The Magnes Collection is a unique source of primary evidence about Jewish life in the global Diaspora in virtually all of its aspects. Its countless objects document the intersection of the material and spiritual dimensions of the Jewish experience in the realm of personal and family rituals, in the context of synagogue and communal life, and in the social interactions between Jews and their host communities throughout Central and South-East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
The Magnes Collection of Jewish life is considered to be the third largest of this kind in the United States. It includes textiles, costumes, jewelry and other metalwork, architectural fragments, synagogue furnishings, ritual objects and clothing, but also marriage certificates, photographs, illustrations, memorabilia, ephemera, amulets, manuscripts and ritual books. This extraordinary range allows scholars and visitors to explore the ceremonies, traditions, folk cultures and daily lives of the Jews, linking textual, visual, musical and material expressions, aesthetic sensibilities, social, cultural and political agendas that reach far beyond the boundaries of Jewish life itself, and address core aspects of other cultures and religious spheres, including Christianity and Islam.
Based upon the intrinsic variety of Jewish life, over the last decades the Magnes collection has helped shaping the evolving notions of what constitutes "Jewish life," in both academic and public contexts, and has been widely exhibited. The Magnes has loaned its holdings to such major exhibitions as Judische Lebenswelten – Patterns of Jewish Life (Berlin Jewish Museum, 1991), and The Sephardic Journey (Yeshiva University Museum, New York, 1992). Groundbreaking publications on Jewish ceremonial art include three catalogues by former curator Ruth Eis of the collections of Hanukkah lamps, Torah binders, and Tallit and Tefillin bags.
The Siegfried Strauss collection of European Judaica, acquired in 1968 and renowned for its scholarly documentation, formed the nucleus of the Judaica holdings. Later additions include unique objects such as Art Deco silver ritual art made by the Posen Company in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1930s, and objects from India (Kochi) and North Africa.
In 1995 the Magnes established the first endowed curatorship of Judaica in the United States, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Michal Friedlander (1996-2001), currently Judaica curator at Jewish Museum Berlin, Germany, and later Elayne Grossbard (2004-2009) focused on producing groundbreaking exhibitions. Under the tenure of Francesco Spagnolo, Judaica curatorship has focused on presenting an integrated approach that links research in the various aspects of the collection with the performative practices of Jewish life in the global Diaspora, broadening the appeal of the Magnes collection as a resource for academic and curatorial investigations in the context of Jewish and other area studies.