Nearly every time I pass by the Contemporary Jewish Museum I pause for a moment to simply stare at the unusual architecture. A massive, metal cube tumbles from a historic, brick masonry into Yerba Buena Lane. The metallic cube glows a bright blue one moment, shifting to a leathery darkness the next. The contrast fuses together old and new - tradition and innovation - like nowhere else in the neighborhood.
Intrigued by the sheer size and shape of the building, I decided to chat with a museum volunteer to glean more information. Turns out, the structure embodies a number of symbolic references to Jewish concepts.
The metallic exterior represents the Hebrew letters Chet and Yud from the toast, L’Chaim or “to life.” The contemporary shapes, designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, extend from the façade of the Jessie Street Power Substation – a factory that restored energy to the city after the 1906 earthquake.
“The legacy of the Substation lives on,” the volunteer shares as we walk through Jessie Square. “Now this is a place where the power of art and ideas restore imagination and sparks communication.”
More subtle symbolism abounds as you step inside the museum. Jagged lights bounce off the sloping white walls of the Koret Taube Grand Lobby. It’s can easy to miss, but the illumination forms four Hebrew letters that spell out the acronym PRDS, which is short for pardes or “orchard.” The word also comes from the same Persian roots as the English word “paradise.”
As you take the grand staircase leading up to the second floor, count the number of stairs. Did you get 18? In Hebrew, multiples of 18 are often associated with luck and prosperity. This numerical reference repeats inside the Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery on the second floor, where there are 36 diamond shaped windows.
A casual museumgoer might not grasp the symbolism (I certainly didn’t at first), but an interesting design often comes most alive where there’s an element of surprise. A hidden meaning. A different perspective that inspires a new way of thinking. And that’s precisely what the Contemporary Jewish Museum strives to do.