From the archives of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association: Natalie


Natalie Percelay /R.I. Jewish Historical AssociationWhen Warren and I first visited Israel in 1969, a highlight of our tour was a visit to the beautiful new Keneset building, then just three years old. Our guide, like all good guides, shepherded us through the history and special features of the building, one of which was a relief painting, “A Song of Praise to Jerusalem.” It was   affixed to the wall opposite the Prime Minister’s office, Golda Meir’s office at that time. He spoke of the artist Moshe Castel’s original use of ground basalt mixed with sand and glue, shaped and saturated with color.

As he pointed to the engraved ancient Hebrew script and symbols, my mind wandered to the first time I had heard of Moshe Castel and his technique, the first time I had seen one of his relief painting three years earlier.

The docent from whom I learned of Castel and his unusual technique was Natalie Percelay, the curator of Temple Emanu-El’s museum. On that day in 1966, when we met, she was doing what she so enjoyed – speaking of the museum’s collection of Judaica and pointing to the latest acquisition.

Fifteen years before, she had undertaken the task of building a museum collection at the behest of Rabbi Eli Bohnen. The Rabbi had originally envisioned an area near the entrance to the synagogue where items of Judaica could be displayed.

Natalie enthusiastically embraced the idea and the work involved. It appealed to her love of beautiful things as well as devotion to her synagogue.  She saw as her mission finding Jewish art and religious objects “… that would be a delight.”

To increase her own knowledge, Natalie visited other museums. She spoke with dealers and artists and sought guidance from experts. She studied the subject of Judaic art and became recognized as an expert in her own right. Under her nurture, a small holiday display grew in scope and importance.

At about the same time Natalie became curator of her beloved museum, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) came into being as a committee of the GJC (then the General Jewish Committee of Providence – now the Jewish Alliance). Because of her love of Jewish learning, she accepted an appointment to the first Board. Very soon, she was asked to head a committee charged with arranging a conference on Jewish education for the community. She agreed and, with Lillian Potter, chaired a program featuring workshops, exhibits and a guest speaker.  According to the BJE minutes, it was very well received and successful.

And we remember the warmth of the hospitality of Natalie and her husband Abe at the many times they hosted BJE gatherings for holidays or for special meetings at their lovely home, The Carriage House.

Natalie had a beautiful singing voice, but she never really considered a career in music. Rather, she said, she preferred to sing only at family events and in Temple Emanu-El’s choir, which left her time to devote to her family, community activities and education. She enrolled in the high school, where her daughter was a student, graduated and then went on to Pembroke College (now Brown University) where she was awarded a degree in 1942.

On that day in 1966, in Temple Emanu-El, Natalie happily showed the newest acquisition entitled “Nineveh,” as Ruth Page reminded me, a gift from Mrs. Alfred Pilavin and a Friend in memory of Alfred Pilavin. It was, she said, an important work by an important Israeli artist whose art graced an important place in the new Israeli Parliament building. That tie to Israel was important to her.

We remember Natalie, who left a legacy of love and enthusiasm for the beautiful in the arts and tradition.

Geraldine S. Foster is a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association article, email