Writings

Yeshiva Art
Drisha Arts Fellows Explore Shabbat

Written on June 21, 2011

Who would have guessed that a yeshiva would have an Arts Program?  If I had died and gone to heaven, surely the World to Come would look like this.  And yet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan the liberal women’s learning program (i.e. yeshiva), Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, has had for 7 years an Arts Fellowship program that offers a year of study (in addition to their regular yeshiva courses like Talmud, Halacha, Parshanut, Biblical Hebrew and Liturgy) where Torah subjects and the arts are combined and pursued with the seriousness and determination of most guys sitting and learning all day long.  And its for women only.

Acts of Kindness and Jewish Art
The Art of Tanya Fredman

Written on June 03, 2011

And It All Turned Upside Down (2011) Relief sculpture by Tanya Fredman Courtesy Tanya Fredman

Acts of Loving Kindness. This mitzvah is included next to Torah study in the precepts that have no limit, as well as the precepts that are rewarded in this World and in the World to Come. This is surly one of the choicest mitzvahs available to us in our daily lives.  We are told that its object is the rich and poor alike, the dead as well as the living.   It is expressed in personal effort and involvement in the quietest ways imaginable.  And perhaps most surprisingly, it is found in the art of Tanya Fredman.

Chagall and The Cross

Written on May 10, 2011

White Crucifixion (1938) oil on canvas by Marc Chagall Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

The oft-repeated quote by art critic Robert Hughes that Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was the “quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” perhaps reveals more than the normally mordant writer intended.  Chagall’s role as celebrator of a dream-like vision of the Russian shtetl sharply contrasts with his personal rejection of Judaism and the norms of traditional Jewish life.

The Art of Matrimony

Written on April 10, 2011

Ketubbah; Herat, Afghanistan, 1867; ink and watercolor on paper Courtesy The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

Ketubot are the magical crystal ball into the life, concerns and joys of the Jewish community.  Perhaps no other Jewish artifact is so openly expressive of the dreams, desires and fears of the everyday world of Jewish life throughout the ages.  To illuminate this fact Sharon Liberman Mintz has expertly curated The Art of Matrimony: 32 Marriage Contracts from the Jewish Theological Seminary currently shown at the Jewish Museum. 

Last Folio
A Photographic Journey with Yuri Dojc

Written on April 04, 2011

Tefillin Bardejov, 2008, photograph by Yuri Dojc Courtesy the artist

Can the Holocaust be memorialized by an aesthetically beautiful object?   Doesn’t the obscenity of the crime create a fundamental contradiction?  The question still stands 66 years later, even as art is still being made about the Holocaust. Jewish creativity seeks to smother hate. But the questions persist: can a memorial ignite hope instead of despair?

Moriah’s Illuminated Torah

Written on January 18, 2011

Gathering at Mount Sinai (2001), oil on canvas, 12’ X 12’ by Avner Moriah Courtesy Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

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.

Kiefer’s Challenge

Written on December 15, 2010

Jacobs Ladder

The German artist Anselm Kiefer has once again taken New York by storm. Ensconced at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery, Next Year in Jerusalem, his latest New York show, has met with reviews ranging from the gushing to the grudgingly respectful.  To Roberta Smith, the veteran New York Times art critic, the massive exhibit, which closes December 18, is “possibly the best [Kiefer] has ever mounted in the city,” even as Smith also comments, more caustically, that it amounts to “middlebrow art as catharsis, spectacle with a message.”

Three Faiths at the Public Library

Written on December 07, 2010

Ketubah (detail) Akeidah – watercolor on paper (1782) NYPL Collection – Dorot Jewish Division

People believe different things and when they group together as religions, they pretty much agree that most of what the other groups believes is wrong.  But one thing that unites the big three monotheistic faiths, aside from the ostensible shared belief in one God, is a strong visual tradition found in manuscripts, documents and books.

Menorahs in Jewish Art

Written on November 19, 2010

Knesset Menorah – bronze (1956) by Benno Elkan Courtesy The Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel

Why is the menorah such a powerful and long-lasting symbol of the Jewish people?  After all, its lure ostensibly originates in a relatively minor rabbinic festival, Hanukah.  No disrespect intended, but how can Hanukah compare to the great pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavous and Succos or the Days of Awe with Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur?

John Bradford: Painting the Biblical Narrative

Written on November 15, 2010

Judah and Tamar (2008), 18 x 24 oil on canvas by John Bradford Courtesy the artist

Upon entering Lloyd Bloom’s exhibition at the Chassidic Art Institute one is confronted by a sweet beautiful image of a lamb skipping through the air in a puffy cloud landscape.  Right next to it is an image of a goat kid cuddled up in the lap of a young shepherd.  Further down the wall we see paintings depicting a young man leining from the Torah, then women lighting Shabbos candles and finally a father and son at the seder table, all candidates to be the most emblematic scene of Jewish life imaginable.  So too an emotional scene showing a crowd of traditional Jews embracing each other sweeps us away in a wave of familiar emotions.  All true until one picks up the gallery list of paintings with each work’s title.  Little by little the façade falls away and a much more serious and tragic patina adjusts the meaning of these intriguing artworks.

Landscapes for Humanity
Paintings by Batya F. Kuncman

Written on October 25, 2010

LeAhava, photograph by Batya Kuncman Courtesy Charter Oak Cultural Center

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.

A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles

Written on October 11, 2010

She is a Tree of Life (2000) by Temma Gentles and Dorothy Ross Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

Textiles as a Jewish art medium have a long and distinguished history, frequently the sole surviving artifact testifying to a community’s existence and history.  Elaborate paroches from 17th century Italy still proclaim a rich and artistic love of the Torah ark so prized by Italian Jewish communities that are now but distant memories.

Shifting the Gaze
Painting and Feminism

Written on October 05, 2010

Judy Chicago, Sky Flesh, 1971, sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic.  Collection of Elizabeth A. Sackler, New York.  © 2010 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But of course numbers don't tell the whole story of "painting and feminism," to cite the second half of the show's full title, Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism. Just because a woman is showing her work doesn't mean her work is expressing a feminist agenda or perspective.

Noah, the Dove and the Raven

Written on September 28, 2010

Noah and the Dove, (1280) illumination from the London Miscellany (MS 11639) Courtesy British Library, London

“Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth…”  It was as if His Divine patience had run out and as a result His attribute of strict Judgment overtook His attribute of Mercy (Akedias Yitzchak).  God decreed that all of mankind was irredeemable and the rest of His creation that existed for man’s sole benefit was rendered useless, and so all was to be destroyed.  All except Noah and his family.

Sarah’s Trials: A Personal View
Paintings by Richard McBee at the JCC Manhattan

Written on September 22, 2010

Isaac Comforted (2008) Oil on canvas, 6’ x 5’ by Richard McBee

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Sarah’s only child.  Our forefather gets up early and obeys, not telling Sarah his wife of 47 years.  According to Rashi (Genesis 23:2) when she finds out about this, she dies of shock.  This has always disturbed me.  Upon reflection other things about their relationship seemed problematic.