Just a few moments after we meet, Simona Di Nepi, the Museum of Fine Arts’ first-ever Curator of Judaica, makes a matter-of-fact point: “I’m Jewish,” she says, “but my master’s degree is in late medieval Sienese crucifixions.” It’s a sort-of confession, by way of explanation. “Judaica, or Jewish art, Jewish visual culture, has not been part of the canon of art history,” she says. “We were trained, like everyone, in Western Christian art, and we stumbled and found our way into Judaica from there.”
Di Nepi, who was born in Rome, tells this story standing in the MFA’s brand-new Judaica gallery, which opens Thursday night amid the museum’s Hanukkah celebrations (its inaugural display, “Intentional Beauty,” is a primer on the aesthetic priorities built in to Jewish ritual).
The opening comes in a moment heavy with anxiety for Boston’s Jewish community, with leaders from Harvard and MIT appearing to equivocate before a congressional panel Tuesday over allegations of on-campus antisemitism, and the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza grinding back into motion after a brief cease-fire. Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director, pointed out the gallery was “a milestone that has been years in the making,” whatever the accident of timing. He said in an email to the Globe that he hoped it would “create opportunities for greater understanding among all our visitors.”
Tucked into a space about the size of a large suburban living room, on the second floor of the Art of the Americas wing, the MFA’s Judaica gallery is modest, but even so, looms large.
In the art world, Judaica — Jewish ritual art — is so nascent and underexplored a field that Di Nepi knows almost everyone in it personally; the new MFA gallery is one of only four such spaces in US art museums. Outside New York’s Jewish Museum, Di Nepi was the one and only dedicated curator of Judaica at an American art museum when she arrived at the MFA six years ago. She relates, with some glee, that the ranks of Judaica curators at American art museums doubled in July — to two — when the North Carolina Museum of Art appointed a full-time Judaica curator, Sean Burrus.
Di Nepi did her master’s degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and worked as a curator at the National Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum there before moving to the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv, to develop her expertise in the Judaica field. At the same time, the MFA had started to explore the discipline as a standalone department, prompted by a surprise bequest in 2010 from Jetskalina H. Phillips, a teacher living in Kansas who had married a Jewish doctor from Boston. Her gift was explicit: It was to fund “the study, acquisition, and display of Judaica.” Then, in 2013, the museum received more than 100 objects from the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Collection; in 2016, the Shustermans funded a dedicated Judaica curator to care for it. When the MFA went looking, they found Di Nepi in Tel Aviv, and in 2017 set a worldwide precedent.
“In terms of global museums, I was the only one in the world,” she says with a smile. (Di Nepi draws a distinction between museums devoted to Jewish culture and institutions like the MFA that engage art history across regions and eras). The Shusterman funding established her role, and the Phillips bequest gave her the ability to acquire. Initially, there was little competition; now, she says, “maybe two or three others, like the Metropolitan Museum, are starting to collect. But a dedicated curator, or gallery? No,” she says.
That leaves Di Nepi free to define the field for mainstream audiences, building almost from scratch. Some old favorites have found a new home. Isidor Kaufmann’s “Hannah,” a late-18th- or early-19th-century portrait of a young Jewish woman, hung in the museum’s European galleries for years. Now, it’s here. But most will be unfamiliar. “What you’re seeing here are either very new acquisitions or things that have never been shown before,” Di Nepi said, on a meander through the gallery.
She paused at a tallit katan, an azure and red silk garment embroidered with floral designs made for a bar mitzvah in 18th-century Italy. It was given to the museum by the Lehman family of New York in 1938, and left in storage ever since. “I call things like this ‘sleepers’ — no one here even knew it was here,” she said. “Now, we have the context where it fits.”
The gallery, arranged in three sections, reunites those sleepers with their thematic kin, most of which Di Nepi has been pursuing since her arrival. A golden lion carved by the Chelsea woodworker Samuel Katz came into the MFA collection as part of a donation of American folk art from the gregarious patron Maxim Karolik. It hangs here alongside a beautifully restored Torah Ark, dark wood gilded in ornate trim, made by Katz in the early 20th century for the Shaare Zion Synagogue on Orange Street in Chelsea.
The ark had been removed in the 1990s when the synagogue closed (a video in the gallery, remarkably, captures its meticulous, piece-by-piece deconstruction); its erstwhile rabbi, David Whiman, had been dragging it along to his postings for decades, not willing to abandon it for scrap. Di Nepi tracked him to Long Island, where she recovered the ark from its grateful custodian and brought it here. The lion, Di Nepi says, would have been part of a much grander ark at a synagogue in the South End, long since shut down; that ark is gone. The Shaare Zion ark would have suffered the same fate, if not for Whiman. “If he hadn’t done that, the congregation would have just paid $500 to chuck it out,” she says. “Instead, it is here as a piece of the story of immigrant Boston.”
Any display of Judaica is by its nature brimming with narratives of the Jewish diaspora; communities in North America are only its most recent. Here, Katz’s work sits shoulder to shoulder with Judaica pieces from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Morocco, all of which serve as documents of a time, not so long ago, when thriving Jewish communities could be found throughout the Middle East.
A Yemeni headdress from the late 19th to early 20th century is displayed close to the tallit katan; Torah finials made in Germany, Morocco, and Iran, all in shimmering silver, occupy the center of the gallery, representing a vast diversity of aesthetic united by shared purpose. A torah case made in Iraq in the late 19th century, adorned with intricate silvery filigree, speaks to one of the oldest diasporic communities in the world, dating to the sixth century BCE, when masses of Judeans were exiled to Babylon.
Maybe the most exquisite object here is a Torah shield in silver with gilded highlights, made in the late 18th century in what is now Ukraine by Elimelekh Tzoref. It’s engraved front and back with scenes from the Torah in such exceptional detail that the mind shivers at its mastery.
Di Nepi pauses to point out a 19th-century wine cup, used in Passover ceremonies, made in Alessandria in Piemonte, before it was part of Italy; it’s rare and notable, she said, because she was able to verify it was the work of Israel Vitale, a Jewish silversmith in an era when Jews were banned from artistic guilds in Europe and prohibited from making such works almost anywhere else (a set of ornate German Torah finials here, made in the 17th century, are by the Christian silversmith Jurgen Richels).
It’s an emblem of “Intentional Beauty’s” inevitable undertone, of grace produced under near constant duress. Amid the finery, a grainy black and white photograph of a scrawny man perched in a field of rubble interrupts the somber lushness with a blunt reminder. It’s a photograph by the Holocaust survivor Henryk Ross, who was forced by the Nazis to document the Lodz ghetto for their propaganda program. Ross stole extra film and made clear-eyed documents, in secret, of the humanity that endured; the man in the picture is clutching a Torah scroll to his chest as though it were an infant, a precious symbol of faith and resilience. “There is utter destruction, but the scroll was rescued,” Di Nepi said, quietly. It’s an image that shows, unequivocally, the story the new space means to tell. “It says, very clearly: These things are significant.”