A few weeks ago we stayed at a hotel in Seville, Spain called Las Casas de la Juderia, literally the houses of the Jewish Quarter. It was beautiful, right next to an old church called Santa Maria la Blanca that was in medieval times a synagogue. We had a terrace that overlooked the old church and the early morning air was filled with doves cooing.
Mirta Kupferminc is an artist who has made her artistic mission a search for meaning in a world profoundly unstable, problematic and filled with the terrors of memory not entirely her own. As the child of Holocaust survivors, uprooted from Europe and planted in Argentina, one prevailing motif for her is that of a witness to the Holocaust one generation removed. A prominent text panel quotes Saul Sosnowski: “…to be a witness who loves unconditionally; daring to judge God over Auschwitz and find him guilty; and pray to him still, even there, even in Auschwitz.”
Why would one want to reinvent a Jewish ritual when it had been working perfectly well for hundreds if not thousands of years? Ah ha, perhaps all is not as well as traditionalists would like to think. There is the disquieting phenomenon that perhaps the majority of the Jewish people have little or no engagement with Jewish practice.
How should we approach Hashem at this time of teshuvah? Surely with fear because we understand that our lives hang in the balance. But another element needs to be incorporated. Love. Yes, love must define our relationship with the Merciful One as we declare on Yom Kippur: “For we are Your people and You are our God…we are Your friend and You are our Beloved.”
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.
When we peer back through the millennia whom do we see? Two women standing at the very beginning of our history, Sarah and Hagar. Sarah conspired to overcome her barrenness and provide Abraham with an heir through her maidservant Hagar. From the start their tumultuous relationship effectively cast Abraham to the sidelines, so much so that Hagar went on to become a matriarch of her own people, the Ishmaelites.
“We are in effect changing the rules as to what is aesthetically acceptable….It is exciting precisely because we are changing the discourse [about Jewish visual expression and contemporary art].” Joel Silverstein made this startling proclamation in these pages three months ago in his exhibition essay Tzelem: Presence and Likeness in Jewish Art (May 6, 2009).
Mr. Tibor Kupferstein has a dream. He would like to create the first Jewish Art Museum in Brooklyn. It doesn’t seem too farfetched considering that the borough hosts the largest concentration of Jews in the New York metropolitan area. And yet making his personal collection of Jewish art accessible to the public has been fraught with all kinds of bureaucratic roadblocks and technical snafus that seem determined to turn a beautiful gift into a sad unfulfilled saga. It doesn’t seem fair.
Two deeply idiosyncratic exhibitions at Yeshiva University Museum warrant close inspection if only to show how the diverse richness of biblical and Judaic subject matter can inspire contemporary artists. The very eclectic nature of both artist’s works speaks volumes about the possibilities available when artists take Jewish subjects seriously and subsequently embrace them with their own demons.
An unshaven man stumbles on stage, clad in a raincoat covering his pajamas. He is barefoot and shuffles among the dried leaves that litter the stage area, a long rectangle set between the audience on either side. It is a most intimate performance area, uncomfortably so. He tells us he was a Red Cross representative, stationed in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, sent to inspect a civilian internment camp in Nazi Germany.
In German with English subtitles
New Yorker Films
How can the artist presume to make art when every stroke, every effort at creating an intelligible and beautiful object, might be construed as an affront to the wholeness and perfection of God and His handiwork. Every one of the artist’s images could be seen as a potential idol, a potential Golden Calf.