Jewish symbols span the ages in new exhibit

Remove the symbols from Judaism, and you’re left with a chassis without a body: The car still drives, but it looks nothing like a car.

Glass goblet photo/gary wagner

Some of the most potent Jewish symbols — including the menorah, the Star of David and the Lion of Judah — receive the star treatment in a new exhibition, “Jewish Symbolic Motifs Across Time.” It’s open now through February at the Jewish Heritage Museum of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

Sponsored by the Flora and Ivan Svarc Fund, the exhibition features 80 items, among them 50 rare pieces of Judaica from the Ruth and Max Eis collection, bequeathed years ago to the Reutlinger Community, a seniors facility.

Those 80 are divided among select Jewish symbols: the menorah, the lion, the Magen David, biblical figures and architectural images (think of the stony Jerusalem skyline).

Guest curator Sheila Braufman couldn’t wait to pore through the Eis collection and assemble the displays. She narrowed down the many possible symbol choices and got to work.

“I thought it would be a fun idea,” she says, standing before the museum’s cases located near the Reutlinger foyer. “There is a sense of identity when you see a symbol. It’s a way of showing independence, separate from someplace else.”

To show the use of biblical figures through the ages, Braufman picked objects such as antique coins, haggadahs, dreidels, a brass clock, Persian mosaics and a pair of painted beakers from Europe depicting an avuncular Moses and Aaron.

Silver betrothal ring photo/courtesy of reutlinger community for jewish living

The seven-branch menorah described in the Torah has been a subject of Jewish art for centuries: Braufman chose images of ancient sarcophagi, a Napoleonic tapestry and even the insignia from the modern-day Israeli military to show the menorah’s symbolic power.

While not unique to Judaism, the lion has a special role in Jewish symbolism, both as the emblem of the tribes of Judah and Dan, and as the guard of the Holy Ark.

“Most of the time,” Braufman says, “in a Jewish context you see [lions] in pairs. They can be both ferocious and protective.”

As for the architectural symbols, Braufman chose images of the Second Temple, the Tower of David and Jerusalem itself, as painted on decorative plates, spice boxes and mounted on a pewter Hope Diamond–sized community betrothal ring (passed from bride to bride).

While many people might assume the Star of David is one of the most ancient of Jewish symbols, Braufman points out that it didn’t become ubiquitous until the advent of the modern Zionist movement a little more than 100 years ago.

So none of the Magen David items on display stretch back to antiquity. There’s a delegate card to the 1898 Zionist Congress, a tzedakah box from Cuba and a dinner plate from the Queen Mary ocean liner, circa 1936 (the ship had its own dedicated kosher kitchen).

“Some of the objects are kitsch, some are everyday,” Braufman notes of the exhibition. “I didn’t want to show any fine art, but you have to think about your audience. The whole thing could end up looking like a garage sale.”

That’s a little curator humor.

Braufman is a seasoned art expert who worked for the Judah L. Magnes Museum for nearly 20 years and taught Jewish art history at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica.

19th century bronze menorah photo/gary wagner

She and her colleagues at the Jewish Heritage Museum plan to invite educators from Jewish day schools and synagogues to bring their kids over to see the exhibition.

It’s all part of the Reutlinger commitment to art. Works of art — from stained-glass windows in the chapel, to paintings by residents, to a striking metal sculpture by Neil Goodman —  can be found throughout the Danville facility.

“We’ve always had art programs for the residents,” says Judy Greif, who oversees the museum and helped coordinate the new exhibit.

As for the Jewish Heritage Museum, it’s located right where the Reutlinger’s senior residents can see it: down the hall from the front lobby. And apparently the residents are so keen about enjoying art, they give it a close inspection.

Says Greif, “The residents tell us when the cases are dusty.”


“Jewish Symbolic Motifs Across Time” is on display through Feb. 14 at the Jewish Heritage Museum of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, 4000 Camino Tassajara, Danville. Admission is free. Information: (925) 648-2800.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.