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.
Two masters of modern photography are on view at the International Center of Photography; Chim (Szymin); aka David Seymour and Roman Vishniac. They are both Jewish and just happen to bring astute but radically different visions to Jewish photographic subjects. These brilliant, exhaustive exhibitions help us examine the fundamentals of what it means to create a Jewish Art in photography.
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.
Genesis 11: 25 - 32
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 11:28
R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols.He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one. ' How old are you? ' Abraham asked him. ' Fifty years,’ was the reply. ' Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object! ' At this he became ashamed and departed. On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, ' Take this and offer it to them.’
So he took a stick, broke them, and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, ‘What have you done to them?’ ‘I cannot conceal it from you,’ he rejoined. ‘A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, " I must eat first," while another claimed, " I must eat first." Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them.’ ‘Why do you make sport of me,’ he cried out; ‘have they then any knowledge!’ ‘Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,’ he retorted.
Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire!’ he [Nimrod] proposed. ' Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,’ replied he. ' Then let us worship water! ' ' Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water. ' ' Then let us worship the clouds! ' ' Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.’ ' Then let us worship the wind!’ ' Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed; ‘we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.’
2) Sarah Triumphs
Sister Act (Entering Egypt)
Whip Angel Defends Sarah from Pharaoh
Genesis 12: 1 - 20
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 12:11-14
…Where was Sarah? He had put her in a box and locked her in it. When he came to the customs-house, he (the customs officer) demanded, ‘Pay the custom dues.’ ‘I will pay,’ he replied. ‘ You carry garments in that box,’ said he. ‘ I will pay duties on garments.’ ‘ You are carrying precious stones.’ ‘ I will pay on precious stones.’ It is imperative that you open it and we see what it contains, he insisted. As soon as he opened it the land of Egypt was irradiated with her lustre (beauty).
Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 12:15-17
It is BECAUSE OF SARAI ABRAM'S WIFE.’ R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady. And the whole of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face, crying, ' Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth [from his land] on Thine assurance, and I went forth with faith; Abraham is without this prison while I am within!” Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to her ‘Whatever I do, I do for thy sake, and all will say, " It is BECAUSE OF SARAI ABRAM'S WIFE.’" R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady.3
R. Levi said: The whole of that night an angel stood with a whip in his hand; when she ordered, ' Strike,’ he struck, and when she ordered, ‘Desist,’ he desisted. And why such severity? Because she told him [Pharaoh], ’ I am a married woman,’ yet he would not leave her. R. Leazar said (the same was also taught in the name of R. Liezer b. Jacob): We know that Pharaoh was smitten with leprosy and Abimelech with the closing up [of the orifices]: how do we know that what is said here is to be applied there, and vice versa? Because ’for the sake of’ occurs in both places, that an analogy may be drawn.
Genesis 20: 1 - 18
3) Sarah Despairs
Abraham Taking Hagar
Genesis 16: 1 - 16
4) Sarah Laughs
Genesis 18: 1 - 16
5) Sarah Triumphs
Hagar is Expelled / Hagar and Ishmael are Expelled
Genesis 16: 5 - 16
Ramban’s Commentary on 16:6
“And Sarah dealt harshly with her, and she fled from before her face.”
Our mother did transgress by this affliction, and Abraham also by his permitting her to do so. And so, God heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man, to afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of afflictions.
Genesis 21: 9 - 21
6) Sarah Abandoned
Abraham Hears God
Genesis 22: 1 - 24
7) Abraham’s Loss
Genesis 23: 1 -4
8) Sarah’s Legacy
Abraham Returns to Hagar
Genesis 24: 58 - 67
Genesis 25: 1 -10
Rashi’s Commentary: This is Hagar, but she is called Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as incense and because she bound up her entrance in that she did not have relations with any man from the day she separated from Abraham.