Writings

Generations
Genre Painting by Brian Shapiro

Written on August 09, 2010

Generations (2010) – oil on canvas (44”x 58”) by Brian Shapiro Courtesy the artist

Two Jewish holidays particularly command us to be connected with our vast history.  Most notably the Passover Haggadah demands that we feel as if we too went out of Egypt with the Jewish masses.  Less obvious is Tisha b’Av.

Considering Dura: Part I

Written on June 25, 2010

Akeidah – Torah Niche -Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

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.

A Mohel’s Siddur
by Aryeh ben Judah Leib

Written on July 19, 2010

Tobias (detail) copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch Courtesy The Braginsky Collection

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.

Considering Dura: Part II

Written on June 24, 2010

Rescuing Moses - Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

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.

Considering Dura: Part III

Written on June 23, 2010

Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child- Dura Europos (245 CE) Courtesy National Museum, Damascus, Syria

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.

Bloom’s Bittersweet Vision
Paintings by Lloyd Bloom

Written on May 26, 2010

Lot and his Daughters, acrylic on paper by Lloyd Bloom Courtesy the Chassidic Art Institute

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.

Howard Lerner’s Universe
Sculpture and the Bible

Written on May 12, 2010

Ezekiel’s Vision (2006) detail; oil on wood, found objects by Howard Lerner Courtesy the artist

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 from Israel
Rina Castelnuovo: Photographs

Written on May 02, 2010

Beersheba, Israel, 2009; color photograph by Rina Castelnuovo Courtesy Andrea Meislin Gallery

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.

Modern Art / Sacred Space

Written on April 18, 2010

Beth Alpha (550CE) Mosaic Floor

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.

The Enigma of the Name
The 42 Letter Name by Robert Kirschbaum

Written on March 25, 2010

Nine Square Cube (2009)

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). 

Szyk Haggadah
To Serve My People: Part II

Written on March 04, 2010

Haman at the Gallows; Book of Esther (1950) by Arthur Szyk

Arthur Szyk saw the face of Haman. It was Hitler. And he knew what had to be done. His only tools were his art and he labored mightily against the terrible enemy.  In the early 1930’s Szyk took up the Haggadah as his weapon. 

The Braginsky Collection

Written on February 15, 2010

Akeida, Harrison Miscellany, 1720, Corfu, Greece Courtesy The Braginsky Collection

Five hundred years of Jewish manuscript and printed book illumination are presented in “Highlights from the Braginsky Collection” scheduled to open at Yeshiva University Museum on March 17, 2010.

Ma’ayan: Zalman’s Suite

Written on January 31, 2010

And Here I Am (2009) oil on canvas, 66 x 58 by Ma’ayan Courtesy JKlaynberg Gallery

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.

Majzner’s Illuminated Torah

Written on January 19, 2010

Vayishlach – illumination by Victor Majzner Painting the Torah (2008), Melbourne, Australia

Auschwitz: A Graphic Novel by Pascal Croci

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.

A Serious Man
Written, directed and produced by Joel & Ethan Coen 2009 Focus Pictures, rated R

Written on January 03, 2010

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) About to Lose Tenure from “A Serious Man” Courtesy Focus Films

Something serious is going on here…

The movie opens with Rashi’s comment on Deut. 18:13; (You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your God); Rashi explains that we must “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”