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August 29, 2014 / 3 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Eastern Europe’

Gilded Lions And Jeweled Horses: Woodcarving From The Synagogue To The Carousel

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel


American Folk Art Museum


45 West 53rd Street


New York, N.Y. 10019


212-265-1040


www.folkartmuseum.org


Tuesday – Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Closed Monday


Admission $9; Students and Seniors, $7; Children under 12, Free


Exhibit Runs Until March 23, 2008


 


 


         Much like the Jewish people themselves, the legacy of Jewish Art has miraculously survived seemingly endless assaults over the past two centuries. In Eastern Europe, the forces of assimilation, cultural denial, and the Holocaust have worked to destroy a vast portion of our cultural birthright. Countless synagogues, along with their prized carved arks, decorated walls, illuminated manuscripts, books, Judaica, and folk art creations have been abandoned and left to decay as traditional communities have withered and died. Those who hate us have purposefully destroyed other synagogues outright.

 

         Nonetheless, a remnant of this precious legacy has endured, and one of the best examples of its glory is currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Both the exhibit, “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” and the brilliant catalogue are musts for all who cherish our cultural heritage.

 

         Aside from pure artistic pride, we discover another historical gem in this exhibition: the echoes of fantastic 17th century Baroque art as filtered through a Jewish consciousness embedded in woodcarving, stone-cutting, and papercuts. The exhibition charts the art of Jewish craftsmen as they worked in stone, paper, and wood from their origins in Eastern Europe to their subsequent work in American synagogues and the surprising role they played in the burgeoning carousel industry in the early 20th century.

 

         “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” is divided into five chronological sections, starting with photographs and exacting models of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian wooden synagogues. This introduction sets a tone of architectural and visual opulence more common to 17th and 18th century Baroque Italian churches than our subdued and austere concept of synagogue architecture and interiors. What we forget (and these photographs confirm) is that the excitement and passion of the Baroque-emblematic of the Counter Reformation assault against the Protestant heresy-became a universal visual language for all of Europe, including the Jews, in the early years of the 17th century. While the Renaissance stressed balance and harmony, the Baroque style was exuberant, dramatic, and emotional, reveling in fantastic animals and symbols that expressed a fervent religious experience.

 

 



Ark of the Synagogue in Olkienniki, Lithuania (18th century);


Photo courtesy Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Sztuki, Warsaw


 

 

         The salient features of these synagogues were the lavishly painted and decorated interiors and the elaborately carved wooden arks. From these surviving photographs we can make out but a few examples of a flourishing art form: ornately detailed floral designs interspersed with zodiac signs and panels of textural quotes (Chodorow, Ukraine) and a wonderful painted menagerie of winged lions, eagles, and fantastic beasts (Grojec, Poland) that adorn the sacred interiors.

 

         The 18th century Torah ark seen from Olkienniki, Lithuania is a masterpiece of iconography, intricately carved and crowned with a double-headed eagle (representing temporal and celestial power) grasping a shofar and lulav bundle. Below is the ubiquitous blessing of priestly hands that hover over a crowned set of Tablets of the Law flanked by carved griffins, unicorns, and other mythical animals.

 

         Even closer to the viewer is a depiction of the Ouroburos, a serpent swallowing its own tail which represents the Leviathan, emblematic of renewal, eternity, redemption and the source of nourishment in the messianic world to come. Arks like these were often over 30 feet tall and were Baroque masterpieces of wood carving that substituted squirming beasts and vine-like flowers for the flying angels so common in many churches. Of the hundreds of similar wooden synagogues, almost all were destroyed in the Holocaust. All that is left are a dozen or so photographs, many of which can be seen here.

 

         The next section of photographs is of carved gravestones from Eastern Europe, continuing the rich iconography in a decidedly more primitive form. The four animals from Pirke Avot 5:23, “be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven,” are still in evidence, as are the messianic imagery of the Ouroburos and the ever present lions that guard the precious Torah.

 

         The difference is that almost all the renderings in stone are considerably more iconic than the pliable wooden arks. These rich and inventive stone-carved images are trapped in an unforgiving medium. Only the inherent durability of stone and pure chance has allowed many of these tombstones to survive the ravages of time and war.

 

         Papercuts are ultimately the most surprising aspect of this exhibition, which presents 32 brilliant masterpieces in a tour de force of folk art skill. Their creativity and diversity are breathtaking, and the impressive showing amounts to a world-class introduction to this uniquely Jewish art form. Starting in the 19th century, when paper became relatively inexpensive, this delicate and demanding art was practiced primarily by young boys and men. The paper was folded, cut according to an exacting design, and then laid on solid colored background to enhance the image. Some, if not all, of the paper was ornamented with ink and watercolor to create a rich, delicate, and multilayered symmetrical image. Almost half of the papercuts shown here are American, the rest from Eastern Europe. The subjects range from omer calendar, zodiac, sukkah decoration, mizrach (the majority of examples containing the phrase mi tzad ruach chayim, “from [the East] comes the breath of life”), amulets, shiviti, yarhzeit, family memorials and an eruv tavshilin. The richness and complexity of the imagery is breathtaking, one example more stunning than the next. The very nature of the detailed and painstaking medium becomes the message of an intense visual universe brimming with symbols and shared meaning.

 

 



Mizrah by Natan Moshe Brilliant, Lithuania 1877;


Ink, paint and collage; The Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv;


Photo by Vladimir Naikhin, Jerusalem


 

 

         One especially unusual example of a mizrach is by Natan Moshe Brilliant from Lithuania (1877). It manages to combine not only cut and painted elements but also collages from printed sources, thereby weaving a symbolic and complex narrative. Starting at the bottom, Moshe and Aaron flank a menorah within an evocative architectural space supporting a register of zodiac images that in turn are the foundation for depictions of David playing the harp, Abraham slaughtering the ram, Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush and finally, a poetic rendering of Noah and the ark. And this only scratches the surface of the iconographic treasure house that is contained in this large papercut masterpiece.

 

         Just as with the tombstone carvings, the difficulty of the medium itself tends to limit the depth of content available to the craftsman. Complexity made up of stock symbols can only take artistic expression so far. The greater flowering of artistic expression is found in the Torah ark woodcarvings in the next section of the exhibit.

 

         This selection of 32 rampant lions, some with luchos (Decalogue), is the most exciting visual and artistic aspect of “Synagogue to Carousel.” While two actual arks are shown (one from Nova Scotia, Canada and the other from Chelsea, Massachusetts), all the rest of these works are extremely evocative fragments of carved wood arks, the ever-present lions flanking a depiction of the frequently crowned Ten Commandments.

 

         As we see the examples of Torah arks made in America, we recognize that the Baroque elements have been sharply reduced to only a few elements- peripheral ornamentation and the depictions of the rampant lions. From their profiles, the lions look like standardized ferocious beasts. But once they face us a wonderful transformation takes place. The animal face takes on more and more human qualities, rendering the symbolic guardians of the Torah considerably more complex and nuanced. It is here that the artistic genius and genuine passion of these mostly anonymous craftsmen soars.

 

         Three sets of lions on one wall offer instructive distinctions. One, from Newport, Kentucky, presents solemn, Egyptian-style animals; another pair from Kansas City, Missouri, bellows a hysterical unhinged growl with tongues protruding, and finally, a Midwestern pair guards with a set of profiles reminiscent of Chinese images-blood-red eyes, mouth and claws. The diversity of images seems to represent the individuality of both the artist and the congregation in interpreting what guarding the Torah might mean.

 

 



Ark Pediment, artist unknown, Lower East Side;


Collection of Rabbi David A. Whiman;


Photo by August Bandal, New York


 

 

         Three pairs of lions (possibly created by the same artist) and salvaged from New York’s Lower East Side, seem gleeful in their defense of the holy luchos. Another set of rampant lion faces (also from the Lower East Side) remind one of the terribly serious and fearsome elders of those venerable congregations, weathered faces that betray the trials and tribulations these immigrant Jews endured. What comes to mind perusing these sculptures is that each represents a destroyed Torah ark and an abandoned congregation. These are the surviving fragments of the decimation of American Jewish life; their beauty and diversity are the tragic evidence of how much has been lost.

 

         The artisans who labored on the American Torah arks were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had practiced the same skills back in Europe. But once here in America they began to diversify by necessity, many using their skills in furniture, cabinetmaking, woodworking, and carpentry. When they could, they continued in creating Torah arks.  One such artisan was the legendary Samuel Katz from the Ukraine. He arrived in America in 1907 and by 1913 had moved to the Boston area. During the 1920′s and 1930′s he carved at least 23 Torah arks, making him the “most prolific identified ark builder in America.” But not all such artisans were as successful.

 

         America at the turn of the 20th century was a land of opportunity, and the combination of an immigrant urban population, mass transit and the greatest amusement park in the United States, Coney Island, opened doors for Jewish craftsmen to work in what was a booming industry: the carving of horses and other animals for carousels and other amusements. As this exhibition shows, four Jewish carvers, Marcus Charles Illions (whom we know did synagogue carving), Charles Carmel, and the team of Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, brought to perfection what became known as the Coney Island Style of animal carving. It is characterized by its flamboyant and expressive details and poses of the horses. Manes fly in the air, and horses toss their heads, stomp their hoofs and snort in unbridled passion.

 

 



Standing Horse with Raised Head by Charles Carmel, Coney Island, c.1910;


The Charlotte Dinger Collection; Photo by August Bandal, New York


 

 

         From the examples we have here these artists had clearly different styles. Illions’ animals tended to have a fluid Baroque quality, combining a forceful naturalism with drama. In contrast, Stein and Goldstein (they were a partnership) tended toward a more restrained and medieval image. Finally Carmel, while fluent in more than one style as they all were, seemed to favor the brute passion of a barely tamed beast characterized by an open mouth, lolling tongue, and terrified eyes. It is in his works most of all that the Baroque heritage surfaces in its secular manifestation and is most deeply felt.

 

         The history of the American synagogue since mid-century has been tragic, many, many abandoned and destroyed along with the precious art they contained. So too, the great centers of carousel and amusement park carving, abandoned or updated to machine-made imitations. The guest curator of this exhibition, Murray Zimiles, researched and documented this vast project for the last 20 years, tirelessly collecting material and connections from Europe, America, and Israel. Stacy C. Hollander, the American Folk Art Museum senior curator, coordinated with Zimiles and made this exhibition possible. Together they have managed to “return to the Jewish people, and to world culture, an awareness of and appreciation for a visual tradition of great beauty, vitality, symbolic richness, and decorative complexity that flourished over a period of several centuries in Central and Eastern Europe and flourished briefly in the New World where it underwent a remarkable transformation and secularization.”

 

         The remnants we see here are indicative of what we as a people are capable of creating. We only have to believe in our skills and insights as Jewish artists to allow our art to bloom once again. It is this realization that makes “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” such an inspirational exhibition.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at  rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Israeli Farmers Love Valentine’s Day

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

       TEL AVIV – Although Valentine’s Day is not an official holiday in Israel, local farmers had reason to celebrate. Agrexco, exporters of agricultural products, reported soaring European demand for Israeli flowers and strawberries ahead of the holiday. Over 100,000 specially packaged heart-shaped boxes of strawberries were sold in the U.K. at major chains such as Marks and Spencer’s for prices that were 30% higher this year than last. Agrexco officials explained the increase in price was due to harsh weather conditions in Morocco and Spain, causing a shortage of the fruit in European markets. Israeli farmers were able to pick up the slack. Assaf Hadar, Agrexco director of strawberry exports, noted that another reason for the increase in demand is the better tasting berries that Israel is now growing.

 

         Amos Or, Agrexco director in the U.K., noted that Israeli fruit and flowers are also popular in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia and even the Far East, which are fairly new markets. Calls for a European boycott of Israeli goods by anti-Israel groups have little impact on sales,” said Or. “I’ve been here in the U.K. for four years and from time to time these pro-Palestinian groups will try and get people to stop buying Israeli products but it hasn’t hurt us so far.” Or said that the exports of fruit and flowers ahead of the Valentine’s holiday this year was expected to bring in at least a half a million Euros in sales.

 

(www.koshertoday.com)

A Simple Genesis Paintings Of Shalom Of Safed

Friday, November 28th, 2003

There once lived a pious old man in Safed. His great grandparents had come from Eastern Europe to Eretz Yisrael, sometime in the 18th Century. He remembered back when the Turks ruled Palestine and then the English came and tried to govern this difficult land. In those years,
Safed was a mix of Arab and Jew, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. Shalom Moskovitz was a watchmaker by trade but also worked as a scribe, a silversmith and even a stonemason. He did whatever it took to put food on his humble table and feed his family.

Then it happened that his workshop was destroyed in the riots during the War for Independence in 1948. All the tools of his trade were lost. What might he do? He turned from the life of a practical craftsman to the life of an artist, first making folk-art toys and then simple paintings. He became, as he was just entering his 70′s, perhaps one of the most original Israeli artists of the 20th Century. He was Shalom of Safed.

Shalom of Safed (1887-1980) was a primitive artist who created, in the last 30 years of his life, a large opus of paintings devoted to the Torah and Jewish life. Collector and patron, Daniel Doron believed that Shalom’s art represents ‘a unique blend between a literary tradition - the Hasidic heritage and the mystical lore of the Kabala - and the artist’s sensitivity to the light and landscape of the Galilee.’

As a pious Jew in the sleepy, insular environment of Safed, he had no knowledge of art history or contemporary art; nevertheless, his work has a surprisingly modernist flavor. It tends to be flat with broad areas of strong, evocative color. Figurative elements are subsumed within a
powerful graphic composition. Textual passages are incorporated into the image echoing some Pop Art masterpieces and prefiguring many Post-modern techniques. These modernist elements are typical manifestations of many aspects of ‘naïve’ folk art. The difference here is that Shalom utilizes these techniques in an extremely focused depiction of the Biblical narrative where the modernism of his form actively reflects and enhances the Torah meaning.

It is easy to begin at the beginning with Shalom, since he seems to have done a painting - sometimes more than one – on most passages in the Torah. Following the account of creation, line-by-line, Shalom envisions the Separation of Light and Darkness, and the Creation of
Lights, in images divided into many different registers (sectioned bands of images one on top of the other). First there is only the intense blue of the waters above and the waters below that sandwich a molten orange sun trapped in primeval magna. Bands of pitch-black darkness are
embedded within the incoherent totality of creation. In another painting, the sun, moon and stars appear suspended over a topsy-turvy landscape.

The Birds of Paradise (1965) march across three registers of tree lined landscapes in yet another delightful image. The invented multi-colored birds are all walking right to left, each approaching a childish flower under a stylized tree. The repeated rhythms of bird/flower/tree
create a peaceful harmony in soft counterpoint to the subtle differences of color and detail as we move up from register to register.

Noah’s Ark provides a fertile occasion for depicting many diverse animals marching two by two, all from right to left, yet again. The register on top shows Noah picking figs and his entire family preparing for the voyage in the ark. In the bottom register they are seen entering the Ark with Shem and his wife entering by a separate door, perhaps reflecting the honor of their descendants, the Jewish people. In the lowest register of the animals one notices that the very last, the elephant, has no partner. When questioned about this, Shalom replied, “Noah would have a space problem so he took only one elephant - a pregnant one.” This creative combination of artistic wit and midrashic freedom characterizes much of Shalom’s work.

The Great Flood was of course the world’s first great tragedy, a watery holocaust for all mankind. The Dove Returns to Noah’s Ark (1963) addresses exactly this conundrum. The bottom sections of the painting are fields of blue gray devastation, barren trees, pits of black
emptiness and corpses floating in shallow pools. The ark is encased in a field of brown mud while Noah grasps the dove that has returned with the olive leaf. The text above Noah tells us that “”Noah knew that the waters had subsided from upon the earth.” As Noah gazes out on this terrible landscape he also knows the consequences of the Flood, the bodies that litter the bottom of the painting. Pointedly, Shalom depicts them all with Hitler-like moustaches and dark hair parted on the side. The world had become filled with corruption, “for all flesh had
corrupted its way upon the earth,” and still one is moved by the gravity and color of the painting, knowing that G-d’s retribution was terrible indeed. He does not rejoice in the annihilation of the wicked.

Shalom does not simply accept the text at face value. Instead he visualizes it in a wide, inclusive view, providing narrative context and midrashic elements that immediately shape the meaning, exposing elements that we have long glossed over or never noticed.

The Tower of Babel (1963) opens up the text “And the whole world was of one language and of one speech” (Gen. 11:1) to the Midrash that explains that “R. Leazar said: ‘of veiled deeds, for the deeds of the generation of the Flood are explicitly stated, whereas those of the generation of Separation are not explicitly stated.’ Shalom creates a massive tower of finely hewn masonry (remember, he was once a mason) situated above the determined populace of contemporary figures in the City of Babel below. Atop the tower, a winged figure menaces the
sky above with an enormous sword, to fulfill yet another midrash that tells us that their rebellion went so far as to attempt to supplant G-d from His Heavenly abode. They said, “Come, rather, and let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword, that it may appear to wage war with Him? (Midrash Rabba 38:6). Shalom’s bright yellow background against the cool grays of the tower and upper sky casts a brilliant light on one of mankind’s frequent rebellions against their Creator.

Shalom of Safed expanded the world of Torah with his many images. He maintained he did not transgress the Second Commandment since he ‘did not make paintings, but retold the story of the Bible in color and in line.’ Surely, he never sinned in making forbidden images, but just as surely, he did much more than simply retell a story. In his masterful use of text, color, line, form, texture and composition, he adds meaning, elicits questions and reinvigorates our understanding. His creativity, not limited to the artist’s tools, is in picturing diverse elements of narrative, bringing them together so that we must see each parasha anew. He has reportedly said, ‘I am a serious man. I do not paint out of my imagination.’ Certainly not. Rather he paints out of his beloved Torah.

(Quotations, images and background information are from “Images from the Bible” The Paintings of Shalom of Safed: The Words of Elie Wiesel with an introduction by Daniel Doron; The Overlook Press, Woodstock, N.Y. 1980)

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com

Bush, Jews And Democrats (Part II)

Friday, November 1st, 2002

Why are Jews still wedded to the Democratic party, years after it stopped making any economic or political sense for them to remain in the marriage? It’s a question one hears often from bewildered non-Jews and Republican Jews (Democratic Jews – i.e. the vast majority of American Jews – seem oblivious to the question, let alone any possible answer).

The truth is, there is no singular answer. The most commonly heard explanation, one routinely offered up in “analysis” pieces by lazy journalists and High Holiday sermons by ignorant Reform rabbis, is that the liberalism espoused by the likes of a Teddy Kennedy or a Barbra Streisand comes straight from Jewish tradition - in other words, if Moses and King David and Maimonides were alive today, they’d all be dues-paying members of the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and the National Organization for Women.

Such nonsense is belied by the fact that the more Orthodox a particular neighborhood or community, the more likely it is to vote for Republican candidates. Conversely, areas with a heavy concentration of secular and assimilated Jews vote almost without exception for liberal Democrats. If the explanation cited above held any water, the opposite would be true.

Another line of reasoning one encounters rather frequently is that Jews gravitated to the Democratic party because the party best served their interests. Since that answer is not nearly as off the wall as the fist, let’s take a little swing down memory lane and see what we can find.

Surprising though it may seem from our vantage point, the Jews who came to the U.S. prior to the great waves of immigration from Eastern Europe tended to look askance at the Democratic party, which was identified in the popular mind with Tammany-style political bossism, support for slavery, and an agrarian populism that often seemed indistinguishable from the rawest anti-Semitism.

That attitude changed with the arrival of the Eastern European Jews who crowded into the big cities at the turn of the century and quickly learned that their very livelihoods were dependent on the good will of those Tammany-like political machines, which were invariably Democratic and invariably corrupt.

Jobs and basic amenities were used as barter to purchase party loyalty, and bribery was the order of the day – the late New York senator Jacob Javits told the story of how his father loved Election Day because the saloon keepers would pay $2 (double a day’s wages at the time) to anyone who promised to vote Democratic.

Although the dominance of the big city bosses was an inescapable fact of life for the new Jewish immigrants, the pressure to vote the party line was felt most keenly in local elections. When it came to presidential politics, Jews were far less wary of voting their conscience.

In 1916, for example, Republican candidate Charles Evan Hughes received 45 percent of the Jewish vote, and four years later Republican Warren Harding actually won a plurality among Jews ? 43 percent as opposed to 19 percent for Democrat James Cox and 38 percent for Socialist Eugene V. Debs.

That last figure – nearly 4 in 10 Jews voting for the Socialist candidate – tells a story in itself, a story not to be ignored when seeking to understand Jewish voting habits. Many of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America with a passionate belief in one form or another of socialism, and those Jews tended to vote for third party left-wing candidates when offered the choice. Though their candidates were, with the exception of some local races in immigrant neighborhoods, roundly unsuccessful, the Jewish socialists and communists left a seemingly indelible stamp on the collective political identity of American Jews.

Most Jews, though, whether out of political moderation or fear of wasting their vote on a long shot, cast their ballots for either Democrats or Republicans. And though the Republicans lost a significant number of votes in 1924 to the third party candidacy of Progressive Robert La Follette, it wasn’t until the election of 1928 that the relationship between Jews and the Democratic party became the inseparable bond that still exists nearly 75 years later.

(Continued Next Week)

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/media-monitor/media-monitor-61/2002/11/01/

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