The fifth annual Hanukkah celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) will take place in the midst of new displays of menorahs and other examples of Jewish art and Judaica at the museum. Over the past decade, the museum’s commitment to Judaica has significantly grown, especially after receiving a generous bequest in 2010 from a Kansas schoolteacher, Jetskalina Phillips. Phillips lived in Boston in the 1960s and converted to Judaism at Temple Israel before her marriage to a local physician. Thanks to this bequest, Marietta Cambareri, who served as curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the museum, became the senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture and Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica.

In 2013, the museum’s Judaica collection received another boost when it obtained 119 works, including ritual objects, paintings and sculpture, from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection. Schusterman later endowed a full-time curatorship in Judaica, which Simona Di Nepi assumed in December 2017. In the future, Di Nepi’s curatorial responsibilities will also include outreach education and exhibition planning.


On a recent November afternoon, Di Nepi gave me a wide-ranging tour of the museum’s Judaica and Jewish art—holdings the museum is committed to increasing. Di Nepi pointed out that the MFA is an encyclopedic collection—that is, “Judaica is interspersed through the museum according to time and place.” As an example, Di Nepi showed me a Hanukkah lamp on display among 18th-century European artworks. We viewed Delft plates made for Passover and Sukkot celebrations that were displayed with other 18th-century Delftware. “They’re made in the same place and period, with much of the same style and surroundings as other Delft pieces,” noted Di Nepi.

Di Nepi added that the idea of integrating Jewish works of art and Judaica ritual objects into various galleries “is to show the affinity between the local artistic language and environment and the Jewish objects. There is not one Judaica, but many Judaicas. We have very recently acquired Iranian ketubot, an Indian Haggadah and a Kurdish Shabbat cover. We hope to be able to seamlessly integrate them into the museum’s collection.”

“Juif Lisant (Jewish Man Reading)” by Edouard Brandon (Courtesy MFA)

As we walked around the museum, we came upon contemporary Judaica, sleek and minimalist in design, and displayed among other contemporary art. When Di Nepi joined the museum last year, there were 15 objects on public view. By Hanukkah, the number will have more than doubled to 33 objects, including many menorahs, displayed in four new installations.

In keeping with the spirit of the museum’s encyclopedic approach, menorahs from different eras will be on view in relevant spaces. Di Nepi pointed out that “some will be in the 18th-century space, some in the contemporary space.” She noted that some of the menorahs from the Bezalel School will be clustered together among early 20th-century art. Ze’ev Raban, a founding member of the school, designed two of the menorahs that came with the Schusterman Collection. As Di Nepi explained, the Bezalel School was founded in 1906 in Jerusalem as a school of arts and crafts. It brought together influences from the arts and crafts movements in England, France and other countries in Europe. “The main goal,” said Di Nepi, “was to train a new generation of craftsmen, as well as build a national visual language.”

Di Nepi also showed me works that were not necessarily ritual in nature but were nevertheless deeply Jewish. We lingered over Eduoard Brandon’s painting “Jewish Man Reading.” Brandon was a French artist who often showed his work alongside the Impressionists. In the corner of the painting, Brandon wrote Adonai Echad, the Hebrew for “One God.”

Next to Brandon’s painting was “Hannah” by the Hungarian artist Isidor Kaufman, who worked in Austria in the early 20th century. “These paintings are part of Lynn Schusterman’s gift,” Di Nepi said. “Look closely at Hannah’s pearl headdress—it’s distinctly Polish Jewish. The paintings are examples of non-Judaica objects, but for me they are Jewish art. Anything that expresses Jewish history, culture and art should be part of the Judaica collection.”

“Hannah” by Isidor Kaufmann (Courtesy MFA)

The museum also has works from Boston Jewish artists who created art from the 1930s through the 1960s. These Boston Expressionists include Jack Levine and David Aaronson. We viewed “The Golem,” Aaronson’s painting based on a specifically Jewish legend. “Here we have a Jewish American artist working in Boston with that very Jewish story,” Di Nepi observed.

Visitors to the MFA’s Hanukkah celebration can expect to come upon spaces highlighting the Festival of Lights through the museum’s Judaica collection. A comprehensive list of the locations of the museum’s Judaica is available at the Sharf Information Desk and on the museum’s website.

“While Judaica is literally speaking ritual art,” said Di Nepi, “what I’m interested in doing is, in addition to collecting Judaica, also displaying Jewish art, textiles, sculptures, ceramics, works on paper and coins. These are things that are not necessarily ritual art, but they are Jewish in content. We’re expanding the idea of Judaica at the museum.”