What was on your grandmothers table: Jewish Heritage Museum exhibit celebrates family traditions

Your bubbe’s seder plate. Your great aunt’s challah cover. These are the objects passed down from generation to generation, rich with Jewish heritage and history. All the objects have stories — if only they could speak.

“They all literally speak to me,” said Ruth Eis, whose sizeable collection of Judaica forms the backbone of the Jewish Her-itage Museum at Danville’s Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living — including the museum’s current exhibit, “On My Grand-mother’s Table I Will Find … “

The exhibit focuses on Jewish holidays, with seder plates, menorahs, megillahs and shofars abounding in the display cases. It opened in September and will run through Jan. 30.

Only a portion of Eis’ collection is housed in the museum. She has no idea how many individual pieces of Judaica she owns — the only things she’s taken time to count are 400-plus spice boxes. One of her favorites is a box her father brought from Russia after World War I that depicts three cherubs holding up a cupola.

Ruth, who was the curator at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley for 40 years, and her late husband, Max Eis, began collecting Judaica during their travels.

“Most of the things were collected by my husband,” says Eis. “He collected because he wanted to rescue what had been left after the Holocaust. He went to Europe many times specifically for that.”

Their travels took them to Russia, Poland, Prague and Budapest, where they sniffed out objects that were hidden during World War II. “Wherever there were large collections, we would find one or two pieces that really didn’t belong there. We would wonder how they got there and the stories connected to them,” Eis says.

When the Reutlinger Center was being planned in 1995, a space was included for exhibiting Judaica, and out of that, the Jewish Heritage Museum came into being.

“We approached Ruth, and she offered her collection to the home,” said museum board Judy Greif. “Basically, Ruth had the collection, and she offered it to us. That was wonderful to know at that time, because we were able to build cabinets and places to display the artifacts.”

While the Ruth and Max Eis Collection of Judaica makes up the bulk of “On My Grandmother’s Table,” the exhibit also includes a large shofar and a Purim megillah donated by a retired rabbi who’s a Reutlinger resident.

Involving the residents in exhibits is an important part of the museum’s mission. “They love it when we change the exhibits — the interaction is very exciting,” Greif said. “It reminds them of their home and when their children or husband or wives were around.”

The museum isn’t just for residents, however. Youth groups are especially encouraged to view the collection for an important lesson in Jewish history.

“We not only see our audience as the people who live here or visit here, but we also encourage the children to come here from different synagogues and day schools,” Greif said. “We also get groups like Hadassah, who will have a meeting here and the members will go and look at the exhibit.”

Although the museum doesn’t openly solicit donations, it is always on the lookout for items to add to its collection.

“We have some things that were donated for special exhibits like this, but we’re adding all the time,” board member Edie Kaplan says. “As any museum would, we need to look it over and see if it fits our collection.”

Eis is glad her collection can enrich the lives of the residents of the Reutlinger Center and the greater Jewish community.

“I donated very consciously, because I have my own ideas about aging,” she says. “I also feel very strongly about being within the community at all times. When you physically can’t do it any more, in spirit, you participate in everything that goes on Jewishly. [Reutlinger] is the right place for this.”

Kaplan noted that the exhibit seems to have brought a great joy to Eis’ life.

“When we were putting this exhibit together, Ruth was kvelling because her things were going to be seen by people,” Kaplan says. “She doesn’t like them to be stuck in a drawer. She wants them to be seen and enjoyed by people. She was the happiest of all of us putting this together.”

“On My Grandmother’s Table I Will Find … “ is on display now through Jan. 20 at the Jewish Heritage Museum at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, 4000 Camino Tassajara, Danville. Free. Exhibit tours available. Information: (925) 648-2800.