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'Living by the Book' explores Jewish Bible

By Kathleen Maclay


From sacred to everyday, objects from clothing and artwork to tourist memorabilia are assembled in a new exhibition on the influences of the Jewish Bible opening today at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life , part of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Shavuot festival

This 1984 color lithograph and etching by artist Theo Tobiasse celebrates the festival of Shavuot, held in observance of the harvest and commemorates the anniversary of God giving the Torah to Israel. (Courtesy of the Magnes.)

“Living by the Book: The Jewish Bible and the Everyday Power of Text,” was curated by Magnes acting director Francesco Spagnolo, and Daniel Fisher, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies and a Magnes Graduate Fellow. It is open to the public 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday until June 2016, with a closure for winter break.

The Jewish, or Hebrew, Bible corresponds closely to the Christian Old Testament.

“Its words are written in manuscript scrolls and printed books, housed in synagogues and homes, embellished with decorative objects, encased in treasured chests, and dressed with precious textiles,” says an introduction to the exhibition. “This core physical presence of the Bible has offered Jewish life definition and structure, operating in the background to color the experience of time, space and the self.”

Flowers and Views

A souvenir of an occupation such as this 1917 collection of pressed flowers may have provided a memory of the Holy Land for tourists there. (Courtesy of the Magnes.)

A free, open-to-the-public reception for “Living by the Book” will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9, at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, just a block from the western edge of campus. Reservations must be made by Monday, Sept. 6.

In addition to Spagnolo and Fisher; speakers will include Peachy Levy of Santa Monica, a collector of biblical objects; Magnes faculty director George Breslauer; and Robert Alter, a Berkeley emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature. Alter writes extensively on the literary aspects of the Bible and is known for his award-winning translations of Genesis and the Five Books of Moses ( Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). He also is the author of The Literary Guide to the Bible .

Also opening today is a related, but smaller, exhibition, “Larger than Life: Jonah and the Fish,” which explores the Book of Jonah, the Hebrew Bible’s only prophetic book. Jonah and its look at the relationship between man and God, free will and God’s will and more is read from beginning to end in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Objects on display at “Living by the Book” also include a Torah crown, a Torah shield and a pair of silver phylacteries cases that were among items recently given by the Peachy and Mark Levy Family Juaica Collection. This was the largest donation of objects to the Magnes since its founding in 1962, and the largest Magnes addition since the 1967 purchase of the Siefried S. Strauss Collection of objects, rare books and manuscripts.

“Larger than Life” features a translation of the Book of Jonah by Alter, whose latest work to appear in print is Strong as Death is Love: The Songs of Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel .