Cultural Commission celebrates the Sabbath
An exhibit explaining and celebrating the Jewish Sabbath is running through Jan. 31 at Runyon House in East Jersey Olde Town Village in Piscataway.
Featuring artifacts, a full-color monograph, lectures, and storytelling, “Joyful Rest: Shabbat in the Context of Daily Life” is sponsored by the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission and the Folklife Program for New Jersey.
“The exhibit is really self-guiding, and we have lots and lots of text to explain everything,” said its curator, Dr. Elinor Levy. “The challenge was that there are so many ways to process Judaism, we had to strike a balance. We think we struck a fairly happy medium.”
Levy said she was approached by commission director Anna Aschkenes more than three years ago to research an exhibit about Jewish textile artists in New Jersey. Not sure there was enough material for such an exhibit, Levy instead suggested Shabbat.
“That was something a lot of non-Jews know about, but don’t know a lot about,” said Levy. The Easton, Pa., resident is an adjunct instructor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison and an adjunct assistant professor at Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch.
While compiling material for the exhibit, calls were put out asking community members to loan ritual items, including candlesticks, hallah boards, and Kiddush cups for Shabbat and spice boxes and braided candles used for the Havdala ceremony, which ends the day. Levy also visited Judaica artists statewide to bring back works.
Among the items on display are porcelains from Monmouth County artist Nissan Graham Mayk and tallitot and kipot from Cantor Avima Rudavsky Darnov, founder of the Hebrew Corner learning center in Marlboro. Works in the exhibit from Nita Polay Levin (whose husband, Sheldon Levin, is the cantor of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen) include lace tallitot and kipot, including in suede and adorned with lace and other decorations as well as traditional crocheted kipot for males.
Levy said she was surprised that “people gave us the most priceless items from Eastern Europe, but it was so wonderful they were willing to share.”
Also included are weekday ritual items such as tefillin.
“We were really lucky to get the tefillin because I think that is one of the great mysteries of Jewish life,” said Levy. “We tried to not only bring in things you see on the Sabbath, but also things you would see in use every day,” including “beautiful mezuzot.”
Raised in a Reform home in Oakland, Calif., Levy said the exhibit offered her the chance to explore traditions different from those with which she was raised.
“People have really enjoyed it,” said Levy. “We’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback. “A friend of mine who is Mennonite e-mailed to let me know everything was explained so a non-Jewish person could understand it. Yet, we’ve heard from the Jewish community that it wasn’t old to them.”
The commission also plans a presentation on Jewish wedding traditions in May.