In the heart of Jerusalem, in Hillel Street, lies a beautiful and little-known museum, the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art. I would describe it as a boutique museum. If you are pressed for time, you can see the entire museum in a single 45 minute visit, but for those who care to linger, it is an unknown jewel, showcasing beautiful religious artifacts of the Italian Jewish community, such as this lovely 18th century Holy Ark, from the town of San Daniele del Friuli:
or this parochet (curtain for the Holy Ark), lovingly embroidered by the women of the community:
Or there is this beautiful tallit (prayer shawl), embroidered, according to Jewish tradition, by a bride for her bridegroom, in honour of their wedding (nowadays, a Jewish bride is more likely to crochet a kippa, or yarmulka, for her beloved).
The crowning glory of the museum is a 17th-century synagogue which was transferred in its entirety from its home in the town of Conegliano Veneto, after the Second World War. It is still used by the Italian Jewish community in Jerusalem, with services being held regularly on Shabbat and holy days. The Italian Jewish rite (Minhag Bnei Roma) differs from both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites and can be most closely compared to the Yemenite Jewish rite. It is thus one of the oldest forms of Jewish liturgy, and believed to follow closely the form practised in the Land of Israel at the time of the Roman conquest and occupation.
It was to this jewel that we came, the members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir and our conductor, Kate Belshé, last Thursday, the fifth night of Hanukkah, to give a concert in the framework of the Chamshushalayim (חמשושלים – a made-up portmanteau word consisting of the Hebrew names for Thursday, Friday and Jerusalem), which is the name given by the Jerusalem Municipality to a series of weekend cultural events taking place throughout the city during the month of December.
What was different about this concert was that it moved from room to room in the museum, each section of the concert being preceded by an explanation by one of the museum guides about the exhibits in that particular room.
Thus, we began in the Renaissance-style entrance hall, with its beautiful painted ceiling:
There, we sang three songs, including the beautiful I Himmelen (In Heaven) by Edvard Grieg (baritone soloist: Louis Sachs):
We then proceeded to the synagogue, with its magnificent Ark, made of wood and covered in 24 carat gold, with beautiful carvings and inscriptions:
Note the intricate carving of the latticework screens looking down from the Women’s Gallery to the men’s section, in this next picture:
In the synagogue, besides the concert repertoire, we also lit the fifth Hanukkah candle, with the participation of the audience:
We then moved on to the exhibition rooms, where, fittingly, there was an exhibition of menorot (menorahs, Hanukkah candelabra), such as this magnificent specimen , made in 1743 for the synagogue of Casale Monferrato:
In the room where this next picture was taken is a magnificent wooden Ark from Mantua, dating from 1543:
There are many other extremely beautiful religious artifacts to be seen, and it seems to me a great pity that the museum is not better known. As I said, the museum is small – although crammed with items of beauty – and can be seen and enjoyed in a mere three-quarters of an hour, although personally, I recommend that you take your time and enjoy it to the full. It isn’t even exactly off-the-beaten track, as far as location goes, being situated in Hillel Street, just a two minute walk from the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.
Our choir appears regularly at the museum and, small as it is, I always discover something lovely there – either a new, temporary exhibition, or some object of beauty which I didn’t notice before, or which I noticed but which now appears to me in a new light. Whether you’re a first-time visitor in Jerusalem, or a jaded regular who thinks they have seen all the “usual” tourist attractions, this is one which is well worth seeing. And if you happen to find yourself in Jerusalem when our choir is appearing at the museum, we’ll be happy to see you among the audience. 🙂