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April 23, 2014 / 23 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘text’

Deaf And Dumb

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

I’ve often written and said that we are living in remarkable but dangerous times in which we can hear (provided we know how to listen) the footsteps of the Messiah. Ours, however, is a generation that has difficulty hearing.

We are saturated with constant noise, not only from rapidly developing world events but also from our own tumultuous, seductive lifestyles – lifestyles that are conducive to self-absorption and deafness.

You might, of course, wonder at the appropriateness of the word “deafness.” Isn’t that a bit extreme? Actually, if there were a stronger expression, I would resort to that. Yes, our generation has become deaf – no matter how thunderous the call of Hashem.

But still you might ask, Is our generation really so much different from those that preceded us? To be sure, in every generation we’ve had problems hearing that “still small voice” that comes in many shapes and forms. But in our generation that blockage has become even more acute. There are so many sounds that divert us from hearing.

Nowadays, it is rare to see anyone take even a moment to think. There was a time when people took walks for contemplation or secluded themselves to review their lives. Today, this hardly (if ever) occurs. Today, when you see people walking in the street they are almost always involved in some activity, be it talking on their cell phones, text messaging, scrolling through e-mail on their Blackberry, or listening to their iPod. And should they steal some moments to seclude themselves, there are other diversions vying for their attention – the Internet, TV, video games, etc.

In the interim, time relentlessly passes – and with every moment events unfold that we neither hear nor see. Not only have we lost our ability to hear, we have lost our ability to talk, to hold a conversation. People communicate through e-mail, texting or Twitter. This has become so prevalent that children no longer speak with parents, couples no longer speak with each other. They find it much easier to text or resort to other technological means of communication, because by doing so they don’t have to hear a response, another voice that might question or negate their message. Nor are they obliged to hear expressions of love that might make them feel guilty or indebted.

Regardless of our reaction (or non-reaction), the messages continue and the sounds become louder, demanding a response. But how can we respond if we no longer know how to hear? Deaf, dumb, and blind, we continue to march on to the sound of our own music and congratulate ourselves on our open-mindedness and ready acceptance of all lifestyles.

So it is that we never learn. Even the most world-shaking events go unheeded. Neither the Holocaust nor the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years of exile has made us stop and rethink our lives.

I could go through a number of other examples, but I’ll skip to 9/11 – a tragedy that spoke thunderously to everyone in our country. Remarkably, even then we continued to remain deaf, and chose to view its message through a politically correct lens.

We have become so inured that we see nothing unusual in the constant escalation of natural disasters – tsunamis, floods, tornados, earthquakes, nuclear spills, etc. Nor do we see anything remarkable about dead birds falling from the skies or dead fish washing ashore in uncountable numbers. Nor did we wake up when financial disaster overtook us. Overnight, we witnessed the collapse of giant corporations and industries, the meltdown of Wall Street and the devaluation of the dollar, which we once believed to be invincible.

Our inability to hear rendered us deaf and blind to the messages behind the toppling of powerful governments that for years were controlled by dictators who ruled with iron fists. We delude ourselves into believing that what we are witnessing is the dawn of freedom, peace and democracy in the dark world of the Middle East. We refuse to consider that the mobs are the precursors of even more tyrannical dictatorships.

Look at Egypt. In our blindness and deafness we refused to pay heed to the heinous shouts of “Jew! Jew” as CBS correspondent Lara Logan was barbarously attacked by the mob in the streets (though Logan is in fact not a Jew).

Nor has the world paid heed to the destruction of churches and the killing of Christians. Yes, all this is unfolding in the “new”Egypt, as the world responds with a deafening silence. Why? We dismiss that question as well. We have our own problems. We can’t really get involved in world events. It won’t help anyway, so the call continues to be sounded and we continue to remain blind, dumb and deaf.

(To Be Continued)

Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther
Hebrew Union Collage Museum
One West 4th Street, NY 10012; 212 824 2205
Mon.- Thurs. 9am – 5pm; Friday, 9am – 3pm. 
Free Admission (Photo ID required)

 

 

There is nothing funny about Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther (2010).  Unlike some contemporary illuminated megillas that emphasize the absurd and outlandish nature of the corrupt Persian court and the buffoonish character of the king, Benjamin takes the Book of Esther quite seriously.  She is obviously deeply sensitive to the terrible consequences of God’s hester panim (hidden face) in our own time.


Benjamin, a well-known Bene Israel artist originally from Mumbai, India, presents us with a singular perspective on the Esther story.  Set in the visual context of traditional Indian/Mughal miniatures and infused with imagery from her extensive artwork on Jewish themes, this megillah casts the narrative into a potent brew of exoticism and violence.

Her illuminated scroll is eleven and a half inches by fifteen feet long, created over a year and a half in gouache (opaque watercolor) on a parchment prepared in Israel. She worked closely with both her anonymous patron and teacher Rabbi Burton Visotzky (JTS) to develop a megillah that was informed as much by traditional commentaries, her own Jewish/Indian background and contemporary experience. 


Benjamin’s images start innocently enough with a scene of the King enthroned amidst his royal court. One immediately notices the piled-up style typical of Indian miniatures, depicting the turbaned court sages and satraps, including a red-cloaked Haman, all toasting a dancing girl and her drummer.  Her exotic pose evokes a flying angel, alerting us that this is no ordinary banquet and alluding to the unfolding narrative of Vashti’s shocking rebellion   A cameo of Queen Vashti is seen below.


The artist intersperses seven full miniatures between three columns of text each, framed by a solid decorated border above and three rectangular panels of decoration and narrative images below. Additionally she has symbolic images (a brush, a sword, birds, flowers, etc.) flowing between the textual columns as a decorative visual commentary. The effect is hypnotic, calming turquoise borders punctuated by vivid greens and russet earth colors of the illuminations create a vibrant frame for the megillah text written by an Israeli scribe.


The intrusion of threatening long sabers, beautiful exotic birds, peacocks, elephants, deer, gazelles and lions along the top decorative border creates a subliminal counter text that becomes more strident, finally with fire-breathing dragons and prancing camels toward the narrative’s conclusion.  It is as if the natural world with all its mysteries is observing and commenting upon the deeply human story of Esther and her struggles to save the Jewish people.

 


Esther Presented to King Ahasuerus; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Esther Presented to King Ahasuerus is a richly oriental scene crowded with no less than 14 figures. Nonetheless, all is not secure as we see among the crowd and musicians the mysterious eunuch Harbonah and the evil Haman, characterized by a handlebar mustache straight out of classic Bollywood thrillers.


Not surprisingly, Esther dominates the large miniature panels, establishing the narrative primacy of her role.  The seven full panels illustrate: Ahasuerus’s Banquet, Esther Presented to the King, Esther’s First Banquet, Esther’s Confrontation with Haman, the Triumph of Mordechai, Hanging Haman’s Sons and finally the Triumph of the Jews directed by Esther and Mordechai.   What is most singular about the artist’s depiction of Queen Esther is that she is blue.  This is Benjamin’s signature symbol of a unique individual, set off from mankind, alone in piety and determination, and almost goddess-like in her attributes.

 


Esther’s First Banquet; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


The fourth panel of Esther’s First Banquet is one of the most stunning images in this megillah, fully evoking its sumptuous Persian miniature forbearers.  The King and Haman are seated alongside a fragrant lotus pond being served by a celestial Queen Esther.  She is wearing a beautiful elaborate costume, elegant blues embroidered with silver and gold.  In contrast to the seated King and Haman, she practically floats into the scene. Vashti even makes a surreptitious appearance under an arch in the building behind them.  In the artist’s vision, Vashti, even though removed from power, hovers in the background watching the drama unfold.

 

 


Esther’s Confrontation with Haman; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Esther’s Confrontation with Haman is a hallucinogenic vision of armed horsemen attacking a swirling Queen Esther as the wicked Haman crouches in the corner, his curved knife ready to slaughter any Jews he can find.  The vivid crimsons and oranges vibrate against the blue Esther and the pale ghostly riders to create a Hitchcock-inspired nightmare.

 


Hanging of Haman’s Sons; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


These lush illuminations are simply a prelude to the visual climax of this megillah, the Hanging of Haman’s Sons.  Aside from the fact that as sons of Haman they were also Amalakites, the Seder Olam (Rashi on Megillah 16a) tells us that they had instigated the decree of Achashverosh to halt the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, thereby condemning them to death at the hands of the triumphant Jews.  Set against a vibrant blue sky the evil sons are executed in three explicit ways. Primarily we see all ten hooded and hung in a row on one beam.  To drive home the notion that each was individually evil, their ten heads are impaled on gruesome stakes attached to the top of the beam.  And finally, just to add insult to execution, two archers shoot arrows into their bodies under the direction of Mordechai.  This last detail of the image finds its precedent in an equally vivid 17th century Judeo/Persian manuscript.


Curiously following the execution of Haman’s sons in one of the small border panels is a scene described as the Circumcision of the Gentiles.  It elaborates on the verse 17, Chapter 8 that “many from among the people of the land professed themselves Jews; for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” Josephus (Antiquities XI) comments that in order to do this they “circumcised their foreskins ” However we see in Yevamos 24b that “Neither nor the converts of Mordechai and Esther are proper converts unless they become converted at the present time (i.e. without coercion – Rashi).”  But what prompted the artist to depict three clothed men from the waist down, spurting blood as a result of three gruesome knives?  It would seem that Benjamin has taken the verse to mean that the Gentile circumcisions were in fact a kind of punishment on very real enemies of the Jews who tried to escape their fate along their fellow conspirators.  The artist further drives home her point that the Jew’s enemies are doomed in an exceptional illumination within the text itself.  In the space created by classic listing of Haman’s sons she has placed a red-robed figure hung and suspended over a roaring fire. 

 


Triumph of the Jews; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Siona Benjamin’s megillah illuminations do not flinch from the violent retribution the Jews of the kingdom visit upon their many enemies.  And while the final large panel depicts the Triumph of the Jews as a musical celebration complete with hamantashen, drums, horns, dancing and timbrels, it is surrounded by no less than four images of retaliation.  And of course this accurately reflects the overwhelming subject of the end of the Book of Esther.  Chapters 9 & 10 concern themselves with exactly this retribution as “…the Jews struck at all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering and annihilating; they treated their enemies as they pleased. (9:5)” The fact that the megillah enumerates the death of 75,810 Jewish enemies is seldom depicted with such force and originality.


One of the more fascinating elements in this megillah is the consistent representation of Haman in profile, always glancing out at the viewer.  Only once, in the triumph of Mordechai scene, does he not look at the viewer, although still depicted in profile.  While the uses of profiles in the representing individuals are many, usually that specific form represents a cypher of the individual, i.e. a one-dimensional cutout image.  It is as if Haman, the epitome of evil, can only be known superficially.  That said, as he glares out at us, he is especially dangerous.


While Benjamin’s megillah is lushly beautiful to look at, a very serious message is subtly weaved into the fabric of the Persian/Indian images and sacred text.  In a faraway time an evil man arose who planned to destroy all the Jews.  By the intervention of a brave, beautiful woman was the plot uncovered.  Ultimately the disaster was averted only by the annihilation of our enemies.  And then we were free to celebrate.  Today, as our enemies continue to rally, perhaps we need to ponder the lessons of this megillah.

 

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

Who Saved Soviet Jewry?

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The recent release of additional Nixon White House presidential documents and tapes produced the usual response. As has become customary, brief excerpts of the tapes – excerpts that invariably show President Nixon and members of his administration in the most unflattering light possible – are pulled from the reams of material and hours of conversations and given broad coverage in the media.

This most recent release has refocused attention on the terrible plight in the early 1970s of Soviet Jewry – the many hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the then-Soviet Union who were subject to persecution by the state and whose attempts to emigrate from the USSR were systematically blocked by Soviet authorities.

Henry Kissinger recently put into context a brief, one-minute exchange he had with the president about this issue that, on its face, is simply appalling. But that’s why context is important. The widely quoted conversational snippet does not reflect the Nixon administration’s efforts to improve the condition of Soviet Jews.

Responding to Kissinger, Gal Beckerman, the author of a recently published book about Soviet Jewry, claims Kissinger was “dismissive” of the Soviet Jewry movement. He seeks to award sole credit to the Soviet Jewry movement for the enormous increase in the number of Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union during the Nixon years.

Beckerman falls into the trap of believing that the Soviet Union, at the height of its global power, could be swayed in its course by the vigorous expression of public demands by the West, especially by the president of the United States. He appears to forget that the titanic struggle for global dominance between the Communist world and the free world being fought at that time – especially on the battlefields of Vietnam – meant the Soviets would never give an inch when challenged publicly. They dared not risk appearing to yield to the demands of the West, especially given their struggle with China for supremacy of the communist world.

Perhaps those of us who admire President Nixon’s foreign policy achievements should be grateful that people are fighting over the credit for this particular success of détente. Beckerman, however, does the historical record a disservice when he dismisses the Nixon administration’s unprecedented success in substantially increasing the numbers of Soviet Jews who were permitted to leave the Soviet Union as a result of détente.

Nixon’s policy toward the Soviet Union was predicated on engaging the Soviet Union, through diplomacy, on issues in the national interests of both nations. Nixon eschewed the hot rhetoric of the Cold War in favor of an approach that allowed the Soviets to maintain their public countenance of a mighty nation who wouldn’t yield to the public pressures of anyone, anytime, anyplace.

The Soviets maintained their “tough face” for the world even as they found themselves working with the United States to limit the growth of nuclear arms, open their borders to greater numbers and varieties of cultural exchanges, and increase trade. All of this reduced tensions and, ultimately, launched the beginning of the eventual end of the Soviet Union.

The Nixon administration’s approach to the Soviet Union on the matter of Soviet Jewry was informed by the belief – a belief well grounded in Nixon’s own experience and in history – that efforts to publicly embarrass the Soviets in the court of world opinion on matters they considered strictly their own “internal affair” would be counterproductive.

Nixon understood the Soviets would respond to such pressure by digging in their heels. He knew that to maintain their aura of power and invincibility – both domestically and to their “allies” in the Warsaw Pact and beyond – the Soviet leaders believed they had to stand up to such pressure. They always wanted to show that the West could not use the bully pulpit to bully them.

Richard Nixon’s Memoirs is the definitive source for insight into his thinking on the issue of Soviet Jewry:

I have never had any illusions about the brutally repressive nature of Soviet society. But I knew that the more public pressure we placed on Soviet leaders, the more intransigent they would become . I felt that we could accomplish a great deal more on the Jewish emigration issue when we were talking with the Soviets than when we were not. Although we did not publicly challenge the Soviet contention that these questions involved Soviet internal affairs, both Kissinger and I raised them privately with Brezhnev, Gromyko, and Dobrynin. This approach brought results . [T]he statistics are proof of undeniable success: from 1968 to 1971 only 15,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate. In 1972 alone, however, the number jumped to 31,400. In 1973, the last full year of my presidency, nearly 35,000 were permitted to leave. [RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, page 876]

Beckerman in his book identifies 1964 as the beginning of a 25-year Soviet Jewry movement in the United States. Notably, the first five years of the effort brought few results. Prior to the Nixon administration’s policy of détente, the annual number of Soviet Jews permitted to leave for Israel was counted in the hundreds. It is only after Nixon began his private approach – head of state to head of state – that the annual numbers began to be counted in the tens of thousands.

Moriah’s Illuminated Torah

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011


Moriah’s Illuminated Torah

Artworksisrael.com

 

Avner Moriah, the well-known Israeli artist, has illuminated the Book of Genesis. No small feat, he has conjured images for all the major narratives as well as alluding to other analogous stories throughout the Torah. He sees the first book of Torah as nothing less than “a poem,” a minimalist text that yields an unending series of explorations of the mysteries and conundrums of the human condition. While this is hardly the first nor largest of his explorations of biblical and Jewish narrative, it is easily the most ambitious.


Moriah is now an old hand at Jewish narrative. Between 2004 and 2007 he completed the amazing task of illuminating four of the five megillot. His 2004 Hagaddah is highly praised and sought after as a modern masterpiece of Jewish illumination. “Resplendent colors from Egyptian and Assyria wall paintings small human and animal figurines of the early Bronze age” grace this contemporary addition to hagaddot artwork.




He inaugurated his visual Torah studies in 2001 with an enormous multipaneled oil on canvas measuring overall 12 feet by 12 feet at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Gathering at Mount Sinai (2001) is emblematic of almost all of Moriah’s subsequent biblical art. At first he depicts the specific events of the text, often including much of the text itself, in a somewhat literal and historic manner, symbolically approximating ancient Hebrew and Egyptian costume and setting. The composition centers on a 6′ X 6′ square depicting 36 episodes that he has distilled from the Sinai narrative, combining to create an image of the mountain itself. This central panel is surrounded by 12 square paintings, each simultaneously depicting one of the Ten Commandments, one of the plagues, one relevant midrashic tale, and a section devoted to each of the 10 martyrs murdered in the Hadrianic persecutions. Two other panels are devoted to the Burning Bush and events in Moses’ earlier life. The resulting artwork presents no less than a visual Torah, echoing the holy text in its complexity and contextualizing its Jewish history and thought.


 


Gathering at Mount Sinai (2001),

oil on canvas, 12′x12′ by Avner Moriah

Courtesy Jewish Theological Seminary, New York


 

 

Another large commission connected with JTS around the same time was the Women’s Zodiac. This series of 14 paintings has similar complexity, here combining diverse scriptural and midrashic narratives concerning Biblical women with symbolic representations of the Hebrew months.

Moriah was born in Jerusalem and continues to live and work there. Anticipating his diverse approach to art making, he got his BFA at Bezalel Academy of Art and then came to America and earned a MFA at the world-renowned Yale University Graduate School of Art. His current art exhibits a unique blend of Middle Eastern sensibility of color and strangely primitive figuration combined with post-Modern use of text and composition.


 


The Covenant (2010), Illumination by Avner Moriah

Courtesy Avner Moriah

 


His earlier works include a series of paintings on Israeli Soldiers (1981-1987); a Shoah Series (1998); Expulsion (from Spain) Series (1990); War of Independence Series (1997) and the Landscapes of Israel paintings (1980 to present). This last ongoing series is very dear to Moriah who sees painting the Holy Land of Israel as a kind of sacred obsession. Traveling the length and breadth of Israel in his specially out fi tted van that was a portable studio, he encountered what he saw as the “source of humankind” in the unique light and topology of Israel’s African rift landscapes. Much to our loss, he has been forced to abandon this intimate encounter with the Land since the 2001 intifada made such a project a danger to his personal safely.




Avner Moriah’s Illuminated Genesis contains images on almost every page of the Torah’s epical first book. The originals are done in watercolor and gouache on paper. While that one-of-a-kind handmade Chumash is not for sale, a limited edition of 100 copies is available from artworksisrael.com.



The artist was initially attracted to these narratives because of what he feels are their universal appeal. As he has delved into the complex narratives and their commentaries, Moriah has developed his own midrashic process. In the unique pairing of comparative narratives he effectively provides a textual guide that links and intertwines many of Genesis’ stories.

 

 



The Flood (2010), Illumination by Avner Moriah

Courtesy Avner Moriah

 

 

In his visual anecdotes multiple comparisons can be investigated. The Akeidah is paired with both the expulsion of Ishmael and the episode of Lot and his daughters to explore the tumultuous relationship between a father and child. The theme of a woman determined to become a pivotal part of the Jewish people is revealed in both the narratives of Judah and Tamar and Ruth and Naomi. In a similar way Moriah explores the themes of anger, happiness, fear, love, sorrow and jealousy, among many others, by juxtaposing snippets of different narratives. This complex method creates a visual and conceptual tapestry as one follows along the Torah text  parsha by parsha.

 

 


Jacob’s Dream (2010),

watercolor & gouache by Avner Moriah

Courtesy Avner Moriah

 


This methodology is not mechanically imposed on the Torah, rather it is utilized only when the artist feels it will enlarge and elucidate the narrative. As one can see in many other pages from Genesis such as The Covenant and The Flood, the main story is allowed to prevail in all its imaginative glory. And not surprisingly the creation of an illuminated Torah produces many stand alone works of art. Jacob’s Dream imagines the fabled ladder being composed of the angels themselves while the image of Hanoch (Enoch) Walking with God depicts a heavenly hand scooping up the saintly Hanoch.


 


Hanoch Walking with God (2010),

watercolor & gouache by Avener Moriah

Courtesy Avner Moriah

 

Avner Moriah has carved out an odd corner in the cultural life of contemporary Jewish art. His passion for the – at times harsh – realities of 20th century Jewish history along with the glories of Israeli landscape has mysteriously morphed into a equally fervent obsession with sacred Jewish texts, commentary and narrative. In recent years he has spent most of his creative time immersed in ancient tales peopled with pious and paradoxically primitive Jews, a fabric of life that unmistakably also summons many aspects of 21 st century life. His aesthetic and intellectual approach is totally unique, combining ancient and modern without missing a heartbeat. I can’t wait for the next four books of  the Torah to issue forth from his brush.


 


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

Title: HaMalach HaGoel and Other Bedtime Stories

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Title: HaMalach HaGoel and Other Bedtime Stories

Author: Yehudit Shulem

Illustrator: Estie Hess

Publisher: Feldheim

 

 

   The “Collection of Imaginative Stories” in HaMalach HaGoel and Other Bedtime Stories is a bit on the high-minded side with a few clich?s tossed in the mix. Nevertheless, the lap-sized hardcover explains to its readers how to become mature, responsible individuals of integrity. The life lessons are for children aged eight and up.

 

   The man walking out of and into another wall portrait picture in the chapter entitled “A Special Visit” uses a phenomenon out of the Harry Potter series. But the technique is used to deliver valuable insight from the Chazon Ish, a worthwhile experience. Optimism can be learned from “The Kite” story and self-worth from “The Gear Train.” Other stories deliver important messages, too.

 

   Though author Yehudit Shulem is a social worker, according to the back cover text, I find it curious that her tales are illustrated with significantly far more males than females. The air- and other-brushing out of female figures in Jewish literature is not a friendly phenomenon. The trend will reverse to include women and girls within benign and all-inclusive story illustrations. After all, we’re the reason that Am Yisrael endures.

 

   Yocheved Golani is the author of E-book “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry If I Need To: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge” http://www.booklocker.com/books/4244.html).

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

Title: Remarkable Park

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Title: Remarkable Park

Author: Bracha Goetz

Illustrator: Patti Argoff

Publisher: Feldheim

 

 

   This gentle look at nature in 26 pages comes off as a nurturing, quiet read. Lessons about middot tovot and personal potential in Remarkable Park will fill young minds with wonder.

 

   The illustrations in Remarkable Park allow the eye to absorb details portrayed in delightful colors. The gentle rhymes of the text allow elementary-grade readers to sound out words they might know how to spell. The story’s end can prompt readers to reflect on tuv haBoreh, the delight of looking more deeply than a superficial glance allows, and the sheer fun of making friends with the world.

 

   Parental discretion is advised due to the easily torn pages. Children can practice respect for printed materials with this item meant for ages 3-10, impressing themselves as well as the adults around them.

 

   Yocheved Golani is the author of E-book “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry If I Need To: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge.”

Title: Where Am I?

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Title: Where Am I?

Author: Ruchy Shon

Publisher: Feldheim

 

 

   A sweet book for young fingers learning to turn pages, Where Am I is an introduction to literature for little ones. Familiar places and situations will delight the tots identifying them.

 

   Let the children talk about and discuss what delights or intrigues them in the interesting collection of photographs. The book’s 26 glazed, stiff pages can withstand stickiness from candy, runny noses and a soft wipe with damp cloth. Patient re-readings by friends and family members can lead to delightful memories.

 

   Nursery and kindergarten teachers can stock up on Where Am I too. The book could make an excellent introduction to language skills for English speakers and those learning it for the first time. English as a second language instructors should check it out for their purposes, too. The rhyming text lends itself to reading success.

 

   Yocheved Golani is the author of highly acclaimed E-book “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry If I Need To: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge”  (www.booklocker.com/books/4244.html).

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/book-reviews/title-where-am-i/2010/10/07/

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