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January 23, 2017 / 25 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

Landscapes for Humanity: Paintings by Batya F. Kuncman

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

Congregation Rodeph Shalom

615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123

Monday – Thursday 10 – 4pm; Friday 10 – 2pm (215 627 6747)

info@rodephshalom.org  Until November 22, 2010


The world is complicated.  Surely it seems that Divine justice is elusive.  God’s role is frequently masked and our human situation is terribly fragile. Yet according to artist Batya F. Kuncman our condition is “most promising.”  Her optimistic artwork is designed to illuminate this shadowy nature of our existence and strives for clarity and ultimate closeness to God.  In “Landscapes for Humanity,” currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, images of infants are the tools she uses to explicate her belief.

In this highly original series of 12 paintings, created over the last four years, she has explored the vicissitudes of the human condition through the dual lens of Torah and human infancy.   Her exploration has been shaped by the narrative of the Garden of Eden and a belief that each baby she depicts is a unique being, echoing the Torah view that “each soul is an entire universe.”  The very nature of an infant is that it has unlimited potential that, once applied to a specific conceptual premise, can generate an extremely fruitful artistic expression.



Offering (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art



The complexity of each image is immediately apparent in the signature painting of the exhibition, Offering (2010).  The reference is to the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) with the emphasis on Isaac’s strength of faith and courage, in conjunction with Abraham’s quality of kindness which he seemingly forced himself to overcome to obey God.  We find these notions in the kabalistic structure of the s’firot and the artist relies on them to contextualize her paintings.  This amazing child-Isaac is seen from above reaching up toward us and the heavens beyond, filled with optimism and strength.  What is immediately apparent is the disjunctive scale of the giant baby in relation to the islands and turquoise green seas behind him.  He looms gigantic in size, and in importance, as this 4 x 6 foot painting demands our understanding that this most primal offering defines all subsequent attempts to draw close to our Creator.



Believer (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art


Initially more modest, Believer (2010) lures us into a child-like view of the universe.  A little babe is standing chest-deep in what appears to be a river, transfixed by an orange butterfly fluttering just out of reach.  The innocent child reaches up attempting to grasp at the elusive creature or perhaps to set it on its journey of freedom.  And therein lies the tension and mystery of Jewish prayer.  The artist maintains that we must see this image as an expression of Hannah’s seminal prayer (1 Samuel: 1:10).  Indeed the methodology of “service of the heart” is her gift to us, captured in the image of a child grasping at the wonder of a fleeting creature.  Our attempt to connect with the Divine is elusive and filled with wonder, just as this child grasps and yet does not connect.  Prayer is mysterious.

While these oil paintings are extremely realistic, the children and their surroundings rendered with startling detail, they are actually highly conceptual works of art deeply dependent upon biblical texts and explanations to properly contextualize the images.  Their meanings are only discernable in the interplay between text, image and concept as supplied by the artist along with her artworks.



The Great Communicator (detail – 2006) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art


Kuncman ups the ante in The Great Communicator, a startling image of a full figured infant on a sandy seashore.  His hands are held together in concentration as he tilts his enormous head to glance at the viewer. Behind him is a rich green ocean as the presence of Divine authority that supports this powerful infant.  This child, surely inarticulate and yet intrinsically filled with wisdom and strength, represents no less than King Solomon, the paragon of all human wisdom.  And yet, this child carries his kingly burden without a care, filled with humility. In his dream Solomon responds to God’s offer of limitless bounty with modest insight; “I am but a little child therefore give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, to distinguish between good and evil (1 Kings 3:7).”  More than any of the other images, this brown-eyed child looks us right in the eyes, his penetrating gaze searching out our understanding and intentions.  Will we respond to his needs as he grows and assure that he reaches his full potential?  The answer and outcome is surely in our hands.

As is more than obvious, the Israeli born Kuncman’s work as a conceptual artist is far-reaching.  She considers herself a multidisciplinary artist and two works she is currently showing in the Hartford, CT exhibition “Seduced by the Sacred” (Charter Oak Cultural Center, www.charteroakcenter.org, until November 22) validate that claim.   These manipulated photographs introduce Torah texts into the very fabric of life.  Sacred Ground is simply an image of an Israeli beach that fills most of the rectangle, surmounted by a thin strip of sea and a narrow expanse of cloud-filled blue sky at the top.  Then you notice the text faintly written in the sand, the first two paragraphs of the Shema written in formal Torah letters.  Once you understand what the text reads the artwork leaps alive; image, text and title percolating into a new meaning of how Eretz Yisroel is literally infused with the holy script.



LeAhava, photograph by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Charter Oak Cultural Center


Her companion photograph, leAhava, reveals a similar meaning in a shockingly personal way.  We see a close-up of one person’s left eye.  The eye is open looking straight at the viewer, framed by its upper and lower lids.   Irregular eyelashes punctuate the exposed eyeball.  Only once you notice the Torah letters inscribed neatly across the light brown iris does the image become considerably more than a portrait of one eye.  Indeed in making out the text one can only see a cropped view of three lines of the second paragraph of the Shema.  While leAhava is legible as is most of naf’shehem only a bit of d’ganechha appears around the lower edge.  Somehow this bizarre image concretizes the realization of how we indeed internalize the words of Torah and how deep within us our acceptance of mitzvos should and can be.  Here the text operates as an engine of meaning, proclaiming that the commandment to love God (l’Ahava) must infuse our very souls (nafshehem) and to do so results in our sustenance (diganechha).  The experience of realizing what the artist is getting at is electrifying.  In one image she has restated the fundamental meaning of this essential Torah passage.

By insisting on linking the power of the visual image with complexities of sacred text, literally brought into the image, Kuncman has raised the dialogue between the observant community and the visual arts to a new level of sophistication.  Once the text operates this way, as partner to the visual, it cannot be relegated to the role of ancillary reference.  Similarly the visual cannot operate as mere illustration of sacrosanct holy writ.  Both elements are forced to work together, commenting on and strengthening each other in a powerful visual/textual partnership.  The new and exciting meanings that come out of this union are part of the inspired future of Jewish art.


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

Richard McBee

Is Curious George Jewish? Monkeys and Jewish Art

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The Wartime Escape: Margret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France

March 26, 2010 – June 20, 2010

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, Ill.



Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey

March 14, 2010 – August 1, 2010

The Jewish Museum

1109 5th Ave, at 92nd St., New York




Monkeys and apes are generally symbols of base passion, particularly lust, in Western art. Giovanni Battista Foggini’s 17th century bronze sculpture “The Fall of Man” shows not only the serpent dangling from the Tree of Knowledge tempting Adam and Eve, but also a monkey seated behind the tree eating an apple. Foggini may have gotten the idea from Jan Brueghel the Elder, whose 1612 painting “Garden of Eden” features a monkey prominently, or from a c. 1410 “The Garden of Eden” by an unknown artist in Frankfurt. A century earlier, Martin Luther had famously referred to Satan as “God’s ape,” building upon the then-popular view of monkeys as unintelligent animals that simply mimicked primitive human behavior.


A monkey dressed as a court jester sits with a ball-and-chain shackling its legs in David Teniers the Younger’s “Prodigal Son” (1640), representing the son’s immorality and infidelity. In Eastern art, monkeys often torment the Buddha (as they do Christian saints), and several Frida Kahlo self portraits feature monkeys, no doubt referencing the artist’s passion. The title alone of El Greco’s 1577-9 work, “An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool,” identifies the tradition of identifying monkeys with loose morals.


Since monkeys so closely resemble humans (or vice versa), many artists have personified monkeys to offer social commentary, much like William Wegman photographed dogs dressed as people. The master of still life painting Jean-Sim?on Chardin’s 1740 “Monkey as Painter” shows a fashionably-dressed monkey painting a still life. Teniers, who placed a monkey beside his prodigal son, was famous for populating many of his works with monkeys: “Monkeys Drinking and Smoking” (1630s), “The Monkey Sculptor” (1660), “Monkeys at School” (c. 1660, not to be confused with his “Monkeys in School”), “Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats” and “Guardroom with Monkeys” (c. 1663).


Like many other symbols from different faiths, monkeys found their way into Jewish art. According to some scholars, notably Rachel Hachlili in “Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in The Diaspora,” monkeys may appear on some of the walls at the synagogue at Dura Europos. In his seminal “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature,” Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Vassar College, notes that monkeys were among the animal depictions adorning the walls of the 17th century synagogue in Hodorov (modern day Ukraine).


In “The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies,” Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen and David Sorkin add that monkeys are among the animals depicted on seals found “at Israelite sites dating primarily from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.” A 1309 edition of the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary from Brussels by Joshua b. Elijah (cited in Norman Roth’s “Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia”) features an illustration, which covers nearly the entire page, of a seated scribe holding a dog on his lap facing a monkey.


18. Margret and H. A. Rey, United States, late 1940s.  H. A. & Margret Rey Papers,

de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection,

McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.



It is against this larger tradition of monkeys that Margret and H.A. Rey created Curious George, the inquisitive monkey many will know from the Reys’ children’s book series.


Since there is no literal Jewish content in the work of the Reys, many readers might be surprised to learn there is any Jewish significance to Curious George. But the playful monkey has been the subject of recent shows at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and The Jewish Museum, owing to the Jewish identity of his two creators.


In fact, the Reys had to temporarily halt their work on the Curious George series to flee the Nazis and they escaped Paris on their bicycles with the George manuscripts in tow. When one looks for references to the Reys’ status as refugees in their character, one is reminded that the Man with the Yellow Hat (who remains anonymous) traps George and removes him from his home in the African jungle. As David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, pointed out to me when we visited the exhibit together at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, the man’s hat could be a reference to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear.



4. H. A. Rey, final illustration for “One day George saw a man. He had on a large yellow straw hat,” published in The Original Curious George (1998), France, 1939-40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper.  H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Curious George, and related characters, created by Margret and H. A. Rey, are copyrighted and trademarked by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Menachem Wecker

Tzelem: Presence And Likeness In Jewish Art

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

April 26-May 18, 2009

Stanton Street Synagogue180 Stanton Street, New York, N.Y.

Wed., Thurs., Sun., 12:00 – 6:00 p.m.

See JewishArtSalon.comfor calendar of panel discussions and events.


Jewish Art is a grass-roots movement whose time has come. It has evolved precisely because there are those who are moved by their Jewish heritage and wish to share this experience with the art world, the general public and the Jewish community. There has never been such an exciting time.

Many people see the concept of Jewish art as one of ethnic identity, as a branch of ethnic identity politics. This is true to a point. During the 1960s and ’70s, with the emergence of African-American Artists, Gays and the Women’s Movement, it was discovered by these participants that the American assimilationist paradigm of the mid-century was insufficient. In other words, there were some people that could not fit in, given their inherent difference from the White Anglo Male majority, despite its cultural assumptions of universality. Jewish Americans, many bent on their own brands of assimilation, took note. Some were in more than one camp. Take for example Judy Chicago; coming from a feminist point of view eventually addressed the Holocaust and her own Jewish identity in her work. A flowering of Jewish American culture followed in part because the limits of assimilation had been set.

But Jewish art is not simply an illustration of ethnic identity. It is also a visual art of no particular style based on Jewish ideas of religion, culture and philosophy. The same period, 1975, is usually dated as the death of High Modernism. The High Priests of New York High Modernism (you should pardon the pun) Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were both Jewish, although their allegiance to the Jewish community was very conflicted. Rosenberg himself wrote on the possibility of a Jewish art based on a history of Jewish marginality with the mainstream culture. In other words, Judaism with its invisible G-d, functioning in renunciation of Greco-Roman inspired materialist civilization and its Formalism could in effect create an anti-art.


Judah and Tamar (2008), oil on canvas by John Bradford


Clement Greenberg’s relationship with Judaism was even more convoluted, even as he proved to be the most influential critic of his generation. His pronouncements of the visual as being separate from all other mental functions, making it, in effect, holy or sacrosanct and his prioritization of the abstract over the figurative can readily be perceived as a covert re-stating of the Second Commandment. “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters under the earth.”

The cultural and social changes wrought by the 1970s and 1980s shifted interest to postmodern discourse. Most of the main players of this movement were Jewish with strong ties to Jewish thought and community. Walter Benjamin, the father of postmodernism, wrestled with Communism and the Kabbalah. His best friend, as is well documented, was Gershom Scholem, who introduced Kabbalistic ideas into modern Western thought. Emanuel Levinas was a Talmudic scholar; Jacques Derrida was a Sephardic Jew who co-authored a book on religion and referred to himself as “Reb Derissa” and so on. It is not circumstantial that these men were Jews. Rather their reliance on semiotics, acronyms and Deconstruction reflects a strong Talmudic character as written about by Susan Handleman, Geoffrey Hartman, Steven Schwartzchild, Martin Jay and others.

What does this mean for the average Jewish artist? It has become much more comfortable to espouse hard-core Jewish ideas. If Madonna can call herself Esther, and Oprah Winfrey can discuss “The Other” in the context of social action, then these inherently Jewish ideas have reached a mainstream audience as well as transformed the landscape of academia.

If Jews in the field of the visual arts have frankly lagged behind other ethnic groups in espousing cohesion, pride and identification in being Jewish, it should be remembered that we are introducing a difficult concept for the secular art world to accept. We are re-introducing religious ideas onto Modern Art as a possible inspiration, something that has not been readily accepted since the mid 19th century. After all, Romantic and Modern Art were supposed to replace religion entirely. Yet many artists who were not born to religious backgrounds were nonetheless drawn to what Arthur Danto has called “The Jewish Sublime” to be pursued through traditional forms of Jewish study.


Creation XI (1987), silverpoint, gold leaf, acrylic on paper by Susan Schwalb


It is an exciting concept to believe that Jewish religion and spirituality can be extracted from the contemporary assumption that all religious thought is politically conservative, inherently retrograde and worthy of derision or forbidden as a source of creative art. We are, in effect, changing the rules as to what is aesthetically acceptable.  Whether or not this is universally accepted or adopted is beside the point. It is exciting precisely because we are changing the discourse.

The concept of this exhibition, Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art comes from the book of Genesis 1:27.In it, G-d creates man according to his own image. The words tzelem, demuth and temuna are all used for this concept.  The rabbis, including Rashi, were ever cognizant to keep G-d transcendent, and understood that likeness does not mean simple visual correspondence as it did for the Greeks. What developed was opaque, layered and deeply Jewish. They assumed that likeness equals intelligence and the inherent quality to do good, much like the Creator. While the Greeks postulated a model of Mimesis readily employed in Western Art for 1,800 years, Jews tied vision to concepts of moral judgment and the matrix of language, not unlike postmodern thought. One of the reasons that Christian philosophers could marginalize Jewish thought and the Jewish advent into European art during the 19th century was to demean the Jewish links to Linguistic Philosophy. By this, I mean the Jewish system of textual analysis found in Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah known as hermeneutics or exegesis. In the anti-Semitic mind, Jewish thought was not tied to experience at all, just to words.  They believed that Jews never built or created anything new or original. See Kalman P. Bland’s excellent book “The Artless Jew” and Susan Handleman’s The Slayers of Moses.

Often evoked by Jews and non-Jews alike as the Ur source material for Jewish Art, the Second Commandment is restated twice, once in Exodus 20 and again with variations in Deuteronomy 5 and 9. The issue of limiting or destroying all representation is actually a false conundrum here, as the real issue in the text is one of foreign or false worship to other gods. It has always been evident even under the strictest rabbinical conditions that the Second Commandment is determined by context and community and has been applied liberally or conservatively as the community sees fit. It has never been a categorical call, favoring the ear and suppressing the eye, as some would have it.


Children (2008), oil on canvas and collage by Diana Kurz


In this regard, the idea of Tzelem presents a Jewish model for vision, one worth exploring in contemporary art. It brings up myriad issues regarding the levels of representation or its subsequent renunciation. Jewish thinkers often seek to limit, deform or skew the notion of visual truthfulness, or verism in art. The Code of Jewish Law, The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch does not allow the drawing of a man, especially of a face “unless it is slightly disfigured.”  Deforming visual correspondence might superficially suggest abstraction, but in actuality opens the door to all styles and concepts of art, as all discourse is seen as a multivalent language originating within the creator.

This language is structured as a prioritized narrative (The Torah) with its subsequent interpretations. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writing in Genesis; The Beginning of Desire quotes the Netziv of Volozhin, author of Ha’amek Davar, who translates “to fulfill, to obey” the Torah is to construct the meaning of the words of the Torah. Zornberg concludes that the making of the Torah in the reader’s mind assumes a contemporary understanding of the active process of perception or, to take it further; vision, like reading is a fundamentally interpretive process.

Participating Artists: Ita Aber, Siona Benjamin, Suzanne Benton, John Bradford, Shoshannah Brombacher, Lynda Caspe, Raphael Eisenberg, David Friedman, Tobi Kahn, Rachel Kanter, Tine Kindermann, Robert Kirschbaum, Diana Kurz, Richard McBee, Jill Nathanson, Mark Podwal, Archie Rand, Deborah Rosenthal, Susan Schwalb, Janet Shafner, Joel Silverstein, Adele Shtern, Jack Silberman, Mierle Ukeles, Yona Verwer, David Wander, Menachem Wecker, Laurie Wohl.

In weeks to come, we hope to analyze individual works of some of the artists in this truly landmark exhibition.

Joel Silverstein is an artist, critic and teacher and co-curator with Richard McBee of Tzelem: Presence and Likeness in Jewish Art.

Joel Silverstein

A Light Unto The Nation: Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

While the heart of Israel’s democracy is to be found in the Knesset in Jerusalem, just across the road is a quiet but persuasive work of art that sums up the awesome narrative of Jewish history that finally brought us to the Land of Israel. War and strife are the undeniable subjects of this 15-foot high bronze menorah by the British artist Benno Elkan. Both the subject and tone of the 29 relief panels that emblazon the menorah were significant not only for the Israel of 1956 − when it was given by the British people to the still new State of Israel − but also for a contemporary audience all too well acquainted with the fight for survival in the face of intractable enemies. Tragically, so little has changed. This is a menorah that will continue to illuminate brightly well past its first 53 years.

Benno Elkan (1877-1960) was born in Dortmund, Germany and became a sculptor of medals, busts and monuments. By 1933, life as a Jew in Germany became intolerable and he fled to England where he continued his artistic career. His work was predominantly non-Jewish, including sculptures of Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oran-Utan Group at the Edinburgh Zoological Garden, Great War Memorials and other public works and tombs. Notably the bronze candelabras for Westminster Abby, conceptual prototypes of the Knesset Menorah, were taken with him as he fled Nazi Germany.



Knesset Menorah (1956) cast bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


He began work on the reliefs that would become the Knesset Menorah at age 68 and completed the work 10 years later at 78. As the creator of the Knesset Menorah, arguably one of the most recognizable images from Israel in the world, he is a man of mystery behind an extremely vibrant symbol. (It should be noted that the official symbol of the State of Israel, the menorah, was derived from the Roman relief found in the Arch of Titus that commemorated the defeat of Jews at the hands of the Romans in 67 CE.)

At first glance, the 29 images on the menorah seem random without chronology or theme, spanning ancient Jewish history through the Middle Ages, the early Modern era, and concluding in the mid-20th century. Upon reflection, certain patterns and elementary narrative structures emerge – so much so, that a preliminary outline can be offered:

The Central Branch is the main narrative, starting at the top and descending to the base. It depicts the fundamental struggle of 2,000 years of exile, finally ending in the creation of the modern State of Israel.

The side branches’ narratives frame the central story and should be read horizontally, starting with the uppermost row, moving down row by row and then inward toward the central branch. Admittedly this complex scheme is problematic, since some of the alleged subjects of the reliefs are not clearly confirmed by the visual images and do not conform to either a chronological or thematic narrative. Nonetheless the specific combination of Biblical narrative, symbolic figures and actual historical events yields a complete conception.

In keeping with the militant tone of the menorah, the three uppermost central images are of Moses presiding over the battle with Amalek, his arms supported by Hur and Aaron, flanked on the left by David brandishing the head of Goliath and on the right by a defeated Bar Kochba. The triumphant David image is symbolic of the tiny Jewish state that bravely confronts and defeats its larger and numerous enemies – and easily resonated in 1956, as well as now. Bar Kochba’s defeat reflects the periodic dashed Messianic hopes and yearnings of the Jewish people amid a crushing military debacle.



Moses, Aaron & Hur (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


The central image of Moses spiritually leading the Jewish army with the help of Aaron and Hur proclaims a fundamental Jewish concept of the Divine role in Jewish survival. Professor Hannelore Kunzl, noted scholar and professor of Jewish Art at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, correctly assesses that the ancient battle with − and defeat of − Amalek represents the all too recent struggle with Hitler. For today’s Jews, the war with Hamas and Hizbullah are no less urgent.



Rachel & Ruth (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Next on the central branch of the menorah is the image of the Ten Commandments surrounded by the flames of Sinai − front and center on the menorah − as much as it is a crucial tenet of Jewish life and history. Subsequently, on the central branch is the image of Rachel weeping for her children who have gone into exile, as described in Jeremiah 31:15. The kneeling figure of Rachel is gently comforted by the beautiful Ruth, standing over her and holding a three-branched lamp, illuminating not only the sorrowful Rachel but also the crown of kingship seen floating above. This is the same crown that her descendent David would possess to establish Jewish sovereignty over the land and establish the first Jewish commonwealth.



Ezekiel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Beneath Rachel and Ruth is the Ezekiel panel, the prophet seen as a dramatic figure, gesturing to the viewer as well as to the painfully struggling skeletal figures emerging from the ground beneath his feet (Ezekiel 37: 1-14). Ezekiel prophesized that, by God’s word, the Jewish people would rise from the dead and become a great army, a great people – indeed, just as the post-Holocaust Jewish people arose and created the State of Israel.

Following Ezekiel is the much more complex visual theme of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Violence, individual courage, anguish and massacre combine to bring Elkan’s images into the horrific 20th century. Armed struggle, frequently against impossible odds, was a defining reality of throwing off the shackles of exile. The next image is the passage to the present, i.e. the rebuilding of the Land and establishment of the State of Israel. A flaming round plaque proclaims “Shema Yisrael” as the beacon of hope and strength that will lead the Jewish people from the ashes of the Holocaust to a renascent state in Palestine. The entire foundation of the Knesset Menorah rests on the final central panel of restoring the land: plowing, planting, building and reaping the sustenance that God has promised. The reward for the patience, courage, suffering and struggle of exile is the precious Land of Israel.

Just as the central branch represents the fundamental narrative of the Jewish people, this heroic tale is refined and subtly shaped by the images that surmount each branch on either side. On the extreme left is Isaiah’s vision of the End of Days (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6): “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” And “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper’s hole “



Isaiah (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Yearning for such a peaceful paradise is brutally contrasted with the image on the extreme right. Jeremiah’s thin and anguished body stretches heavenward in lamentation as the sinfulness of the Jewish people blinds us to the opportunity for repentance and God’s law.

This kind of pairing further comments on the next two crucial figures of Ezra the Scribe (adjacent to Isaiah) and Hillel (who is seen next to Jeremiah). Ezra’s heroic task, shown here reading a large Torah scroll to the transfixed masses, was to reconstitute the decimated Jewish people returning from the Babylonian exile. His pivotal role is echoed on the other side of the menorah by Hillel, who is seen patiently teaching a convert who impetuously demanded to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot.



Hillel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


The relief beautifully illustrates the famous response of the wise Hillel (Shabbos 31a): “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Elkan juxtaposes the radical simplicity and kind wisdom of Hillel with Ezra’s tempered urgency of preserving a Jewish people on the precipice of obliteration.

Many other of the images on the side branches reverberate with similar contrasts, central to the contextualization of the primary theme that explores the many aspects of exile. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s witnessing of the Second Temple as it tumbles into ruins is posed next to the personal anguish in the betrayal of Job’s friends, forcing us to see the communal as but an aspect of the deeply personal. Just as easily, going across from one branch to another – the image of Jews mourning the Temple on the edges of the waters of Babylon – seems to reflect the death of Aaron’s sons.

The calm brilliance of the Rambam, pondering Yad haZakah with the writings of Aristotle under one arm, is seen right next to the awesomely serious Torah scholar, one thumb characteristically thrust up in a moment of brilliant assertion, ready to affirm the construction of the metaphorical rabbinical fence behind him – so necessary to navigate ordinary life.

The complexity and diversity of image and Jewish history multiplies at each glance of this monumental menorah, giving more and more breadth to the expanse of Jewish life that was − and continues to be – the fabric of Jewish exile. Ironically, the diversity of images and themes tend to dilute the central theme of suffering and violence that dominates the fundamental narrative. Even the main inscription on the bottom of the lowest branches from the Chanukah Haftarah (Zechariah: 4:6), “Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit, said Hashem, Master of Legions,” seems to question our historical experience. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the menorah’s theme of violent struggle, war and strife? And yet this is exactly the point.

The constant reality of Jewish life, especially in exile, is contradiction − tenaciously holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head at the same time. They are the two realities of struggle and dreaming – violent assertion and pure faith. Both must be present for us to move forward, and both are demanded of us until Moshiach arrives. Both illuminate Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah.

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

Richard McBee

Sotheby’s Riches

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007


1334 York Avenue

New York, NY 10021

212 606 7010




         The varieties of Jewish art are always a delight to explore, but occasionally an exhibition comes along that provides surprises and insights that trouble even the most assured of viewers. The auction of “Important Judaica” at Sotheby’s on December 19 is one of those truly exciting moments.


         All the traditional categories are well represented, and yet in almost every group a surprise lurks ready to reinvigorate what we though we knew about Jewish Art. There are almost 120 items in silver alone with 26 menorahs from practically every genre represented. The two Polish silver menorahs (#19 and 18) in the “Baal Shem Tov” style are hauntingly luscious with ornamented filigree backplates, decorative columns in a floral motif and festooned with fanciful birds.


         The North African Ceramic Lamp (#97) from the 19th century that was used for both Hanukah and Shabbos is starkly distinctive in its primitive simplicity, the terracotta glazed and delicately ornamented with black and ochre geometric designs that somehow proclaim the primal need for light. The tremendous creativity that Jewish craftsmen have expended on lamp production over the centuries is truly impressive. Manuscripts at Sotheby’s are similarly irresistible.



Polish Silver Filigree Hanukah Lamp (19th Century)

Karol Filip Malcz, Warsaw, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         A Torah scroll from Yemen (#121) may be the earliest example of a complete Yemenite Torah and dates from the 13th or 14th century. The Roman Jews are well represented with two machzorim, one a meticulously hand written personal prayer book (#125) from the 14th to 15th century, that preserves an early tradition of presenting pictographic symbols of the various different sounds of the shofar. Nearby there is an example of the first mahzor ever printed, the Soncino Roman Mahzor (#128), completed in 1486 in Casal Maggiore near Cremona, Italy.


         The selection of eight printed haggadahs starts with the impressive Mantua Haggadah (#142) from 1560. This is the earliest illustrated haggadah printed in Italy and is decorated with more than 50 woodcut illustrations and elaborate woodcut frames on every page. Among the other haggadahs is a pocket-sized edition of 1716 (#154) created by Tzvi Hirsch ben Haim of Furth. It has ten woodcut illustrations and contains Yiddish instructions and an interlinear Yiddish translation of “Ehad Mi Yode’a” and “Had Gadya,” all expressly designed as the first haggadah for children.


         There is also the fascinating American Haggadah (#173) from Chicago edited by Haim Liberman (1879) that features Hebrew and English translation and illustrations “in accordance with the instructions of the Talmud” (influenced by midrashic comments). Especially interesting is the depiction of the four sons all gathered around the Seder table (according to Yerushalmi, perhaps the first time this is represented) in distinctly American dress. The father looks suitably patriarchal and old world while the wicked son smokes a cigarette, tips back his chair and gestures dismissively at his father – sadly, a typical American immigrant experience.


         Two 19th century manuscripts are the true stars of the Sotheby’s exhibition because they contrast original content with artificial and yet wonderfully inventive imported style. The French Haggadah (# 197) from the second half of the 19th century is at first glance an amalgam of Persian miniature and medieval French illumination. Possibly based on Islamic “carpet page” manuscripts, this haggadah was created as a luxury object for a discerning customer in what was the immensely popular Oriental style. It features 33 pages of Hebrew text with nikudos and ritual instructions in French that are all surrounded by elegant illuminations in blue lapis and gold, no page or design alike. It is a pure artifact of shameless cultural appropriation that is nonetheless breathtakingly beautiful.



French Haggadah (19th century)

Illuminated Manuscript, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         “An extremely rare example of an illustrated Megillah Esther from India” is the next lot (# 198) and presents 31 columns of wonderfully decorated and illustrated text. Also dated from the 19th century, it contains 18 miniatures of the story of Esther and is absolutely unique in both style and technique. It features numerous decorative vignettes of flowers and horses top and bottom and stylized representations of court musicians that divide one column of text from the next. It is a wonderfully original and authentic expression of Indian / Jewish visual culture, easily as beautiful and creative as the aforementioned French Haggadah. Seeing them together makes one realize exactly how diverse and creative our culture is and how freely Jews borrowed from surrounding cultures and motifs to express themselves religiously.


         The 30 some odd paintings are a diverse lot that over-represent the genre of rebbi paintings in the styles of both Moritz Oppenheim and Isidor Kaufman, including three Kaufman originals. Especially notable is “The Newlywed” by Kaufman, a psychologically deep portrait of a young bride wonderfully bedecked in a pearl laden headdress (sterntichel) and gold-colored silk dress.


         Perhaps most instructive in this collection of paintings is the contrast between an overtly sentimental depiction of Jewish piety and a stark rendition of biblical tragedy. The relatively unknown Russian-born portrait painter Nikol Schattenstein (1877-1954) is represented by the curious genre painting, “A Mother’s Pride.” For works that trade in such sentimentality, it is remarkably inventive and, in a curious way, mysterious.



A Mother’s Pride, oil on canvas by Nikol Schattenstein,

Courtesy Sotheby’s



         A kippah-clad man is seated with his back to the viewer studying at a table by the light of a window. On the table there is a lamp, two unlit Shabbos candle holders, some other books, and, surprisingly, a sleeping cat. Seen past the table is an older woman, her hair covered, peeking over the footboard of a large old-fashioned bed. She seems pleased as she sees her son engaged in Torah study, hence the title.


         While the initial impression is purely sentimental, the unexpected details complicate the image. It is odd that their Shabbos table is in such close proximity to the familial bed and the rose tinged sheer curtain that filters the light from the window, is similarly out of keeping with a normal apartment.The cat sleeping on the table is likewise incongruous with the common practices of most observant households.Finally the large clock hanging on the wall near the headboard strikes an almost ominous note. The odd assemblage of discordant details cuts into the obvious message to create a more subtle and complex image of parental fidelity and a progeny’s piety.


         Similarly, Lesser Ury’s (1861-1931) image of “Moses” makes one reassess all we think we knew about our great leader. We see Moses, arms upraised and clad in some kind of baggy pants, shirtless and exposed. His muscular torso is nevertheless one of an old man, and he stands overlooking a vast expanse. The landscape below is dramatically lit, tents and palm trees are dimly seen under a sky divided between a black cloud below and a white light that silhouettes Moses.



Moses, oil on board by Lesser Ury, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         Is this Moses looking into the future, looking into the Promised Land that he is forbidden to enter? Indeed, this is the terrible yearning of the man who shepherded the Jews out of Egypt and through the Wilderness, only to die just within reach of the Land. Lesser Ury’s Moses reaches for that which it unattainable, as he looks upon what he has lost. Ury’s Moses is no superman; he is vulnerable and terribly human, only desiring to fulfill God’s promise to the Jewish people to dwell in their land.


         These kind of visions; of beauty, of reaching out to children, of interchange with our surrounding culture and reaching into our deepest traditions along with our deepest emotions, these are the qualities that Jewish art can bring to the table. And this is the fully laden table that “Important Judaica” at Sotheby’s presents to us.


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

Richard McBee

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



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

Richard McBee

Jewish Enough In LA?

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

The L.A. Story

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum

One West 4th Street, New York, NY 10012;

212 824 2205

Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Free Admission (Photo ID required)



         The L.A Story, a selection of works from 10 contemporary Los Angeles Jewish artists currently at the Hebrew Union College – Institute of Religion Museum, poses the question of what exactly constitutes Jewish Art and what is its condition today on the West Coast. As part of its answer, provided in essays by the curator Laura Kruger and art historian Matthew Baigell, it proposes that the Jewish art presented here has some unique qualities as result of where it was produced, i.e. Los Angeles.


         Kruger and Baigell maintain that a commitment to Jewish values and issues, including a Jewish historical sensitivity, along with a consciousness shaped by California’s physical environment, are especially evident in these diverse works of art. These issues are rightly at the vortex of an emerging consciousness in the Jewish community about the legitimacy, necessity and reality of Jewish Art.




Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit, 2007, Digital photograph by Bill Aron



         The impetus behind this exhibition is the Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California, an artist-run advocacy group of 24 artists fostering visual art by Jewish artists, founded by Ruth Weisberg in 2003. Of those artists, approximately ten have overt Jewish content based on the works found on the group’s website. To be fair, the JAI never said it promoted Jewish Art, only Jewish artists. Nonetheless, one can discern some themes of Jewish Art from those artists that use identifiably Jewish subjects.


         Some motifs include Jewish history such as Ruth Weisberg’s work on Israel-bound refugees on board the ill-fated Altalena and Joyce Dallal’s crumpled UN resolutions; Jewish communal life as seen in much of Bill Aron’s work, specifically here in a photographic foray into the successful lives of Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust as explored by Ruth Snyder and Terry Braunstein’s riveting book, “Shot on the Spot”; synagogue and ritual art produced by Laurie Gross; kabbalah/ women considered by Gilah Hirsch; Pat Berger’s Women and their Biblical Environment series; and Jewish identity parsed by Tony Berlant and especially Eugene Yelchin’s Section 5 meditation on Jewish identity in Soviet Russia.


         The majority of the other artists in JAI are concerned with such diverse subjects as nature, spirituality, technology, space, Greek myths, personal discovery and enlightenment – all noble pursuits but hardly unique to Jews.


         What is notably missing, with one or two exceptions, in this particular selection of artworks is the vast universe of Jewish texts, culture and history from antiquity to 1948. It is astonishing that among the hundreds of narratives found in the Hebrew Bible, Midrashim and Talmud, and the sweep of 2000 years of Jewish history across the globe, only the last 50 years and its cultural preoccupations of identity and gender are fair game to create art with. It is as if the Jewish people have no worthwhile history, culture or memorable texts. Of course, there is merit in focusing on the contemporary world and therefore there are works here of considerable interest, two of which I found particularly compelling.


         Many of the underlying themes of the exhibition are found in Tony Berlant’s The Jew in the Desert (1981-85). This monumental work (7′ X 11.75′) is laboriously fashioned of printed tin in a collage attached by hundreds of small brads that secure it to its wood panel support. The haunting image that is formed is of one lone figure standing, facing left, in a vast and barren landscape that is littered with abstract constructions; some floating, some anchored to the ground and others merging with the sky. As the artist’s catalogue essay by Kimberly Davis says of his work; “more mindscape than landscape.”



Jew in the Desert [detail] (1981-85), Printed metal collage; 84′ X 141″ by Tony Berlant

Collection of Peter Gould


         This Jew in the desert casts a long shadow behind him three quarters of the way across the panel. His oversize head is crowned with an archaic naval commander’s hat and he is dressed in a black formal jacket, slacks and boots. While he seems rooted to the place in which he has come to rest, he is likewise profoundly lost, a commander without a ship who finds himself paradoxically in the desert. The sky above him is dense with theoretical activity and structure as a few ovoids suggest luminaries. Along the horizon, just behind our lost man, is a painted wooden panel set into the collage surface depicting a picturesque desert landscape, punctuated by blue mountains in the distance under a sunset-tinged sky. It is very much the romantic image of the desert in stark contrast with the cacophonous reality the Jew finds himself in before us.


         Berlant’s floating abstract structures summon much contemporary LA architecture, effectively echoing the work of Frank Gehry. While the landscape emerges as a kind of hodgepodge and is ultimately unintelligible to the Jew of tradition, found here, it has still trapped and immobilized him. Is this the fate of the Jews of Los Angeles?


         Reading right to left, like Hebrew, the Jew’s past behind him is a singularly dense set of ten or more rectangles; white, yellow, orange, red and turquoise that are animated by vertical squiggles, virtual notations that march in a strange musical order. One could read the entire piece as a metaphor of the modern Jew’s exodus from the East into California, across the desert from the European shtetl and like the Exodus from Egypt, the idolatrous past that still beckons, structures that hint at the tabernacle that traveled with him, the confusion of his new found freedom and finally the realization that he can go no further, he is at the edge of the continent and there is no promised land to redeem him. Bleak though it is, Berlant’s work here utilizes biblical references, California landscape and the specter of a cultural desert to comment on a precarious contemporary Jewish identity.


         Pat Berger’s Deborah (1991) similarly works to explore our assumptions about Jewish identity. Her figure of the prophetess is depicted as a particularly contemporary woman, perhaps a portrait of one of the artist’s friends. Dressed in a fringed shawl and loose fitting overskirt, one can almost imagine jeans peeking out from under her costume. Even her sandals are suspiciously familiar. A small grove of trees frames her as she gestures towards the viewer, inviting a response to her pronouncements. In the foreground are five stereotypical biblical men, bearded and clad in turbans, robes and holding staffs. They gesture, argue and converse with each other, seemingly in wonder at this calm, assured woman who presumes to judge. Pictorially they are in a different world than she is-they are the Jewish past and she is the feminist present. There does not seem to be much hope for a dialogue, reflecting a view of contemporary Jewish identity that is cut off from its origins and forced to reinvent itself in the here and now.


Deborah Giving Judgment(1991), Acrylic on canvas, 60″ X 48″ by Pat Berger



         As insightful as this scenario may be, it fails to acknowledge that as a people, we have come a long way since the alienation of the modern Jew in contemporary America so typical of the mid-20th century. Currently all of the major movements are deeply involved in reengaging traditional texts and ritual. Openly Jewish communities are growing nationally, day school attendance is at an all-time high, and in the Orthodox world there are more people studying Jewish texts now than any time in history. Vast amounts of the traditional texts have been translated and are available to the uneducated Jewish public, and while studying them the public can happily munch on an unheard of array of kosher products from almost any American supermarket. That, at least, is the view from the East Coast.


         This trepidation with traditional Jewish subjects is surely both geographical and generational. Culturally New York and its environs have lived through the Jewish rejection of the Old World and rampant assimilation by modernity for the last 70 years. Slowly but surely, the younger Jewish world is setting about to reclaim its awesome heritage, demanding that it can coexist creatively with modernity (and post modernity). In the last decade, there is a sense of a new entitlement of traditional Jewish culture; Jewish music and literature in resurgence, painting exhibitions such as the recent “Scenes from the Bible” in New York (reviewed here two weeks ago) are only a few examples of a cultural swing not afraid to be too Jewish. Most importantly there is the growing promise that in this process both traditional subjects and modernity will be fundamentally transformed into a dynamic and new Jewish culture, benefiting all Jews in the East, West and beyond.

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/jewish-enough-in-la/2007/11/14/

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