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.
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.
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.
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.