The museum collections on the Ashkenazi Jews culture numbering more than 2400 items is one of the most complete collections of this kind presenting to a visitor the ethnoconfessional specifics of culture of this people evolved in the Eastern European diaspora by late XVIII century. From the Middle Ages Ashkenazi is the term designated the Jews lived on the Rhine and then in all German lands; later it was spread to all their Yiddish speaking descendants.
F.K. Volkov - the founder of Jewish collection
The Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum was one of the first museums in Russia of XX century which included in its collection programmes the Jewish rarities. The start of was made by Ukrainian anthropologist and ethnographer F.K. Volkov who donated to the museum 15 objects and 5 photographs in 1907.
The objects of religious cult of A.A. Miller
In later years the business trips of other museum fellows significantly replenished the Ashkenazi collections. The collection of A.A. Miller containing 54 objects is diverse in its thematic: covers for the Torah scroll, attributes of festive and family rituals, texts of prayers, wedding documents, and clothes. Later in 1911 A.A. Miller bought for museum the unique silver menorah - symbolic lamp for the feast of Hanukah. The work of last years on deciphering stamps on the Jewish silver objects allows to include it in the bests examples of Jewish jewelry art of XVIII century.
The interest of Miller in the culture of Jews was quite professional. Being the leading specialist on the ethnography of the peoples of Caucasus he gathered one of the first ethnographic collections on the Mountain Jews, one of numerous ethnic group of this region. His Ashkenazi and Caucasian Jewish collections reflect profound understanding of common confessional base and regional specifics of both subcultures.
The contribution of A.K. Serzhputovsky to the Jewish collection
The voyage of A.K. Serjputovsky to the Kingdom of Poland added to the Ashkenazi collection of the museum 12 items of man and woman clothes, and in 1923 he brought collection of Jewish woman wigs and headdresses from his expedition to Belarus.
Replenishments from private collections
In traditions of museum the Jewish collection was also forming by gifts of individuals and purchases from “collectors of rarities, merchants of antiquities” M.E. Sverdlov, (1910), B.M.A. Veselovskaya-Shanyavskya (1911), A.I. Novodvorsky (1911). In 1914 the Russian Museum received the lion share of collection of the famous Pskov collector F.M. Plyushkin. Obviously “the Jewish rarities” later came to the Ashkenazi collection of the Ethnographic Department also found their place in his collection thanks to their aesthetic merits. Indeed 16 items are from the collection of F.M. Plyushkin.
The role of S.A. An-sky in museum Judaica
The decisive role in formation of ethnographic collection on the Ashkenazi Jews played the transfer of a part of collections belonged to Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in Saint Petersburg (1908—1929). These collections were gathered during expeditions to Jewish towns of Volyn’ and Podolia in 1912—1914 and organizer and leader of expeditions was the famous Jewish public аctivist, writer and folklorist S.A. An-sky. It pseudonym, the real name is Sh.Z.A. Rapport (1863—1920). The expedition materials of An-sky at first comprised the base of the Jewish Museum of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society which was opened in 1917.
In May 1918 An-sky fearing tumults and pogroms in Petrograd handed over for keeping in Russian Museum a part of collections which were declared the state patrimony and included in collections of state museums. Thus, part of the Jewish Museum collections was incorporated in the Jewish storages of the Ethnographic Department.
The An-sky collection in the Russian Museum of Ethnography numbering 295 gives comprehensive idea about traditional culture of Jewish shtetl in Russia in XIXC century. The synagogue textile, invaluable silver objects and amulets are particularly interesting among the items of this collection.
The clothes are represented by several woman costumes, breast-covers (brustikhl), and headdresses, garments of the Kaidanov Tzadik, the rabbi caftan, man headgears, and belts. The collection of brusthils— stable element of Jewish woman costume which had amulet function is unique.
An-sky gathered hundreds of drawings of ornaments from the Jewish tombstones, illustrated Pinkas — the books of Jewish communities, sketches and postcards. The collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography keep six painted luboks — the unique authentic masterpieces of Jewish folk painting conserved to our days.
The OZET materials in museum
In the middle 1920s the Jewish section was organized in structure of the Bielorussian Department of the RME. Later in 1930s when I.M. Pulner was appointed the head of the Jewish section, it became independent research subdivision. His priority task was creation of the exhibition “Jews in the Tsarist Russia and the USSR”. The exhibition was thought to be relevant in the light of occurred historical event— establishment of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in 1934. The preparation of exhibition lasted almost two years.
During this time I.M. Pulner made several business trips and expeditions to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (1937), Ukraine (1938, 1939), Georgia, Azerbaijan (1938), gathering materials on traditional culture and new Soviet thematic. In the summer of 1938 after liquidation of the OZET and its Central Council its huge archive containing in photographic documents almost entire history of organization of Jewish agricultural centers in Ukraine, Crimea, Caucasus in 1920s and the history of “national construction” in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast until 1938 was transferred to museum with help of Pulner. Part of these photographs was included in materials of the exhibition “Jews in the Tsarist Russia and the USSR” which opened March 10 1939.
Contribution of I.M. Pulner to the Jewish collection
In brief period of work from 1937 to 1941 I.M. Pulner acquired 12 collections numbering about 400 items. For instance, with help of the musicologist M. Beregovsky rare collection of Klezmer musical instruments entered museum from Kiev in 1938. Collections of print drawing and printed rugs, lithographs with images of Jewish tombstones, old Mizrah (wall decoration to mark eastern direction) and other items were received from the Ukrainian Museum of Folk Art. The collections of lekekh-bretlakh (ginger bread molds), children toys used at the feasts of Purim and Lag BaOmer, hand-made carved chess with the Judaic symbolic was handed over to museum from the Jewish museum of Odessa. The collection of ritual and festive cookies acquired by I.M. Pulner in the town of Bershadi numbers 101 items and is one of the most complete among collections of this kind.
Cooperation with the artist S.B. Yudovin enriched the Ashkenazi collection. In 1938 S.B. Yudovin made a trip to the locality of Beshenkovichi in Belarus from where he brought abundant material on the local Purimshpil (the Purim Feast theatrical play, which plot is based on the Book of Esther), sketches of Purimshpil actors’ costumes, theatrical prop and a series of drawings with ornaments of Jewish tombstones. All this together with 60 of his own graphic works S.B. Yudovin gave to the Jewish collections of the Ethnographic Museum.
Valuable acquisitions from the Museum of Ethnology
In 1948 the Ashkenazi collection was replenished by collections of the State Museum of the Peoples of the USSR, where the most valuable were the materials of I.M. Pulner who worked in Byelorussian expedition under commission of the Museum of Ethnology in 1931. In 1954 one more large Jewish collection was formed of unregistered earlier objects. This complex collection consists of 87 items. Most of them are silver cult and ritual objects, jewelry, details of clothes, woman wigs.
The new stage in history of the RME Jewish collection
From late 1950s to early 1990s collection was replenished thanks to occasional gifts, purchases and transfers from official organizations. The early 1990s is new stage in history of the Ashkenazi Jewish collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography: the exhibition “By the route of An-sky. Life of Jewish town in the Tsarist Russia” was made on the base of collection, mostly on the An-sky materials. The work on exhibition concept and catalogue required attribution of artifacts. Demonstration of the exhibition in leading Jewish museums of Europe, Israel, and the USA convincingly showed to what degree the Ashkenazi collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography is comparable with largest Jewish collections of the world and how unique it is. Today these collections are the most important and probably the only complete source for studies in traditional culture of the Ashkenazi Jews in Russia of late XVIII-early XX cc.