't be

doing this?

Why is this our sweet spot?

>> Since becoming the museum's

director in 2012, Claudia Gould

says innovating within this

historic institution is one of

her top priorities.

>> I always look at us as like a

mini Met, but for art and Jewish

culture.

And my goal here is to live up

to the name.

And so you're never quite there.

You're always -- You're

aspirational.

You're continually reaching for

the next level.

>> To do so, Gould challenged

the museum to reimagine its

permanent collection's

third-floor gallery space.

>> What we wanted to achieve was

an exhibition that was dynamic,

that would be changing,

something that would enable us

to tell multiple stories about

the Jewish identity and

experience, not just one story.

>> The new exhibit, entitled

"Scenes from the Collection,"

weaves together centuries of art

and Judaica, grouping works

according to fundamental themes

rather than time period.

The exhibition and artworks

change periodically in order to

display more of the museum's

collection.

The galleries are shown here as

they were in 2018 and '19.

>> One of the scenes is called

"Constellations," and it

represents the works that have

the highest artistic and

cultural significance.

Another section is called

"Taxonomies," and this is asking

the question, "How do you

categorize the different parts

and the different pieces?"

We have something called

"Masterpieces and Curiosities,"

where we take a work that could

be a masterpiece or just

something wonderful we

discovered in the storeroom that

deserved attention and

interpretation, and we build an

essay around it with other

objects.

The opposite of that is the

section called "Accumulations,"

where we take a work that we

have a lot of examples of.

The Jewish Museum has the

world's largest collection

of Hannukah lamps.

Another way of looking at the

collection is through

iconography, through images that

are represented in the works,

and so we call that section

"Signs and Symbols."

Medium is another way of

categorizing a collection, and

so we have on view our broadcast

material from television.

The last section is called

"Personas," and that, for us,

is portraiture.

>> The portraits on view provide

a window into a subject's

complexly layered identity,

from this 19th century

self-portrait of German-Jewish

painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

to more abstract works like this

painting by contemporary artist

Deborah Kass.

>> It says "I" in the middle,

and it's several puns on "eye."

It's eye as in eyes.

It's "I" as in "me."

It's about subjectivity and my

subjectivity.

Coming of age, I felt,

particularly in visual arts,

that there was an absence in

this work around women and

there was complete absence

in terms of Jews.

And I thought, "Well, as usual,

I'm left out of this story,"

even though it's a story whose

language is really crucial

to my understand of the world

and myself.

Some of my work deals with that

part of my humanness that is

a New York Jew.

>> One of Kass's more recent

works juxtaposes two

identities -- New Yorker and

Jew, literally placing them

back to back.

>> It's called "Oy Yo."

When you look at it from the

front, it says "Oy," which is a

Yiddish expression for dismay or

exasperation, often combined

with "Oy vey."

And if you look at it from the

other side, it says "Yo," which

is an urban expression.

>> This is not the only

contemporary artwork that

celebrates Jewish culture

through language.

>> One of my favorite works of

art is Mel Bochner's painting

"Joys of Yiddish."

It contains Yiddish words

written in English, and it's a

painting that's about how

language is assimilated into

different cultures.

It brings up a lot of broad and

complex issues like assimilation

and immigration.

>> Another piece that addresses

the experience of Jewish

immigrants is this functioning

candelabrum, created

specifically for the

Jewish Museum by sculpture

Arlene Shechet.

>> The Jewish Museum approached

me and asked if I would do a

commissioned piece related to

Judaica.

What popped into my mind were

the candlesticks that my

grandmother in 1922 brought from

Belarus to the United States,

pretty much the only possession

she had, other than a small

suitcase of clothes, and holding

out her hand to her little son.

>> Shechet formed a suitcase

imprinted with an image of her

grandmother's passport and

stuffed it with candlesticks

modeled after her grandmother's

in a nod to the universal

experience of immigration.

>> Beyond the history of my

family are other people's

families.

>> This piece, along with many

other works in the collection,

affirms the museum's commitment

to foster mutual understanding

and respect.

>> I think that's really

important, to address

intolerance, anti-Semitism,

bigotry, and hatred.

There is always hatred in the

world.

Our job is not to change hate,

but it's just to draw lights

through history on how this is

recurring through the

contemporary lens.

>> To strengthen these

connections, the museum offers a

variety of educational programs

for people of all ages and

backgrounds.

>> We try to go beyond dealing

with issues of tolerance and try

to promote understanding.

So, we try to understand

different communities, different

beliefs, different rituals,

different practices, and help

people to connect the

information they discover at the

museum to their own experiences.

♪♪

>> The fusion of tradition and

the avant garde extends beyond

the Jewish Museum's approach to

art with their new restaurant

specializing in New York

nostalgia.

>> I thought, you know, "What

can we do that is

quintessentially Jewish, has a

similar history in that we're

100 years old and that we have

contributed greatly to the

history of Jews in America?"

And then I was like,

"Russ & Daughters."

>> Russ & Daughters came to be

through our great grandfather,

Joel Russ.

And he started with a pushcart

on the Lower East Side, selling

herring and dried Polish

mushrooms and moved to a store

after that.

>> Four generations later, the

shop remains a family-run

business out of the same

building in the Lower East Side.

And in 2016, the owners of

Russ & Daughters opened their

first uptown outpost here at

the Jewish Museum.

>> We saw a -- in Yiddish, you

would say ashidduch, a perfect

kind of marriage with

Russ & Daughters and the

Jewish Museum, you know, these

two cultural New York

institutions trying to do these

two things at the same time,

which is maintain a legacy and

history, but also keep it moving

forward, keep it relevant.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

I think food and art are two of

the real primal ways we have to

connect with who we are and

where we come from.

And there's a universality to

that, whether you're Jewish or

not.

♪♪

>> As both a cultural center and

an art museum, the Jewish Museum

hopes to always serve as a place

to celebrate diverse

perspectives and identities.

>> We want everyone to come and

perhaps, if they're Jewish, to

find touchstones to their Jewish

identity, if they're not, to

find paradigms of experiences

that they can relate to.

We all have so much in common,

and I think that's one of the

things that we really strive

to communicate to our audience.

>> I hope that they will have

learned something about

themselves, not only learn

something about a work of art,

but how that work of art is

meaningful to them...

and also that they consider

how their perceptions may have

changed about the world around

them.

>> I hope when people come here

that this is a place that they

call home and it's a place where

they feel they belong.

>> From its perch on the

northern end of Museum Mile,

this former home turned art

institution awaits, teeming with

treasures that tell stories of

faith, identity, and resilience,

and stories that express hope

for a more tolerant and peaceful

world.

This program has been made

possible by...

♪♪

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