The Jewish Museum in NYC

The Jewish Museum in NYC 150 150 Sarity Gervais

The other day I walked by a poster inside the subway station, which made me stop in my tracks, rather abruptly.The mad wave of rushing New Yorkers behind me, barely avoided stumbling over me.

I think the only thing that saved me from caustic remarks was my tiny white Pomeranian, Matilda, whose smile could melt anyone’s heart. When I’m with her, all is forgiven, even the potential pile-up I almost caused.

The poster advertised an exhibit at the Jewish museum, entitled &quotHelena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power.&quot

The Jewish museum is located just north of the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue. The building evokes a sense of a more elegant, slower paced city, more in keeping with the New York of Henry James rather than that of Norman Mailer.

The Museum, even in a city filled with the greatest offerings in every branch of culture imaginable, is a wonder.

It has on permanent display 30,000 important objects that represent Jewish fine and folk art, Judaica and antiquities pertinent to 4,000 years of Jewish culture. There is a rich sampling of ceremonial art, books, documents and photographs. The collection is constantly refreshed by new acquisitions, some artistic masterpieces from past centuries, alongside contemporary works by artists who comment on the pertinent issues to our people.

Yet the traveling exhibits are the ones drawing myself and the masses, more than anything else. The curators have ensured that the collections loaned from both private and institutional collections are exceptional. Invariably, these exhibits are so absolutely unique, they appeal to a broad audience, and are often very popular.

All said, the museum has been described as a gem, both for the content and the stunning originality of the displays.

The Chagall exhibit, for instance, showed the artist and his work from a perspective, previously little known to the public. &quotChagall, Love, War and Exile&quot’ focused on the period of 1930-1940, which shows a rare side of the whimsically uplifting artist. The gravitas of the paintings produced during this period shows the artist’s deeply disturbed artistic expression in response to the rise of fascism, and the horrible suffering it brought on its heels. It also speaks of his own personal losses and pain, his exile from Russia and a far less than optimistic view of world.

Somehow, it’s as if Chagall has departed temporarily from his colorful, joy-filled celebration of love and life. Visitors to the museum got to witness what was an unknown aspect of one of the greatest and most original modernists, known for his optimism and revealed the dark side we all harbour within us, even if it’s rarely allowed to surface.

The museum’s latest offering was an in-depth look at Helena Rubinstein, a woman I have long admired.

When I was old enough to climb onto my mother’s dressing table, (I was a cosmetics junkie even at age three), many of the fascinating beauty products on the counter had the name &quotHelena Rubinstein&quot on them. I loved playing with the tubes of lipstick, rouges and eye shadows, which I tried on my dolls, while praying nobody will find me out. It was like Purim all year around, intoxicating, creative and fun. I was hooked.

As soon as possible, I got hold of her autobiography, &quotMy Life In Beauty&quot and didn’t want the book to end. Shortly after I read her affectionately intimate biography,&quotMadame,&quot written by Ms. Rubinstein’s personal assistant, in which she’s depicted as a diminutive woman with a gigantic persona.

She is said to have been a dynamo, set out to conquer the world. With her spunky drive and Midas touch, she did indeed become one of the richest women in the world, not through marriage but rather through the then unheard way&amphellip the self -made woman.

Madame came from humble beginnings in Krakow, Poland. She was born Chaya Rubinstein, and though she changed her name to Helena, she kept her Jewish family name, even at the height of success and her rise to beauty mogul.

She believed, that all women deserved to look their best. Make-up, which was used only by prostitutes and actresses, was to her mind a thing all women were entitled to benefit from.

Madame Rubinstein said that looking radiant could only empower the average woman, thus single-handedly introduced the perception, that a woman’s decency isn’t compromised by giving nature a cosmetic boost.

What began as a shrewd philosophy, selling jars of creams with nothing more than lanolin and lavender to disguise the pungent odor of her products, became a craze which caught on like wildfire.

She began selling the promise of eternal youth with a cream called &quotValaze&quot. It claimed to contain magical herbs found only in the mountains of Carpathia, and was guaranteed to make the skin translucent and youthful. Helena Rubinstein also realised that the more she charged for the cream, the more value would be assigned to it, and indeed the jars flew off the shelves sooner than new batches could be packed.

With the money she made, she opened a &quotBeauty Institute&quot where women came to have their skin diagnosed and their bodies pampered. Moving first to Australia, then England, the final flagship luxury spa opened in New York, across from Elizabeth Arden’s &quotRed Door&quot. By then, she was a celebrity, a leader of an empire, with a whole line of products, lipsticks and automatic mascaras, coloured powders and face rouges to bring the bloom of youth back to the faces of aging socialites.

Her products sold in drugstores as well, and her miraculous advertising skills made them a ‘must-have’ on dressers of women around the world.

What began as a bluff has now developed into serious science, hiring the best chemists to create high quality products.

She also began collecting art and had numerous Renoirs hanging in her boudoir. Picasso and Matisse painted and drew her often, and she bought their works, while Balenciaga dressed her four foot, ten-inch frame in fantastically gorgeous clothes.

She was the epitome of elegance with her dark hair pulled back in a chignon, her skin meticulously cared for and looking like porcelain. Madame was careful to avoid the sun and made sure she was up on the latest discoveries in health and beauty (years before the damaging effects of sun exposure became widely known.)

It was an indescribable treat to witness the legendary items at the exhibit. On display were many pieces of her magnificent art collection, the photographs of her splendid home and many of the outfits she cherished, some displayed almost close enough to touch.

An interesting tidbit I found out yesterday is that she catered to all women, regardless of their skin tone.

For the first time in history, women of colour got to benefit from beauty products designed especially for dark skin, because Ms. Rubinstein believed that Beauty is Power, and all women deserve to have that power and sense of confidence.

Unconventional, strong and driven, she was wedded to her work with passion and creativity. Despite the Feminists movement’s rejection of makeup and adornments, the rest of us are deeply grateful for the opportunity to transform from ugly ducklings to swans.

Gorgeous, fascinating exhibit, just what one would expect from the Jewish Museum.