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January 22, 2017 / 24 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Podwal’

Old and New: Podwal’s Altneuschul Paroches

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street, NYC; 212-294 8330 www.yumuseum.org Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11am-5pm; $6 adults, $4 children Until January 15, 2012

Mark Podwal is a busy, busy man. When I wrote that in these pages in September 2010 it is now clear I didn’t know the half of it…witness his current exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum. In what is effectively a love song to his adopted city, Prague, Podwal has had the delicious opportunity to give her Jewish community a spanking new Chanukah gift; the new Torah curtain, shulchan covers and Torah mantles. For a Jewish artist and lover of Prague like Podwal it doesn’t get any better than that.

Curator Zachary Paul Levine’s exhibition brilliantly contextualizes Podwal’s textile creations, both within the artist’s own work and the historical background of the ancient Jewish community. Additionally, Levine produced and edited “Steps Closer to Prague: Mark Podwal,” a 9-minute video companion on YouTube that not only includes considerable commentary by the artist himself, but also explores the working relationship he developed with the New York custom embroidery company Penn and Fletcher. From Podwal’s original drawings to digital transfers and computer driven machine-made embroidery finally appliquéd on the final textile, each step is lovingly documented. The combination is a captivating and intense course in Jewish visual symbols, Czech Jewish history and contemporary Jewish art.

Touching Heaven (1981) pen and ink by Mark Podwal Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Podwal’s interest in Prague and its Jewish community dates back to the late 1970s when he was researching material for a book with Elie Weisel on the mythical Golem of Prague. His fascination at first centered on the old Jewish cemetery, used from 1439 until 1787, and home to an estimated 12,000 tombstones and perhaps as many as 100,000 burials. This eerie hodgepodge of Jewish history, piety and life prompted many drawings and paintings by Podwal, often morphing into fantastic visions of multiple golems and claustrophobic ghetto houses. His drawings of the cemetery are the beginning of the exhibition’s tale that traces many of the visual elements of these current textiles back to his earlier work.

Golem and cemetery images surround an open model of the seven hundred year-old Altneuschul to familiarize us with the new home of Podwal’s textiles. We see how the shul is effectively divided into three sections by two massive pillars, reminiscent of legendary columns Boaz and Jachin found at the entrance of the First Temple. The front section was for the holy, i.e. prayer, while the remaining rear sections were utilized for communal affairs, dominated by the enormous medieval guild banner, proudly bearing the Star of David, evidently the earliest use of this symbol in a synagogue. Also noted on the accompanying text panels are the numerous symbolic references throughout the shul; the 12 grapevines on the valance over the Aron symbolizing the 12 tribes; the 12 windows to the outside world reflecting the same; and the abbreviated quotations of Psalms emblazoned on the walls. Echoes of all these elements are found in Podwel’s Altneuschul textiles.

The Old New Synagogue (1980) pen and ink by Mark Podwal Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Prague’s Jewish community has been on Podwal’s mind for decades. Two drawings exemplify his curious meditations. Touching Heaven is brazen in its assertion that the Jewish community of Prague is somehow elevated over all others in their city by the mere fact of their Judaism. Towering over a multitude of spires (Prague is known as City of a Hundred Spires), Podwal has shown the little Jewish ghetto, itself dominated by the Altneuschul, ensconced on a massive menorah towering over the city. This audacious image leads one naturally to Podwal’s more localized Old-New Synagogue that exposes the real agenda in these images. Here we see the Altneuschul in realistic profile with hundreds of Hebrew letters ascending to heaven. In itself not at all surprising since we believe that all of our prayers, especially those uttered in shul, ascend to heaven; nonetheless, here Podwal touches on a particular piece of Prague Jewish belief. According to legend the Altneuschul was itself built with stones from the Second Temple and in the time of the Messiah is destined to eventually return to Jerusalem. It is therefore especially connected with Jerusalem and the Heavenly realm.

Torah Covers (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

As audacious a belief as this seems, it actually is understandable in light of another legend (claimed to be ancient but probably a 19th century creation) of the Golem that was created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, chief Rabbi of Prague. The legend describes a deeply pious Jew mystically giving life to a creature crafted from earth to defend the threatened Jews of Prague. Much like God created Man, this human creation is deeply rooted in the holy and depicts man as potentially God-like as a mere mortal could possibly become. Hence Prague’s closeness to Heaven itself.

Richard McBee

A Jewish Art Salon Exhibit

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Seduced by the Sacred: Forging a New Jewish Art

Oct. 3 – Nov. 22, 2010

Mandell JCC (West Hartford) and Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford, Conn.

Curated by Richard McBee and Joel Silverstein




In many ways, it should be a no-brainer for readers of The Jewish Press to make the decision to visit the latest Jewish Art Salon exhibit, Seduced by the Sacred, or, if the trek to Hartford is prohibitive, to immerse themselves in the works online. After all, most readers of this publication are surely already seduced by the sacred – however problematic the definition of both terms may be – and, particularly if they are regular readers of this column, they will be intrigued by the question of new Jewish art.


In other ways, however, readers of The Jewish Press might be overqualified for Seduced by the Sacred, and the target (or at least ideal) audience for the show may be people who are less engaged with the usual suspects of Jewish art. Jewish art aficionados will already be aware of many of the show’s participants – Archie Rand, Tobi Kahn, Mark Podwal, Richard McBee, John Bradford, Siona Benjamin and others – and the notion of this art being new is perhaps a bit outdated.


But the show, which the curators say covers a “new generation of Jewish artists [who] came of age after the 1970s and craved more authentic religious and cultural experiences,” is vital for those who are not as familiar with Jewish art. One just wishes the catalog provided slightly more guidance for this audience in how to interpret the unique terminology and set of themes and symbols inherent in contemporary Jewish art.


“The very nature of the sacred; [sic] beyond proof and rationality, immutable, intractable, once again became desirable and easily connected to the entire history of Judaism,” write the curators, singling out Christian, Buddhist and Hindu artists as creators of religious art that is ritual-based. “Christian art had fixed iconography and history; Jewish art reveled in its own indeterminability. An invisible God and the space of encounter invite radical re-understandings of texts and images.”


There have been radical re-readings of Jewish texts and Jewish artists have had to grapple with a semi-visible God (the artists of Dura Europos, and the creators of many Haggadot, have managed to envision God’s hands), but the comparison between Jewish and Christian art is a bit simplistic. Surely some of the iconography Christian artists had “fixed” was based on prior works of art fixed by Jewish artists, and the early visual history of both religious traditions was typified as much by its connectedness and mutual borrowing as it was by its differences.


One also wonders why the curators’ statement entirely neglects Islamic visual traditions, though there is certainly a strong element of Islamic architecture in one work in the show, Mark Podwal’s etching, “Jerusalem as the Crown of the Torah” (1984).


Mark Podwal. “Jerusalem as the Crown of the Torah.” 1984.

Etching on paper. 8 1/4 x 5 3/8 inches



Podwal takes the term keter Torah (crown of the Torah) literally, and portrays Jerusalem as the ornament on the top of a Torah scroll (of the Ashkenazi variety). On the top of the crown (which also mirrors the primary position of keter on the Kabbalistic model of the Sephirot) is the Dome of the Rock. Where some Jewish artists try to mask the dome and to emphasize the Western Wall, Podwal gives the Islamic shrine a central position, and the minaret and some trees framing the mosque mirror the pillars flanking the Ten Commandments on the Torah ornament and the handles underneath the Torah. Podwal has formally created a double spine that props the work up, which combines Jewish and Islamic visual elements.


Natan Nuchi’s 2005 ink on cotton drawing, “Untitled,” gives new meaning to the expression giving the finger. Thousands of fingers of different sizes and shapes are arranged throughout the 104 inch squared drawing. Some are arranged in rows like battalions of soldier, while others overlap each other in poses that could be aggressive, erotic, comforting or friendly. Richard McBee has written often in these pages on the connection between Nuchi’s fingers and his Holocaust subject matter, and there is certainly something eerie about the amputated fingers.



Natan Nuchi. “Untitled.” 2005. Ink on cotton. 104 x 104 inches



The forms in Nuchi’s drawing echoe those of Renata Stein’s “Gateway to Heaven”  (1994). But the rest of the works in the show mostly seem unconnected to each other. Though the curators explain that the show uses the song Lecha Dodi (“Go my beloved”) as a “paradigm for Jewish artists who are willing to encounter experiences greater than themselves,” the only work that seems to respond to the paradigm is David Wander’s 2010 acrylic on paper painting, “Come My Beloved” (the usual translation of Lecha is “come,” though I argue “go” is more appropriate).


One work (which doesn’t address the Shabbat service introductory song) is Janet Shafner’s “The Daughters of Zelophehad” (2006). Machla, Noa, Hagla, Milka and Tirtza, the five sisters who appear in Numbers 26, 27 and 36, as well as Joshua 17 and 1 Chronicles 7, made names for themselves by requesting to inherit their father’s portion of land in Israel after his death because he had no sons.  Shafner depicts the five in classical attire in a landscape worthy of Dali. A circle of boulders sits at their feet, and a field of red (evoking lava) in the background sets four of the sisters forward in space.


“The Daughters of Zelophehad.” 2006. Oil on canvas. 48 x 84 inches



According to the artist’s website, the daughters are depicted as “sentinel figures” and are “set against a panorama of walls – ancient and modern, including the politically charged contemporary wall between Israel and her Arab neighbors.” Written upon the red field is the text from the biblical narrative.


After reading the biblical texts about the five sisters, one is left with a number of questions about the women. When they approached Moses, did they all pose the question together, or was there a ringleader and four shyer sisters? Were they the epitome of politeness, or were they combative? Did they feel entitled or were they pessimistic about their chances?


In Shafner’s vision of the episode, the sisters are animated and they assume active poses. Although the artist calls her own figures sentinels, they appear to me to assume offensive, rather than defensive postures. As they stand on a controversial boundary between Israeli and Palestinian territories, these women reach out to each other and stretch their hands out over the land. Most confidently stand up straight, and the one who crouches seems ready to pounce. If the show is mostly about the passive Shabbat queen of Lecha Dodi, these are enterprising and entrepreneurial women. At a contemporary political crossroads, they cannot help but exude possibility and potential.


Shafner’s figures work so well, because they are strong as individuals and as a team. Seduced by the Sacred is perhaps not as powerful a cohesive group of pieces, but it certainly has some individual stars that deserve recognition.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Menachem Wecker

The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star
Mark Podwal: Jewish Magic
Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue



Perhaps upholding Leviticus 19:31, which insists, “Do not turn to those who worship Ob or to wizards; do not desire to become defiled by them,” King Saul launched a campaign to eradicate magicians from the Holy Land which was so devastating that the Bible mentions it on three separate occasions. Yet Saul decided to violate his own ban when all he heard was dead air in response to his request of God for advice on the proper military strategy to defeat the Philistine army.

Saul masked his identity and visited a “wife of the idol of Ob” to ask her to facilitate communication with the late prophet Samuel. Amazed, the conjurer asked, “Do you not know what Saul has done, that he has cut off the worshipers of Ob and the wizards from the land,” and perhaps suspicious of her client’s identity added, “Why are you tricking my soul, to have me killed?” (1 Samuel 28: 3-14).



Although commentators and scholars debate Saul’s actions and their apparent disregard for the Second Commandment, Kabbalistic masters and Jewish artists have long embraced magic and amulets. Hamsa hands are still believed to disarm the evil eye, and some carry miniature copies of the book of the Angel Raziel to protect against fires. Mark Podwal’s exhibit, “Jewish Magic” at Forum Gallery in Manhattan, continues in that tradition, drawing specifically from the artist’s many visits to Prague, where he is such an important fixture that he holds his own personal seat at the Altneuschul, the Old New Synagogue.

Podwal’s ink drawing, “The Frog who taught Rabbi Hanina the whole Torah” (1982), illustrates his interest in esoteric tales that do not typically surface in Day School curricula. Podwal’s wife discovered the story, which is more reminiscent of princes bravely and reluctantly kissing would-be maidens in frog-form than it is of the literal frogs that plagued Egypt – while reading Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews.





According to Ginsburg, Rabbi Hanina learned from his deathbed-ridden father that he would lose both his parents on the same day. Further, his father instructed him to go to the market immediately after the mourning period ended (which would be Passover eve) and purchase the first item that he saw. When Hanina went to the market after completing the days of mourning for his parents, he was offered a grossly overpriced silver dish. In the interest of honoring his father, he bought the dish, and upon opening it at the Seder, he found another dish inside holding a frog.

Like a good pet owner Hanina fed the frog, which grew to an enormous size. First he had to build a cabinet to house it, and when it got even larger, an entire room. The frog literally ate Hanina out of house and home, but it recognized the imposition it was presenting and offered Hanina whatever he wished. Hanina asked to be taught the entire Torah, and the frog agreed. It wrote the Torah on paper, which Hanina consumed.

In so doing, he not only learned the whole Torah, but also all 70 languages as well as the languages of animals (much like King Solomon did). And just as Solomon, in asking only for knowledge, he also acquired wealth and power. The frog gave Hanina and his wife precious stones and herbs (which carried medicinal powers) and revealed his true identity as one of Adam’s sons, born during his 130-year separation from Eve, who was capable of shape shifting.

Podwal’s work shows the frog clinging to the tail end of a Torah pointer, called a yad or hand, for its incorporation of a hand motif in its tip. The pointer is meant to allow the Torah reader to follow along in the Torah scroll without touching the holy parchment (human hands could render the parchment impure), which makes it comical to see a frog grasping it.

Further, Podwal’s frog matter-of-factly looks at the Hebrew letters surrounding the pointer, wholly confident that he belongs in a Torah context. Just as the artists of the Surrealist and Magic Realist schools blurred the boundary between dreams and reality and called upon their audiences to suspend their disbelief, Podwal chose to draw the frog in a naturalistic way rather than an ironic or cartoony manner. The rabbis famously said that those who believe every Midrash (loosely, the Jewish version of fairytales) are fools; yet those who deny the medium are heretics. The frog who taught Rabbi Hanina is no exception, and it exists somewhere between fact and fiction.

“Demons Watering King Solomon’s Gardens” (1998) also follows the same model. Podwal envisions the demons as blue snake-like forms, with hands, horns and ears, and the demons carry Grecian jugs, no doubt full of water. Solomon was said to have had a splendid garden that was able to thrive even in the desert – due to demonic aid.




Several other supernatural forms appear in Podwal’s works in the Forum show, including Lilith, queen of the demons; Metatron, a non-biblical angel who was said to be the chief angel and divine scribe; and “The Devil Proper” (2006), represented as a brick-red bat’s wing, with three demons grabbing on for the ride. Just as many Jewish medieval manuscripts show the hand of God exacting punishment on the Egyptians (but never more of God), Podwal shows just the devil’s wing, which leaves the full extent of Satan’s horror and menace up to the viewer’s imagination. This is, of course, far more frightening – to not even know the extent of the evil present.

Podwal’s show is not all devastation and demons. Also present are powerful symbols of Jewish pride, like the Jewish star that appears in “Stars of David” (2008). Situated just several feet from a screen showing the documentary “House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” which Podwal created with filmmaker Allan Miller, “Stars of David” includes a yellow star threaded with barbed wire; the tombstone of David Ganz (whom Podwal calls “the first Jewish historian”) from the Old Jewish Cemetery; and a representation of an 18-foot flag financed by Mordechai Maisel, which had the Shema written on it and is dated to the 16th century (or 13th, according to some). The star is meant to symbolize the Star of David’s first appearance in a Jewish context in 15th century Prague.




Surely Podwal’s works, like all art, should be considered as art first and potential educational materials second. But there is a great need for more attention to Jewish storytelling and Kabbalistic narratives. “People so adhere to the Second Commandment, and Judaism is really a religion of the word and not so much a visual religion,” Podwal lamented to me after touring the show. And I think he is quite right. There is obviously great importance to knowing the Law and the practical aspects of Judaism, but stories and myths must supplement those laws to provide a complete perspective. After all, even the Midrash is split into two subdivisions: the practical, Midrash Halacha, and the legendary, Midrash Agaddah. Podwal’s art often calls upon viewers to learn more about Jewish tales, and in doing so, helps ensure that the tales will continue to live on.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Although the exhibit at Forum Gallery has closed, Mark Podwal’s works can be viewed on his website, www.markpodwal.com, and in Harold Bloom’s new book, Fallen Angels (Yale University Press, 2007), and his calendar for the Jewish Museum of Prague is available through Calendars.com (advanced search for “Mark Podwal”). House of Life will be shown by PBS in April 2009.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-frog-the-demons-and-the-jewish-star/2008/10/01/

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