Collecting History, Preserving Heritage

Collecting History, Preserving Heritage

No culture saves everything. Time passes, timber burns, stone is eroded, documents are misplaced and memories become distorted and rendered unidentifiable.

All the more so for a people without a central political or religious authority; for a peripatetic people, like the Jews, without vaults that held treasures for millennia or longstanding archives. Who was there to gather the remnants of the past, to determine what must not be lost?

This process of gathering the shards of the past began late for Jews. It started mostly sporadically, as often as not, on the initiative of one or another individual, with documents ferreted out of synagogue attics or the bookshelves of ancient buildings and saved, perhaps, in a drawer or two of someone’s house, eventually with collections becoming so voluminous that they required a room or two, and then institutional backing for their care.

Ours is a complex, wildly disparate past, one fractured by immense differences in geography, by cultural chasms and by a catastrophe that has come to define the contour of political horror. Arguably, the best way to make sense of our history is to weigh artifacts like these against the countless other pieces of that jigsaw left over from the past — to transmute mythology into history.

The Center’s 10th Anniversary exhibition, entitled “Zero to Ten: First Decades, New Centuries” shows, side by side, the widest array of the collections housed at the Center for Jewish History from written texts, to art, to ritual objects and even personal ephemera from ages gone by. History is packed with moments easily forgotten but misplaced at great risk, and the Center for Jewish History contains remnants of some of the most irreplaceable, otherwise inaccessible moments of our people’s past.