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Out of Sight: Rethinking the Museum’s Collection

The Museum of Italian Jewish Art tells the story of its communities both in Italy itself and around the world. Since the establishment of the Museum, it has accumulated many items that define both the Museum's identity and uniqueness. Through the years, its exhibits have created a web of stories and memories, feelings and experiences.

The exhibition Out of Sight turns the visitor's gaze inward in order to reveal how the Museum has collected, recorded, and curated its holdings. Displays in museums that deal with Jewish art, ethnography, and the history of the people of Israel generally reflect traditional perceptions of the "proper" way to present Jewish identity, culture, and art. The exhibition before you challenges these concepts, encouraging you to ask questions, raise doubts, and offer alternatives to the ways these objects were presented and made available to the general public over the years.

Museum visitors are usually confined to exhibition halls and galleries; they are not allowed to enter its storerooms. This unusual exhibition, as its name suggests, invites visitors to go behind the scenes of the Museum of Italian Jewish Art and into its storerooms with the help of a specially commissioned experiential installation and video production. These will introduce you to important curatorial issues, such as: Which items deserve to be at the forefront of the Museum's displays? The exhibition contains objects related to the religious and ceremonial space as well as items from daily life, many of which do not necessarily conform to the canon of Italian Judaica. Some of them are damaged or incomplete, some have suffered from the passage of time, and some are simply missing. Yet all of them are important: each item tells its own story, its contribution to the collection, the Museum, and the history of Italian Jewry.

The exhibition provides insight into the history of the collection, the collection process, and the works that eventually coalesced as the foundation of the Museum of Italian Jewish Art. Our primary goal was to recount the mid-20th century efforts of Shlomo Umberto Nahon and many other worthy people to save the cultural treasures of the Jewish communities in Italy.


The Vaults

The precious treasures of the Museum of Italian Jewish Art are kept away from the eyes of visitors, in safes hidden deep underground. Most of them are wrapped in special materials that help preserve them. Upon entering the Museum's collection, each items is registered with a permanent catalogue number. This careful registration makes it possible to locate any item at any given moment. The installation before you was created specially for this exhibition, simulating and showing how our holdings are kept and organized.

On one of the shelves you can see an open page of the well-known liturgical poem (piyut), B'tzet Yisrael (Psalm 114). In the background the choir of the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem, conducted by Ester Ottolenghi, sings the psalm in the ancient Italian style.

When Israel came out of Egypt,

    the house of Jacob, from a people of foreign tongue,

 Judah became God’s sanctuary,

    Israel his dominion.

The sea saw it and fled,

    the Jordan turned back;

 the mountains leapt like rams,

    the hills like lambs.

 Why was it, sea, that you fled?

    Why, Jordan, did you turn back?

 Why, mountains, did you leap like rams,

    you hills, like lambs?

 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord,

    at the presence of the God of Jacob,

 who turned the rock into a pool,

    the hard rock into springs of water.


Our video production, "Analog.Front" by Arik Futterman and Ariel Snapiri, provides a glimpse into the Museum's vaults, made possible by photographs taken by the closed-circuit security cameras in various places. The video invites you to enter the vaults and enjoy a unique view of the riches there while observing the museum staff at their daily jobs, doing the important work of registering, documenting, and preserving the pieces.

The video work is connected indirectly to the permanent exhibit here: six alms boxes, from charitable institutions with different  missions,fixed on the wall, and a display cabinet with keys to the Torah Arks that are always on display. The safes seen in the video hold the items in the collection for safe-keeping; the charity boxes held the community's donations; and the Torah Arks held the holy scrolls of the Torah and their ritual appurtenances. All this work of collecting, maintaining, and preserving, which seems to be nothing more than an accumulation of technical efforts, is in fact the crucial activity that enables the Museum to tell its story.

The Hidden Ones

The Ark of Mantua in this permanent display was donated to Mantua's synagogue in 1543, along with the accompanying chairs. Standing here in all its glory, the Ark is an example of the objects, largely related to religious ceremonies, that are given a stage in Jewish museums around the world. However, many other items related to other aspects of Jewish society remain stored away from the eyes of visitors. Out of Sight offers new perspectives on Jewish collections and alternative ways of telling the story of Jewish communities through the objects they used. Hence we selected a variety of objects that a traditional museum would not choose to display. Each of these objects, alone and together, relates something about the Jews of Italy, about individuals and communities. They are a reminder of the prevailing traditions and customs, of everyday life and  significant life cycle events, and they testify to the role of Judaism in the private and public spheres, in holy and profane spaces


Looking at the collection from the inside raises questions concerning not only the themes of the displays but also the aesthetic aspect of items that usually find their way into exhibition spaces. In Jewish museums around the world, curators' choices seem to be influenced by perceptions of beauty and style as well as the integrity of the items and their state of preservation. We believe that these perceptions have also affected our Museum, and therefore items that do not meet accepted aesthetic standards have been hidden in our storerooms, invisible to visitors.

On this occasion, however, we have considered the Museum's entire collection and displayed items that at first glance may appear somewhat "different," strange and unusual. In this gallery, we ask you to open your eyes and hearts as you look at broken and damaged items. Never before did they have a chance to tell their stories. Through them, you can ask questions and learn about Italian Jewry and the Museum's collection. The visibility of these objects now enables us to discover and appreciate their sagas, their original owners and the communities they served in the past, as well as the Museum itself.


The Collection

The museum's collection of material culture began its journey in the mid-20th century in a rescue operation directed by Shlomo Umberto Nahon, in cooperation with representatives of Italian Jewish communities and government ministries in Israel and Italy. Due to the severe damage they had suffered in World War II and consequent demographic and social changes, many of these communities were greatly diminished or even ceased to exist. Nahon's goal was to save their belongings and return them to active use. During the rescue operation, 38 Torah Arks were brought to Israel from Italy in addition to the contents of several synagogues. They were all given new homes and new lives. Some were presented to the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem, others to synagogues and communities throughout the country. Over the years, the collection has been supplemented with ritual objects and other items donated by Italian Jewish communities and individuals, who considered the Museum the most appropriate place to preserve their stories and memories.

Within the walls of the Museum we have had the opportunity to explore the essence of its collection, and to resolve certain questions. How did it begin, and what was its purpose? Does it represent certain communities or all of Italian Jewry? Was the collection operation planned or random? What are the criteria for including or rejecting any specific item?

This exhibit is a journey of seeking and discovery. The items from the Museum's collections that we have unearthed and displayed here give rise to questions belong to a learning process that never stops.


Shlomo Umberto Nahon was born in 1905 to an observant Sephardi family in Livorno, Italy. Livorno's Jewish community existed from the late 16th century; unlike other Italian cities, where Jews lived in ghettos, Livorno allowed Jews to settle there as free citizens. Jewish activity was extensive: there were a rabbinical seminary (Beit Midrash), a number of active synagogues, and a Jewish printing house.

Shlomo's parents instilled in him a great love of Judaism. Though as a child he was enrolled in a public school, he also had private Hebrew and Jewish studies lessons with rabbis.  At the age of 18, he established a Jewish cultural club; a year later, in 1924, he was one of the organizers of a Zionist conference in Livorno, with participants from Jewish communities throughout Italy. Thus began his Zionist activities, which continued without interruption in Italy and Eretz Israel.

As a student at Bocconi University in Milan, Shlomo Nahon was the guiding spirit behind the Jewish students' club, whose members hailed from all of Europe. Upon completion of his studies at the age of 23, he was appointed secretary-general of the Italian Zionist Federation, eventually becoming its vice president. For four years, while on the staff of the Federation, he also served as editor of the weekly Israel. During his years at the Federation, which lasted until he left for Eretz Israel in 1939, he stayed in touch with Europe's Zionist leaders, among them Nahum Sokolov and Menachem Ussishkin, and was the Federation's primary liaison with Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, and with Nahum Goldman, to whom he reported on the situation in Fascist Italy, the changes that were taking place in the political climate, and their consequences. In the same period, from 1931-39, he participated in all the Zionist Congresses as a delegate of the Italian Federation.   

In 1939 Shlomo immigrated to Eretz Israel with his wife, Anita, née Levy, their eldest daughter Leah, and his mother, who lived with them. They first settled in Tel Aviv, where Shlomo's second daughter, Simcha, was born, but moved to Jerusalem in 1945. In his early years in Israel, Shlomo  filled various positions on behalf of Keren Hayesod in European countries, North Africa, and the Belgian Congo. In 1945, even before the end of the World War, he was assigned a two-year mission to represent the Jewish Agency in Italy, where he worked tirelessly to strengthen the communities that remained after the war's devastation. He helped reorganize the Zionist movement in Italy and participated in the creation of training centers for refugees through the Center for Diaspora, and in distributing food for them that was provided by UNRRA and the Joint. Above all, he was responsible for allocating precious certificates (visas) to Jewish refugees from European countries who wished to emigrate to Israel.

In 1946, he joined the staff of the Jewish Agency and worked there until his retirement. One of his roles was to serve as secretary of every Zionist congress that convened in Jerusalem. On behalf of the Zionist Organization, he also hosted the world's great statesmen on their visits to Mount Herzl. In addition, he was involved in maintaining contact with the Italian Jewish to organizations and with Sephardic Jewish organizations globally. Meanwhile he continued his extensive journalistic activities, writing hundreds of articles that brought news of Israel to Jewish communities on every continent.

One of Shlomo Umberto Nahon's primary goals was to introduce Israelis and others to the cultural treasures of Italian Jews; hence many of his publications related to their lives and history. Among other things, he initiated a new edition, with commentary by Dr. Daniel Goldschmidt, of Shmuel David Luzzato's introduction to the prayer book, Machzor According to Roman Custom. The new edition explained the unique Italian form of prayer, preserved from the time of the Second Temple's destruction in 70 CE and the start of the Jews' Roman exile. This is the prayer book used today by the congregation of the Italian Synagogue in this building, which Shlomo led as president (parnas) for many years.

According to Shlomo, the peak of his Zionist Jewish endeavors was the project to bring the Torah Arks and other contents of Italian synagogues to Israel. He firmly believed that this rescue operation, which he initiated and implemented, gave the Jews of Italy the great privilege of being among the first to fulfill the prophetic vision: "In the future, the synagogues and Jewish houses of learning in Babylon will be established in the Land of Israel" (Megillah 29) His rescue efforts lasted about twenty years, and the items that were transferred thus to Israel comprise the foundation of the Museum's collection.  Nahon's logbook listing these objects as they arrived from Italy is displayed next to another registration notebooks by the Museum's collections manager.

Shlomo Umberto was an inspirational figure, the ultimate institutional organizer, imbued with an enduring goal. A man of vision and action, he was a gracious conversationalist and orator, a man of profound sensitivity and thinking.  His sharp mind and warm emotions drew others to him and impelled them to action. He died in Jerusalem on January 15, 1974. In recognition and appreciation of his lifelong work, the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art, established in 1983, was named after him.

We thank Shlomo Umberto Nahon's family for their assistance with this biography.

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