A few days ago I went on my first visit to The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where I met my Mama Donna, also known as Donna Schneier. We wanted to view the Jewish jewelry collection that was on loan to The Metropolitan Museum for a brief time. Considering that Donna Schneier has her own 250-piece collection of art jewelry housed at The Met, I couldn’t have asked for a more qualified tour guide. We were greeted by the museum’s jewelry head curator, Barbara Drake Boehm, who enthusiastically described the beauty and importance of the hidden treasures. “The Colmar Treasure, a medieval Jewish legacy” is tragically and ironically in its viewing arena.
This Colmar Treasure consists of coins, jewels, and other accessories among the precious possessions of a Jewish family of medieval Alsace. It was hidden during the 14th century buried inside the wall of a house in Colmar, France. It was once a thriving Jewish community that was used as a scapegoat and put to death when the plague struck the region with devastating ferocity in 1348-49.
On loan from The Musée de Cluny, Paris, the Colmar Treasure is displayed alongside select works from The Met Cloisters and little-known Judaica from collections in the United States and France. Although the objects on view are without the usual “bling,” it’s very small in scale and few in number. The collection attempts to overturn popular views of medieval Europe as entirely monolithic Christian. The exhibition points to both legacy and loss by acknowledging the prominence of the Jewish minority community in the horribly tumultuous 14th century when these Jews were falsely accused of being responsible for the Bubonic plague in Europe.
As the punishment for these Jews, the bishop and the lords ordered them to be burned to death, and those who tried to escape were caught by peasants and murdered all in the name of Christianity.
A few pieces of jewelry that testify to Jewish life in the town miraculously survived after being hidden in the walls of a house during the 14th century and remaining stashed there for more than 500 years. For years, little was written about this incredible find. However, decades later, after much of the treasure was purchased by the Musée de Cluny, historians found an obvious clue. One of the rings, a marvel of gold and colored enamel, features the Hebrew letters for “mazel tov.” The presence of the Jewish matrimonial ring, shaped like the Beis Hamikdash, clearly identified the treasure as belonging to a Jewish family.
“The ring is so beautiful, so refined,” the exhibition and Met Cloisters’ senior curator Barbara Drake Boehm told the Times of Israel. “The delicacy of the goldsmithing is extraordinary. The roof over the base of the ring is done like an open, delicate architectural arcade, with capitals and columns holding up the domed roof.”
The sapphire, ruby, and pearl brooch was a pin to be used as a deterrent to unwanted gestures by men. It served as a bejeweled warning to men from touching women improperly. The Shabbos key made of silver was used as a piece of jewelry that can be used on Shabbos without violating the halachah of carrying.
A toadstone ring made of fossilized fish tooth was used to ward off the ayin hara, or evil eye. There are also various components of garment hooks and eyes, belt buckles and buttons – all testaments of wealth and taste.
The exhibit leaves you with a small taste of a very large Jewish presence during the medieval times in Europe. It also leaves you with an enormously heavy heart of the demise and elimination of Jews during that time.
As we left the area and headed to the gift shop to purchase a catalog, I couldn’t help but be almost disgusted by the Catholic imagery that occupies most of the space at The Cloisters. It seemed so strange to see this exhibit in these surroundings. Perhaps it’s an attempt of forgiveness, perhaps it’s a reminder that during these times of reemerging anti-Semitism that it’s all been done before. Nowadays we are not falsely accused of poisoning the water wells of Europe to introduce the plague, but instead we now have Israel that is tragically and treacherously being depicted as a poisonous country that needs elimination. My hope is that we learn something very valuable from this small collection of Jewish jewels. We learn that hate from the outside doesn’t change, but love from the inside is all we have, as Jews need to survive as one.
At The Met Cloisters
July 22, 2019-January 12, 2020
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By Tobi Rubinstein