Life of Jewish Art

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

Where the Jewish Things Are

In the Night Kitchen

In the Night Kitchen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maurice Sendak, author of the children's book,...

Maurice Sendak, author of the children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was instrumental in the creation of Sesame Street, and attended Lesser's curriculum seminars in 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My girls were always a lot more fond of "Goodnight, Moon" than "Where the Wild Things Are," but it still was regular bedtime reading. And, even if it came in second, that doesn't make me appreciate any less the artistry of Maurice Sendak, or the influence of his Jewishness on his work. There is little doubt that Sendak's work reflected his Jewish heritage. He said so himself.

In a series of interviews with NPR, Sendak, who passed away at 83 on May 8, related the impact of the Holocaust on his youth, as the child of Polish immigrants. "If I came up late for dinner, I'd hear about Leo and Benjamin and the other children who were my age who could never come home for supper and were good to their mothers but now they were dead, and I was lucky," he said in a 2003 NPR interview.

Asked about who was the inspiration for the famous monsters in "Wild Things," Sendak said, "I went back into my head as to who were the monsters in my life," he reflected. "Well, they were my uncles and aunts." He said the spikes in the hair of his monsters came from the memories of his relatives.

Though he was upfront about his Jewishness, he said, "I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets... the war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I -- it made sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish... You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Milville, Emily Dickinson -- she's probably the top -- Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."

Taken by itself, Sendak was a beloved artist, whose work has fascinated children for generations and will continue to entertain and delight them for generations to come, long after others have forgotten the artistic importance of his Jewish identity. Still, his work was enriched by that identity and, in turn, he enriched the lives of all of us, regardless of our ethnic heritage.


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The World of Dora Holzhandler

Dora Holzhandler is one of my favorite Jewish artists who has exhibited her works in the UK and in Israel.  Born in Paris in 1928 to Polish refugee parents, she later moved to London where she grew up, married and engaged in a highly productive creative life.

While her painting style can be described as naïve through the use of flattened perspective and forms, the influences on her work such as Jewish and Buddhist spiritual traditions, poetry, folk painting, and Persian miniature painting point to an artist who was keenly aware of the world of art (she had some art school training and went to art exhibits) and the Jewish community that she lived in.dora

Her paintings embody figures set against backdrops of dazzling patterns in heavily detailed jewel-like interiors and garden settings. Drawing on themes from Jewish life, her paintings embrace memory as in Childhood Memories of the Synagogue, 1986; My Grandparents in Poland, 1988) and a celebration of Jewish holidays (Sabbath Meal, 1985; Succoth Meal, 1993; Chanukah, 1993; Young Girls Dancing at Shavuot, 1993).
There are an abundance of paintings with maternal themes (Mother and Children at Passover, 1988; Raisons and Almonds, 1994), romantic love themes suggestive of Chagall (Moroccan Lovers, 1992; Lovers in Winter, 1994), and portraits of rabbis. Her paintings of women engaging in domestic themes (shopping, picking flowers, and eating) and urban life (The Willow Tea Room, Glasgow, 1990) provide a unique glimpse into her daily out-and-about activities as wife/mother in England and the interesting shops and sites within her community.  
hanukkahWhen I look at her paintings (such as Chanukah, left) I sense joy not only because of the delightful way she has painted her subjects but also for the way that she has so beautifully captured the Jewish life she lived and experienced.  
To read more about Dora's life and view her works see: Vann, P. (1997).  Dora Holzhandler. New York: Overlook Press. Dora Holzhandler’s website:
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