The “modest” goal of this intriguing museum is to explore 4,000 years of Jewish culture through art. Surprisingly, it succeeds much of the time. Its two-floor permanent exhibition (which starts on the fourth floor) gently guides viewers from the biblical era, and the many clashes of the day over such issues as animal sacrifice and the role of the Temple (Jesus wasn’t the only one up in arms over that), through the Diaspora, when the Israelites, forced out of their home by successive conquerors, became “wandering Jews,” spreading to every part of the known world. The modern section brings the exhibition up to today, with only the briefest of mentions of the Holocaust (if that’s what interests you, you’ll be better served by the Jewish Heritage Museum downtown).
The story is told through a mixed marriage, so to speak, of nearly 800 exquisite artifacts and works of art, and by a variety of story-telling devices, including a free audio tour (narrated by Leonard Nimoy, among others), interactive computer programs, videos, television clips, and wall texts. What finally emerges is a portrait of a people who have not only managed to survive against the steepest of odds, but have become magnificently diverse in the process. In fact, the second half of the exhibit could be seen as a survey of world art styles as seen through Jewish eyes, making the museum of interest to a wide audience.
The fourth floor also houses a nifty playroom for kids. On the first and second floors are galleries for changing exhibits, which have housed blockbuster shows on Leonard Cohen, William Steig and Chagall in the past. In the basement is the terrific Russ & Daughters Cafe.