My friend, Dr. Vivian Eisenberg Mann, passed away on Monday, May 6, at the home of her children, Drs. Shari and Ranon Mann of Teaneck. A noted Jewish art historian and curator emerita, Mann served as the Morris and Eva Feld Chair of Judaica at the Jewish Museum from 1979-2008, where she organized many notable exhibits, including Gardens and Ghettos: The Art in Italy; Convivencia: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Spain; and Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land. In addition, Mann was also a professor emerita of Jewish art and visual culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Mann was a giant in her profession. Her publications, museum exhibits and lectures were admired by her peers who considered her to be one of the foremost experts on the history of Jewish art. As an art historian, she could look at a Jewish ritual object and connect its design with the artistic trends of the time and place in which it was created. As a committed Jew, she saw the religious significance of the object and the role it played in Jewish life. Her home was filled with seforim, books, pictures and slides.
Miriam Mann Wallach, Mann’s daughter, spoke about Mann’s apartment in NYC “looking like an offshoot of the Library of Congress.” Miriam continued, “Those books, the seforim, the pictures and even the slide collection are part of her legacy. They are not just books, they are an extension of her.”
Miriam called the Jewish Museum her mom’s fourth child. “Like a parent she took pride in its accomplishments, showed it off to anyone she could, and was sad when it disappointed her. I have heard many stories from those who trained with her. While it may have been a trial by fire, it is that training which helped shape and craft many who are now superstars in the field.”
Mann loved Israel and wanted to share that love with her grandchildren. Each grandchild was given a special gift with the sole intent that it be used in Israel, in some inspiring way. She wanted “to provide inspiration to her grandchildren the same way her grandmothers had inspired her.” She traveled to Israel often to be with her brother and sister-in-law, Debbie and Barry Eisenberg and their children and grandchildren. She also made frequent out-of-town visits to sisters, Judy and husband, Gerard, z”l, and Debbie and husband, Aaron.
Mann’s son, Ranon, recalled that when he thinks of his mom, he “thinks of a strong and courageous woman who loved and was loved by many colleagues, friends, and, of course, her family.” He continued, “My mom was a scholar, an art historian, a master of Jewish art and culture.She taught so many students and influenced countless others.She was a giant in her profession.” Ranon explained that she tried very hard to relate to his sons who are “not museum type of guys.” She told them she liked the old-fashioned rules of basketball and didn’t quite care for the “three point shot.”
To her friends in New Rochelle, where Mann lived for many years with her family, her brilliance and scholarly contributions in the field of art were appreciated by many. Her exhibitions brought bygone Jewish communities to life and we savored in hearing her stories of discovery. Although she loved art, teaching and traveling, she also loved being a part of the Young Israel of New Rochelle community where she cultivated many friendships.
Dr. Judith Marcus wrote to The Jewish Link from Yerushalayim, sharing her fond memories about Mann. Mann and Marcus met as friends at Ramaz, continued their friendship at Barnard and then, again, in New Rochelle, where both families lived. Marcus remembers spending many a Shabbos with Mann’s family in Bayonne, New Jersey, where Mann grew up. Marcus attended Mann’s wedding, all of her children’s weddings, her events at the Jewish Museum, notably her retirement party at which so many colleagues and friends and family members paid tribute. As frequent travelers to Israel, both Mann and Marcus spent much time together in Yerushalayim, sharing even more friends and colleagues. Marcus wrote, “I will miss her intensity, dedication to purpose and most of all, our friendship.”
I recall cooking together in the “old” YINR, in its ancient kitchen, cutting onions and potatoes in preparation for a friend’s child’s sheva brachot. Mann was an excellent cook, who liked to improvise in the kitchen and often brought back recipes from her many travels.
Ranon talked about his mom’s excellent cooking and baking. “She made unusual dishes such as pastuazoal, coq au vin, artichokes and spaghetti squash. Her Pesach sponge cake was legendary. Any cake she burned in the oven she’d slather with powdered sugar. She even had a long rosemary phase.”
Mann’s method of “cutting onions” was unique and we laughed about her technique just a few days ago when we visited together while she was resting at Ranon and Shari’s home. Mann’s cheesecake recipe is part of my Shavuot menu, as it has been for years. It will taste especially sweet this year! The hours of phone calls discussing our children, wondering whom they would marry and where they would live, occupied countless hours. And, then, after many years, we would rave about our grandchildren and their amazing accomplishments.
Mann’s legacy can be appreciated not only in her professional capacity, but in the way she lived her life. Our families shared many Shabbat and Yom Tov meals in New Rochelle, most often with her parents, Tootsie and Sonny Eisenberg, as we observed the tremendous kavod bestowed upon them by Mann and the children. In fact, a first floor bedroom was prepared and ready for Tootsie and Sonny so they would be comfortable when they came to visit. The legacy continued when Mann was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks ago and Ranon and Shari and their boys opened their home to her. For her last Pesach and Shabbat before she died, she was surrounded by her family, as they honored Mann in the same way she had honored her own parents. In fact, the children did not have to make the difficult decision of which home would be readied for Mann. Jordan and his wife Ali live in Atlanta, Georgia. Miriam’s husband, Steve, and sons are Kohanim. So, Mann’s last days on hospice care were at the home of Ranon and Shari in Teaneck, with much love and reminiscing, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and devoted siblings.
In addition to her three children, Mann is survived by 12 grandchildren and three siblings. She will be dearly missed.
By Yvette Finkelstein