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Making Torah Manifest: Nathan Hilu


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Hebrew Union Collage – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum

One West 4th Street, NYC; 212 824 2205

Mon. – Thurs. 9am – 5pm; Friday, 9am – 3pm.

Free Admission (Photo ID required)

Until March 30

 

“Man must make the Torah manifest” in every action, speech and creative act. That is clearly the credo of Nathan Hilu, master-artist of the Lower East Side, Torah, Tanach, midrash, Gemara and beyond. There is seemingly nothing that doesn’t fall within the purview of his fertile, pious and creative visual imagination. Literally everything in his creative world is seen through the lens of Torah and Jewish sensibility. We get to peek into that world in the exhilarating exhibition “Nathan Hilu’s Journal: Word, Image, Memory” lovingly curated by Laura Kruger, director of the HUC Museum. Through her expertise and discerning eye she has brought to our attention a rare artist within the Orthodox world: one who is as immersed in piety as in celebration of the totality of Jewish life and thought. It is clear from the 44 works in this exhibition that he is the exemplar of the very modern and contemporary American Jewish artist. And he is only 87 years young.

The “Torah manifest” text appears in How the Rabbi Ties His Shoes; a depiction of the Maggid of Mezhirech leaning over to tie his shoelaces as Aryeh Leib Sarahs comments that it is in the rebbe’s everyday conduct that he will learn the deepest meaning of Torah life. The image is primitive, direct and dominated by the text that explains Hilu’s image. While the integration of text, image and color is typical of Hilu’s approach, this is only one of many motifs that dominate his work.

The Biblical narrative is a natural for Hilu and at least eight works here testify to that. In Pharaoh’s Dream the text of Parshat Miketz is detailed with Genesis 41: 47 – 49 describing how in the “good years there was an abundance of food and Joseph gathered it in.” The bottom of the image depicts three Jews leining this parsha in shul at the bimah with the English translation surrounding them. In the top third of the image are ancient Egyptian harvesters illustrating the text. Contemporary Jewish practice, holy text and ancient history combine to create a biblical painting.

Hilu freely dips into the midrashic sensibility throughout his biblical works and a prime example is God Braiding Eve’s Hair. His simple image of a woman in profile with two hands grasping her hair from the sky is framed by the text that tells us the source is the Avos D’Rabi Nosson. The image again demands that we consider the textual and pictorial as an equal means of Torah illumination. In Chapter 4 Rabi Natan celebrates the honor due to a bride and comments that the Holy One, blessed be He, did so with Eve, fixing her hair and dressing her to bring her to Adam, her betrothed. I dare say no other artist has ever made an image of this concept.

Noah and his Family; mixed media collage by Nathan Hilu. Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

Noah and his Family reveals a good deal about Hilu’s methodology. It is clear that the original image was simply an ark floating on the water with a mountain behind it. As is the norm in Hilu’s work the English text would have to be inserted and so it was, surrounding the image. But then we see numerous cut-out additions pasted on the bottom of the original image. There are a bunch of animals and figures attached to the lower edge; Noah and his family are labeled as such. In the middle of the image the word “haTeivah” (The Ark) is slapped on the front of the ark and next to it a short quotation from Parshas Noach; Genesis 8:4, “And the ark rested in Mount Ararat,” is imposed on the now complex image. It is a pictorial summary of the terrifying travail of months of uncertain survival.

Serach Tells Jacob; oil patel on paper by Nathan Hilu. Courtesy Herman Lowenhar

Perhaps the most evocative image within the biblical/midrashic archetype is Serach Tells Jacob. Two figures dominate the image: Serach, the daughter of Asher chosen by the shamefaced brothers to convey the news to their father Jacob that, indeed, Joseph was alive! But here the texts battle; the bottom text tells the basic midrashic story while between the figures another tale unfolds; Jacob sublimely blesses Serach with eternal life for her kindness. By what right does our patriarch exercise this power? We have no idea. And yet it becomes true! This is the textual background explicitly enumerated as the image explodes it; positing a frantic little girl playing the violin (midrashically, a harp, but who cares?), red hair flying above her flowered dress, casting musical notes at her grandfather. They are pictorially joined in the flowered patterns of both her dress and his black bekesheh – a motif that speaks volumes about the intergenerational love and respect of the Jewish family life. They are a perfect duo, both rosy cheeked and him clapping along with her as she fiddles away.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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