BEGINNING at least with Noah, the Jewish people have saved what they could of their culture through flood, holocaust and diaspora. Scraps of marriage agreements and remnants of Torah binders speak of communities long gone. Miniature Torahs, spice containers and other ceremonial works tell of the need for religious objects that could be easily secreted in times of travel and trouble. Though persecuted and dispersed, the tribes of Judea have kept their traditions no matter the cost.
The B'nai B'rith Museum, at 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, has had a terrifying history. In 1976, thieves took an irreplaceable collection of Jewish marriage rings among other objects. In 1977, a Hanafi Muslim group seized the building, held 120 people hostage, and ransacked the galleries.
But it has withstood the terrors and emerged stronger than ever. Last week the museum opened a vastly enlarged facility: 2,500 square feet, four times as large as the previous display.
The museum owns 5,000 objects, making it one of the seven or eight greatest collections of Judaica in the world. About one-tenth of the collection can be shown at one time; but Anna Cohn, the director, said the exhibits will be rotated so that all the major pieces will be shown eventually. e
The heart of the permanent collection was assembled by Joseph and Olyn B. Horwitz of Cleveland, Ohio, and Hollywood, Fla. They have given the museum some 500 objects and promised more. In the opening exhibition, 325 great ceremonial art works are from the Horwitz collection.
"Their gifts are of great quality," said Cohn, "and they range over so many countries."
In 1949, almost at the end of Israel's war for independence, Horwitz was asked by the Cleveland Jewish Welfare Fund to go to Israel and the shipping ports of Europe to help the refugees coming out of the camps on their way to resettlement. During that time, some of the refugees gave Horwitz, in gratitude, a menorah, a miniature Torah and a kiddush cup. In Israel he bought more. "And when I went home, I found that my own family had some treasures, and then we had a collection."
Since that time the Horwitzes have traveled all over Euorpe, Russia and Poland, as well as some Oriental countries, in search of Judaica. They have made eight trips to Israel, bought objects from Jewish communities and from New York dealers.
In 1961, they gave the bulk of the collection to the B'nai B'rith Museum here. "Washington is the crossroads of the country. We thought more people could see it here," Horwitz said. Other pieces of the collection are on view at the Fairmount Temple and the College of Jewish Studies, both in Cleveland.
In the B'nai B'rith exhibition, the oldest object is a Hittite figure, 1200 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). The catalogue explains that "most of the figurines found in ancient Israel, dedicated to the goddess of fertility, served as talismans against barrenness. While the leaders of the Jewish community rejected all forms of paganism, the large number of surviving cult figures suggests that the people saw no wrong in using devices considered protective by their neighbors."
Other early objects include an incantation bowl of the 3rd century B.C.E.
The art works trace the history of the people. A Torah binder from Mantua in 1556 is of embroidered linen, made by a woman called Firna. She embroidered it in memory of her parents and in honor of her husband, Joseph Finzi. According to Cohn's assistant, Linda Altshuler, the binder documents the first wedding between the famous Finzi and Contini families in Italy. A Hanukkah menorah, made in 1800 of brass in North Africa, has the lions of Judah, a domed triptych and Islamic ornamentation. An 18th-century brass menorah from Poland has sterner lions and lines. A 19th-century menorah from Holland is also brass but far simpler. A portrait of Rabbi Naftali Ben Isaac Cohen (1649-1719) was painted in Germany in the 18th-century. The pious man is shown reading his Bible, wearing a phylactery (a leather case holding slips inscribed with Scriptures) fastened with thongs to his forehead.
Torah finials, object meant to top the wood poles of the Torah scrolls (the five books of Moses, the Holy Scriptures), seem to be a favorite place for the artists to express their creativity. Torah finials, made in the image of the leaning tower of Pisa (before it leaned) are exquisite. As are the larger 18th-century silver Persians Torah finials in a sphere shape with dangling charms. Another Torah finial set in silver gilt comes from 18th-century Egypt. Each one is a tower; in each tower are three arches; inside each arch is a bell. Three bells hand at the bottom. The continuation of Jewish artistry shows in the silver Torah finials made by Ludwig Wolpert, a New York artists, in 1950.
Another 20th-century work, but earlier, is a portion of a synagogue ark showing the Rampant Lions of Judah, made of bronze in Lower Manhattan.
One of the most beautiful objects is a Passover plate of silver and onyx made by Richard Fishman, of Providence, R.I., in 1975. Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn, the art collectors and philanthropists, had commissioned the plate for their personal use, but decided to donate it to the museum. The silver and onyx base holds six small silver pedestals to serve the ritual foods. A drawer pulls out for the bread.
Currently, the museum also has a remarkable exhibition of puppets by Marc Chagall and Simcha Schwarz, made for the Yiddish puppet theater in Paris called Hakl-Bakl (a little bit of everything). Original music, set displays and a filmed performance are being shown. Another temporary exhibit includes 40 posters from other Jewish museums and exhibits.
The B'nai B'rith Museum and its shop, which sells fine contemporary handcrafted objects, are open Sunday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except holidays.
The installations are by Ann Rossilli and Chris White of Design and Protection Inc.