Biggest U.S. Jewish museum opens in L.A. featuring artifacts, environs

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

LOS ANGELES — This is not a walk-around-till- you're-tired-of-staring-at-embroidered-Torah-scrolls kind of Jewish museum.

Slick Hollywood-produced videos, computer games, piped-in sound tracks and simulated environments like a Lower East Side kitchen and an ancient tomb bring the new Skirball Cultural Center's museum to life.

Built seamlessly into the Santa Monica hills, the new $65 million center, associated with the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College, will be the largest of its kind in North America when it opens Sunday, April 21.

Complete with a 350-seat auditorium, classrooms and a library, Skirball aims to be not just a museum but a major Jewish gathering place with an evocative array of artifacts at its core.

With 25,000 pieces — about 1,000 of which will be on display at a time — the collection is one of the four most extensive in the world, ranking with those at Jewish museums in Israel, New York and Prague.

While the museum's interpretive exhibits would make Southern California neighbor Universal Studios proud, it is only spice and garnish to an already hearty offering of Judaica.

The objects speak for the Jews who once possessed them: a human hair sheitel fashioned into a bun and once worn by a Russian immigrant; a pair of wooden and mother-of-pearl mikveh clogs from Rhodes; a burnished clay beer jug from the time of David; neon green sunglasses with the phrase "Alex's Bar Mitzvah" lettered on the sides.

"The objects are magic," says museum director Nancy Berman. "There's nothing like them. We're here to show the great visions, beliefs, historical experiences of the Jewish people, why it is that we must continue."

The collection spans time and space from ancient history, to diaspora communities worldwide, to Jewish life today.

On permanent display, "A Walk through Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America" opens by taking visitors 6,000 years back to ancient Israel. Stepping on pale Jerusalem stone, museumgoers will first view ancient shards, tools and pottery with their feet "planted in the roots of the Jewish people," according to Berman.

But the exhibit's strength is its emphasis on the immigrant experience in America.

In the "Liberty and Immigration Gallery," an audio montage of shipboard sounds, waves and chatter underscores the pièce de resistance — a mammoth reproduction of the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty at 70 percent scale. The great green arm is swimming in a wide sea of glass tiles.

Along the wall, viewers can sit on benches made out of wood from those at Ellis Island and view one of only 40 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.

At its best, the Skirball makes a powerful statement about the symbiotic relationship between America and its immigrants.

In exchange for the liberty extolled on the famous statue by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, immigrants have given back creative and scientific gifts; this is a quid pro quo presented most pointedly in a multimedia display produced by Paul Heller, executive director of the Academy Award-winning film "My Left Foot."

In a kaleidoscope-shaped room with glass walls, eight elevated screens flash images that overlap and shift. Glimpses of such well-known Jews as Benny Goodman, Jonas Salk, Erica Jong, Danny Kaye, Gilda Radner and Bob Dylan loom. Heller's cinematic exhibit opens and closes with the Genesis quote "Go forth…and be a blessing to the world."

For Uri Herscher, founding president of the center and professor at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College, celebrating the bittersweet immigrant experience was a personal mission.

Herscher's parents fled Germany for Palestine in the 1930s. When he was 13, the family moved to San Jose, where the fearful teenager had to begin again in a new country.

For 17 days on a ship from Haifa, Herscher says, he cried at the sadness of leaving Israel.

"And then, through the people who welcomed me in San Jose, I felt a sense of immense hope in the new country," he says. "I could never have dreamt I would feel as good as I felt. There are millions of immigrants like me who could say the same thing."

In the museum's first temporary exhibition, "Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920," the jarring transition to American life is on display as it is rarely seen — through the fabric of women's daily lives.

Shawls, wigs and shoes on loan from the Chicago Historical Society are shown on mannequins etched with the Old World faces of their original owners. In silhouettes and fabrics, the striking transformation of nearly 1 million Eastern European women unfolds.

Embroidered Sabbath dresses worn by women in Poland make way for the silk and wool bathing suits worn by their granddaughters in America.

From simple scarves to pencil-scrawled matzah ball recipes, everyday items are shown alongside priceless artifacts — and given equal weight throughout the museum.

"We wanted to show not just heroes and famous people but ordinary people in everyday life," says Grace Grossman, curator of the museum's Americana.

Home movies of modern families celebrating Jewish holidays are on view, and museum visitors are invited to become part of the exhibit "Self Portraits." Those who want to commit their cultural identity opinions to celluloid are invited into a private video taping booth a la MTV's "The Real World." The confessionals will play continuously on several large television screens.

Dozens of ordinary objects from Jewish life are also on view downstairs in the museum's open storage section, the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.

With a little patience, those less glitzy shelves of chatchkas yield several treasures, from Yiddish song sheets to kosher scouring powder boxes and sweatshop sewing machines.

If patience is running thinner than a Los Angeles starlet — and it may be for the museum's youngest visitors — the two-floor Discovery Center is designed to cure kids of museum boredom while teaching them about archaeology.

Youngsters can root out ancient relics in an outdoor simulated archeological dig. A custom-made computer game helps would-be Raiders of the Lost Ark research their findings.

Kids still restless? Send them to museum restaurant Zeidler's, order a Death by Chocolate dessert, and hope for the best.

Along with the restaurant and kosher catering facilities for up to 500 guests, the Skirball center features an outdoor plaza and conference rooms. More than 80 b'nai mitzvah and weddings have already been booked.

Program director for the Skirball Cultural Center is Robert Kirschner, formerly head rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He and other staffers are expecting 50,000 students a year to visit on organized school tours. Several classrooms surrounding the center's sunny courtyard await them.

Though the center is associated with Hebrew Union College, it will be independently run.

Herscher, who conceived of the idea for the center 15 years ago, wanted Skirball to be "an oasis in the city, where people from the entire community can meet one another and feel comfortable."

The 125,000 square-foot sanctuary, designed by noted Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, fits delicately into the hills.

Skirball shares its mountain location with the $750 million Getty Center arts complex, to be completed next year. Across the sprawling San Diego Freeway is the University of Judaism and the neighboring Stephen S. Wise Temple.

The process of designing Skirball was "a bit like making wine," says Safdie. After years of sketching and reflecting, he says the resulting bouquet of muted concrete, pink stone and greenish slate "has no mannered, willful accents" but is instead "gentle and silky."

Skirball's naturalistic exterior may quietly blend with its surroundings, hardly noticed from a nearby freeway. But its high-tech interior will keep museumgoers moving through on overdrive for years to come.

The Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, opens Sunday, April 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission: $6, seniors or students $4, children under 12 free. Information: (310) 440-4500.