This Day in Jewish History

1904: A Judge Founds the Jewish Museum in New York

It started from one small cabinet and grew, including thanks to a selection of treasures from the Jews of Danzig.

The Warburg House in 1929, B&W photograph, taken in winter, judging by the bare trees and coats and hats worn by passers-by.
William Roege, Kjones66, Wikimedia Commons

On January 20, 1904, the institution now known as the Jewish Museum, in New York, had its modest beginnings, when Mayer Sulzberger, a Philadelphia judge and Judaica collector, donated a small collection of ritual objects to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The 26 objects were an addendum to a much larger gift, of 7,500 printed books and an additional 750 manuscripts, that Sulzberger (1843-1923) presented to the library.

It was to be another four decades, however, before the Jewish Museum had its own home, in the former Warburg mansion, on Fifth Ave., on the other side of town. By then, Sulzberger’s initial gift had been augmented by several other major collections, as well as the treasures of the Jewish community of Danzig, which had disbanded itself on the eve of the Holocaust, and sent 350 ceremonial objects to the seminary for safekeeping.

When Sulzberger, who had assembled one of the finest collections of Jewish texts in the United States, added the gift of ritual objects to the JTS, he wrote its librarian, Alexander Marx, of his hope that they would “serve as a suggestion for the establishment of a Jewish museum in connection with the library.”

Very humble beginnings

According to Brett Drucker, author of a 2008 master’s thesis comparing the Jewish Museum and the Skirball Museum, however, the then-president of the young seminary, Solomon Schechter, was eminently uninterested in ritual objects. They were therefore shunted into a single display case in the corner of the JTS library.

Later, in 1931, when the seminary moved to larger quarters, at 122nd St. and Broadway, the museum was given a room of its own, but no more.

By then, JTS had supplemented its holdings with the purchase of the acclaimed 400-piece collection of the Turkish-born Judaica collector and dealer Hadji Ephraim Benguiat, who had come to the U.S. in the 1890s.

The Danzig collection had been received in 1939, with the understanding that if the city’s Jewish community survived the war, it would be returned to them. It didn’t, and the objects remained in New York.

Additionally, investment banker Harry George Friedman began donating to the museum from his Judaica collection in 1941, and by the time he died, in 1965, had given it more than 600 items. Many had been bought from Holocaust refugees who reached the United States either before or after World War II.

It was only in 1944, however, that the seminary was gifted the handsome mansion at the corner of  Fifth Ave. and 92nd St. that opened, after three years of renovations, as the  permanent home of what was now called the Jewish Museum in 1947.

A gift of a mansion

The Warburg mansion had belonged to Felix M. Warburg and his wife, the former Frieda Schiff, and it was she donated it to JTS, seven years after Felix’s death. The German-born Felix Warburg was one of the partners at Kuhn, Loeb & Co., the investment bank co-founded by the father-in-law of his father-in-law, Jacob Schiff.

When Felix decided to build a home along Fifth Ave.’s Millionaires’ Row, he had to contend with the objections of Jacob Schiff, who feared that such a conspicuous show of wealth would encourage anti-Semitism. The limestone mansion, designed by C.P.H. Gilbert, was in the so-called Francois I, or chateau style, and it made a fitting addition to a stretch of Fifth Ave. that was already home to residences owned by people with names like Frick and Vanderbilt.  

Before giving the building to the seminary, Frieda Warburg had sold the property to a developer who had plans to erect an 18-story apartment building there. When that scheme fell through, she decided to turn it over for the use of the Jewish Museum.

Since then, the structure has undergone three expansions, the first in 1959 – the addition of a sculpture garden – a second one in 1963, and finally, the addition of a new seven-story building, designed by Kevin Roche, in 1993, which doubled the size of the museum.

Today, the institution, the world’s first Jewish museum, has holdings of some 30,000 objects, which range from archaeological artifacts, to ceremonial art and also an excellent collection of fine art created by Jewish artists, including Marc Chagall, Man Ray, Eva Hesse and Reuven Rubin.