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Zaslavsky’s Jews


Bar Mitzvah Video, (40 x 30) oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Bar Mitzvah Video, (40 x 30) oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

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Jaffa Couples, oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute (not in exhibition)

A quick survey of Zaslavsky’s paintings in the last decade shows his continual fascination with the Old City. The Jaffa Gate provides a backdrop for many themes including chassidim dancing, strolling, coming and going. A tourist camel ride is likewise juxtaposed with the famous landmark as well as a beautiful rendition of palm trees shading a family picnic. While many of these works are clearly aimed at the tourist trade and armchair-bound nostalgia seekers, they all possess a charming sincerity as well as a deft sense of composition, color and light. As an expression of their charm and humor another painting features a bar mitzvah at the wall, faithfully being videotaped by a yeshivishfamily member. The artist carries his art’s religiosity with a sensitive and light touch.

Old City Stroller, oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute (not in exhibition)

Significant also is Zaslavsky’s somewhat expansive vision of Orthodox Jews in their dress and actions. While almost all the principal actors in his paintings are clearly religious, a painting of two couples visiting the Jaffa waterfront is refreshing in its modernity. The yeshivish husbands contrast with the bobbing sailboats and Tel Aviv’s modern skyline behind them. Their wives and a friend following are stylishly dressed in a way that also firmly roots these Jews in the contemporary world.

Other subtle examples of modernity are found in one of his recurring Old City images. Old City Stroller is full of predictable charm; time-worn stone facades and arches shelter an outdoor café, chassidim chatting in the shadows while a young family with two children approach a stroller and a young man taking care of an infant. The stroller, in the context of this sentimental image, is itself unusually modern, clearly not a traditional baby carriage. But the yellow and red Kodak sign unmistakably roots us in the late 20th century.

770 Wedding, (40 x 30) oil on canvas by Venyamin Zaslavsky. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Equally part of the legacy of the 20th century is the curious phenomenon of Lubavitch weddings in front of 770 Eastern Parkway. A good Lubavitch friend of mine informed me, “The minhag of holding weddings at 770 began sometime in the mid-1960s. By that time, the Rebbe’s schedule became so hectic that the only way for him to logistically serve as Mesader Kiddushin was if the wedding were held in front of 770. It was not long after that that the Rebbe stopped being Mesader Kiddushin altogether, but the custom of holding weddings in front of 770 has remained ever since.” And lo and behold, Zaslavsky decided to make a painting of exactly that. 770 Wedding is a pictorial document in which the place, 770 Eastern Parkway, is pictorially as important as the chuppah and wedding party below. The bride is joyful and all the men in the wedding party are happy and satisfied at this blissful event. A smattering of girls and boys and young women complete the foreground of the celebration.

Zaslavsky has spent a substantive amount of his creative career looking into the heart and soul of the religious Jew’s world. He depicts this world with empathy and concern, never flinching from its modern trappings and complications. Indeed its modernity and contradictions are inevitably bound up in his realistic academic matrix, expressed in contemporary images that confront tradition in totally unexpected ways.

Such is the reality of Jewish artists. They create the darnest things.

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

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


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