Life of Jewish Art

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

A look at what is happening at Jewish museums and other collections of Jewish art.

Linda Stein's Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females


Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females

Tapestries and Sculpture by Linda Stein

Edited by Linda Stein; Foreword by Gloria Steinem

Review by Jenni L. Schlossman, Ph.D. 

The catalogue for the exhibition Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females, includes fourteen essays by the artist Linda Stein and others that discuss the art and activism seen in her ten tapestries depicting “Holocaust Heroes,” as well as sculptures that “address… victimization and masked self-effacement." (16)

This traveling exhibition is especially relevant because of the current political climate, where sitting at home and saying nothing about the injustices toward marginalized people in the US can be seen as being complicit in these actions.

Stein’s tapestries highlight ten Jewish and non-Jewish “Fierce Females" referencing them as "brave upstanders" declaring a distinct contrast to "bystanders" who stand by idly and do nothing "against bullying and bigotry, … persecution, sexual abuse, and harassment.” (16) Stein’s powerful tapestries are collaged images and texts about Anne Frank, Ruth Gruber, Vitka Kempner, Noor Inayat Khan, Zivia Lubetkin, Gertrud Luckner, Nadezhda Popova, Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, Hannah Senesh, and Nancy Wake.

These women contributed significantly during WWII, but other mostly male narratives have eclipsed their stories, and they need to be remembered as strong women who were not willing to be victims. Stein’s works of art bring up discussions of the "other" in our society, in order to help find solutions and actions to solve problems, and in this way, she becomes a "Brave Upstander" herself.

In the essay, “Forgotten Female Holocaust Heroes,” Eva Fogelman discusses how both men and women participated in WWII, but that it was the men who were honored for their bravery and sacrifice, while most women who participated weren't recognized. She discusses why that is the history we learn, and theorizes why the names of Jewish women in the resistance, except for a few, are forgotten. 

In the exhibition, a viewer can scan the large-scale tapestries and then focus on one at a time, while being surrounded by the auras of these brave women. In the catalogue, each hero’s story is told in an essay along with images of the tapestries. Some are personal stories, while others also provide insight into the women through historical research. Overall, these ordinary women did extraordinary things, and Stein provides their narrative in the tapestries using photographs and texts, but also contrasts the historical with figures from popular culture, her favorite being Wonder Woman.

Stein’s figurative narratives, supported by her background in abstract art, make the images especially powerful to a wide range of audiences, encouraging them to be “Upstanders” rather than bystanders in the fight to “never forget” the narratives of heroic Jewish and non-Jewish women.

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Superheroes, Autobiography & Religion

This exhibition explores the theme of the superhero in large colorful figurative paintings observed from life. My family and I pose in costume, creating densely layered portraits and genre scenes using studio props. Drawing from Figurative Expressionism and Magic Realism, 1-Joe-El JORE-EL1I tried to create a visual narrative inspired from the ranks of "heroic "painting and high culture. There is a creative mix using Renaissance and Mannerist altarpiece compositions, Egyptian Fayun portraits, Roman frescos, Judaica and early 20th Century Expressionism.  But, my real love is comics.

My goal was to revisit the medium as a serious venue for autobiographical reflection, inherent expressivity and storytelling techniques.  By creating high art representations using popular images of the superhero, I am free to explore the medium to pose authentic questions about the self, identity and the possibility of transcendence in the modern world. Can people really evolve and change? What is real and what is the assumed identity? What is the role of the hero in contemporary life?  In working, I fully equated the power and prestige of comics with that of traditional European oil painting.

The exhibitions signature series Jo-El/Jore-EL presents self-portraits in a Superman Halloween suit (Image on right). The image of Superman is examined as iconography and commentary, related historically to the advent of comics as a mass medium in the 20th Century and as the beginning of the modern individual.  The painting, House of El, 2013 presents a double portrait of the artist, one in "civilian" clothes; the other in action gear, examining the roots of the Superman character within a multi-cultural context of Jewish, Christian and Pagan visual sources.

The exhibition culminates in a 16 foot mural modeled on 1950's Cinemascope movie screens. The large narrative work entitled, Superman in Exile, 2013 depicts a somewhat pensive superhero confronting the ovens of the Holocaust with the aid of magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. Can Superman and Houdini transcend death? Superman and other superheroes are examined in light of Jewish artists and authors during the Great Depression on the eve of the Shoah.  Jerry Siegel , Joe Schuster, Walter Benjamin and Chaim Soutine all meet on the battlefield of narrative painting; a slug-fest of epic proportions!

Information on exhibit:

Jo-El/ Jore-El

Superheroes, Autobiography & Religion

The Art of Joel Silverstein

March 23-May 16, 2014

Hadas Gallery, Rohr Center

Pratt Institute; 541 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY, 11205

Phone: 718.866.6815

Open by Appointment

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Students Connect Jewish Art and Sacred Texts

RAVSAK, a national Jewish community day school network, has always sought to identify unique opportunities to build stronger connections to Jewish art and sacred texts and enhance the creative potential of our students. 

Three years ago, in support of that mission, we launched the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest for elementary, middle and high schools. This year, students from 20 schools studied a text-rich and thought-provoking curriculum, discuss the material in class and arrive at their own understanding of the subject. Students then translated their interpretations into artwork as photography, sculpture and visual arts.FirstPlaceSculpture HighSchool TalyAkermanAmericanHebrewAcademy This year's theme, "Creating Together," was taken from the 2013 curriculum produced by our partner, the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Winners are concentrated in categories reflecting their school year and format and arranged as clickable galleries online.

The RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest counts schools of all sizes among its participants. Especially for small schools in isolated communities, the art contest serves as a bridge, connecting students with the wider day school field by equalizing their contributions and adding their voice to the conversation. The only program of its kind, the contest's growing popularity is a direct result of the value and learning it brings to day schools nationwide.

This year, our students work was judged by renowned and distinguished individuals including, Jason Hutt, a digital media artist and film director; Tirtzah Bassel visual artist and a member of the visual arts faculty at the Brandeis Institute for Music and Art; and Dr. Judah Cohen, associate professor of musicology and professor of Jewish Culture at Indiana University. Winners have their works highlighted on the RAVSAK website and in our prestigious journal HaYidion.

We invite you to browse the 2014 winners of the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest and read the artist's artistic statements. Additional galleries of all 400+ entries are available on RAVSAK's Flickr page, linked from the RAVSAK art contest website above. 

"The RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest not only helps students develop their artistic expression, but reinforces the links between creativity and Jewish tradition. By interpreting texts and creating visually stunning works that relate the words and narratives to their own experience and understanding, participants gain a meaningful appreciation for Judaism and develop a deeper sense of Jewish literacy," said Dr. Marc N. Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK. 

"What an amazing opportunity you created for our students; RAVSAK's compilation of extraordinary talent in the arts is so inspiring! Our students learned as a community, and then an amazing thing happened: sixth-grade students studied creation with first graders. Children talked about their understandings of BIG topics like God, and love, and creativity. I had the clear experience that our children were truly partnering in the work of creation. Thank you for allowing our children's creativity to roam, and for highlighting those students whose self-expression lived through the arts. We LOVED being part of this project," said Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, Head of School at The Akiva School in Nashville, Tennessee.

"This amazing opportunity gives our students an exciting platform to bring together two passions: the arts and Jewish text. RAVSAK's Judaic Art Contest encourages participants to artistically express themselves in creative enriching ways through their interpretations of Torah. We are excited to be a part of this project." Karen Feller, Head of School at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida.

We are honored to bring the RAVSAK Judaic Art Contest to students across the country and look forward to expanding the program next year to include even more schools.

Learn more about RAVSAK online at We also invite you to Like us on Facebook ( and follow us on Twitter (@RAVSAK).


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Being an Artist of Life

In 2010, Rabbi Daniel moved to Philadelphia to start a Chabad House for the various visual and performing arts colleges in the city, founding The Kugel Collaborative, a Jewish student art gallery in February, 2012:

Every artist must have a muse. Every piece of art must have a source of inspiration. An artist is essentially a specialized mystic, their work serving as the gateway into subtler realms of reality. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes the following to an artist in March of 1951:

“…the primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his prior perception was deficient.”

A Jew is charged with the task of being an artist of life. Our canvas is the thin (sometimes thick) veil that is draped over existence, creating a perceived sense of plurality and separateness from G-d.

Our brushes and instruments are the mitzvos. The muse is our study of Torah. When we employ our latent abilities, we can remove this veil that obscures our own eyes, but more importantly we remove it for others. The world does not declare one an artist if their work is never exUntitled by Jeremy Terner, University of the Artsperienced by another, and one cannot live up to the name of being a Jew, if they do not help others experience G-dliness in their own lives.

This is the atmosphere and sense of connection that we try to create among young, developing Jewish artists in Philadelphia. Our gallery connects pieces originally made with no apparent connection to Judaism at all. However, we always tell our students, that if they made it, it must be a Jewish piece! The Jewish soul longs to be expressed in every facet of life, and art serves as that conduit.

Sometimes it just takes another person to point out to the artist how deeply their subconscious is connected to Torah and how it is manifest in their work. The Kugel Collaborative serves to forge that connection and bring it out of the subconscious realm, so that our students can actively learn about, meditate upon, and question how their Judaism informs their art, and how their artwork expresses their Jewish identity.

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Susan Schwalb: Art Emerges from Jewish Identity

Though Susan Schwalb says she has never thought of herself as a religious person, she identifies with her Jewishness, even if her artwork doesn’t carry specific Jewish themes.

But some of her work emerges from personal experience. Creation #6 (left) covers a theme that has fascinated artists for hundreds of years. Clear references to the tablets of Moses are central to the artwork. As her inspiration, she points to the illuminated medieval manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was composed in Barcelona and carried into exile by a Jewish family in 1492 until it reached its final home in the Bosnian capital.

On her website, she describes the Creation series: “In general, I have stayed close to the symbolic imagery of this manuscript. Unlike familiar Christian portrayals of the creation, the image of God is not represented. But sun, moon, and earth are clearly rendered by circular forms; I interpreCreation as visualed by Susan Schwalbt the arc that encloses the picture as a symbol of the universe. The drawing within the large circle, though abstract, was intended to suggest something of land, sea, and sky.”

A series of works on paper and wood entitled Judean Desert is tied directly to her Jewish identity. First was a visit to Israel, when she drove extensively through the desert, in and out of sandstorms. A second influence was a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the training ground for rabbis of the Conservative denomination. While examining illuminated manuscripts, she says she realized that the spacing guidelines were done in silverpoint. These grids counterpointed with memories of the desert to become the basis for the series, including Sacred Land #3 (below).b2ap3_thumbnail_Schwalb.png

Schwalb has continued to work with silverpoint, an ancient technique of drawing with silver on a prepared surface, which was commonly practiced during the Renaissance. She has been using the technique since 1974 and it has been undergoing something of a revival today. Her Strata #227,1998, 9x9in, silver/aluminum/copperpoint on clay coated paper, was just used as the cover for The Luminous Trace, a just-published book on the history of metalpoint drawing by Thea Burns.

In an interview, Schwalb said she sees herself as an “experimenting person.” “Things change my work,” she says. “Things that I experience as a person. Things I read, see in a museum. Something strikes me, a color, an image, and it creeps into my work. I don’t always know where it comes from. Each work leads to another. Sometimes it involves a series and I make one from another.”

Schwalb grew up in New York City and b2ap3_thumbnail_Sacred.png had two residencies in Israel in 1994 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Artists’ Studios. “I am a spiritual person,” she says, “and I do believe in God but I am not terribly “observant”, although I do celebrate all the Jewish holidays and go to Sabbath services on an irregular basis.”

However she practices her religion, her artwork stands for itself. She cannot point out specifically what is “Jewish” in her work, but doesn’t hold back that her Jewishness is part of who she is. “I don’t start out any work with Jewish subject matter,” she says. “I identify myself as a Jewish person, as a woman, as an artist, as a feminist.”

Schwalb’s work is included in collections in museums around the world. Her Creation #6 was included in the JAE’s The Art of the High Holidays DVD. For more information on Susan Schwalb, visit her website,

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