Ear­li­er this week, Matthew Baigell wrote about anti-Semit­ic images of Jews in Amer­i­can humor mag­a­zines and social con­cern and left pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished book Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­ca Art, 1880 – 1940 and has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribeseries.

These are great times for those of us who sup­port, encour­age, and enjoy look­ing at art with Jew­ish themes. Per­haps nev­er before are so many artists all over Amer­i­ca find­ing inspi­ra­tion in the basic texts of the reli­gion — the Torah, the Tal­mud, kab­bal­ah, and the dai­ly and high hol­i­day prayer books. The artists do not just illus­trate these texts in tra­di­tion­al ways but chal­lenge them, espe­cial­ly fem­i­nist artists opposed to male patri­archy, and find per­son­al themes and sub­ject mat­ter that allow for per­son­al flights of fancy. 

Based on sev­er­al fac­tors includ­ing Israeli mil­i­tary vic­to­ries in 1967 and 1973, the lib­er­a­tion move­ments of the 1960s (civ­il and gay rights, the women’s move­ment), and the spir­i­tu­al­ism with­in the Jew­ish Renew­al move­ment, Jew­ish artists began to explore open­ly and aggres­sive­ly their reli­gious and cul­tur­al her­itage. The results have been aston­ish­ing. These artists, who have matured in an envi­ron­ment large­ly free from overt anti-Semi­tism, belong to the gen­er­a­tions born in the 1930s and after, the first gen­er­a­tions of artists to feel com­fort­able as Jews and as assim­i­lat­ed Americans. 

No longer wor­ry­ing about com­ing out of the clos­et, as it were, as Jew­ish artists, they have rev­o­lu­tion­ized Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. Their styles range from real­is­tic to abstract. Some employ com­mix imagery. Many would like their art to con­tribute to a sense of tikkun olam,” or repair of the world, not a bad idea want­i­ng to con­tribute to world bet­ter­ment in the mar­ket-dri­ven art world. 

Some artists have cre­at­ed nar­ra­tive series, a new devel­op­ment in Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. Exam­ples abound. Cal­i­for­nia-based Ruth Weis­berg cre­at­ed a four­teen-pan­el series titled Sis­ters and Broth­ers” in 1994 in which she explored dis­rup­tive fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships between Leah and Rachel and Isaac and Esau in order to stress the rel­e­vance of the Bible as a con­tem­po­rary source of moral val­ues. In one scene, we see Jacob ask­ing for is father Isaac’s bless­ing by tak­ing the place of Esau, his old­er brother. 

For the last ten-plus years, David Wan­der has cre­at­ed his ver­sions of the Five Scrolls — Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamen­ta­tions, and Eccle­si­astes. Esther, in the most com­mix ver­sion of all, is a com­bi­na­tion of bib­li­cal text and midrashic leg­end end­ing in the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem. 

Siona Ben­jamin, born into the Bene Israel com­mu­ni­ty in India and now a New Jer­sey res­i­dent, por­trayed the sto­ry of Queen Esther in the ancient Per­sian-Indi­an style of minia­tures. Shown here is one of her por­traits of Lilith, in leg­end a woman of inde­pen­dent mind who was Adam’s first wife.

Michi­gan-based Lynn Avaden­ka added short poems to her pre­sen­ta­tion of the matri­archs. New York-based Tobi Kahn cre­at­ed indi­vid­ual abstract images of the matri­archs on the backs of four chairs used for baby-nam­ing rit­u­als. Jill Nathanson cre­at­ed four abstract paint­ings expres­sion­ist in mood in which she tried to sug­gest what Moses might have felt when he went up Sinai a sec­ond time to receive the Tablets and what Nathanson her­self might have felt had she also gone up Sinai to talk direct­ly to God. 

What­ev­er their degrees of reli­gios­i­ty, the artists want to share their very per­son­al feel­ings with their view­ers and the dif­fer­ent ways in which they relate to the ancient texts. In effect, they are explor­ing Judaism in non-tra­di­tion­al, some­times even idio­syn­crat­ic, but very com­mit­ted, indi­vid­u­al­ized ways. Each is a par­ty of one engaged in his or her own per­son­al quest. The ancient texts, there­fore, are basi­cal­ly launch­ing pads for their own unique visions locat­ed firm­ly with­in a Jew­ish context. 

Matthew Baigell is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus in the Depart­ment of Art His­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of numer­ous books, includ­ing Amer­i­can Artists, Jew­ish Images, and Jew­ish Art in Amer­i­ca: An Intro­duc­tion. His most recent book is Social Con­cern and Left Pol­i­tics in Jew­ish Amer­i­ca Art, 1880 – 1940.

Relat­ed Content:

Matthew Baigell is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the depart­ment of art his­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author, edi­tor, and coed­i­tor of over twen­ty books on Amer­i­can and Jew­ish Amer­i­can art. His most recent book is The Implaca­ble Urge to Defame: Car­toon Jews in the Amer­i­can Press, 1877 – 1935.