Images of Prayer, Politics and Everyday Life from the Harry and Branks Sondheim Jewish Heritage Collection

Visual representations, whether or not they are accurate depictions, reveal how individuals or groups present themselves and how they are presented by others. Images can clarify, complicate, or even contradict accompanying text; they can be created as independent sources of information or to serve as decoration or inspiration. In every instance, they provide evidence that enriches our knowledge of the time and place in which they were created.

The Harry and Branka Sondheim Jewish Heritage Collection is thus a unique resource for understanding the history of Jewish life and customs. The Sondheim collection has been carefully assembled over many years by Harry Sondheim, a University of Chicago alumnus (A.B. 1954; J.D. 1957). In 2005, Harry Sondheim began presenting his collection in a series of gifts to the University of Chicago, where it has already begun to enrich Jewish studies.

The Sondheim collection provides a rich, varied, and detailed vision of Jewish life from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Luckily for the scholar and student of Jewish life, Harry Sondheim has been guided by his individual history and interests, rather than any conventional formula, in building his collection. While the collection has a strong unifying theme - Jewish life in modern Europe -- he has followed his passions and tastes, acquiring books and images that are meaningful to him.

All of the items in the Sondheim collection were created either to be used by Jews or to depict Jewish customs and ceremonies. The books and images actually used in Jewish practice illustrate the diversity of diasporic Jewish life and the variety of Jewish responses to the biblical prohibition against representing the human form. The representational works are didactic or documentary in intent. Although they often used stereotypes of Jews, many illustrators and authors sought to produce an accurate rendering of their subject. Thus, even when the text presents a negative view of Jewish life and thought, the images are of historical value.

The early materials consist primarily of printed books, many of them illustrated, which were produced by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors and illustrators. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century works range from visual representations in a wide variety of modern, mass-produced genres, such as illustrated newspapers, postcards, and greeting cards, to limited edition books, a few drawings, and prints.

It is also fortunate for the student and the scholar that Harry Sondheim understands the historical and cultural significance of ephemeral, fugitive items as well as that of scarce and more conventionally valuable materials. Among the most moving and informative items in the collection are those that were used, that clearly played an active part in Jewish life and bear a trace of that usage. Many of the postcards and New Year's cards, for example, have messages in French, German, or English. Much can be gleaned from those short communiqués, and even from the stamps, cancellation marks, and addresses added as the cards made their journeys across Europe. Likewise, Harry Sondheim's collection of Haggadot, the prayer-books used on Pesach (Passover), ranges from beautiful, limited editions and facsimiles through inexpensive editions produced for fundraising purposes by Jewish organizations, to the stained, but carefully taped small Haggadah apparently brought by Harry Sondheim's father when he immigrated to the United States. Some of the books have bookplates, signatures, or stamps identifying their previous owners; some of them have handwritten annotations or emendations. A number of the illustrations, originally simply black-and-white, were boldly hand-colored. Many of the prints and newspaper illustrations were framed, indicating their life on the wall of Harry Sondheim's home, and perhaps of others before him.

The Sondheim collection is particularly strong in representations of the events of the Jewish life-cycle - birth, circumcision, naming, bar mitzvah, marriage, and death - and those of the Jewish calendar (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Sukkot, and Passover). The collection is even richer than this, however, containing numerous representations of Jews at labor and at leisure. Along with his fascination for everyday Jewish life, Harry Sondheim pursued his passion for certain illustrators and artists in developing the collection, in particular Bernard Picart, Ben Shahn, Moritz Oppenheim, Ephraim Lilien, Alfred Szyk, Alphonse Lévy, and François-Louis Schmied. The organization of "Images of Politics, Prayer, and Everyday Life" parallels these strengths in order to suggest the richness of the Harry and Branka Jewish Heritage Collection for the study of Jewish life and customs.


Note: the transliteration of Hebrew words generally follows the Sefardic (Israeli) form. In most instances familiarity has been preferred to strict adherence to a formal system of transliteration.

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