New artifacts abound, astound at Jewish museum

Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-25 07:00:58-05

CINCINNATI -- For Sheri Besso, collection manager/preparator for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Skirball Museum in Clifton, every day is like Christmas – or Hanukkah.

For the past few months, Besso has been unpacking boxes and crates filled with the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection, which was donated to the museum in May, as had previously reported. Its 1,500 items are roughly triple the size of the museum’s existing collection of Jewish artifacts and memorabilia.

“It’s been a hoot,” she said. “It’s really great.”

The museum opened its first exhibit of items from the new collection Oct. 22 in the second-floor lobby of the Mayerson Building. The 10 items on exhibit include a pair of silver candlesticks from Poland that date from 1670-1700, as well as more contemporary pieces, such as a silver sculpture intended as a cover for a Torah scroll.

Each item tells a story of how Jews adapted to life in their own countries, said Abby Schwartz, the museum’s director. For example, there is a tik and Torah from East India that dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. The tik is a wooden case designed to protect the Torah, which is wound around spools that can be turned from outside the case. It was designed to make the Torah portable for nomadic people, she said.

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Another item on exhibit is a head covering, or sterntichl, that dates from 18th-century Poland, a baroque piece made from pearls, rose diamonds, gold wire and velvet. Pious Jewish women wore such head coverings because they could show their hair only to their husbands, Schwartz said.

Opening the package with such a precious item in it was “off the charts,” Besso said. But it wasn’t the most unusual find she made.

Inside one box she found a Civil War-era revolver. She doesn’t know why it was made part of the collection. Although all the items were catalogued by the previous owner, the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., she said, the information provided is often sketchy.

For example, on Tuesday, Besso was cataloguing sketches for a series of murals that depicted historic scenes from San Francisco, such as the earthquake of 1906. Some of the sketches indicated that the mural was for the “Spear Street” side of a building’s lobby, but they don’t name the building.

Finds like this illustrate why processing the collection isn’t just a matter of taking things out of boxes, Schwartz said. The museum will want to know what building the sketches were drawn for, whether the murals were ever completed, and if they were, whether a picture of them can be obtained.

Many items also require some sort of cleanup or repair before they can be displayed. Once Besso cleans them or has them cleaned by an expert, she photographs them, puts them back in their boxes and attaches a photo with information about each item.

Once the museum has a handle on exactly what it’s got, Schwartz said, the staff can consider ways to integrate the new items into the museum’s present collection.

Meanwhile, the 10 items on display now will remain so until the end of January, when the museum will replace them with items not yet displayed. And, of course, there are hundreds of items to choose from: everything from shofars (horns used to signal the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) to tefillin (also called phylacteries, sets of black leather boxes with Torah verses inside them, worn on the arm and/or forehead during morning prayers).

There are also several hanukkiahs, or menorahs for Hanukkah celebrations. One not on display now is made up of small golden balls intended to resemble pomegranates, a fruit often mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The candelabra is also made in the traditional four U-shaped branches with spaces for nine candles, just like the one the Romans took out of the temple in Jerusalem when they destroyed it in 70 A.D., Schwartz said.

Another, smaller hanukkiah has nine glass bowls for holding oil to burn instead of candles. It’s made of silver, with words from the traditional Hanukkah song, “Rock of Ages,” sculpted above the bowls.

The 10 items from the Klutznick collection are available for public viewing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Or call 513-487-3053 or email for an appointment.