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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Second Commandment’

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.

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.

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

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