NCMA Judaic Gallery Tour

Standing Hanukkah Lamp in the Judaic Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art
Brandon Goins

The holiday season is widely revered in North Carolina as a time to reconnect with family and loved ones. However, with the Christmas season, there has always come a longing within me to learn more about the other practices that are heralded by the closing days of fall. The fading of the tenacious lingering southern summer brings about many celebrations from various cultures. Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Las Posadas, and Kwanzaa to name a few can doubtless be found celebrated here within the dense cultural tapestry of North Carolina.

To learn more about one of these celebrations, we visited the North Carolina Museum of Art's Judaic Art Gallery. This gallery is one of only two permanent displays of Jewish ceremonial art in an American art museum. The gallery holds ceremonial pieces tied to many Judaic celebrations and is a source of pride for many people across the state.

During our tour through the collection, we were escorted by its curator, John Coffey, who is also a deputy director and curator of American and modern art. Our seasoned guide accompanied us through the gallery as I followed closely, scribbling the knowledge he offered into my notes. Coffey was involved in the acquisition of approximately two-thirds of the pieces on view and enthusiastically talked us through some Hanukkah traditions as well as the origins and significance of the celebration. This provided a bit of cultural context to the pieces we were viewing.

The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates a miracle associated with the Jewish victory over an oppressive Greek king in 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah continues to be a celebration of freedom and liberation from oppression. It is the tradition to light a special lamp to remember the miracle that occurred at the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.

The collection of the Judaic Art Gallery holds ceremonial objects utilized for the observance of Hanukkah, Passover, the Sabbath, and other holidays and festivals. There are also beautiful objects that decorated synagogues and adorned the Torah, the sacred scroll on which is written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible beginning with Genesis. Our visit was a great opportunity to learn about the pieces associated with these traditions.

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is a Torah crown from 18th century Venice. The crown may be the first thing you see upon entering the gallery, if not for its position at the front of the gallery, then for its opulence. The silver of the crown shines in the sun from its perch by the window. Coffey advises that the crown was likely created in Venice for a synagogue in the nearby city of Mantua. I found myself wondering what the significance could be of such lavish measures. Coffey was patient with my wild curiosity. The pieces were commissioned with the intention of honoring God by decorating his word as richly as could be afforded.

I also found myself drawn to a silver Torah case made in Beijing for a synagogue in Mumbai, India. Coffey explained the meaning of the symbolism on each piece. My eyes were drawn up to the bells which adorned a pair of 18th century Dutch Torah finials. According to Coffey, bells are used in many religious traditions to build an auditory experience around ceremonies and other religious observances. He guides my focus to the Eastern Wall Marker for a synagogue hanging nearby, explaining the significance of twin pillars, crown, and lions, all related to ancient origins of Judaism and the sovereignty of the word of God.

Our visit to the Museum of Art's Judaic Art Gallery was eye-opening. The museum is a seemingly boundless resource for discovery and learning. It was a great privilege to be lead through the gallery by such a knowledgeable and passionate guide and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

For more in-depth information on the pieces on display and the history of the Judaic collection visit Circa: The NCMA Blog and the Judaic Art Gallery information page.

Visit NCPedia For more information on the history of Judaism in North Carolina.