Regardless of the importance of the aforementioned works, the mere scale and ambition of the centerpiece of this exhibition, The Scroll, defies comparison. The eminent Jewish Art historian Matthew Baigell considers it “one of the most important works ever created in the entire history of Jewish American Art.” Additionally he observes that this massive drawing, 94 feet long and 44” tall (with one section 88” tall), is the “first mural cycle – or extended narrative – that addresses Jewish subject matter from a Jewish feminist point of view.”
The Scroll was installed in the round so that the viewer was literally engulfed by the images to become a mikveh of Jewish memory. Weisberg utilizes three non-linear techniques to weave her narrative: Synchronic Time; i.e. different layers historical times; Continuous Narrative; i.e. conflating scenes to show the same person at different times in one story; and Visual Midrash in which rabbinic metaphors are visualized. All of these techniques are utilized to present a visual narrative that unfolds in three distinct sections: Creation, Revelation and Redemption.
Creation begins with a rush of the Jewish masses until a lone individual emerges. Next we witness the symbolic birth of a single person. An angelic figure lies beside the child, gently touching its upper lip; calming its passage to life, erasing its Torah wisdom and inaugurating its journey into a Jewish life of learning (see Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews, pg 58). Immediately the child is plunged into birth and the wilderness of Sinai, receiving the Torah and finally the covenant of circumcision. This whole scene plays out above a wimple, symbolic of the themes that will dominate throughout the child’s life. This full set of images, especially the angel and the infant, is surely the most moving and tender evocations of the mystery of creating a human life I have seen in contemporary Jewish art.
The Scroll then delineates the passage from childhood to adulthood; circles of children dancing in Weisberg’s own childhood, Polish Jewish children dance in innocence and finally youth survivors in displaced persons camps preparing to make aliyah. The entire section frames a depiction of Weisberg’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
Next the Revelation section moves deeply into the personal narrative of a contemporary wedding even while referencing Miriam and the Israelite women dancing at the Red Sea. A man, woman and rabbi are seen under the chuppah about to step into their life together as a contemporary Simchat Torah is celebrated to much dancing again and joy.
The final section of Redemption concentrates on Israeli landscapes as concentration camp uniforms blend into scenes of Jerusalem. Finally a multitude of Jews from the past reappear as if to affirm yet again our dependence upon tradition even as it is engaged and questioned.
Weisberg’s The Scroll is dominated by women and children, many of whom are similar in age and dress. While surely a forthright Jewish feminist visual manifesto, i.e. the dominance of women in religious roles and garb; the overall tone and specific details is neither strident nor hostile to males. By and large male roles are just ignored for a uniquely feminine perspective.
This seminal artwork establishes a profoundly optimistic vision of Jewish history and future prospects that paved the way for much of Weisberg’s future work, even those works that do not have Jewish content. Many recent works explore the relationship between Renaissance masterworks and the 21st century contemporary individual. That said, what is perhaps the most laudable aspect of the works in the 2007 exhibition is its determination to explore and celebrate Jewish subjects in a contemporary setting, even while preserving much of its traditional sources and legitimacy. This example of ambition and commitment is something all contemporary creators of Jewish Art can well take to heart.
N.B. I am deeply indebted to Barbara Gilbert, Matthew Baigell and Donald Kuspit, the essay contributors to the 2007 catalogue, Ruth Weisberg Unfurled, for background information and insights into this exhibition.