Life of Jewish Art

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

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 Our gallery connects pieces originally made with no apparent connection to Judaism at all.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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Digging Deep into the Bible

Jewish digital artist Naomi Susan Schwartz Jacobs remembers vividly when Philip Ratner walked into her fourth grade classroom at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and instructed her class on how to make Hebrew letters out of yarn. Jacobs chose the aleph. Many years later Jacobs is still creating Jewish themed art, including using the alphabet. Her recent Kabbalah series of the 10 sephirot includes carefully placed Hebrew names.b2ap3 thumbnail Holocaust-Remembrance-Day

But Jacobs is not only a Jewish artist; she is a Jewish scholar, with a focus on the Hebrew Bible and Judaism during the Second Temple period. Not only has she done numerous paintings related to the Exodus, she has also drawn on the War Scroll and the Book of Enoch. Jacobs says that her goal in making Biblical art is to bring about aspects that are often less emphasized.

Recently she has done a series of paintings on women in the Bible, especially women who were not Israelite. Feeling very strongly the desire that the children of Abraham find peace together, Jacobs painted Hagar My Sister, capturing the moment that Hagar is convinced her son Ishmael is about to die. Other biblical women portrayed by Jacobs include the wise and noble Queen of Sheba and the controversial Queen Athalya of Judah. Jacobs also depicts the less widely known Lady Wisdom, who is a divine figure in the Book of Proverbs. Later identified as the Torah, the phrase “she is a tree of life to all who hold on to her” refers to her.

b2ap3 icon Keter-CrownJacobs focused on another famous woman in the Torah for Passover exhibit at the Imajewnation Museum in Saint Louis. Invoking rainbow colors, a theme in her art in general, Jacobs depicts a dancing Miriam, tambourine in hand, dancing out of the well of water the midrash links to her. Jacobs has also long been drawn to the story of Joseph. “At the moment of meeting his brothers, Joseph realizes that he can destroy them entirely as they are now in his power. But he ultimately chooses to forgive,” says Jacobs. In her painting of Joseph and her brothers, Joseph is depicted as an enormous Sphinx towering about his tiny siblings. His facial expression is enigmatic; perhaps he is not sure yet what he is to do.b2ap3 thumbnail Miriam-s-Well

Jacobs has also felt especially haunted by the Holocaust, in which she lost relatives. In honor of Yom HaShoah Jacobs constructed a black and white painting. Marked by the strokes of barbed war, indistinct figures and ominous smoke convey a sense of muddled horror. Other inspirations have come from God’s address to Job during a whirlwind, Nachman of Bratslav’s image of a narrow bridge, mystical Jewish views of heaven and angels, the act of creation, and of course, Jacob’s ladder, a painting that was inspired by the work of Israeli artist Yaacov Agam.

Jacobs has a website at www.art2uplift.com

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