June 20, 2013
Kestenbaum & Company
242 West 30th Street, 12th floor, NYC
Judaica Auctions and the exhibition that precede them at Kestenbaum & Company are always a cornucopia of aesthetic delights. The sheer variety and overall quality of the ceremonial objects and works of art make the exhibition and catalogue a museum-like experience. The current exhibition is no exception.
While Kestenbaum is normally known for rare books and manuscripts, this sale is devoted to Judaica ceremonial art; specializing in kiddush cups, spice containers, ceremonial plates, menorahs, etrog containers, Torah pointers, finials and crowns. Additionally there are a variety of objects from the Bezalel School, Megillot, Kethubot, photographs and fine and graphic art. While within each category there are notable gems, space limits me to mention only a handful of objects that demand attention.
Boris Schatz, artist and founder of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem, was a visionary who attempted to create the first modern Jewish Art movement in Palestine in 1906. After preliminary art studies in Vilnius, Warsaw and Paris and the beginning of a successful career, he met Theodor Herzl and became transformed by Zionism, quickly dedicating himself to making a Jewish national art. While he also did painting, much of his work was in the form of relief sculptures in various mediums, including carved ivory.
The carved ivory (catalogue 131), “Jewish Mother,” (ca. 1906), is extraordinary in both its size and subject. Measuring 6.25” X 3.85” it is the largest known ivory plaque by Schatz. This size allowed the artist to develop much fine detail that would be impossible with the more common Schatz plaques one third the size. His liberal use of the surface to effectively frame the image and supply its title in Hebrew further creates the impression of an expansive subject. And that is exactly reflected in the image of a young mother holding a child up to put a coin in the tzeddakah box for the Meir Ba’al Haness charity. The concentration on the little boy’s face, echoed by the love and care of the young mother perfectly reflects the verse from Proverbs 1:8; “Listen, my son to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching…” and 22:6 “educate your child onto the right path and even when he is old he will not depart from it,” inscribed on the frame, almost certainly designed by Ze’ev Raban. Schatz is declaring that one of the fundamental values of Jewish thought that we must transmit to our children is reaching out to help our fellows. The mitzvah of tzeddakah is a foundation of Judaism.
Schatz’s sophisticated and elegant image is contrasted with a delightful work of folk art, a German silver and enamel Kiddush goblet (catalogue 6). It is graced with four enamel panels illustrating occasions the kiddush cup is used: Rosh Hashanah; a man holding a shofar aptly labeled “Tekiah;” Passover; a curiously crowned individual seated at a table holds up a round matzah; Sukkos features a standing man in profile holding a lulav and etrog, and finally Shabbos that shows a seated individual about to recite the Kiddush over two loaves and before two oversized burning candles. These works are original folk images that stem from the personal experience of the artist himself, expressing an extraordinary sincerity and awkward veracity.
Among the twenty or so spice containers, including many fine examples of the familiar Medieval Tower and flower-form, there rests a lone fish. While this fish-form is not especially rare, this silver filigree spice container (catalogue 29) is particularly charming. The piece, inscribed “R.H. Hakim” on one side of the fin and 3-12-1912 on the other, finely details scales from neck to tail where the incised silver changes direction to articulate a graceful finish. Its smooth head features a simple small mouth and wide-open eyes, echoing the notion from the Talmud (Sotah 36b) that fish are immune from the evil eye since they are shielded under water. This kind of protection from the evil eye is of course the perfect beginning to the new week that Havdalah inaugurates. Additionally the fish is a symbol of fertility from Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:16) “…and may they reproduce abundantly like fish within the land,” which surely prophesies a fruitful week to come.