Jewish Art Primer
Jewish Art: Any cultural production that utilizes Jewish subject matter and content drawn from; 1) all material found in Jewish sacred texts and those secular texts that explore Jewish social life and history, 2) Jewish history, from Antiquity to the present, as well as Jewish ritual, music and synagogue architecture.
Jewish Art Before 1800
Earlier this summer I went up to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the blockbuster exhibition, “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice.” While rarely have I seen as many masterpieces collected together in a traveling show, one painting stood out for both its Jewish subject and the surprising way it narrated the dramatic story of Esther appearing before Ahasuerus.
Jewish Art Before 1945
The Portrait of a Young Boy by Isidor Kaufmann, offered at auction on November 12, 2002 by Kestenbaum & Company, is one of many singular paintings by this unappreciated master of Jewish art. This modest little portrait, only nine inches high by six and three quarter inches wide, has a disproportionate power and can be seen as an example of how art can challenge prejudice and criticism leveled against Orthodoxy both in the beginning of the twentieth century and now.
Contemporary Jewish Art
Shmuel the artist is what they called him back in the Old Country. At home and in cheder he was always drawing or modeling something. Born in 1882 in Wolkovisk, Russia he grew up in poverty, his father a Torah scholar and mother a peddler of grain and flour. Early on he was orphaned and with his soprano voice was apprenticed to a cantor to give performances from shtetl to shtetl in the Polesie swampy woodlands of Byelorussia.
I have always had a problem with the Omer. Doing the mitzvah of counting the omer was of course pretty easy. Remembering to start the second evening of Passover and remembering to stop the day before Shavous took a little concentration but somehow I always managed. No, for me the nagging problem was always why was I doing this in the first place, other than the fact it was a biblical (according to the Rambam) commandment.
Music, Film and Performances
The Gyor National Ballet Theater of Hungary production of Purim: The Casting of Fate, presented at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, is a powerful retelling of Megillas Esther transformed into dance. This modern ballet, fueled by a musical score by Ferenc Javori, the founder of the Budapest Klezmer Band, pulsates with energy and joy. It is a successful combination of vibrant klezmer music, striking set and lighting design, evocative costumes and sensitive choreography. The staging artfully combines abstract dance idioms and more concrete devices of props and pantomime.
Jews with Hogs (1994) is the first image one encounters in Frederic Brenner's exhibition of photographs of contemporary Jews from around the world currently at the Brooklyn Museum. In over one hundred and forty black and white photographs the exhibition seeks to document the “multiplicity of Jewish identities.” Throughout the exhibition diversity is the keyword. Diversity...hum.
Museums / Auction Houses
The Museum of Biblical Art in New York has mounted a remarkable exhibition with Bartolo di Fredi’s 14th century masterpiece, “Adoration of the Magi.” This small but powerful exhibition, but one of many in the 7 year history of MOBIA, is an exploration of exactly how a “painter of faith” narrates adoration. MOBIA is the only scholarly museum celebrating art and the Bible in the United States and, while has major support from the American Bible Society, is fully independent of any denomination or religion.