Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.

Ephraim Keyser , Sculptor and Teacher

In the United States, Teacher Appreciation Week is in the spring. This year May 5-9 is Teacher Appreciation Week, with Tuesday May 6 being designated as National Teacher Day. It is a fitting time to remember Ephraim Keyser, 1850-1937, whose long tenure as a teacher in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute (now The Maryland Institute College of Art or MICA) and the Rinehart School of Sculpture affected the lives and careers of many students.

KeyserpassportIn 1893 Keyser was hired to teach modeling in the Maryland Institute's day school. He also was an instructor in the Freehand Division of the night school. In October of 1900, a third teaching position was added, as Keyser became head of the Rinehart School of Sculpture, which was allied with the Maryland Institute and offered advanced instruction in sculpture. He remained head of the Rinehart School until 1923 but continued to give lectures there and in the day school of the Maryland Institute until shortly before his death.

We can learn about Keyser as a teacher by looking at some of his correspondence that survives and by reading statements about him from his students and contemporaries.

Keyser wanted his students to have the best possible opportunity to learn and tried to acquire proper aids for his classroom. Toward that end, he wrote to the chairman and trustees of the Rinehart Fund in a letter dated October 14, 1909, and asked for a skeleton. He notified them that, "a well articulated and mounted skeleton is a need greatly felt and it would add greatly to the efficiency of the class could one be obtained."  The trustees apparently did not purchase the skeleton that year because on October 14, 1910, he again pleaded to the chairman and trustees for a skeleton. "My work in the class is greatly handicapped by the lack of a well articulated skeleton so necessary to teach the structure of the figure and I earnestly request that one be obtained."

Keyser's concern for his students did not stop after they left his classroom.  In 1907 one of his sculpture students was awarded a Rinehart scholarship to study in Paris. Keyser, concerned that the student, who had never been away from home, would have difficulty adjusting to life in Paris, promptly wrote to his nephew, Leo Stein, asking Leo to look after the student.b2ap3_thumbnail_images.jpg

 Keyser was well regarded by his students as evidenced by the following quote from Isabelle Schultz Churchman in The Rinehart School 75th Anniversary Catalogue, 1896-1971, "Mr. Keyser considered anatomy as vital for both sculptors and painters and would give lectures on it to the whole Institute. The students would flock to hear him…His most popular lecture was the one on the face and head for he would demonstrate the facial expressions and even wiggle his ears, to the delight of all."

A lighthearted comment found in the 1908 yearbook of the Maryland Institute demonstrates esteem for Keyser. The unnamed wag reported in the yearbook that, "With that left paw Keyser could draw."

The September 17, 1924 Baltimore Sun reported on a dinner honoring Ephraim Keyser held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  During the dinner, J. Maxwell Miller, another Baltimore sculptor and teacher gave a testimonial of his esteem for Mr. Keyser as a teacher. According to Miller, a young student obtained from Keyser, more than guidance in art, but a philosophy of life.

According to the February 21, 1937, Sun newspaper, a past student of Keyser's, Miss Valerie H. Walter,  wanted to honor  her late teacher and called a meeting of his former pupils to  plan a memorial exhibit.  The newspaper reported that Miss Walter had exhibited in New York, Rome, Paris, and London but had never found anything to equal the inspiration she derived from Ephraim Keyser.

Keyser's students are deceased themselves now. It is well that some of their written praise of their former teacher survives to validate the career of this fine educator. 

Photo Credit of Keyser: Jewish Museum of Maryland

Image: A monumental bronze figure of a cavalier

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Finding My Parents' Ketubah

As we were clearing out my parents’ apartment following my mother’s first Yahrtzeit, my parents’ ketubah was discovered amongst some old documents.  None of my seven brothers and sisters had ever seen it before. In fact, it was not immediately apparent to us that this was indeed their ketubah.

The folded yellowed document, almost 90 years old, was written in half culmus : bearing a similarity to Hebrew and “Rashi” (the typeface used in the Rashi commentary). The half culmus font had been used by the Sepahardic Jews particularly in Spain during the Tor Hazahav (the Golden Era of Spanish Jewry).  Later, after fleeing to North Africa, the Jews living in Morocco continued to write various religious documents in this font.b2ap3_thumbnail_Jewish-wedding-contract.png

The wedding contract—handwritten--elaborated on the families of both my mother and father, with special attention to my mother’s father ( “ a man of great knowledge of the Torah and acts of chesed--good deeds”) as he had been a highly-respected member of the local Jewish community.

Although the ketubah is unadorned, two passport-sized pictures of my parents were attached according to official requirements. This was very surprising for us, and at the same time also delightful. My parents were 19 and 16 at the time of their marriage. I had never seen photos of them looking so young.

Another unusual detail on the wedding contract caught my eye. There was a kind of abstract line drawing on the ketubah that we could not figure out the rhyme or reason for it being there. Only later were we able to get the answer to this curious squiggle. When b2ap3_thumbnail_Aramaic-text-Ketubah.png
we brought the ketubah to the local rabbi, we were told that this was the signature of the rabbi who officiated at the ceremony and that his signature, itself, was a chain of signatures incorporating all signatures of his predecessors -- including the current rabbi’s own addition.  Today a fine- print made of the original ketubah is framed and hanging in each of our family’s homes.

Added to the joy of being an artist and having my work be part of the wedding ceremony for many young Jewish couples around the world, my own experience of finding my parents' ketubah, gave me a new perspective of the ketubah’s significance--for not only the couple on the wedding day, but for their offspring and the generation to follow.

Azoulay's ketubah's can be found at

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What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of L...

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is that there is no real answer-or perhaps, many answers. The problem begins with the definition of "Jewish"-which is both a historical and a conceptual problem. Abraham was called a Hebrew and Moses and David were Israelites-the words "Jew" and "Jewish" didn't exist yet. When exactly does Judaism begin? What is Judaism: a religion? An ethnicity? A nation? A culture? A body of customs and traditions? A civilization? If we apply the adjective "Jewish" to the noun "art" the problem expands. Are we referring to symbols, subject, content, style, intent, purpose as these elements are part of the work of art? Are we talking about the artist's identity? What of a convert into or out of Judaism: does his/her art suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

What of an 18th-century Eastern European spice box for Havdalah, almost certainly made by a Christian artisan (due to guild restrictions and inhibitions), contrived in the late Baroque style known as rococo and offering a strong visual relationship to Catholic monstrances?  Our criterion in this case must be its purpose. Moritz Oppenheim's ca 1850 painting, "Sabbath Afternoon," will be labeled Jewish art due to the identity of the artist and his subject, but an Impressionist landscape by Pissarro a generation later will be defined as Jewish strictly in terms of the artist-secular but known by everyone as a Jew.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What of Mark Rothko's canonical works of a century later? His chromatic Abstract Expressionism would at first glance offer nothing particularly Jewish about it-until one realizes that Rothko is trying to put the world back together again (tikkun olam) after Auschwitz and Hiroshima on his large, frameless paintings that glow from within with light (that ultimate ordering element, in Genesis I) and which push the viewer's eye toward a unifying center.

The criteria are likely change, depending on the time and place. When we recognize that the First Temple was built for an Israelite king (Solomon) by Tyrians (Phoenicians) and that the second Temple was built by Judaeans, we might well shy away from referring to them as examples of "Jewish" architecture. But we still need to ask what the basis is for defining, say, the mosaics on the Bet Alpha synagogue floor (ca 525 CE) as Jewish. They served a Jewish community; part of their subject and symbols are distinctly Jewish-the image of the akeda and that of the Holy of Holies flanked by two Temple menorot-but the central area offers a zodiac with Helios, God of the sun, riding his chariot. So are the mosaics part Jewish and part not-or are they all Jewish in being part of a synagogue?

Many are the contemporary Jewish artists who wrestle with this question: depending upon the particulars of a work of art and its maker, the criteria cannot be boxed into a simple frame. But then asking questions without easy answers is the consummate Jewish art-ask the rabbis who made the Talmud!

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Finding a Niche

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Neb...

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October, I gave a tour of Jewish artists in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.  The tour was just of the permanent collection that was hanging in the galleries that day.  My tour was for a group of Jewish scholars who had been invited to Omaha to present papers at the Klutznick Harris Symposium.  After 2 days of listening to scholarly presentations, the group of 10 scholars looked forward to enjoying a visit to the local art museum.

I like giving tours of the permanent collection of the Joslyn, because I’ve been hanging around the museum since 1993 when I moved to Omaha for an internship there.  I was looking forward to having a group of Jewish scholars with diverse backgrounds to chat with about the art and artists.

Doing research about the Jewish artists in the collection was eye-opening to me.  Most were definitely acknowledging that they were Jewish, but for the most part, they were artists who happened to be Jewish.  Jewish themes were the farthest thing from the subjects of their art.

So why give a tour of Jewish artists, when most didn’t want the viewing public to even know they were Jewish?

This brought up a question that I’d struggled with in graduate school.  My advisor had begun to write a lot about Jewish art and artists.  It was eye-opening to me at that time in my life when I was trying to find my way as a young scholar.  Everyone knew I was Jewish, and I actively participated in assorted Jewish activities on campus.  However, I really wasn’t interested in pursuing research on Jewish art or artists.  It seemed, at that time, very limiting, and I didn’t want to put myself into that box,  a Jewish art historian writing about Jewish art and artists.  I was much more interested in women artists and the Feminist movement, and limiting myself to Jewish artists didn’t feel comfortable.

After moving to Omaha, finishing my dissertation, and realizing that I was going to stay here to raise my family, I began thinking differently.   What could I do research on, and where could I present it?  What niche could I fill in this city where I now lived?  Then I began to realize that I felt comfortable in the role of a Jewish art historian who researched Jewish artists, and there were actually people in Omaha who were interested in my research.

So, here I am in Omaha, feeling  comfortable being known as a Jewish art historian who has found my niche, and JAE is a great place to explore being a Jewish art historian.

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The Simchat Torah Flag

Guest Blog by Prof. Shalom Sabar
Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore
Department of Art History
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 Image:  Simchat Torah Flag, East Europe, late 19th century.

"A flag, what is that?  A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir.  A flag is more than that.  With a flag, people are led where one wants to lead them-even into the Promised Land.  For a flag men will live an die; it is indeed the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses…if they are educated for it."  (Theodor Herzl, letter to Baron Hirsch in Paris, June 3, 1895)

Simchat Torah flags are a beloved memory for many.  Growing up in Israel in the 1950's, I remember the flags often have an apple with a lit candle on the end; and gold glitter all over.

What is the source of this popular item?  Is it an ancient custom?  How and where did it develop?  This blog will briefly address these questions.  

Simchat Torah is not a biblical holiday, nor does it date from the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  The Simchat Torah custom of concluding the reading of the Torah and starting once again was determined in Babylonia at the time of the Geonim (late 6th to mid-11th c.) and spread throughout the Diaspora.  Many popular traditions from various Jewish communities determined its modes of celebration.  Simchat-Torah-Flag.jpg

The focus is the Torah scroll itself and on Simchat Torah, the community 'dances' with the Torah in the festive hakafot (circumambulation).  In Italy, two magnificent chairs carried the hatan Torah (Torah Bridegroom) who read the last Torah verses and the hatan Bereishit, the man who read the first verses of Genesis.

 The flag
The term Degel is Hebrew for Flag and is known from the Bible, particularly in Numbers and the Song of Songs.  However, in biblical times there were different meanings for this term and only later it came to connote "flag".  

Early Simchat Torah Flag
In Eastern Europe, the flag was associated with children as they were given a key role in the observance of this holiday.  Children participated in the Hakafot and were given fruits and candies, as is shown in earlyy 20th c. postcards from Warsaw and New York labelled with the Yiddish words "Simchat Torah flag."

Flags of Eastern Europe
Simchat Torah flags were used only once, so none survive from before 1860.  The oldest flags depict children  marching together as the tribes of Israel, carrying flags with symbols of the holiday as well as other traditional Jewish symbols, such as symbolic animals inspired by the Bible and the Mishna (Rabbinic Judaism's redaction of the oral tradition):  the lion (symbol of the tribe of Judah - see Genesis 49:9), eagle, deer, gazelle, etc.

Zionism and the Move to the Land of Israel
In 1902, flags from Belarus displayed the opening line of the First Aliyah (immigration to Israel) anthem.  Traditional images continued to appear along with new ones, featuring, for example, Zionist leaders, such as Hertzl and Nordau.  The swallowtail outline of the flag and pictures of Moses and Aaron came to the U.S. along with the E. European immigrants. In Israel, following the Six-Day War the liberated holy sites and the heroes of the war appeared on flags created before the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  After the 1980s, images were either "secular" or "yeshiva" oriented.  The Simchat Torah flag's meaning has gone full circle-from militaristic to spiritual and back to militaristic.  

The flag
The term Degel is Hebrew for Flag and is known from the Bible, particularly in Numbers and the Song of Songs.  However, in biblical times there were different meanings for this term (in Numbers, for example, it means "a military unit, a camp"); only later it came to connote "flag".




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