From the Desk of the Director:
Since the publication of the last newsletter, the Center for Jewish Art has been a very busy place, confirmed by the size of this issue! Through excursions, partnerships, training programs, conferences and publications, we have continued to enlarge our knowledge of Jewish material culture and have created an arena for teaching students and training young scholars.
In 1999, the Center's founder Bezalel Narkiss was awarded the Israel Prize in recognition for his groundbreaking work in the study and documentation of Jewish art. Furthermore, the Center's work in the area of preservation through documentation was acknowledged by the world community: The World Bank, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe have all sought out our expertise and have placed the protection of the Jewish cultural heritage on the world agenda. This holds promise for future collaborations and for enlarging our efforts to document what is left of the pre-WWII European Jewish communities.
Unfortunately, we haven't been effective in mobilizing the organized Jewish world to join in taking responsibility for recording and preserving our visual heritage. While the last ten years has seen the proliferation of Holocaust museums, the material legacy from those very communities annihilated in WWII is rapidly disappearing.
As I write this, the forces of nature and regional politics are eroding the Jewish historical record. On our second expedition to the former Yugoslavia this past September I again witnessed how forgetfulness, expediency, and a need to eradicate historical evidence, can effectively erase a millennium of history: The city of Vlasenica in the Republic of Serbska was once a thriving Jewish community. Its cemetery, erected as a monument to posterity, is now a municipal garbage dump. Those people buried in the Jewish community cemetery have in effect, suffered a double death. This scenario, sadly, is not an isolated one.
In our work at the Center, we are attempting to reconstruct the history of the Jewish people through the material culture. Even more than in the written sources, the material heritage gives us a concrete view of how Jews really lived, and how they created their synagogues, funerary monuments, ritual objects, books and manuscripts. Documentary evidence of the eighteenth century found in archives shows how involved the community leaders were with the architectural design and decoration of their synagogue, let alone the Torah ark and furnishings. It is interesting to note that some synagogues in Germany, from the eighteenth century on were built in the most advanced style of their period. This confirms, once again, the indisputable fact that the Jewish imagination has found expression in the visual as much as in the written word.
In the years to come, we hope, that together with our friends and academic partners, we shall achieve an even greater measure of success in documenting the visual treasures of the past, before a large part of our cultural legacy is lost.