Friday, June 18, 2010

Derfner Judaica Museum/Art at the Hebrew Home

4/23/2010, Friday

Hebrew Home at Riverdale:
  Art at the Home ……………...….. 30 min
  Derfner Judaica Museum …….… 30 min

Hebrew Home at Riverdale:
  Art Collection ………………....…. Free
  Derfner Judaica Museum …….… Free

Part of the fun of seeing ALL the museums of NYC is that, in addition to visiting popular attractions (like MOMA), we also get to tour some very unusual, hidden and even mysterious parts of the city we would never otherwise see, like unused subway tunnels (New York Transit Museum), an abandoned speakeasy (Museum of the American Gangster), and the inner sanctum of a 100 year old secret society of bookbinders (Grolier Club).  The location of today’s museum doesn’t sound as exotic as these, but it certainly isn’t a place we would normally visit, and, according to Paul, it was “the creepiest place so far.”

Today’s museums were located in a very large, very wealthy and very private retirement home, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale.  Riverdale is a neghborhood in the Bronx, but this quiet, leafy historic neighborhood on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson feels so far from the bustling urban-ness of the Bronx that it might as well be on the moon.  To reach the museum, we started on typical Bronx streets, full of people, elevated train noise and traffic, but after we turned and began our descent toward the river, the densely packed brick apartment complexes of central Bronx abruptly gave way to spacious graceful private homes, partially hidden behind immaculately prunned shrubbery and ancient trees casting heavy shadows on the road.  The roads narrowed, the people vanished, all street noise faded out, and by the time we reached the retirement home, the only noises were the wind in the trees, birdsong, and the faint sound of distant water.

A large black fence surrounds this complex in the forest, monitored by a security system that would do a prison proud.  All visitors must check in at the heavily guarded gate and submit to a thorough security check, including ID check, justification of visit and car search if deemed necessary.  There wasn’t a cavity search, but it felt like maybe the guard who did that was off for the day.  If you’re allowed past the checkpoint, you’re given a visitor’s pass and a narrow window of time to complete your business.  Neither Paul nor I asked what would happen if we stayed past our allotted time, and we knew we didn’t want to find out.

After the interrogation, we proceeded into the complex.  Despite the map provided at the gate, we got lost instantly.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is not your average retirement home, and the place is huge.  Located on 19 manicured acres overlooking the Hudson River, the Hebrew Home has over 3,000 elderly residents, a fully staffed hospital, counseling center and rehab facility, and of course what we were there for: a 5,000 piece art collection, a Jewish history museum, and one of the larger sculpture gardens in NYC. 

There are virtually no signs (maybe they’re considered tacky?), so we found the first museum by entering one of the larger buildings and wandering around.  It turned out to be part of the hospital, so we had the bizarre and fairly disturbing experience of dodging gurneys and gowned patients while trying to find someone who didn’t look busy saving someone’s life to ask where any of the museums were.  Eventually we stumbled upon a lofty atrium-like structure overlooking the river called the Jacob Reingold Pavilion, the location of the Derfner Judaica Museum.

The objects in the Derfner Judaica Museum were originally the private collection of wealthy residents Ralph and Leuba Baum, and donated to the home upon their death.  This is how the home acquired most, if not all, of its extensive art collection, and after you realize that sad fact you begin to see every piece of art as representing a death at the home, just one of the many things that made this an intensely eerie experience.

A refugee from Nazi persecution, Ralph Baum (d. 1984) and his wife, Leuba (d. 1997) collected objects used by European Jews before the Holocaust, trying to persevere some of the history and memory of what was lost.  It’s an impressive collection of artifacts, ranging from ceremonial objects like elaborately decorated Torah cases and Hanukah lamps, to more personal items like kitchen spice containers and playing cards.  Paul thought it seemed the most personal of the Jewish museums we’ve seen, consisting largely of small but meaningful things people carried with them as they fled their homes, like a bridal belt worn by all of the women of a family on their wedding day, or a girl’s embroidered Matzah bag.  The object that made the greatest impression on me was an old Torah scroll, yellowed with age and partially charred, but still intact.  It had been pulled from the rubble of a synagogue near Hamburg burned to the ground by the Nazis on Kristall-nacht, the only one of 13 scrolls to survive.  It had been stored in a local police station, and when Ralph Baum returned to his hometown after the war, it was presented to him, the only survivor left to claim it.

In addition to the Judaica museum, the Hebrew Home also has an extensive art collection, comprised of 5,000 works by renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and Joan Mitchell, as well as a large sculpture garden with breathtaking views of the Hudson River and Palisades. The art collection is recognized as a museum, but displayed in common areas throughout the complex.  To see it Paul and I essentially had to tour the retirement home.  I particularly liked the Warhol sketches of famous Jews, and the exhibition of Rachel Leibman’s collages made from images of ancient manuscripts.  Interspersed throughout the halls are also displays supposedly for children, including a huge model train garden designed by landscape architect Paul Busse, an antique doll collection, and a wall of creepy porcelain birds (they just stare at you with beady black eyes).  The art was nice, but it was difficult to just wander through other people’s parlors, feeling like outsiders as friendly residents asked whom we were there to see.  Paul had to constantly fight the urge to go talk to all those lonely people.

Our take on things: on the plus side, there were no crowds and the collections were interesting, particularly the Judaica museum and, oddly, the model train set.  However, their location in a swank retirement home, while certainly novel, made them difficult to get to and awkward to view.  We just could not shake the feeling that we were trespassers here.

Images in this post, from the top: three sculptures in the "River walk" sculpture garden of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale; "Illuminations" by Rachel Leibman; Torah scroll from Elmshorn Germany; “Artistic Palestine Play-Cards” from 1920 Jerusalem replaces the four usual suits with four symbols of religion and the land (fig, pomegranate, star of David and menorah). The kings are Ahasuerus, David, Saul and Solomon. The queens include Esther and the Queen of Sheba; "Olde West Garden Railroad" by Paul Busse, a model railroad depicting life in the 19th century American frontier; and Hanukkah Lamp, Bezalel School, Jerusalem, ca. 1920-29.


  1. Hm. I'm pretty sure you guys have not visited the Grolier Club yet. That sounds like a neat one! Will you two do that one sometime soon?

  2. That demonic sculpture in the garden of the Hebrew Home (the first picture) is the creepiest piece of lawn art that I have ever seen. It looks like a representation of a gigantic bull's head, and so I guess of the god Baal out of ancient Canaan, or the demon from The Exorcist, but why would a Jewish group chose such a thing to place on their grounds? It must represent something else, but what? - Mike

    1. Hi! The sculpture is entitled, "The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, a well-known sculptor.

      This sculpture is one of three of editions; one of the others is located outside the entrance of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

  3. Hi. I got a Giga Alert that my name was mentioned on your blog and I was really happy that you saw my art at the Hebrew Home and liked it. I was thrilled to be mentioned in the same sentence as Andy Warhol. This is a neat blog.
    Rachel Leibman

  4. Its great to see that one of the artists mentioned actually found our blog and liked it! Thank you for your comment.

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