Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in the Jewish Museum Collection

Hanukkah Lamp, end of the 19th-20th century. Copper alloy: pierced, engraved, traced, punched, and cast. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney L. Quitman, by exchange.

May is nationally recognized as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Originally 10 days when it was first established, AAPI Heritage Month became a month-long celebration in 1992, and in 2017, continues to commemorate the contributions of people of Asian and Pacific descent (from the Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian islands). To celebrate AAPI Heritage Month at the Jewish Museum, we examined works in the collection that explore how Asian and Jewish cultures intersect.

While Jews make up less than 0.1% of total populations in AAPI countries, Jewish communities have thrived in several unexpected corners of Asia. A Star of David-shaped Hanukkah Lamp in the Jewish Museum collection, for example, was made in India. Ceremonial objects like this are characteristic of the Bene Israel community, pockets of which are scattered throughout the country, particularly in Pen, Mumbai, Alibag, Pune, and Ahmedabad.

Arthur Rothstein, Refugees Looking at a List of Survivors, Shanghai, China, 1915–1985. Gift of Rothstein Family.

While some works illuminate the diverse places Jews have lived, others tell stories of how a country in Asia played a part in Jewish history. In a series of somber prints gifted by his family, photographer Arthur Rothstein captured the daily life of Jewish refugees living in Shanghai, China. During World War II, more than 20,000 Jews from Iraq, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Poland fled to China, one of the few countries that did not limit immigration. Shanghai in particular did not require visas for entry, and offered sanctuary to many thousands of persecuted Jews. Although Jewish populations in China have since dwindled to a mere 2,600 (less than 0.1%), Rothstein’s photographs immortalize the country’s role in saving the lives of refugees.

Hanukkah Lamp, 1951. Copper alloy: cast, chased, and punched, 2 7/8 x 17 3/16 x 4 5/8 in. Gift of Chaplain Meir Engle

This Hanukkah Lamp made in 1951 from shell casings and cartridge shells demonstrates the resilience of Jewish tradition. While stationed in Korea, Lieutenant Donald E. Kooker, first lieutenant of the United States Army’s X Corps, designed this lamp so that his fellow officer Chaplain Meir Engle could celebrate Hanukkah with Jewish Corps members. Featured in one of the Jewish Museum’s recent exhibitions Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis Does Hanukkah, Kooker’s lamp is a testament to not only to the devotion of Jewish communities but also their resourcefulness.

As an art museum that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of Jewish culture around the world, the Jewish Museum aims to illuminate the many different faces of Judaism, among them members of the AAPI community.

Marriage Certificate from Shanghai, China, 1946. Ink and paint on silk-mounted paper. Gift of Stephen Maurice Jacoby

Celebrate the final week of AAPI Heritage Month by exploring more works in the Jewish Museum collection from Asia, including a Chinese Marriage Certificate, Uzbek skullcap, and Iranian Sabbath/Festival Table Cover.

— Kathryn Estavillo, Marketing Intern