The North Carolina Museum of Art and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies will be hosting the Wandering Objects symposium to discuss the changing meanings of Jewish ritual objects and material culture.
The three-day event will consist of academic panels with scholars who study different aspects of Jewish material culture around the world and two round tables – one with collectors of Jewish ceremonial art and one with well-known curators of Jewish material culture.
“We came to this collaboration with the North Carolina Museum of Art because I was taking my Jewish material culture classes and visited the museum for the Judaic art gallery that they have there each year,” Gabrielle Berlinger, a professor in the Department of American Studies and Folklore, said.
NCMA Deputy Director for Art and Curator of American and Modern Art John Coffey said the symposium will look at how Jewish material culture is collected and interpreted.
“One of the reasons for this project was to get the principal collectors, curators and academics together, people who are intimately involved in Jewish material culture, to talk about the field and where it is going in the future,” Coffey said. “The Judaic art gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art is serving as a model for other general art museums in the collecting of Jewish ceremonial art.”
Coffey also said that the field of Judaica, another name for Jewish ceremonial art, has matured very quickly over the past few decades.
“People are taking a really serious look at these objects and how they were used in the past and coming up with new interpretations for these objects and how they connect to people today,” Coffey said. “When things move from a synagogue to an art museum, that changes the context of the objects.”
Berlinger said that the event is important because it raises awareness about how Jewish people and Jewish communities used these materials in their everyday lives.
“When you study about a particular Jewish object, the point is that you need to figure out what the life story of this object is and the many contexts in which this object has existed over the course of its creation – use, unused and maybe even disuse,” Berlinger said. “You’re ultimately interested in the people through the study of collection of fascinating things because the kinds of objects that people will be talking about are not only ceremonial objects but also everyday things.”
Laura Levitt, a professor in the Departments of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University and a speaker for the symposium, said that tactile objects tend to resonate with people who see them.
“The most memorable thing for most people going into the Holocaust museum are these bins of shoes, and the thing that makes this so compelling is that as survivors are aging and dying, there is something about those shoes that were there in that time and place, and they are now next to us,” Levitt said. “That is maybe the closest that we can get to people who were there in that space and that time.”
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