Latest at the YU Museum: Modeling Synagogues of the Past
The Commentator’s Hillel Field recently interviewed David Kahane, a sophomore at Yeshiva College and a tour guide for the YU Museum. The interview focuses on a current exhibition at the Museum, “Modeling the Synagogue—From Dura to Touro.” For more information on the exhibit, please see http://www.yumuseum.org/.
HF: This isn’t your typical extra-curricular activity for a lowerclassman. How did you get involved with the YU Museum in the first place?
DK: I decided to get involved with the Museum last year. I had been to the YU Museum before, which is just a short trip downtown, so I was comfortable going there and asking about becoming a tour guide. Museum educator Ilana Benson and I spoke about the possibility of me being a tour guide. I finally got started this year.
HF: What did you have to do to prepare for this position?
DK: It was actually pretty simple. After expressing my interest, I spent about two hours researching the synagogues. I then came to the Museum to give a mock tour of the exhibit. Thankfully, I knew the material well and was able to give a solid presentation. They accepted me on the spot.
HF: For those who may not be familiar with the YU Museum, can you tell us what it’s like in general?
DK: The YU Museum is located on one of the floors of the Center for Jewish History. There are always a few exhibitions at a time. Besides the synagogue exhibit, we currently have exhibitions featuring the Borscht Belt of the Catskills and Yiddish Theater. There is also an exhibit that focuses on Jews who served in the German army during WWI.
HF: What do you do as a tour guide?
DK: I give tours on Sundays, from 1:30 to 2:15 pm. I take people around the synagogue exhibit. Our museum has ten model synagogues, ranging from the oldest—the Dura Europos synagogue, from the mid-200’s (c.e.)—all the way to the late 1800’s, with the Tempio Israelitico synagogue. That’s around 1600 years of synagogue history. We also have a mini-Beit Hamikdash. The Museum has been around since 1973, and these models were displayed for the first time in 1979. They were also displayed at Bloomingdale’s, and then they sat in the Museum basement for decades. After presenting all the models to visitors, I usually show them the original molds used to create them.
HF: Who came up with the idea of the exhibit? Why were these synagogues chosen?
DK: Renee Wishnitzer, a former European History Professor at Stern College, really spearheaded this project back in the early 70’s. She chose the synagogues that would go on display, so it makes sense that most of them are European and North American. You wouldn’t expect to see Far Eastern or South American synagogues based on her area of expertise.
HF: This isn’t like the Cloisters exhibit, with original fragments of the sites, correct?
DK: No, the sculptors and architects who designed the models wanted them to look the way they did when they were first built.
HF: How big are the models?
DK: I would say about half of this desk at least (about three feet wide). You can even see inside the models; sometimes I’ll ask people if they can spot certain details. Since these models are so big, they are hard to clean; we have to use a mini-vacuum to reach all the tight spots.
The models aren’t the only part of the exhibit. We have other artifacts as well, like a Sefer Torah dating back from the 18th century.
HF: Is it associated with any of the synagogue models?
DK: The Torah was originally in the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. I think it was transferred in 1804 to Congregation Shearith Israel, here on 79th Street, which has been around for about 350 years. When the shul received the Torah, it was already considered an antique.
We also have a tombstone dating back to Amoraic times, from around 456 CE. It shows some motifs that were present during that time. I’m talking about motifs that you could find in a couple of our synagogue models, like the Dura Europos in Syria and the Beit Alpha synagogue in Beit She’an. We see a motif that probably existed for a few centuries after the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, where you have a lulav, shofar, etrog, and menora. These four things were present in most synagogues. The synagogue on display is the Altneuschul in Prague from the 13th century, and by that time the motif already disappeared.
HF: Do you have any other artifacts?
DK: Yes, this one is actually really cool. We have an illuminated Tanakh from the 1480’s. It’s unique, because it has the word u’vishnat (and in the year of…) all in gold lettering. In English Bibles from that time, the first capitalized letter of a word would be made with gold. Since there’s no capitalization in Hebrew, you would have to illuminate the entire first word of a passage. This is a very expensive Tanakh, and a very rare manuscript.
HF: By illuminated, do you mean there were illustrations also?
DK: Back then, the way Bibles were written was with the words copied first, and a square space left at the bottom to paint images in.
HF: Would everyone have one of these Bibles at home, or would you only find it in the community synagogue?
DK: These kinds of works were considered treasures. Back then, books weren’t mass-produced, and it was very expensive to produce one. To have a Tanakh like this was basically like owning a Bugatti.
Another interesting artifact we show is the only remaining evidence of the synagogue located in Zabludow, Poland. It’s a community register that would record things such as notable events, population figures, etc.
HF: What is the main demographic for museum visitors and the synagogue exhibit? Mainly YU students?
DK: No, actually; it’s common to see older couples or families with young children show up. The Museum does give public talks every so often, usually showcasing the exhibitions. Sometimes students will come because they were given an assignment by a professor to visit an exhibit, usually from classes in the Core Curriculum.
HF: How would you recommend attracting more students to the Museum?
DK: Somehow, students don’t even realize we have a museum. The Museum actually used to be located near the library on the Wilf Campus, and moved downtown about twelve years ago to allow more room for displaying artifacts and exhibits. Such a central location may have made it convenient to check out back then, but it’s gone under the radar of student consciousness since its move. The only reason I became so interested in it in the first place is because one of my professors assigned a trip to the exhibit about Iranian Jewry, which I found to be fascinating. In addition to class trips, I think it would be worthwhile for clubs such as the History and Architecture Clubs to take advantage of the Museum. The exhibit will only be on display until May, so make plans to come visit this downtown hidden gem soon!