December marks an important month for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On Dec. 8, it will open the groundbreaking “Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection,” the first and only gallery devoted to Jewish ritual art, or Judaica, in New England.

“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, said in a statement. “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.”

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“Passover Seder” by Malcah Zeldis/Jetskalina H. Phillips Fund and funds donated by Eric Zafran (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Judaica is one of the newest areas of collecting at the MFA, spurred in 2013 by a gift from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection of more than 100 objects. Di Nepi was the former curator at ANU – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. She joined the MFA six years ago, bringing the gallery to life. Di Nepi told JewishBoston how important it was to create a space devoted purely to Judaica and learning at the museum, even though there are Jewish objects on display scattered throughout the building.

“I saw what the needs of the community were—for education purposes: tours with either school or university students. I felt that, as well as having different integrated displays, we should also have a central, core home for Judaica, as other cultures have in the museum. We were also aware that in order to do it, we had to make new acquisitions and build a collection,” she said.

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Holiday kiddush cup. Museum purchase with funds donated by the children and grandchildren of Judith P. and S. Lawrence Schlager in honor of their 60th wedding anniversary and their 80th and 85th birthdays. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

That they did: The gallery houses 27 objects from Asia, North Africa, Europe and the United States, with an emphasis on ceremonial items created for the Jewish religious experience at home and in synagogues. Twenty objects appear at the MFA for the first time, including Torah finials and shields, Shabbat candlesticks, hanging lamps, spice vessels and kiddush cups, acquired from around the world.

The gallery launch kicks off with the MFA’s annual Hanukkah celebration, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, with $5 minimum pay-what-you-wish general admission from 5-10 p.m.

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Torah shield by Elimelekh Tzoref. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust, Jacques Aaron Preis, Trustee. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


“Since 2015, JArts has been proud to partner with the MFA to create one of the most innovative Hanukkah celebrations in the United States. This celebration has long given us a moment to explore the world-class Judaica collection that the museum houses, and we’re excited to see this first-ever Judaica gallery open as an opportunity to see and feel more of the collection in an ongoing way,” says JArts executive director Laura Mandel, who also helped to collaborate on the gallery’s approach.

“In addition to the partnership with JArts, I had the great pleasure of being part of the ‘Table of Voices’ program that brought together diverse community voices to help develop the gallery concept. I can’t wait to experience the fruits of our many complex and wide-ranging conversations about Jewish life and tradition,” she says.

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Torah mantle by Moshe Zabari. Gift of Ms. Shelley Katsh and Dr. Mark Gabry in memory of Mrs. Estelle W. and Dr. Abraham I. Katsh—Katsh Family Judaica Collection. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Naturally, the Dec. 7 soiree offers a preview to party guests. The ceremonial objects are shown in three groupings: “Dressing the Torah,” “A Judaica Revolution” and “Dressing the Body: Ritual and Modesty.”

“Dressing the Torah” showcases objects made to adorn and protect the Torah scroll, including a decorated 18th-century Torah shield by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav (Galicia, modern-day Ukraine). There’s also a recently acquired Torah ark created circa 1920 by woodcarver Samuel Katz, created for the Shaare Zion Synagogue on Orange Street in Chelsea, once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood.

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Shabbat hanging lamp by Gregorius van der Toorn. Museum purchase with funds donated by Rose‑Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“A Judaica Revolution” explores new and traditional artworks made for home use, including wine cups, candlesticks and spice boxes for Shabbat, created by artists from around the world. There are also traditional examples of domestic Judaica, like a hanging Shabbat lamp from 18th-century Holland and a Passover wine cup from 19th-century Piedmont, Italy.

The final section, “Dressing the Body: Ritual and Modesty,” spotlights ritual clothing items and examines their gendered histories. The gallery pairs a recently acquired 18th-century tallit from the Netherlands with Boston-based artist Jacob Binder’s “Talmudist” (1919), a local work from the MFA’ s collection, never-before-seen at the museum.

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Tallit katan for a boy. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife, Carrie L. Lehman. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Traditionally reserved for men, the exhibit juxtaposes the tallit and tzizit with creations from Israeli designer Tamar Paley, whose feminist work offers women the opportunity to partake in the rituals through jewelry. There’s also a late-19th-century Yemenite women’s headdress and a talit katan from 18th-century Italy.

“Seeing our Jewish community and traditions in this major institution has always been significant as a crucial way of showing the ways in which Jewish culture has both morphed to and been informed by life around the globe,” Mandel says. “Now, in this moment where antisemitism is up 400% and counting since Oct. 7, this opportunity to understand the universal and specific nature of Jewish life and tradition is more crucial than ever. As we have been saying at JArts, now is the moment for Jewish joy and connection to help fortify us all in this difficult time.”

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Pair of Torah finials from the Jestkalina H. Phillips Fund (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Learn more about the Dec. 7 Hanukkah party here. Can’t make it, or want to learn even more? Di Nepi will host a four-session course on Wednesdays starting on Feb. 28, 2024, collaborating with professors from local colleges and universities. Each lecture explores a different theme in Jewish history and art. The sessions go on sale on Jan. 30.