Guiding Hand Exhibit Opens at the Skirball

On Apr. 11, the Skirball Museum of Cincinnati unveiled its latest exhibit, “The Guiding Hand,” featuring a collection of over 100 Torah yads (pointers used for reading from parchment) on loan from the Barr Foundation.  

“Over the past few years, like this collection, I too have grown in both my faith and in my knowledge of Judaica,” said Clay Barr, the president of the foundation, in her remarks about the collection. 

“With a mighty hand, God led the Israelites out of Egypt,” and fittingly, the Skirball Museum’s new exhibit arrives at an opportune moment. For Abby Schwartz, the museum’s curatorial consultant, the launch of the “Guiding Hand” exhibit aligns perfectly with the Passover season.

“Like those wandering Israelites, these Torah pointers have traversed the United States, stirring curators and viewers at exhibitions that originally began in Portland, Oregon, Eastern New York City…and other cities too numerous to mention here,” said Barr. 

Clay Barr Leading a Tour Through the Exhibit

Barr started collecting yads 30 years ago to honor her late husband, Jay. The collection features yads from around the world, some dating back to the 1800s. 

“Every yad exalts and preserves the precious memory of my beloved husband, Jay Barr,” said Barr. “Each singular yad that comprises the Barr collection celebrates Jay’s spirit. And my hope is that these yads will carry his legacy far into the future.”

Before the opening, Barr led a small group through the exhibit. She shared stories about several of the yads on display, including the creation process of some, and the history of the antique items in the collection. 

The Barr Collection includes many notable yads. Barr commissioned American artist Marjorie Simon to make a yad to commemorate Holocaust victims. 

Yad Commemorating Victims of the Holocaust by Marjorie Simon

It is crafted from metal and features the infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” cut out from a piece of metal along its front. Atop the pointer sits a precise miniature replica of a German cattle car. Additionally, the sides of the yad are adorned with enameled leaves, symbolizing the resilience and survival of the Jewish people.

Each yad has its own story, including a yad from Afghanistan dating back to the early 20th century. It is 18 inches long and among the largest in the Barr collection. It is designed in a common style of many yads from Central Asia and the Caucasus mountains. 

There is even a yad designed by Wendell Castle, one of the founders of the American Studio movement. Castle, who mainly designed furniture, was famous for his whimsical and bold designs. He had never designed a yad before being commissioned by Barr. Castle ended up using his furniture-making background in his design, placing a hand and yad on top of a small Parsons table. It is the only yad Castle ever produced. 

According to Abby Schwartz, the curatorial consultant at the Skirball Museum, the number of yads in the Barr collection is never fixed.

Yad From Early 20th Century Afghanistan

“The collection has more than 150 yads. The number keeps growing because [Clay] is always commissioning and getting new ones,” she said. “I told her we had a yad in our collection by contemporary artist Stuart Golder – she wanted his information right away.” 

The Guiding Hand exhibit will also host a Make-Your-Own Yad workshop on May 5 with local artist Judith Sterling-Sturm. This workshop will allow community members of all ages to make a yad in their own style. 

The Guiding Hand Exhibit is running until July 28, 2024.