by Celina Colby

Earlier this month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened the first gallery in New England dedicated to Judaica: “Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection. The intimate but comprehensive exhibition space features 27 works from Asia, North Africa, Europe, and the U.S. that reflect Jewish religious traditions in formal synagogue spaces and at home.

Many of these works are on view for the first time, and most are new acquisitions. The exhibition is split into three thematic groupings, “Dressing the Torah,” “A Judaica Revolution,” and “Dressing the Body: Ritual and Modesty.”

“I’m delighted to be able to shed light on the diversity of Jewish cultures around the world—doing so through art is especially important and meaningful,” said Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, who curated the gallery. “While several of the Jewish communities represented in the gallery no longer survive, these objects are tangible testimony of their history. They tell stories of exile, discrimination, even persecution—but also of resilience, reinvention and integration.”

The exhibition accomplishes a lot in a small space. The wide variety of locations and time periods represented in the works gives a sense of the vast geographic and cultural spectrums of the Jewish people. Visitors can examine an intricate Torah shield crafted by Elimelekh Tzoref in 1781 in what’s now Ukraine alongside “Miriam’s Cup,” a feminist piece created by local artist Cynthia Eid in the 1980s reinforcing the importance of women in Jewish history and life.

Many objects are connected to Boston Jewish life, specifically a Torah ark by woodcarver Samuel Katz that once adorned the Shaare Zion Synagogue in Chelsea. This and other works are used to tell the story of Jewish immigration and life in Boston until the present day.

Physical art objects aren’t the only connection the gallery offers to Jewish culture. A playlist of songs from various artists and regions can be listened to in the gallery, and a QR code can sync the playlist to your phone.

“As the MFA’s collection of Judaica continues to grow, we are honored to deepen our commitment through this dedicated space—a destination for Jewish art and culture that complements our presentation of Judaica throughout the Museum,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director.

The gallery text and interpretations were developed with the help of a group of 14 artists and community members, including Dalit Ballen Horn, Executive Director of The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture; Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies, Director of the Jewish Studies Program, and Professor of English at Northeastern University; and many others. Having input from the represented community was crucial to making an equitable exhibition.

Though visitors can find Judaica in 14 other galleries in the museum, having this permanent, dedicated space illustrates a commitment to collecting, exhibiting, and educating about works from Jewish life.

Teitelbaum says, “As the only gallery devoted to Jewish art and Judaica in New England, it will create new opportunities for our visitors to foster understanding of and connections to Jewish values, traditions, and identity across time and geography.”