“The West is not a place. It’s a state of mind”
Jack Weil, at the time of his death in 2008, was the oldest CEO in the world. He worked daily running the Rockmount Ranch Wear Mfg. Co. He was a prominent Jewish Colorado businessman who helped make western wear popular as well as inventing the first shirt that used snaps instead of buttons. Mr. Weil was one of many well-known Jewish businessmen who called Colorado home. The Schwayder brothers along with their father founded a Denver luggage factory that today is known as the Samsonite Corporation.
And it wasn’t just Jewish men who became prominent Colorado citizens. Francis Weisbart Jacobs became famous as “Denver’s Mother of Charities.” Her organization, the Denver Charity Organization Society, is the forerunner of the United Way.
The story of the Jewish community in Colorado is told in one room of the Mizel Museum. Normally the last stop on the museum tour, it is filled with displays that convey the story of Jews in Colorado. Synagogues appeared in Denver as early as 1874 as Jews from all over the world migrated to Colorado. And they didn’t settle in Denver only. Many lived in Pueblo, Leadville, Fairplay, Walsenburg, and other Colorado communities.
At the Mizel Museum in Denver, Colorado is the permanent exhibit, “4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks.” It tells the story of a 4000-year-old journey that has not ended for the Jewish people. The title is from the kabbalistic mystic Isaac Luria (Ari) of Safed. According to him when God said, “Let There Be Light,” that ten holy vessels also appeared. The vessels contained “primordial light.” The fragile vessels shattered and spread their holy sparks. People, according to this myth, exist to gather these sparks. Once gathered, the world is perfect as it would have been had the vessels been delivered to the earth without breaking.
The journey is celebrated and explained through art. The journey for the visitor starts at the entrance hall with the Tree of Life. It references the Torah, the five books of Moses, and symbolizes the “life-giving source” that nurtures us. Art depicting the legend of Noah’s Ark, and the Sands of Time, clay medallions in sand that represent the stories contained in the Torah up to the slavery in Egypt, lead us into the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary contains the Torah, the Jewish Calender, a display of menorahs, and many other items essential to Jewish worship. But more importantly is the explanation of what each of these means and the history behind them. Be ready to learn as this is one of the most informative displays I have ever seen. I learned about terms, events, and traditions that I was unaware of prior to visiting this small, but extraordinary museum.
The next room on the tour considers the migration of the Jewish people throughout Europe, and the challenges they faced in keeping true to their Jewish heritage. We are all familiar with The Holocaust, and artist Deborah Howard’s portraits of child Holocaust survivors remind us of the horror and magnitude of that event. More than 400 years earlier, Jews also faced the wrath of the Spanish Inquistion. Many were tortured and burned at the stake for agreeing to convert to Christianity, yet secretly practicing the Jewish religion.
I have only touched on part of what this impressive museum contains. To learn more about the story of the Jewish journey, spend at least an hour and a half to two hours here. The informative placards and the digital media displays are an education by themselves and they taught me much about Jewish history and culture that I did not know–the main reason I am so enamored with museums to begin with.