We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky, wrote the late, great Leonard Cohen, and perhaps it is this lurking fear of eclipse that explains our desire to preserve the material proof of our presence. Museums are not only treasure troves of material proof that we humans are here and are large, they provide the bulwark of the past as protection against the alarming expanse of the future. Stories in many ways serve the same function, curating the random evidence of existence into meaningful narratives. But inevitably, both museums and stories are selective in how they arrange the evidence, depending on whose story they’re curating, whose presence they’re preserving. Oxford, where I’ve lived for nearly three decades, is home to one of the oldest and greatest museums in the world: the Ashmolean, founded by Elias Ashmole in 1683. When I used to visit as a child, I wasn’t much interested in the past. Egyptian mummies did the job just fine, the creepier the better. The allure of history has grown as I’ve got older, both history in general and those parts of it I can relate to personally. A few years ago, however, as a Jewish visitor to the Ashmolean, I began to realise that “my” history, although present among the vast riches of the museum’s collections, was at the same time curiously hard to see, a faint thread that wove through its galleries but was easily lost. The same is true for many other histories, of course, because curatorial choices have to be made. But in the case of Jewish history, the material evidence was there, on display in many different forms in nearly every gallery. It was just strangely difficult to find, and once found, strangely difficult to make sense of. Absorbed into different and sometimes competing narratives, the specifically Jewish meaning of these objects, even when you knew where to look, remained highly elusive.
This realisation led to the idea of curating a selection of the museum’s Jewish artefacts back into view, and with the help of Oxford Jewish Heritage and the Ashmolean itself, I embarked on a hunt through the museum in search of its Jewish treasures. The results far surpassed expectations. Here, preserved in clay, marble, bronze, gold, paper, ink, glass, wood and paint, were objects that spanned the whole 4,000 years of Jewish history, ranging across three continents and 14 countries, from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern day. The mere fact of their existence and survival is in many cases remarkable. Hidden in caves, buried in tombs, dropped in moats, sunk in alpine lakes, a significant number of these objects were never intended to be found.
Like the journey of the Jews themselves, the journey described by the objects is both temporal and geographical
This theme of concealment resonates, inevitably, with one of the darker motifs running through Jewish history: the recurring imperative for Jews to conceal not only their belongings, but themselves. Another strand in the story is the long history of voluntary and partial concealment through assimilation and integration. A pair of viola da gambas, made in Italy by master instrument-makers Gasparo da Salò and Girolamo Amati, bear no outward signs of their Jewish connections, but yielded rich stories related to the pressures on Italian Jews in the 16th and 17th centuries to convert and assimilate. Paintings by Camille Pissarro in the 19th century, and David Bomberg and Mark Gertler in the 20th, remind us, lest we need reminding, that assimilation is not without its difficulties.
The past is animated by our capacity to imagine it, and material evidence of the past helps anchor history in a tangible, imaginable reality. In choosing which of these objects to highlight, my aim was not to tell a comprehensive history of the Jews, but to identify those that would connect, like stars in a complex constellation, to convey the sweep of that history and the range of experiences it contains.
Inevitably, the objects reflect the history of the Ashmolean itself. The Bodleian Bowl, is one of the museum’s treasures, not because of the story it has to tell about the Jews of medieval England, but because it was one of the museum’s earliest acquisitions. The bowl’s cryptic Hebrew text excited curiosity in Protestant England in the 17th century, a time of renewed scholarly interest in Hebraism, and also explains why, for several hundred years, it was catalogued as a manuscript.
Since the objects in the Ashmolean determined the moments in Jewish history that the book I decided to write would cover, there are gaps in the story, places on the Jewish journey that I have had to leave out, but what is in the Ashmolean nevertheless covers a vast and varied terrain. Like the journey of the Jews themselves, the journey described by the 22 objects eventually decided on is both temporal and geographical. It begins with the King List (1800BC) from ancient Iraq, where Abraham, the founding father of Jewish monotheism, may once have lived, and from there wends its way across the centuries and continents, ending with a pottery camel, which has made its own long journey from Tang dynasty China via Nazi Germany to present-day Oxford. The Jewish Journey: 4,000 Years in 22 Objects thus takes the reader on two journeys: a physical journey through the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum, and a metaphorical journey, which traces the steps of the Jewish people through time and space.
Why 22 objects? As long as 3,000 years ago, the Hebrew alphabet had fixed on the 22 letters it still uses to this day, and while the script and language have evolved during that time, the letters are recognisably the same, symbolic of the blend of change and continuity that characterises Jewish history itself. According to kabbalistic tradition, the universe was created through 22 hidden paths on the Tree of Life, and the number 22 signifies the meaning of life. The objects in The Jewish Journey are not intended to reveal the meaning of life, but they do, I hope, reveal something of what life has meant to Jewish people at different times in their history, and of the diversity and complexity of that history.
Across the centuries, the frequent imperative for Jewish people to move from one place to another as refugees and immigrants gives their story a particular resonance at this moment in time, a reminder that human migration is nothing new and often proves highly beneficial to the countries in which people resettle. While these objects tell stories that sometimes pull in contradictory directions, taken as a whole, they speak to the human capacity for adaptability, resilience and renewal. Journeys necessarily begin with a departure, but where they end is less certain. In the words of another 20th-century Jewish poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, we are all of us journeying “to somewhere beyond the final point, towards an endless beginning, far in the distance”.
*This article was published in the Guardian on October 15, 2017.