The dilemma of the Jewish artist is that he or she is often dismissed out of hand as a cultural and halachic impossibility. And yet a very real history exists to reveal a great many antecedents. Jews have made Jewish art for at least two thousand years; 20th & 19th century paintings, five hundred years of making ritual objects and illustrated prayer books, haggadahs, megillas and ketubos not to mention the extensive production of illuminated manuscripts between 1300 and 1500.
Imagine you are a mohel and, thank God, business is booming. It’s a good living and you even have time to sit and learn in between the jobs that seem to crop up at least once a week. Also you do a bit of doctoring and tutoring a few children in heder. You think, “perhaps I should have a siddur to replace my father’s worn-out printed volume that he got from his father and then from his father…oh so many years ago.
Dura Europos looms large in the history of Jewish Art not only because of its place as the earliest example of Jewish Art but also because its achievements are seemingly at odds with the conceptual and halachic problems it presents. The complexity and variety of Torah subjects depicted are more ambitious and extensive than any Jewish Art until the advent of the illuminated Haggadahs in Spain one thousand years later.
The significance of the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue murals paradoxically lies less in their historical importance as the earliest example of Jewish narrative art than in their role as a paradigm of what is possible for contemporary Jewish artists. After all, we have absolutely no other examples of Jewish narrative art on this scale and one might argue Dura is simply an aberration, a curiosity from Late Antiquity, never repeated.
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.
Walking into Howard Lerner’s studio is like falling headfirst into a Tanach made of sculpture. Right near the door is a 10 foot high Tower of Babel. Partially hidden behind this behemoth is a thoroughly idiosyncratic Vision of Ezekiel. Further along into the somewhat cluttered, but not chaotic, studio is a vista of massive sculptures; The Ark of the Covenant looms ahead while Elijah’s Ascension is on the left, just past a 10 foot depiction of Enoch. To be totally honest, it’s all a bit frightening. Every piece is a diverse assemblage of found objects hammering home a specific passage with a literal determination. It is as if one is inhabiting a Biblical Hall of Mirrors, each holy book or personage examined scrupulously, exaggerated and then lovingly depicted.
Iconic images are rare, especially in the mundane world of photojournalism. But when they happen their intense simplicity compresses a host of ideas and emotions in a single picture, making complexity seem transparent. Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo excels at this skill. Her first solo exhibition currently at the Andrea Meislin Gallery is a breathtaking tour-de-force of photographic insight focusing on the complex reality of Israeli life.
From the earliest synagogues preserved to the present, Jews have struggled with the role of art in their sacred spaces. Decorative or contemplative, subservient to architecture or an independent aesthetic experience? The Dura Europos murals (235 CE) and many early mosaic floors from 250 CE to 500 CE point to a dominant role of artwork brimming with biblical narratives and Jewish symbols.
God’s Names. What an odd notion. And yet they provide us with a means of knowing Him better and, simultaneously, distancing us from the unfathomable enormity of His essence. The Bible ascribes approximately nine appellations, including ‘Lord,’ ‘The Tetragrammaton’ and other variants of the name ‘God.’ Later the Rabbis evolved another nine names, all of which are references to His attributes such as Master of the Universe or the All-Merciful. Curiously two names are only references to the number of letters that make up the otherwise mysterious and unpronounceable name; the 12 letter Name of God and the 42 letter Name of God (Kiddushin 71a).
Yisgadal v’yisgadash sh’mai rabba b’alma dee v’ra chir’usay.
For many Jews a time will come when we will say these words in minyan every day, many times a day, for 11 months as part of mourning a parent. We bravely declare, “May His great name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed.” Over and over we repeat this plea, this affirmation of the greatness of God who took away our loved one. Our loss becomes the occasion for us to proclaim the glory of God’s name found in His creation, the very world around us.
Pascal Croci's graphic novel, Auschwitz, begins with a question to a witness from Auschwitz-Birkenau; “How long have you been keeping all this to yourself?” The answer, “Fifty-two years,” is shocking. The novel that follows provides a glimpse into the reason why these experiences are almost impossible to speak about. And in doing so Croci uncovers more than a terrible history, he points to an intolerable present.