Sculptures and mirrors, coffins and sarcophagi lids are some of the artifacts of daily life — and death — that shaped the existence of the Jews in ancient Egypt, the freed slaves that seders around the Jewish world remember at Passover each year.
For many members of the Jewish community, preparation for the holiday begins weeks before Pesach, in shopping and cooking and attending lectures.
Some creative New Yorkers had the chance to prepare this spring a few stops from a No. 2 or 3 subway exit in central Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Museum is displaying more than 100 items from centuries of Egyptian culture in “To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” an exhibit that focuses on the kingdom’s death and burial practices.
The exhibit includes funeral equipment, mummies, amulets, jewelry and papyrus fragments from the Book of the Dead.
The exhibit, which closes May 2, is part of the institution’s extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts, many of which are on permanent display.
“To Live Forever,” which next travels to Tulsa, shows the culture the Hebrew slaves hurriedly escaped on the day of the original seder some 3,300 years ago, a culture of gods and goddesses and idols and a death-obsession that Jewish commentaries say negatively influenced the behavior of the enslaved monotheists.
“Life after death was primary cultural belief through thousands of years of Egyptian history,” Arnold Lehman, director the Brooklyn Museum, writes in the foreword to the current exhibit’s catalog. “The ancient Egyptians regarded death as an enemy that could be defeated through the insurance of proper preparation.”
Manhattan architect Hali Weiss, who helps lead her family seder each year, visited the exhibit last week “to immerse myself in the culture the Jews left behind.”
Most striking, says Weiss, above, looking at a coffin, was the Egyptian emphasis on the physical afterlife of the individual, compared to Judaism’s “abstract,” communal stress. She says she will bring the exhibit’s lessons to her seder.
A pre-Pesach visit to such an Egyptian exhibit is a valuable educational tool, says Edward Bleiberg, Brooklyn Museum’s curator of Egyptian art, who calls his childhood seders one of the inspirations for his career path. An exposure to the culture that surrounded the Jews in Egypt “helps set the scene” for the seder, he says. “It gives you an appreciation of what the Hebrews were leaving behind.”
Bleiberg says his background — including archaeological work in Egypt – adds to the seders he attends as an adult. “I’m certainly influenced by what I know of ancient Egypt.”