Notable among the latter is "From the Inside Out: Eight Contemporary
Artists," an adventurous amalgam of installation art, painting and sculpture that reflects on questions of Jewish identity with considerable formal ingenuity.
Eleanor Antin's memorable and haunting Vilna Nights, for example, is an elegy for the East European places and people destroyed by the Holocaust. It allows us to peek into a recreation of a bombed-out ghetto and glimpse through its windows filmed scenes of a vanished life, playing over and over again against an eerie musical backdrop.
Also provocative is Christian Boltanski's Museum of the Bar Mitzvah, a room filled with framed photographs and artifacts in glass cases that comments on both the role of the bar mitzvah in American Jewish life and the conventions of museum presentation.
Another temporary exhibition, "Collecting for the 21st Century: Recent Acquisitions and Promised Gifts," is a sprawling show of more than 100 items. Its main virtue is in demonstrating the diversity of the museum's collecting interests, from documentary photographs and ceremonial objects to contemporary conceptual art and works of Jewish modernists such as Chagall and Robert Motherwell.
But the centerpiece of the Jewish Museum is supposed to be its permanent exhibition, "Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey," which is designed both to showcase "a significant portion" of its 27,000-object collection and to provide a context for other topics explored by the museum.
The exhibition, containing about 1,000 items in all, revolves thematically around a familiar paradox - the tension between identity and assimilation that has informed Jewish history almost since its inception.
To explore this tension constitutes its marching orders, but its coherence is taxed by its ambition. The show takes in the whole of Jewish history, from Biblical times through the present, and draws on evidence ranging from ancient coins and pottery to the plaster sculpture of George Segal.
Nor can the Jewish Museum be faulted for stinting on language or explanation: Here, less is never more. This is a very dense show, too much so for my taste - and, at the same time, arguably too diffuse.
It begins, in a section entitled "Forging an Identity," with the transition from Israelite to Jew, and from nationhood to foreign conquest and exile. Quotations from the Bible are interwoven with a profusion of archaeological artifacts, including Roman bottles and burial plaques that illustrate cultural melding and exchange.
The idea of cultural fusion is central to "Interpreting a Tradition," which documents Jewish life during the Diaspora. But here the mode of presentation shifts from chronological to thematic. The exhibition slows to a meticulous crawl as it offers fine examples from the museum's collection of ritual objects: a Bavarian Torah ark of painted pinewood, a selection of Hanukah lamps and Seder plates, a silver circumcision knife and much more.
A third section, "Confronting Modernity," was not open during my recent visit, but is due to be finished sometime in August. It takes the Jewish story up through the middle of the 20th-century, discussing civil emancipation, social activism and the Holocaust.
A recreation of a turn-of-the-century cafe will feature audiotapes of the music, poetry, philosophy and historical writings of the time, while the room devoted to the Holocaust will include artifacts, documents and art of the ghettos and camps.
For the final section, "Realizing a Future," the museum returns to the fine arts, presenting Segal's conception of a German concentration camp and other modern commentaries on Jewish history and identity.
For the most part, "Culture and Continuity" takes a fairly traditional and celebratory approach to its subject matter. But its occasional forays into contemporary museum technology - notably an "Interactive Talmud" - do provide moments of comic relief. During my recent visit, several elderly female visitors seemed fascinated by the Talmudic arguments on abortion and giving to the poor - but, when it came to working the computer, they hadn't a clue.
IF YOU GO
* "Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey" is on view permanently at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., New York.
"Collecting for the 21st Century: Recent Acquisitions and Promised Gifts" is on view through Sept. 12.
"From the Inside Out: Eight Contemporary Artists" is on view through early January 1994.
"In this House: A History of the Jewish Museum" is on view through mid- June 1994.
"The Best Day of the Week: An Exhibition for Families," about the Jewish sabbath, is on view through mid-June 1994.
Museum hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Friday and Saturday and major legal and Jewish holidays. Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for students and senior citizens, free for children under 12. Pay what you wish on Tuesdays after 5 p.m. Information: 212-423-3230.