Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Opens First Gallery Dedicated to Judaica in New England

Showcase of 27 objects from around the world includes 20 new acquisitions and works on view for the first time

BOSTON (November 28, 2023)—On December 8, 2023, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opens Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection, the first gallery devoted to Jewish ritual art, or Judaica, at the MFA and in New England. Bringing together 27 objects from Asia, North Africa, Europe and the U.S., the gallery showcases ceremonial items created for the Jewish religious experience, both at home and in the synagogue. Twenty of the objects are on view at the MFA for the first time, the vast majority new acquisitions that speak to the remarkable geographic and cultural diversity of the Jewish people. Featuring metalwork, textiles, paintings, furniture and works on paper, the installation is on view through December 13, 2026, in the Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery in the Art of the Americas Wing.

“As the MFA’s collection of Judaica continues to grow, we are honored to deepen our commitment through this dedicated space—a destination for Jewish art and culture that complements our presentation of Judaica throughout the Museum,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “As the only gallery devoted to Jewish art and Judaica in New England, it will create new opportunity for our visitors to foster understanding of and connections to Jewish values, traditions and identity across time and geography.”

"I’m delighted to be able to shed light on the diversity of Jewish cultures around the world—doing so through art is especially important and meaningful,” said Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, who curated the gallery. "While several of the Jewish communities represented in the gallery no longer survive, these objects are tangible testimony of their history. They tell stories of exile, discrimination, even persecution—but also of resilience, reinvention and integration."

On December 7, the MFA hosts its annual Hanukkah celebration in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Combined Jewish Philanthropies—offering $5 minimum pay-what-you-wish general admission from 5-10 pm. The evening also celebrates the opening of Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection, with Hanukkah attendees being the first to explore the gallery that evening ahead of its opening on December 8.

"Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection" is sponsored by the David Berg Foundation. Additional support provided by Lorraine Bressler, the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, Inc., Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay, and The Priebatsch Family Fund, in loving memory of Norman Priebatsch. With special gratitude to Marcia and Louis Kamentsky and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is supported by an anonymous donor. Presented in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts) and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP).

Gallery Overview

Rooted in the Jewish belief in the power of beauty to enhance ritual practice, the gallery celebrates the splendor of these ceremonial objects—the quality of the materials, harmony of forms and richness of textures. The thematic installation is presented in three groupings: “Dressing the Torah,” “A Judaica Revolution” and “Dressing the Body: Ritual and Modesty.”

“Dressing the Torah” showcases objects made to adorn and protect the Torah scroll, including a splendidly decorated 18th-century Torah shield by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav (Galicia, modern-day Ukraine)—one of the finest such objects in existence. The space is anchored by a recently acquired Torah Ark created circa 1920 by woodcarver Samuel Katz and treated for display by MFA conservators. It is the first Torah Ark to enter the MFA’s collection and one deeply rooted in local history. Created for the Shaare Zion Synagogue on Orange Street in Chelsea, the Ark tells a story about global immigration to the Boston area, and the changes and challenges that Jews faced in Chelsea in the 20th century. Additional highlights of the section include four pairs of historic Torah finials—among them a rare pair by Jewish master silversmith Abraham Lopes de Oliveyra, jointly acquired earlier this year by the MFA and the Jewish Museum in New York—as well as a magnificent late 19th century Torah case made in Baghdad, modern-day Iraq and used in Calcutta, India.

“A Judaica Revolution” explores artworks made for use in the home—including wine cups, candlesticks and spice boxes for the Shabbat. With a focus on modern and contemporary works that offer innovative takes on Judaica for the home, the section features objects created by women and men, Americans and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, observant and secular artists. Highlights include Miriam's Cup (1998) by local artist Cynthia Eid, as well as Passover Seder (1984) by the Brooklyn-based, self-taught folk artist Malcah Zeldis—another new addition to the MFA’s collection. Alongside these bold contemporary works are two traditional examples of domestic Judaica, also newly acquired: a hanging shabbat lamp from 18th-century Holland and a Passover wine cup from 19th-century Piedmont in Italy.

The final section, “Dressing the Body: Ritual and Modesty” looks at ritual clothing items and considers their gendered histories. A recently acquired 18th-century Tallit (prayer shawl) from the Netherlands is paired with Boston-based artist Jacob Binder’s Talmudist (1919), a local work from the MFA’ s collection never-before shown at the Museum. Traditionally reserved for men, the Tallit and Tzizit are juxtaposed here with the work of Israeli designer Tamar Paley, whose feminist work offers women the opportunity to partake in the rituals through beautiful jewelry. Additional highlights include a late 19th-century Yemenite women’s headdress, and a Talit Katan from 18th-century Italy—long part of the MFA’s collection but newly discovered in preparation for the gallery.

Public Programs

To celebrate the new gallery, the MFA will host a four-session course (Wednesdays, February 28–March 20, 2024) led by Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, and professors from local colleges and universities. Each lecture will delve into a different theme in Jewish history and art. The course goes on sale to the public on January 30, 2024.

Table of Voices

The gallery’s interpretation was developed in consultation with a cohort of local community leaders, artists and scholars organized through the Table of Voices, the Museum’s initiative for embedding community perspectives into exhibitions. The cohort included Dimitry Anselme, Executive Program Director for Professional Learning & Educator Support at Facing History & Ourselves; Zohar Berman, an organizer with Boston Workers Circle Center for Jewish Culture & Social Justice; Cynthia Eid, a local artist whose work is included in the new gallery; Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets; Dalit Ballen Horn, Executive Director of The Vilna Shul, Boston's Center for Jewish Culture; Jordan Jamil Ahmed, an organizer, artist and educator; Ira Klein, an award-winning guitarist, composer, cultural producer and teaching artist from Jerusalem, Israel; Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, Executive Director of the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO); Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies, Director of the Jewish Studies Program, and Professor of English at Northeastern University; Laura Mandel, Executive Director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative; Silvina Mizrahi, a visual artist and art educator; Shula Mola, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University; Ben Shapiro, Tufts University graduate and former MFA intern; and Caron Tabb, a Boston-based mixed-media artist.

In-Gallery Video and Audio Stops

The recently acquired Torah Ark by Samuel Katz is complemented by an in-gallery video that tells the story of the Ark's life in the synagogue and its journey to the MFA through interviews with Rabbi David Whiman, who gifted the work to the MFA; Jerry Bornstein, former congregant of the Shaare Zion Synagogue in Chelsea; and Ellen Rovner, Visiting Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, who speaks about Jewish life in Chelsea. The use of Torah ornaments and textiles are illustrated by a video made in the Great Synagogue in Rome for the Museo Ebraico in Rome. Two audio stops offered on MFA Mobile on Bloomberg Connects feature contemporary artists whose work is included in the gallery: Cynthia Eid and Tamar Paley.

Judaica at the MFA

This new dedicated space complements the MFA’s longstanding commitment to integrating Judaica objects and stories across the Museum’s collection galleries, creating dialogues with different cultures, and inviting visitors to deepen their engagement. Visitors can currently find Judaica in 14 galleries, with highlights including rare silver Torah finials and Hanukkah lamp in the Dutch galleries, a porcelain cup and saucer made for the Sassoon family displayed among Chinese ceramics; or contemporary ritual objects in the MFA’s gallery for contemporary craft.

Judaica is one of the newest areas of collecting at the MFA. This interest was greatly encouraged by the generous gift made in 2013 by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection of more than 100 objects. Since then, the MFA has embarked on an exciting program of acquisitions, with the goal of pursuing objects of the highest artistic quality while representing the richness and diversity of Jewish culture across time and place.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA brings many worlds together through art. Showcasing masterpieces from ancient to modern, our renowned collection of nearly 500,000 works tells a multifaceted story of the human experience—a story that holds unique meaning for everyone. From Boston locals to international travelers, visitors from all over come to experience the MFA—where they reveal connections, explore differences and create a community where all belong.

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Sarah Drumm