Torah Pointers

Judaica collector gives pointers to U of Virginia


Clay Barr’s husband Jay Barr had been ill for “quite a long time” when she brought him home in early 1994. “There was no more to be done, and I’m pacing around thinking this wonderful 57-year-old man needs to have some memorial so his name will keep being spoken,” she told JNS. “In the Jewish religion, if your name is spoken, you’re not completely gone.”

Then she remembered that he had gifted two antique Torah pointers — yads — that he bought at Sotheby’s that January to their Norfolk, Va. Congregation, a synagogue that traces its origins back to 1850.

“He loved the hand in art. So it seemed, ‘Aha!’ I had an epiphany,” Barr told JNS. “This is what I’ll do to memorialize him.”

As it approaches the three-decade mark since her husband died, Barr, who is in her early 80s, has gifted 150 yads to the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

For centuries, yads were made of silver and adorned with baroque embellishments. Barr’s collection includes pointers that date back 325 years, including one with a ruby ring dated around 1700; an Italian pointer likely made in the 17th or 18th century; a 1789 German wood yad with three movable spheres; and an 18th-century Dutch silver one.

She’s particularly proud of one by an English artist whom Barr calls “truly astounding.”

“Hester Bateman to this day is the most renowned English woman silversmith. She inherited her husband’s business on his death — ran it for 20 years, in which time she made about 1,000 pieces,” Barr said of Bateman (c. 1709-94).

The New York auction house Kestenbaum & Company says the yad, which it dates to 1778, “perfectly demonstrates Bateman style” and notes that Bateman made George III silver Torah finials for England’s Great Portsmouth synagogue.

Barr told JNS that the bulk of her energy and interest has been devoted to commissioning contemporary artists to make new Torah pointers. “That excites me,” she said.

“I really don’t haunt the auction houses,” she said, adding that her sister collects 17th-century Dutch paintings — the era of Rembrandt — which she finds dull.

As a collector, Barr is interested in materials, and she has hired artists to create Torah pointers out of things that would have surely astounded the Jews who used the silver ceremonial objects in the 18th century, which form the chronological beginning of her collection.

Her father worked in the concrete business, so Barr commissioned the Israeli designer Marit Meisler to create a cast concrete yad. Barr’s grandson made a Torah pointer out of a toilet paper roll and a chopstick, which “has caused a sensation,” she told JNS. And she recently received a yad she commissioned out of Lego.

“It’s certainly not the most gorgeous in the collection, but this is just to show this is what that man works in,” she said.

In 2004, Barr hired Wendell Castle to make a silver and stained-walnut pointer that lies on a hand, made of foam board and painted with acrylic, which rests on a rosewood and maple wood table.

Four years beforehand, Barr commissioned Orthodox Jewish artist Tobi Kahn — whose work, in part, is among the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Phillips Collection, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Yale University Art Gallery — to make a yad. Kahn’s wood and acrylic pointer has an organic feel, perhaps evoking a flowering plant or a seal balancing a ball on its nose.

She also admits to being a “little addicted” to the work of jewelry maker Tom Herman — whose company is called “Seven Fingers” because he lost three in a childhood accident — and owns four of his Torah pointers. And she has a Torah pointer made out of her grandson’s broken skateboard by Norfolk artist Spencer Tinkham. (It’s shaped like a rabbit.)

“I had no idea skateboards were so beautiful,” Barr told JNS.

Barr’s gift, supported by the Barr Foundation, is “the first major gift of Judaica in the university’s history,” according to the University of Virginia. The gift includes funding to “preserve the collection and support related staff as well as educational programming and touring of the objects,” per the university, which notes that the late Barr earned undergraduate and law degrees from the school.

“This meaningful tribute includes support for the collection and provides educational programming,” James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, stated in February. “I look forward to an exciting initial exhibit in 2025.”

M. Jordan Love, the academic curator of the Fralin Museum, called Barr’s “extensive” Torah pointer collection “singular for its robust catalog of both antique and commissioned works.”

Abby Schwartz, curatorial consultant and director emerita at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati, told JNS that it was of “special interest” to the museum to show Barr’s collection — it plans to do so from April 11 to July 28 — “because it reflects such a wide range of artistic excellence.”

“There are no specifications for materials or style or size in the making of Torah pointers. What results is dazzling,” Schwartz said. “Not to mention the historic importance of this remarkable collection: wooden and silver yads from the 18th century on one hand and pointers made of paper, glass and found objects made very recently on the other — a testament to the enduring art of the guiding hand that brings humankind in connection with Torah.”