Tumen exhibition expresses passion for Jewish narrative

Photo/Mike Lovett

Zachary Fine Albert M.A. '12 installing objects from the Tumen collection on the Goldfarb Library mezzanine.

For more years than anyone can remember, a clutch of Jewish ritual objects sat in cases on the mezzanine of Goldfarb Library, an out-of-the-way location for an unremarked-upon selection from what is actually a jewel of Brandeis’ vast store of Judaica – the Bernice and Henry Tumen Collection.

Individual objects were interesting enough, but the exhibit lacked context and cohesion. Few people gave it a second look.

That all changed recently, as Zachary Albert, who received his master’s in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies this spring, unveiled a parting gift to the university – a refurbished, contextualized display with explanatory wall panels and QR codes for quick access to additional information. Now the exhibit suggests motivations and influences that shaped the spice boxes, Kiddush cups, Torah pointers, menorahs and other objects.

Nor is Albert’s contribution limited to what you can see there. He also photographed the entire 177-object Tumen Collection and created an online finding aid.   

Albert, who wrote his master’s thesis on museum narratives of the Holocaust, has concerned himself with museum exhibits and their impacts from an early age.

“I went to school in Allen, Texas,” the only Jew in his school, he said during a chat as the new exhibit went up. “There was a sixth-grade trip to the holocaust museum in Dallas, and I was nervous that people would be watching me, asking each other ‘How will he react?’ My Mom and I went a week before so I would not be overwhelmed.”

As it turned out, he was overwhelmed in a wholly different way. A group of survivors was in the museum when he went with his mother “and I loved them,” Albert recalls. “They were so warm, and I was amazed by what they had been through.”

As a result, he began volunteering at the museum. His interest in the Holocaust and Jewish artifacts blossomed into a bar mitzvah project through which he secured for the Dallas museum a Torah scroll from the Czech scrolls collection at London’s Westminster Synagogue, where Torahs looted and often desecrated by the Nazis are preserved.

A second-degree black belt, he staged a “board breakathon,” raising $7,000 to bring the Torah to this country. The story was chronicled in a film by Robert O. Curry, “Dancing with Torah.”

“I feel a loving burden from the survivors to tell the story after they are gone,” Albert said. “My generation will be the last to say they actually met a Holocaust survivor.”

Turning to the Tumen collection, he said that “a lot of these artifacts speak to living traditions that have gone through the filters of other cultures” – a reason for his arrangement of some of the pieces against a background of Christian and Muslim imagery.

The collection was assembled over many years by Dr. Henry J. Tumen and Bernice Tumen of Philadelphia. Dr. Tumen, who died in 1994, was a gastroenterologist, professor of medicine, and the chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Graduate School of Medicine and Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Most pieces in the collection are from the 19th and 20th centuries, but some are ancient – as far back as the 2nd century. The collection was given to the Rose Art Museum in 1981, and is now under the care of the university’s Archives and Special Collections Department.

When he took leave of Brandeis in late June, Albert was headed for Poland, where he will be one of 10 graduate students participating in the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program this summer. He then will become education and public engagement coordinator for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Categories: Alumni, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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