Writings

A Light Unto the Nation
Knesset Menorah by Benno Elkan

Written on January 05, 2009

Knesset Menorah (1956) cast bronze by Benno Elkan Jerusalem, Israel

While the heart of Israel’s democracy is to be found in the Knesset in Jerusalem, just across the road is a quiet but persuasive work of art that sums up the awesome narrative of Jewish history that finally brought us to the Land of Israel.  War and strife are the undeniable subjects of this 15’ foot high bronze menorah by the British artist Benno Elkan.

Chagall’s Influence
Mystical Storytelling at MOBIA: Chagall and the Russian Jewish Theater at Jewish Museum

Written on December 22, 2008

Jacob Blessed by Isaac, The Bible (1957) etching by Marc Chagall Courtesy the Jewish Museum

In 1931 Marc Chagall embarked on a series of etchings of the Bible that would become a pervasive creative theme for the rest of his life.  For all of his forays into the world of myth, shtetl fable and imagination, Chagall would always return to the Bible as a fundamental means of expression.

Shmuel der Mahler
Memory Paintings

Written on December 05, 2008

Self Portrait, (37 x 32) oil on board by Samuel Rothbort Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

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.

Rabbinic Drawing in Space
Ben Schachter’s Eruv Maps

Written on November 07, 2008

Squirrel Hill Eruv (2007), 20 x 30, by Ben Schachter Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

In the world of art and culture the rabbis generally get a bad rap.  From time immemorial they have often been thought of as the prototypical zealous guardians, seen as prohibiting all sorts of imagery with righteous abandon, constantly erecting walls to guard against anything that might be tainted with idolatry.  Many might even argue that the pursuit of the visual arts, whether representational or abstract, to be no more that “bittle Torah,” a waste of precious time.

Envisioning Maps

Written on October 27, 2008

Exodus II (2000), Mixed Media on Vinyl by Tamar Hirschl Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

God commands Ezekiel to make a map; “take a brick and put it in front of you, and incise on it a city, Jerusalem.  Set up a siege against it…This shall be an omen for the House of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:1-3)  This map became a symbolic reality, a graphic tool used to convince the Jews that their precious city could indeed be destroyed as punishment for their sins. 

Arbit Blatas: Centennial Tribute

Written on September 29, 2008

Elektra, Teatro la Fenice, Venice  oil on canvas by Arbit Blatas Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

Barbarism cannot triumph.  This is what we believe, as Jews and as Americans.  And yet it did a mere seventy years ago in the very heart of what was considered the cultural capital of Europe, Germany and Austria.  The rich cultural milieu that produced the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Brahms, and Strauss, and the pictorial masterpieces of Durer, Holbein and Cranach was inexplicably the birthplace of Hitler’s Nazism and his murderous jackals.  In some mysterious way the artwork of Arbit Blatas (1908 – 1999), currently seen in a centennial tribute at the Hebrew Union College Museum, holds this conundrum in a kind of uneasy balance.

Yom Kippur And The Akeidah
Paintings at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Written on September 24, 2008

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement (1878), oil on canvas by Maurycy Gottlieb Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel

The Akeidah casts a very long shadow in the lives of all Jews, every day and particularly at this time of year.   The terrifying narrative in Genesis 22, only 19 lines long, and yet recited every morning as prelude to the first recitation of “Shema Yisrael” sets the essential tone of our prayers.  We begin our daily approach to G-d with the plea, ” Master of all worlds! Not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before Your, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy.”

Michelangelo and the Jews: Part II

Written on August 27, 2008

Moses (1515), marble by Michelangelo San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

“The Sistine Secrets” by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner raises many intriguing issues about one of the most important works of Western art and its creator, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) as first presented in my review of August 29th.   Now we shall attempt to put this masterpiece and the artist in a larger context.

Piety and Art:
Zvi Malnovitzer’s Paintings

Written on July 17, 2008

Walking to the Synagogue (2005), oil on canvas by Zvi Malnovitzer Private Collection, New York

Piety and paintings of pious Jews, what a dangerous mix!  It takes considerable courage to dedicate oneself to making art, not to mention to do so within the orthodox community.  That is what Zvi Malnovitzer did.  He was raised and educated in a Hasidic community in Bnai Brak, Israel and while learning at the Ponevezh Yeshiva he somehow found the time and energy to learn to draw.

Tanach at the Tel Aviv Museum

Written on June 22, 2008

David and Saul (1951) oil on canvas by Avraham Naton  Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art

As an artist when I visit a museum I relish the opportunity to soak up a gamut of aesthetic experiences, the wonderful array of visual and intellectual stimulation that characterizes looking at any kind of art.  Simultaneously I am constantly on the look-out for works of specifically Jewish interest.   And of course always at the top of my surveys are those artworks that one way or the other deal with the Bible.

Abel Pann at the Mayanot Gallery

Written on June 02, 2008

Rebecca with Sons Jacob and Esau (1940), pastel on paper by Abel Pann Courtesy Mayanot Gallery, Jerusalem

We live apart, us Jews. Partially by God’s command, partially because of age-old enmity from non-Jews.  It is even said by some that the hatred fostered by our neighbors strengthens us to keep our laws and traditions, helps us resist assimilation.  But what is the essential nature of “the other?”  How can we sum up the fundamental difference between the Jewish people and “the Nations.”  Is this an irreversible family conflict?

Ben Wilson
The Roots of Abstraction

Written on May 20, 2008

Yellow Ark (1975), oil on canvas by Ben Wilson Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

The road one chooses in Art, much like life, does not necessarily determine the final destination.  A youth can start in yeshiva and paradoxically end up a surgeon, a public school student can still find their way into the rabbinate.

Rembrandt’s Abraham
Etchings at Swann Galleries

Written on May 06, 2008

Abraham’s Sacrifice (1655), etching by Rembrandt van Rijn Courtesy Swann Galleries

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham.’  And he replied, ‘Here I am.’ (Genesis 22:1)   What was the nature of this test and, more to the point, isn’t this test also a test of the Jewish people from generation to generation? When did the test really begin?  At that moment or perhaps years earlier.

Poussin’s Bible

Written on April 07, 2008

Winter (The Flood); Detail of Man Praying (1660) Oil on canvas by Nicolas Poussin Musee du Louvre, Paris, Departement des Peintures

Near the end of his long and productive life Nicolas Poussin was commissioned to paint in 1660 an unusual series of paintings called the “Four Seasons.”  They very quickly became some of the best known and beloved of his artworks; utilizing four scenes from the Hebrew Bible to depict the Ages of Man as the seasons of the year; Adam and Eve as Spring; Boaz and Ruth as Summer; The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land as Autumn and finally, The Flood as Winter.

The Image before the Text
The 613: Paintings by Archie Rand

Written on April 03, 2008

326 & 327, details of The 613, acrylic on canvas by Archie Rand Courtesy the artist

First there was the word.  It was spoken on the mountain and we were afraid.  Then it was written fire on fire.  And we lost faith.  Over the years Moshe wrote it down and we thought the word was tamed.  We thought we knew it so we ignored it.  So we lost our Temple and our Land.  The 613, over the years mostly observed but mysterious, observed now, thousands of years later, distant and holy.