Photo Credit: Dr. Nurit Sirkis Bank
Dr. Nurit Sirkis Bank

“Dream. Dream big. Because when you know what your dream is, you can work towards achieving it.”

For Dr. Nurit Sirkis Bank, her mother’s words became the lodestone that steered her towards an academic career in art and, later, to the desire to combine her olve of art with a love of Judaism. Now Nurit is taking her dream further. She is spearheading initiatives that encourage Jewish artists to celebrate Judaism through different mediums in a way that is relevant today.

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Global Village Soul

“I think of myself as a global village soul,” says Nurit when I meet her at a café in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Her classic black outfit is simply a background to display the intriguing artistic piece of jewelry she is wearing as a necklace. Nurit and her two siblings spent much of their childhood in Los Angeles. Her father, Rafael Sirkis, was the economic attaché at the Israeli embassy in Los Angeles. Her mother, Ruth, went on to write over 20 bestselling cookbooks (that sold over 1,000,000 copies in small Israel) and to publish over 100 books of other writers, starting the now thriving culinary culture of Israel. “We traveled all over the world, including, in 1970, to Iran. In fact, I took my first steps in the Acropolis in Athens,” she says with a smile that invites me to relish the memory with her. “I grew up absorbing the vast creativity of the human race. Thanks to my experiences, I developed a non-judgemental acceptance of others.”

Sirkis Bank Opening Exhibition

While the school of life taught Nurit about people, her appreciation of art and culture was much more structured. “I was always intrigued by art. I spent hours browsing books and looking at the drawings of Renaissance painters Leonardo de Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, especially the painting La Primavera. My parents also introduced me to contemporary artists like American sculptor Claes Oldenburg who exhibited his huge sculptures on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1970s. We were always going to artistic happenings or enjoying the contemporary street art. Sundays were spent in art, nature and history museums,” she says.

In 1991, after returning to Israel and completing a BA in Art History and Philosophy and an MA degree in Art History at the Hebrew University, Nurit began to look for inspiration for her PhD dissertation. In search of a topic that spoke to her, she traveled to Europe. “I was familiar with the German language and culture, the philosophies of Hegel and Kant, and the art of the German expressionists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Mark, but the energies in Germany weren’t positive,” she says. She also studied French language and culture, but France, with Impressionistic artists Degas and Monet, post impressionists such as Van Gogh and Cezanne, twentieth century figures Picasso and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and writer Simone de Beauvoir also didn’t provide any longed-for inspiration. So Nurit moved on to England to the Tate galleries and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others. And then, in the most unlikely of exhibitions, Nurit found what she was looking for. And it was life changing.

 

The Turnaround

“I was strangely unwilling to enter an exhibition titled ‘Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in the 20th Century,’ curated by Avram Kampf, exhibited at the Barbican Center for the Arts in London. I was a cosmopolitan young woman, connected to all cultures and I was seeking harmony. I wanted to focus on the mutual and not the differences. I didn’t want to know about the separate Jewish experience,” says Nurit. “My studies at the Hebrew University had included obligatory courses in both Eastern and Western cultures, but not a single course in Jewish culture,” she says. The only thing holding Nurit back was the uncomfortable feeling that by stepping into the exhibition, someone would limit her identity as “only” Jewish. Intellectual honesty pushed Nurit forward.

The first picture Nurit saw was a depiction of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 where almost fifty Jews were killed and over a thousand homes were smashed. “At this point, I was so familiar with different art that I could look at a work and, much like computer analysis, categorize it,” Nurit says. “But for me art isn’t about paint on canvas. Through the painting, I could hear the screams, smell the smoke, feel the panic. Next came a painting by Abel Pann of Jews being expelled from their homes shouldering their belongings and their babies. The second half of this canvas was empty… just like the future of these people. In the third painting, I saw a shtetel on fire. A mother stood on the roof screaming for help, her babies were in a room below, and there was no one to help her,” Nurit says. “Emotionally I was overwhelmed. The paintings pierced my heart with pain.

“I headed out of the exhibition. Fast. I felt that 2,000 years of Jewish history were too heavy for my twenty-seven year old shoulders. I hurried past the 1920s, 30s, 50s and 60s. And then I stopped at a painting of abstract expressionism. Blue and white Hebrew letters floated on a canvas,” says Nurit. “I’d always wondered who I was – and at that moment, I found my answer. The French Philosopher Jann Paul Sartre talks about levels of consciousness. Most of the time, we are on level one, called ‘Perception’ – looking through our eyes at life. But sometimes we get to level two, called ‘A-Perception.’ We watch ourselves watching life. I suddenly experienced Sartre’s level two. I realized at that moment that Hashem didn’t create the world in French, or German, or English, or any other language I know! I realized at that moment that though I speak many languages, I actually think in Hebrew. I think in the language in which the world was created.

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“I realized that my identity is the string of thoughts I think in Hebrew. My physical self has limits, but my true essence, my inner thinking process has no limits. This true essence and chain of thoughts in the language in which the world was created can burst out of my physical being. My thoughts can stretch to the end of the universe and beyond… to eternity. And that eternity is Hashem.”

Nurit’s impressive family lineage goes back to Reb Yoel Sirkis, the Bach; Reb Yisroel Yitzchak Kalish, the Vorke Rebbe; Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and the Yid HaKadosh of Peshischa, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowiz, among others.

“I realized that my face was the face of my grandmothers. My academic degrees were only pieces of paper blowing in the wind and my true deep commitment would be to continue my legacy. A day would come, I realized, and I would have to stand in judgement, and I didn’t feel I’d be able to. I had so much to change. At that moment, I accepted Hashem as my King. In my heightened awareness, I went back to my hotel and booked the first flight back to Israel. I wanted to connect to my Creator,” says Nurit.

 

Combining Art and Yiddishkeit

A short while later in Israel, Nurit was in a traumatic car accident. “The car was completely destroyed and I, by a miracle, was almost unscratched.” That Shabbat, she went to shul to recite birkat hagomel.

Over the next four years, Nurit worked as assistant chief curator of The Arts at the Israel Museum. At the same time, she quietly began to learn more about Yiddishkeit studying at the Netiv Binah seminary for women in Jerusalem and making a deep connection with the Biale-Lugano Rebbe, Reb Ben-Zion Rabinowicz.

In 1995, Nurit initiated and was appointed the director for the newly created Isidore and Anne Falk Information Center for the Jewish Art and Life. Here was the chance to showcase the intersection between art and Yiddishkeit. “It was a dream come true: I was able to combine my love of Judaism and art,” she says. But after ten years, Nurit was ready to move on.

Her desire to showcase exclusively Jewish art led her to a position as chief curator at The Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art located in Heichal Shlomo, adjacent to the Great Synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem. “I searched out artists who didn’t just repeat traditionally known Jewish scenes. I wanted contemporary artists whose art reflects Jewish values. While this core value can be mimicked by others, it can never become authentic,” she says.

“Women Inspired by Text” was one of the first contemporary art exhibitions she curated in Heichal Shlomo. Ten Jewish woman artists were invited to participate in the show. The diversity was astonishing, ranging from hyper-realistic works to complete abstractions, all works inspired by Jewish texts.

Avshalom Lipman, who focuses on urban scenes and still-lifes was showcased at the Heichal Shlomo “Social Gallery.” “Avshalom doesn’t create the standard Jewish themes, but you can see that his work is Jewish art. He studies Rabi Nachman’s Likutey Moharan, and these deep teachings reflect in his works,” says Nurit. David Baruch Wolk is another contemporary artist who exhibited here. Wolk combines art and Torah by integrating Hebrew letters, the building blocks of the universe, into his paintings. “The letters of the Torah are not like other scripts where the symbol itself is the whole letter and the space around it simply holds the letter and has no importance in itself. Instead, Hebrew letters are formed with black and white parts that have equal importance: a letter is the interaction between the black ‘limbs’ and the white surrounding space,” Wolk explains.

Nurit Bank named this new genre ‘Conceptual Abstraction.’ Twenty exhibitions of this kind were held in Heichal Shlomo during the five years that Nurit was chief curator.

In 2018 Nurit completed her doctorate. The thesis named Visual Aspects of Contemporary Chassidic Weddings in Israel was based on twenty years of research (from 1993-2013) in which Nurit participated and documented hundreds of chassidic weddings. She delved into the inner meanings of the traditions surrounding Chassidic weddings. For example, the Mitzvah Tantz held at the very end of chassidic weddings is deeply connected to prayer and is referred to as Rikud Ha’Shechina, the Dance in honor of the Holy Presence.

In 2013, Nurit was invited to curate one of the five art exhibitions of the first Jerusalem Biennale of Contemporary Jewish Art, initiated by Ram Uzeri. It was modeled after the 118-year-old Venice Biennale and provided a stage for contemporary creative forces that relate to the Jewish world of content. In 2017, it hosted 30 exhibitions, and the upcoming one this year is expected to include even more. On another front, the social-cultural initiative Omanut Ve`Emunah, founded by Nurit with attorney Omer Yankelevitz and other chareidi women involved in various forms of art such as Chaya Alice Shlomo, founder of the Hallelu Dance school, and Merlyn Vinig, a film creator, was developed in order to promote and support the works of chareidi artists in various fields of art.

A gallery called Art&Wine in the old city of Yafo has showcased the works of several Israeli artists. During the past three years, Nurit has curated a variety of group art exhibitions, such as Bein Kodesh le’Chol, Turn the Darkness into Light, and Aye?! In Search of the Hidden Presence. The gallery has also hosted one-man-shows including contemporary Jewish photography exhibitions of Ezra Landau, David Meir Kunau and others. The initiative also works with theater, film, dance and music productions, such as the Jewish Dance Week, which has been held in Jerusalem for the past three years. Getting the show off the ground involves hours of voluntary work, but the founders are powered by the passion of a dream. “One night, coming back exhausted from another full day of volunteering, I saw a sign celebrating 80 years of the Philharmonic. That really inspired me! I thought to myself that when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra held its inaugural concert in 1936, many thought the resources would have been put to better use in building roads, but look what we have today – 80 years of impressive cultural achievements! We too are pursuing a dream,” Nurit says.

Nurit also teaches at the Charedi Branch of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design founded by the Oman College of Higher Education for Arts. “I teach a class called Hashra’ah – Jewish Inspiration. We look for inspiration in art by studying Hebrew texts from the Torah, from Tefillot and from Tehillim,” says Nurit. “The women work with different mediums while I lecture. Some sketch. Some embroider on paper or make a collage. One woman carved a series of apples – one in each class,” she says.

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The StArt Art School in Beit Shemesh is another venue that has benefited from Nurit’s 35 years of experience. This year, the school will be holding its third exhibition which will examine the first words in the Torah: Bereshit Bara. “Creation wasn’t a one-time, historical occurrence. It happens every day,” Nurit explains. “The Baal Shem Tov explains that Hashem created the world in order for it to be constantly recreated. You can see this by dividing the letters in the words bereshit bara differently to read bara sheyitbara. I used this idea to explain to the students that we don’t want to repeat standard art. We want to approach it in a new way,” she says.

Nurit uses the written word to bridge the gap between art and the viewer. “Art is multi-dimensional,” she says. “The more general knowledge you have, the more you can read a work of art. If you know the background, architecture, living standards, culture of the period, you can see values reflected in the art,” she says. It’s similar to the science of graphology: instead of reading the letters, their shapes and spacing, you read the colors, brushstrokes and textures. But not everyone has sufficient knowledge to read a work of art. And that’s why Nurit has artists write a statement about their creation. “If you just walk past a work of art, you can’t appreciate it. Written words can help bring the artist’s message home,” she says.

“My mother told me to dream big,” Nurit says. “The Ramchal, Rabi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his famous Mamar Ha-Kivuy – The Thesis of Hope, explains exactly how dreaming your dream makes it into reality. Hoping and longing for something actually creates a connection to your dream,” Nurit says. So go ahead… dream big.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.