New York has manyfine artcollections, but not all of them are in conventional museums. One such collection is hung on the walls of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale (HHR) and enjoyed by its residents and their visiting relatives, but starting next month the public at large will be able to enjoy the collection. HHR also has a fine Judaica museum on its premises that will open to the public two weeks from Tuesday starting on June 11; visitors to the Judaic museum will also be able to stroll the corridors of the home and enjoy the fine art on the walls as well as enjoy its sculpture garden. I visited HHR and was allowed to preview both collections earlier this month.
The Derfner Judaica Museum at HHR was founded by HHR residents Ralph and Leuba Baum in 1982 and has over 800 ceremonial objects of which about 250 are on display at the current exhibit. Baum immigrated to the United States from Elmshorn, Germany (a suburb of Hamburg) in 1936 carrying a camera and a few pewter objects. He married Leuba in 1939, and they began collecting Jewish ritual objects. When they moved into HHR they brought their collection with them and started the museum “to insure that Jewish traditions and customs would not be forgotten.” For HHR’s elderly residents these objects serve as an aid to memory, both personal and collective.
The current exhibit at the Derfner is divided into sections featuring ritual objects that are 1) from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design 2) associated with synagogue worship, 3) associated with holidays, 4) associated with Shabbat, 5) associated with life cycle rituals, and a sixth section of contemporary photography. As one enters the museum the first display cases show ritual objects produced in the early years of the previous century by artisans from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy who used eastern motifs, Biblical verses and personalities to express Jewish identity (the focus of the Bezalel Academy would later shift to fine art which is its current emphasis). After the Bezalel section there is a case with a water and fire damaged Torah scroll that a gentile neighbor of Mr. Baum rescued on Kristalnacht in 1938 and hid in his basement. The neighbor gave Mr. Baum the Torah scroll when the latter visited in 1953.
Nearby one sees two wood carved Decalogues, one with lions from Eastern Europe, another with hands in the position of the priestly blessing from 19th century Hartford, CT, and an early twentieth century Zygmunt Menkes painting “Cohen Blessings” (oil on canvas). Other synagogue objects include German silver aliyah cards that were last used in Congregation Ohav Shalom in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood, an 18th century silver Torah shield and fillials that were smuggled out of Germany in 1939, illustrated Torah cases from Tunesia and Persia, the latter made of wood, silver and velvet, a silk Torah mantle brought to this country from Germany in 1854, 18th century Torah valences embroidered with implements from the Temple by Elkanan Schatz of Naumberg, Germany, Romanian talit and tefillin bags, a 1836 German Torah binder, and a contemporary Torah shield by Bernard Bernstein.
Objects associated with holidays include engraved shofars from Poland, challah covers embroidered with “Shabbat Shalom” and “Yom Tov,” Chanukah menorahs from various countries including a stone menorah from Yemen, a tin one from Holland, a local tin alloy menorah by Ludwig Wolpert, a Megillat Ester from Vilnius, Lithuania dating from 1875 that belonged to Rabbi Asher Yager of The Actors Temple and Inwood Hebrew Congregation, an illustrated Megillah by Bulgarian born Shmuel Ben David, a matzah bag with fish scales embroidery from a 19th century Jerusalem girls orphanage, and a seder plate from Germany dating from 1755 that had been in the same family for 200 years.
Shabbat objects in the collection date from the 18th century to the 1970s and include a spice box from Holland in the shape of a windmill, a spice box from France in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, and havdallah sets by Wolpert and Moshe Zabari. There are amulets from Turkey, North Africa, the Caucuses, Rome and Yemen, and objects associated with birth—brit millah implements—and death—chevrah kadishah implements. Marriage objects include slippers, a bridal belt, cups used in the wedding ceremony, female head coverings, wedding rings, mikvah clogs, and a Persian ketubah with a peacock representing the peacock thrown of the Persian monarchy. There is also a display of mezzuzot from various countries and eras.
The Derfner visit concludes with a photography exhibit by the French photographerFrederic Brenner documenting Jewish-American communities in 1994 through group portraits including “Jews on Hogs,” a Miami, FL Harley Davidson motorcycle group, a group of celebrities on Ellis Island each holding a picture frame in front of his or her face, “Spiritual Gathering,” Jews and Navahos (the latter photographed through a car’s side mirror; click the link and scroll down), “Marxists,” Marxist scholars dressed as Groucho Marx, “Citizens Protesting Anti-Semitic Acts, Billings, MT,” a demonstration against an anti-semitic act photographed through a window bullet hole in Billings, Montana, psychoanalysts of the New York Psychoanalytic Society posed as Freud, students from the Las Vegas Hebrew Academy forming a pyramid (cheerleader style) beside a sphinx at an Egyptian themed casino, rabbinic couples (both spouses are rabbis) posed on beds in a mattress showroom, women faculty, students, rabbis and cantors posed in talitot and tefillin at the New York campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and “Three Brothers restaurants,” three restaurant owning brothers posed in front of their restaurants (Aaron’s Deli, Hyman’s Seafood, Nosh With Josh) in Charlotte, SC.
HHR’s fine art collection includes a 17th century portrait of an English member of parliament by the studio of Van Dyck, but most of the works in the collection are by 20th century painters, sculptors, and photographers. These include William Wegman’s dogs posed as Cinderella, Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, a series in response to 9/11 and its political aftermath entitled “Folio: Artists Coming Together” with works by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, and Frank Gehry, works byPablo Picasso, Joan Mitchell, Jennifer Weiss, Ray Parker, Alan Cote, and a Peter Maxportrait of former HHR administrator Jacob Reingold. A section with changing exhibitsincludes Frank Stella’s “Guile e la Baretta Rosa” (oil on canvas and aluminum), Mel Smothers’ “Poor Andy, Postcards from Montauk,” traditional African sculpture, a wall of Native American objects, photographic portraits of Native Americans by Toba Tucker, and works by George McNeil, Estelle Shay, and Howard Hodgkin. The sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River includes a sculpture of the Akeda (the Biblical near sacrifice of Isaac) by Menashe Kadishman, and work by Herbert Ferber.
HHR is considered one of the best old age homes, but despite the wonderful art its hallways feel nonetheless institutional. While admiring a large painting I overheard a wheelchair bound resident tell her caretaker, “I peed my pants again, in case you care.” The caretaker continued chatting with a colleague who appeared to be on a break. This made me wonder what is the number of daily adult diaper changes to which a resident is entitled, and that made me further wonder how many adult diapers can an incontinent person living independently on a modest fixed income afford after paying for housing expenses, food and prescription medicine. I hope the policy wonks and number crunchers at the Social Security Administration take that into account when they set cost-of-living increases in social security.
A visit to the museum makes a nice day trip from most parts of the tri-state area by car. HHR has two outdoor parking lots and an indoor garage, but midday during the week these will likely be full. Because parking is scarce visitors should call ahead to let them know you’re coming; when you arrive tell the security guard at the front gate that you are expected and ask where to park. From where I live in Brooklyn it would take at least a five seat ride of over two hours (depending on connections at transfer points) to get there by subway and bus. A better car-less route would be to take the subway to Grand Central Station and then Metro-North’s Hudson line to Riverdale station; from the Riverdale station it’s a steep uphill half mile walk. HHR is located at 5901 Palisade Avenue, Riverdale, New York, phone: 718-581-1000. The Derfner Judaica Museum is in HHR’s Jacob Reingold Pavilion; its hours are 10:30 AM – 4:30 PM Monday-Friday. Admission is free.