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Jewish Women and Chanukah at Sotheby’s

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Important Judaica; New York Sotheby’s Auction

On view Friday December 9 until Tuesday December 13

(Open 10am – 5pm except Sunday; 1 – 5pm & Tuesday; 1pm – 5pm)

Auction: December 14, 2011 – 10am

1334 York Avenue, New York City

212 606 7000  – sothebys.com

 

Something serious is going on here…regarding Jewish women.

Sotheby’s current auction of Judaica is a concise offering of 106 items that provides a tantalizing glimpse into Jewish art and image making over the last 500 years.  Of course this is nothing new since that is exactly what Sotheby’s Judaica auctions normally offer. What seems to be unusual in this exhibition is a subtle focus on the role of Jewish women, reflected even in at least one wonderful antique menorah.

Detail of Judith with the head of Holofernes German Parcel-Gilt Silver Hanukah Lamp by George Kahlert, the Younger, Breslau 1760 Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 12

This is not to diminish the surfeit of other fascinating Judaica offered.  The three early 19th century Torah crowns, each sporting miniature bells to announce the movement of the Torah as it is removed from the ark and taken to be read, are distinctive in the creative use of Rococo motifs such as lion arches, fanciful birds, winged cherub heads and silver filigree.  For Torahs not blessed with crowns there is a selection of seven pairs of silver finials ranging from the 18th through 19th centuries, likewise adorned with silver and gilt bells.  One of the four Torah shields (Lot 32) offered is composed of a gilt central portion of three colored paste-set crowns framed by elaborate columns and a Rococo arch.  This ensemble dating from the early 18th century is set on an equally elaborate silver backplate topped with a regal three-dimensional gold crown.  The Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Kingship has seldom been so convincingly portrayed.

German Parcel-Gilt Silver Hanukah Lamp by George Kahlert, the Younger, Breslau 1760 Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 12

Additionally there are a host of menorah favorites.  The contemporary copper Hanukah lamp by Manfred Anson (Lot 4) celebrating Americana with multiple models of the Statue of Liberty holding all nine lights vies with a brass Bezalel classic (Lot 6).   Detachable branches with drip pans and prickets to secure candles distinguish an 18th century Polish design in brass (Lot 8).  Of course “bench” style menorahs are represented from Poland, the Ukraine and Galicia.  Of special note is a German parcel-gilt (partially gold leafed over silver) silver Hanukah lamp from Breslau, 1758-60 (Lot 12).  Its ornate design and depiction of a menorah crowned by a conch shell is enhanced by two figures depicting Judith and her maidservant in their triumph over the evil general Holofernes.  The servant holds a pitcher, presumably for oil, and a long torch for lighting giving her an important role in the mitzvah of proclaiming the miracle.  Across from her stands Judith, beautifully dressed, who proudly holds an enormous sword in her right hand and dangles the head of Holofernes in her left.  The sumptuous design and execution proclaims the joy of the holiday almost as much as Judith’s beaming smile.  Her smile is the first overt expression of a woman joyously triumphant I can recall in Jewish art.

Normally I don’t comment on non-art items, nonetheless I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the first edition of the Shulchan Aruch by Rav Yosef Caro (Lot 79), printed in Venice in 1565.  The sheer historical importance of these volumes (missing unfortunately Orach Chayim) is closely matched by the siddur used by the Ba’al Shem Tov, a manuscript of the Siddur Tefilla me-ha-Arizal(Lot 91) written by the scribe Moses ben Joseph of Luboml in 1750.  The historical significance as well as the sanctity of this volume make it all the more remarkable that it is being auctioned to the public at Sotheby’s.

Woman’s Prayerbook (Seder Challah) (1721) scribe Meshullam Zimmel ben Moses of Polna. Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 90; folio 14v

Another manuscript with an equally important history is the tiny (3 1/8 x 2 1/8”) Woman’s Prayerbook (Lot 90) created by scribe Meshulam Zimmel ben Moses of Polna in 1721.  Working mostly in Vienna, Zimmel was well known in the renaissance of handmade decorated Hebrew manuscripts, which in the 18th century were crafted mainly for the Court Jews of Central Europe. Among its 32 parchment pages there are ten illuminations, each headed with the subject at hand: Seder Challah, Seder Niddah, Seder Hadlikah, etc, followed by either the blessing or the appropriate statement of intention.  The delicate line illustrations show the women beautifully dressed in period costume.  One woman sits on the edge of a bed about to recite the bedtime Shema, another prepares dough while another lights Shabbos candles.  Each is sensitive, modest and a priceless glimpse into a Jewish woman’s life almost 300 years ago.  Remarkably, an owner piously added her own annotations that included supplications (techinos) for her family’s health and the Prayer of Hannah (Samuel 1:1 – 2:10).   Perhaps rivaling the beauty and sensitivity of this prayerbook is the story of how it survived Nazi Europe.  The excellent exhibition catalogue describes when “…it became apparent that German Jews were no longer able to emigrate freely nor export valuables…the matriarch of the family took matters into her own hand.  Taking this exquisite miniature prayerbook, as well as a ring and an amulet, she baked [them] into a challah loaf, which she then shipped to her son, a Zionist youth leader in Denmark.  Thus was this invaluable artifact saved from certain destruction, eventually arriving in the Land of Israel.”

That the role of Jewish women in the 18th century was prized is further evidenced by a Blessing Sheet (Lot 95) written to accompany an Esther scroll in 1770 Rome.  Since rabbinic opinion is divided as to whether blessings can be written on the megillah itself, the custom was to write and decorate a separate Blessing Sheet.  This example features three archways, two containing the blessings before and after the megillah reading and the third a liturgical hymn, Korei Megillah, traditionally recited by the Jews of Italy.  The central image is surrounded by delicate wreaths of roses that frame the author’s inscription that this was “written by Camilla, daughter of Moses Ephraim Miele-Rossi” in 1770.  The catalogue tells us “It is the only known example of an Esther scroll blessing sheet written by a woman in the pre-modern period.”  One wonders if Camillia also executed the illumination.  Or perhaps we have to be content with her simple skill as a sofer.

The Newlywed (n.d.) oil on cradled panel by Isidor Kaufmann Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 55

Isidor Kaufmann’s (1853 – 1921) (Lot 55) stunning “The Newlywed” was last seen at a Sotheby’s sale in December 19, 2007.  It is notable for its loving detail, especially considering its diminutive size, 13 3/8 x 10 ½.  While the catalogue states “women are infrequent subjects in Kaufmann’s religious Jewish paintings,” nonetheless his treatment always delves into a significant aspect of Jewish life from a woman’s perspective.  Considering Kaufmann’s non-religious background, his role as an ethnographer in carefully documenting the dress and customs of Eastern European Jews is remarkable.  Since the fur trimmed shawl, earrings and pearl necklace appear in other of his paintings, it is likely that this is not an actual portrait, but rather a genre painting done for a customer or on speculation for the healthy market for Jewish genre paintings.  As has been conjectured in other of his works, the model may have been a member of his own family. That said the depth of psychological insight is especially sensitive and impressively modern.  This young woman has just confronted one of life’s most serious events: marriage.  Her life suddenly stretches out before her with all the possibilities of happiness, struggle and tragedy.  In her steady, serious gaze she confronts us with this realization and draws us into her dawning consciousness.  As we become locked into her interior world we cannot but help ponder that Kaufmann’s home and studio was located in Freud’s Vienna.

The Betrothal (1862) oil on canvas by Morris Daniel Oppenheim Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 56

The momentous decision involved in marriage is likewise explored by a profoundly different kind of artist.  Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800 – 1882) was rooted in the sentimentality of 19th century academic painting.  As the first professional Jewish artist of the modern era he was a wildly successful master of Jewish genre painting, specializing in depicting a world long gone, the 18th century life of German Jewry. The Betrothal (1862) (Lot 56) at first glance seems to depict simply a hopeful suitor discussing marriage with the father of his bride to be.  He leans forward with sincerity while the father listens thoughtfully as his daughter glances at her beau.  All quite sweet and superficial.  But Oppenheim has more on his mind. Soon we notice the mother on the left side of the painting.  Pictorially and literally off to the side in deference to an ultimately male decision, nonetheless her telling glance back to them and her subtle hand gesture reveals a world of women’s wisdom.  She points upward to the true source of all matchmaking, quietly reminding her family Who is really in charge.  Her insight is of course deeply traditional in contrast to Kaufmann’s modern psychological bent.  But what they share is a conviction that, no matter what, a Jewish woman’s voice must be seriously heard.

N.B. I am deeply indebted to the scholarly captions found in the Sotheby’s catalogue for this sale number N08814. The catalogue and notes are available online at sothebys.com with high resolution images.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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