What was it Candide ultimately decided? “We must cultivate our garden,” he declared, rejecting the superficial philosophy of his mentor Professor Pangloss that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” After our brutal election campaign and the resulting bitter disappointment many of us suffered, I’ve come to agree with Candide that it’s time to put aside false hopes and focus on the things that are personally important to us. We, too, need to “cultivate our garden” by paying attention to matters close to home as well as to the broader causes we may care about. Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about synagogue life and, specifically, life in my synagogue.
This is not a puff piece for that synagogue, Or Zarua, a Conservative congregation on the Upper East Side (well, maybe a little puff), but a reflection on a feature I have rarely encountered in other shuls but one that others might want to emulate: that is, a full-fledged gallery on the premises that functions as a mini-museum. Ours is not a large community—membership hovers at around three hundred families and our “gallery” space is actually our social hall, where a Kiddush is held every Shabbat after services. Within the constraints of that room, about 18-by-40 feet, we have changing exhibitions twice a year that draw crowds of viewers — congregants, artists, collectors, and an assortment of friends.
“This has been a bonding agent for the congregation,” says Bobbi Coller, the congregant and curator behind the program, “and also a means of engaging people who come to our synagogue for the first time.” Even more, the program conveys “Jewish culture, Jewish values, and Jewish history,” often in ways people may not have been aware of before. Coller holds a Ph.D. in art history, has curated traveling exhibitions — including several for the Smithsonian Institution — and among other activities, co-teaches a course on art and medicine with her physician husband, Barry Coller, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai.
So, yes, she is a professional. But in our shul, everything (except for our rabbinic leadership) is handled by volunteers — congregants, rather than a cantor, chant from the Torah and lead services — and Bobbi, along with her 12 committee members, donates her skills to the project. Unlike her, they are not trained art historians but individuals devoted, as she is, to spreading Jewish education and culture. Aiding them in their venture is graphic designer Rudi Wolff, not a member of our congregation but a good friend to it. Rudi designs the text panels, arranges the boxes that display objects, and casts his artist’s eye over every exhibit. “Everything is framed and carefully installed,” Bobbi says. “I want this to look like a museum Gallery, with a capital ‘G’.”
And it does. There have been 18 exhibitions over the past years, most with a gala opening and artist presentation. Here is a sampling of shows:
A display of micro-calligraphy images from the Five Books of Moses by the Israeli artist Leon Azoulay. In this uniquely Jewish art form, the artist uses the letters of a Hebrew text to form shapes and figures. From a distance the tiny Hebrew letters can barely be seen, so to enhance viewers’ understanding of the process and the images, in this exhibition a magnifying glass was hung from each panel.
“Our Precious Legacy,” a kind of Jewish “Antiques Roadshow,” featured objects of family or historic significance contributed by congregation members. Thus the shears, buttons, and homemade tefillin a congregant had received from his grandfather, once a tailor for the tsar’s army, later owner of a tailor shop on the Lower East Side. From a congregant born in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp after World War II, an army regulation cup given to his parents by American soldiers as a gift at his birth. Each object a piece of Jewish history; each a piece of material culture.
“From Yankel to Yankee,” an exhibition about the Yiddish theater in America, emphasized its role in Americanizing new Jewish immigrants, as did “Bagels, Babka, and Balabustas,” featuring early American Jewish cookbooks.
Currently on view are paintings and drawings by the artist Mark Podwal whose works and lavishly illustrated new book, “Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art,” evoke the joys and sorrows of Jewish life over time. This is our lead-in to the Chanukah celebration coming soon.
Our congregation has been fortunate in having creative and dedicated people organizing its gallery projects. But there are vast resources of talent in every congregation just waiting to be tapped. Our garden as Jews goes back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the potential for uncovering the visual riches in our tradition is unlimited. We need only resolve to take on that task.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: remember the Sabbath Day.” Her biography of Golda Meir will be published in the fall of 2017.