In the beginning there was creation: heaven and earth and all that resides therein. Creation begat human creativity. As much as Jews define themselves as the people of the book, particularly in the modern era we have become artists and creators, mining the Jewish imagination in our texts, in our ritual objects and in our family and communal history of settling, uprooting and wandering.
In “Jewish Authenticity and Identity,” a new exhibit of Jewish art on display at Adas Israel Congregation (and online) through May 14, the question wrestled with is fundamental: “What is Jewish art?” And its corollary: “Who is a Jewish artist?”
The works hanging in the lobby and corridors of the Connecticut Avenue Conservative synagogue narrate a story of the Jewish people drawn from a plethora of artistic voices and genres from across the Washington region, and around the United States, Canada, Israel and Europe. Curator Ori Soltes, an art historian and lecturer at Georgetown University, sifted through hundreds of submissions to arrive at the rich and diverse collection of pieces on display: traditional paintings, mixed media, fabric work, collage, photography, sculpture, ceramic and bronze.
You’ll find a pair of beautiful ceramic mezuzot — containers for biblical passages hung on doorposts — by Ellicott City ceramicist Bonnie Zuckerman — and a radical reimagining of the traditional man’s tallit — prayer shawl — as a silken feminine camisole with the traditional tzitzit — ritual fringes dangling from the garment’s corners fabricated by Rachel Kanter.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek Santa Claus yarmulke and an arch Passover-themed T-shirt by Minneapolis artist Jacob Rath called “Goy Division.” “The Amichai Windows,” a lovingly handmade artist’s book by area artist Rick Black, recalls the moniker people of the book, but this one contains illustrated verses by one of Israel’s beloved 20th-century poets, Yehuda Amichai.
Ask Soltes to define Jewish art and he could ruminate for hours taking on the artistic output from the ancient Hebrews, Israelites, the hegemony of art supported by early Christian churches, the so-called prohibition of Jews from crafting “graven images” — Soltes notes that applies to depictions of gods for idol worship — to the surfeit of Jewish artists enamored of abstract expressionism in the mid-20th century. He penned a perceptive essay tracing the threads that form a tapestry of Jewish artistic production for the exhibition catalogue.
“Definition,” Soltes said, “is an endemic part of human intellect …. We like to put things in boxes — to define something is to place it in a bounded space. While it is comfortable for us, but reality doesn’t work that way. The phrase ‘Jewish art’ is a poster child for how it doesn’t work.
“Just the question ‘What is Jewish?’” he continued, “Is it nationality, culture, customs and traditions, ethnicities, civilizations? And where does it begin historically? Abraham isn’t called a Jew; he’s called a Hebrew. Moses and David are called Israelites. Ezra is a Judean, as is Jesus, who’s not a Jew. Judaism as we understand it doesn’t take its final form until later with the canonization of the Bible in 140 CE.”
So, then, who is a Jewish artist? Soltes pondered that question: Is it Jewish by birth, by conviction, by conversion or something else? Perhaps the Jewish resides in the art itself in terms of subject, symbol or style, he wondered. Ultimately, Soltes, and exhibition director Robert Bettmann, have let the artists themselves define their art and their Jewish provenance.
More than a year ago, Bettmann sent out an international call for artists inviting them to submit works based on the concept of Jewish authenticity and Identity —the exhibit’s title. Soltes examined hundreds of submissions before settling on 74 works by 55 artists — including 19 from the Washington region.
Silver Spring mixed media artist Adrienne Torrey draws from her background as a second-generation Holocaust survivor and a child of immigrants. “Time with Boobie,” pays tribute to her grandmother with a collage of mismatched flocked velvet wallpaper, paisley and bright blue crochet outlined into a cozy, easy chair.
“It’s part of my second-generation story,” Torrey said. “My grandmother didn’t speak about [her Holocaust experience] for a long time.”
Torrey said that her earliest pieces explored line, color, shape and her female identity. “While my Jewish identity is incredibly important to me, I hadn’t really landed on how to fully explore it. I feel much more planted and know where I need to go now.”
She continued, “Right now exploring this part of my Jewish identity works for me. I’m not concerned about being put into a box and I’m happy to have lots of boxes.”
Soltes hopes that those who explore the works in “Jewish Authenticity and Identity” will gain “a sense of the range and variety of visual productivity that is happening among Jews across the world. I hope a takeaway would be for viewers to ask what is Jewish and what is Jewish identity? The answer is not so easy to pin down.”
“Jewish Authenticity and Identity” is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons through May 14 at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec St. NW, Washington. COVID-19 restrictions require masks and reservations to enter. Only five people are admitted each hour. The pieces can be viewed online here: https://authenticityandidentity.com/.