Who would have imagined that treasures of English Judaica would end up in North Carolina? In mid-January we placed on display in the Judaic Art Gallery a major new acquisition: Torah ornaments from the Orthodox Synagogue of Plymouth, England. Consisting of silver and gilt finials (rimmonim) and matching pointer (yad), these superb pieces are among the earliest complete sets of English Torah silver. How did they come to North Carolina? Therein lies a tale. But first, some background.
The Orthodox Synagogue in Plymouth lays claim to being “the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world still in regular use.” Founded by German and Dutch immigrants, the synagogue was built in 1762 by carpenters and other artisans from the nearby shipyards of the Royal Navy. Though never large, the Plymouth Jewish community attained a degree of prosperity that is reflected in the sophistication of the synagogue furnishings and ceremonial art.
About 1783—the year the American colonies won their independence—an unknown member of the Plymouth community went to London and commissioned a pair of finials and pointer from John Robins, a silversmith with a fashionable clientele. Robins responded with pieces that in their refined proportions and playful elegance typify the best of Georgian silversmithing. A respected authority on English silver has judged the finials to be “one of the two most effectively original pairs of rimmonim of pure English character made in London in the 18th century.” Whether intended or not, the bulbous shapes of the finials suggest the origin of the term rimmonim—pomegranates. Gilded bells dangle from three tiers of fancifully designed brackets, adding a celestial tinkle to the procession of the Torah scroll during religious services. Topping each finial is a very English hooped crown, symbolizing the sovereignty of the divine word.
For 226 years the Robins-made finials and pointer played a central role in the ritual life of the Plymouth synagogue. However, in recent decades the once-thriving community has declined, so that today it reportedly numbers about 50 people. “We are a dying community,” admitted one of the leaders of the synagogue to a reporter for the London Times in 2009. She was explaining why the congregation took the drastic decision to sell 23 silver items, including the Robins-made finials and pointer. She further confessed that “we don’t use the items, and we are very short of funds. I’m not sad to see them go … There is no point keeping silver in the bank that we are not using.”
The decision to sell the Torah ornaments sparked a brief furor. Besides the Times, the story was reported by the BBC, London’s Jewish Chronicle, and as far afield as the Jerusalem Post and New York’s Jewish Daily Forward. Inevitably, voices were raised decrying the loss to Jewish—and English—heritage. Even so, despite the ruckus, no one stepped forward to assist the Plymouth Synagogue, and the objects were consigned to auction at Bonham’s in London in November 2009. Nicholas Shaw of Bonham’s praised the Plymouth silver as “the earliest and rarest set of English ritual Torah furnishings to have come up for auction.” Interest was high among collectors of Judaica. Some people expected London’s Jewish Museum to bid on the finials and pointer in an effort to “rescue” them for England. In the end no rescue materialized, and the pieces were bought by a respected London dealer in antique silver and jewelry. After some minor conservation—primarily replacement of a few lost bells—the finials and pointer were offered to the North Carolina Museum of Art for our Judaic Art Gallery.
This presented an opportunity that would not come twice. In strengthening the Judaic art collection, a top priority has been to extend the geographical range of the collection in order to represent the variety of interpretations of ceremonial art across the Jewish Diaspora. Our collection had no English Judaica. And we had few pieces of any kind from the 18th century. Then, too, our goal has always been to acquire only Judaic art of superb artistry. After all, we are an art museum. The Plymouth ornaments were not only historically important; they were also visually dazzling. We had to have them.
The price, however, even after considerable bargaining, was high, and the resources then available in the Judaic Art Fund were substantial but not enough. The dealer in London granted us time to raise the remaining funds. An appeal went out to the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery, and happily several North Carolinians stepped forward with generous contributions that completed the purchase.
Plymouth’s loss is certainly North Carolina’s gain, but we do not intend to ignore, much less forget, where these beautiful objects came from. So many pieces in our Judaic art collection—and in the Museum’s other collections—have lost their histories as they have passed from one hand to another, sometimes with war intervening. With these Torah ornaments, we have the full and very human story: objects created to honor God and enhance communal pride, cherished by 10 generations of Plymouth’s Jews, and finally, sadly sacrificed as the Plymouth community dwindles. The story is well worth sharing.