Photograph courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo by Mark Darley

May 2008

Contemporary Jewish Museum

By Jim Van Buskirk

Opening next month, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is a dramatic addition to South-of-Market, and one of the last pieces of the City’s decades-long redevelopment of Yerba Buena.  The Museum, which was designed by internationally-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, imaginatively incorporates reuse of the landmark Jessie Street Pacific Gas and Electric Company substation, which played a key role in restoring electricity to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The Museum builds on the substation as a metaphor of the relationship between the energy of light to art, life and creativity by adding a cubic extension clad in reflective blue steel panels. The dynamic building reflects a symbolic intersection of Chet and Yud, the two letters that make up the Hebrew word Chaim (life).   The Museum’s entrance features a spacious grand lobby, where visitors are greeted by the “PaRDeS” wall, an architectural installation that’s both a Hebrew acronym for fortune and a reference to the traditional Talmudic practice of discovering four levels of meaning within every text:  literal, allegorical, personal, and mystical.  At the lobby’s eastern end the Museum café spills out onto the Jessie street plaza; to the west the 2,000 square-foot retail store offers contemporary Judaica, the proceeds of which support the Museum’s exhibitions and educational programs.

Since its founding in 1984, the Museum has established a reputation for presenting contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art and ideas.  The new building’s three galleries provide an opportunity for enhanced programming:  original exhibitions, traveling exhibitions and international collaborations. The Museum’s first exhibition, In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, includes commissioned pieces by seven artists who engage in a dialogue about historical representations of the story of creation.

Inaugurating the special events gallery – with its soaring 65-foot ceiling, angular walls, and 36 diamond-shaped windows – is the sound installation, John Zorn Presents the Aleph-Bet Project.  Zorn, a highly acclaimed musician, has commissioned sound pieces based on letters of the Hebrew alphabet from other artists.

From the New Yorker to Shrek:  the Art of William Steig, featuring nearly 200 of Steig’s drawings, including New Yorker cartoons and illustrations from his 1990 picture book Shrek! (“fear” in Yiddish), opens this fall.  Also opening in the fall is Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered, a reappraisal of the iconic artist’s 1980 silkscreen series, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, seen on the West Coast for the first time.

Seminar and activity rooms located in the center of the Museum can accommodate educational programs for students, teachers, families and artists.  A multipurpose room with state-of-the-art acoustics and a retractable seating system will host lectures, screenings, and theatrical performances.

Taking its place alongside San Francisco’s innovative architectural gems, including Herzog & de Meuron’s De Young Museum and Mario Botta’s SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is an exciting addition to the City’s museum offerings.

For more information about the Museum and its programs, go to


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