SPARKING INTEREST: Mizel exhibit aims to bridge old and new with contemporary Jewish experience


DENVER | The vessels that traveled across the night sky were far too fragile to properly protect their precious cargo.

When they shattered, the course of human history and destiny changed. When their contents spilled across the globe, the mission of the human race and the Jewish people was set. According to a Kabalistic origin myth attributed to the medieval Rabbi Isaac Luria, this was a defining moment in humanity’s collective history. The containers held pure light that had been packaged by the creator, and their failure would offer humans a mission, a challenge and an ultimate hope.

“Shards of light scattered all over the world,” said Georgina Kolbar, curator of the Mizel Museum. “It’s human beings’ task to gather the sparks back together. When that happens, the world will be healed, and perfect, and whole. We have that theme embedded within this journey.”

That origin story that undergirds “Tikkun Olam,” or the Jewish concept of healing the world, is at the heart of “Gathering Sparks,” the Mizel Museum’s permanent exhibit that opened two years ago. Subtitled the “4,000-Year Road Trip,” the show at the small museum on Kearny Street just west of Aurora sketches out the history of the Jewish people through artwork, interactive displays and historic objects.

The collection offers a combination of ancient traditions and modern culture on an epic scale. Stories pulled from thousands of years ago share space with video installations focused on modern Judaism.

“The museum has a collection called ‘The Community Narratives Project.’ They’re three- to five-minute digital stories,” said Sue Stoveall, the Mizel Museum’s marketing director. “There are people in the community who have interesting stories about their Jewish identity or experience,” she added, pointing to a video monitor beaming clips about Jewish immigrants who came to Denver from all over the world.

The exhibit aligns with the larger mission of the Mizel Museum, a one-of-a-kind cultural center that started more than 30 years ago as a simple display case at a synagogue in Denver. In 2004, the museum moved from the Jewish Community Center to its current home in a former synagogue on Kearny and Dakota streets in east Denver. The new space allowed museum staff to formalize a mission and an educational approach.

“We had this opportunity for what we wanted our exhibits program to be,” Kolbar said. “Considering this building is our home, we were thinking, ‘What do we want to be that’s new and different from before?’ We decided that we wanted to be a portal to the contemporary Jewish experience.”

That meant offering visitors of all ages and backgrounds a comprehensive glimpse into a pretty complicated history and a fairly dynamic culture. The best way to do that, it turned out, wasn’t by following the standard museum model of touring exhibits and constantly changing pieces. Kolbar and the rest of the Mizel Museum staff opted for a permanent exhibit that could serve as an anchor for the center’s ambitious programming that includes summer camp and artist-in-residence programs.

With its inclusion of art installations, video documentary, artifacts from across the world and interactive displays, the “Gathering Sparks” exhibit illustrates both old and new in a contemporary Jewish experience.

“We decided to create this permanent exhibition rather than doing the rotating museum framework,” Kolbar said. “We’re using it as a backdrop for our programming. It really contains a lot of Jewish values and history and culture.”

Tableaus by Denver artist Scott Lyon illustrate the story of Noah’s Ark, the Tree of Life and other concepts from the Old Testament. Display cases shaped like suitcases contain menorahs, Torah scrolls and other religious items; they speak of a history rooted in diaspora and change. There are items salvaged from eastern European stetls, or Jewish cities that existed before the holocaust. A series of displays devoted to Jewish holidays includes Yom Kippur spiceboxes, Chanukah menorahs from across the world and a stunning scroll painted by Bombay artist Siona Benjamin that illustrates the story of Purim from the biblical book of Esther. A display devoted to the weekly celebration of Shabbat offers insight about one of the religion’s most important celebrations, and a section on modern Israel focuses on arts and culture in lieu of politics.

The layout and content is meant to offer bridges and access to the diverse crowds that come through the museum. The museum hosts school groups, university students and visitors from across the state and the Western region.

“We try to not talk so much about religion, and really have it be more of a cultural message. We say, consider the ways your journey is similar or different to the one presented. What detours did your ancestors take?” Kolbar said. “We pose questions for people to walk into the exhibit with.”

Those questions tie back to the larger themes about exodus, culture and rebuilding contained in the origin story that gives “Gathering Sparks” its name. The exhibit’s focus and the museum’s mission may be ambitious and wide-ranging, but that message comes up again and again during a walk through the facility. A glittery disco ball that sends its own shards of light hangs in the museum’s entryway. A quote from American poet Muriel Rukeyser spelled out on a gallery wall goes back to the idea of healing, recovery and connection.

“If we look long enough and hard enough … we will begin to see the connections that bind us together,” the quote reads. “And when we recognize these connections, we will begin to change the world.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707