500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art
By Ray Hemachandra and juror Daniel Belasco
Sterling Publishing, 420 pages, $24.95
A tallit with pastel-colored circular candies on the atarah (literally crown, the top, embellished portion of the garment); a hand held golden bulldozer used to collect chametz on Passover; a mezuzah that shows the three letter name of God (shin, daled, yud, the Sustainer) on a computer keyboard above an “Enter” button, where the text of the mezuzah appears (in the typography of a Torah scroll) on the monitor.
Avi Biran. “Email from God Mezuzah Case” (2001). Sterling Silver,
Laminated colored paper, 2 1/4″ x 4 3/4″ x 3/4″
Many of the works in Ray Hemachandra’s new book 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art, which were curated by Daniel Belasco, Henry J. Leir assistant curator at The Jewish Museum in New York, are not the sorts of pieces you would expect to find in a Jewish book store or Judaica shop in Brooklyn.
As Belasco explains in the introduction, the expression of Jewish art is “as varied as art history itself, encompassing everything from stone antiquities to Baroque metalwork to Indian textiles.”
According to Belasco, Jewish art’s resistance to being pinned down-its chutzpah, so to speak-has protected it from assimilation into “standard critical models.” This struggle is precisely what makes Judaica so “exciting and relevant in today’s global culture,” he says.
Though he differentiates between three different types of Judaica-“craft,” by which he means folk styles; “modernist,” meaning abstracted forms; and “postmodernist” or conceptual and “process-oriented”-Belasco does not address the controversial line between Jewish art and Judaica.
What, if anything, one wonders, is the difference between Jewish art and Jewish kitsch or Judaica? How should the viewer respond to Avi Biran’s Email from God Mezuzah Case (2001), a four-and-three-quarter-inch-tall sterling silver and laminated paper sculpture? Or to Steamroller Tractor for Clearing of Chametz before the Advent of Passover (1990), a 10-inch-long, five-and-a-half-inch-tall sterling silver toy?
Avi Biran. “Steamroller Tractor for Clearing of Chametz before the Advent of Passover “(1990). Sterling Silver, 10″ x 5.5″ x 6”.
It is hard to think of Ken Goldman’s “Homage to the Candy Man” Tallit Atarah (2009), a 24 by three-and-a-half inch affair, made of “candy, cotton thread; sewn,” as anything but a gimmick. The tallit is the regular sort (black and white stripes and all), and Goldman does not identify the sort of candies attached (one hopes they are kosher). One sees many sorts of tallitot, but it is hard to imagine someone praying in a candy shawl. It would certainly seem like a disrespectful move, and Biran’s steamroller may, come Passover time, need to dispose of the tallit.
Ken Goldman. “Torah Crown” (1998). Live doves, steel, paint;
hand-forged, welded, painted. 15″ x 13″ inches.
Goldman’s other selections in the book range from the practical to the bizarre. In the former category are Kaddish Stones (2003), hand inscribed stones with one word of the Kaddish each, presumably to mark a grave, and Seder Plate (2000). In the latter category are a brown furry Mezuzah (2004)-think a cross between a rabbit’s foot charm and Bigfoot-Torah Crown (1998), which includes two live doves inside the cage-crown, and Memorial Candle USB (2009), a thumb drive emblazoned with a candle logo (and the text ner neshama, candle-soul).
The playfulness Goldman brings to his objects evokes Cirque Calder, a circus created by 20th century American artist Alexander Calder and yet the works seem largely decorative rather than functional. It must be awesome to carry the Torah scroll from the ark to the bima with a crown atop the Torah that actually houses two live doves. It would be hard to think of anything but peace as the doves were transported, assuming there was a way to bear the scroll without inconveniencing or torturing the birds. But performance art of that sort is rare in the synagogue.
Cheselyn Amato. “Ner Tamid” (2003). Color-radiant mirror film, armature wire; image transfer, mounted, pressed. 18″ x 24″ x 6″
At the end of his introduction, Belasco says the works “were designed to be used in the practice of Jewish ritual-that is, they anticipate active engagement by the user and are not purely artistic pieces that hand on the wall.” It is worth quoting at length. “If there is one thing these works have in common,” he continues, “it is the ongoing faith that creativity and ritual go hand in hand-the one feeding the other-to keep Judaism a living and ever-evolving tradition.”
A couple of points stand out in Belasco’s statement. For one, Orthodox Jews may find some of the pieces impractical for their violations of Jewish law. Several of the menorahs, for example, present candles or wicks that are of different heights. Some in fact do not even have enough branches (seven instead of nine). These works, at least for some audiences, are decorative rather than practical.
Additionally, some of the most interesting works in the collection are so fascinating precisely because they are non-functional. One wonders if that means the works should be reclassified as something other than Judaica. The question is far too large to tackle here, but it is one of many vital questions which the book raises.
However intriguing the decorative works are, the overwhelming majority of the 500 pieces are functional. A hand painted Ketubah (2000) and Glass Tray for Shabbat Candles (2004) by Israel-based artist Oshrit Raffeld are particularly beautiful, as are a series of Ner Tamid (eternal light) sculptures by Cheselyn Amato. “Light begets light through projection and refraction, absorption and reflection” Amato is quoted as saying. “The wonder of light becomes greater than itself while remaining itself. This is parallel to God’s act of creating and the creating that is ongoing.”
The four sculptures of Amato’s in the book show geometric shapes (three are Stars of David) made of armature wire. Using something called “color-radiant mirror film,” Amato achieves a stunning effect, where the sculptures look like they are on fire. But the flames are the stuff of ghosts or holograms, so what is present is a metaphorical, rather than literal, fire, which is perhaps the point of the eternal flame anyway, as it hangs beside the ark and the Torah scrolls.
What is perhaps the most interesting work of the lot earns distinction for its conceptual but very practical interpretation of the Passover story. Chava Wolpert Richard’s Generation after Generation We Keep On Overturning the Pyramids-Seder Tray with Matzah Pouch (1996) is a gray box with four legs, all made of Corian (acrylic polymer and alumina trihydrate, says Wikipedia), with a velveteen pouch for the matzos. Atop the piece are five dishes (presumably marror and chazeret go together, or else six dishes would be required) to hold the symbolic foods.
Wolpert Richard’s brilliance lies in the dishes’ shape. When they are empty, the dishes are pyramids, lending the top of the tray the look of an ancient Egyptian landscape. But the pyramids are hollowed out, as are the slots beneath them, so they can be flipped upside down to fit into the tray and to hold the Passover foods. As the title suggests, Passover is all about overturning the slavery that fueled the creation of the pyramids and replacing it with freedom. It’s hard to imagine a better contemporary aesthetic addition to the intentionally-complicated juxtapositions of reclining and saltwater, wine and bitter herbs, then overturning pyramids and filling them with the Passover hors d’oeuvres.