Life of Jewish Art

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

Our Newest DVD: Art of High Holidays

I am delighted that the latest JAE DVD, THE ART OF THE HIGH HOLIDAYS, is now available in the JAE website Bookstore and on  This DVD is a fully narrated one-hour program that brings Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur to life through art.

The presentation offers a chronological and topical overview of visual art objects and their symbolism related to these two holidays, with 60 art selections, ranging from more than 1,000 years old to contributions from some of our best contemporary Jewish artists. The artworks reflect historical Jewish experience in specific times and places.

The program begins with Before Creation and is followed by a 20th c. abstract painting titled, The Name (HaShem).  The Biblical sequence continues with The Command and two versions of Creation.  Another abstract painting, The Way (Halachah), moves us into the Jewish world and leads to the Beresh'it frontispiece of the 13th century Shocken Bible.  A synagogue stained glass wall in Chicago captures the light of God’s command in Genesis 1:3.  Other views of Creation appear from the Sarajevo Haggadah, an etching and a contemporary silverpoint, of gold leaf, and acrylic.Jews Praying on Kol Nidre -- Gottlieb

Two mid-20th c. paintings reflect two different visual interpretations to the Sh’ma (Listen!) prayer.  An early 20th c. Polish/German/Israeli painter documented Jewish men on their way to Selichot prayers, while a late 19th c. French Sephardi Jewish artist recorded the experience of the The Amida or Silent Prayer.

The artworks are organized by liturgy, as the Bet Alpha mosaic (6th c.) shows The Akeda or Binding of Isaac, from Genesis 22.  The custom of Tashlich (Casting Off of Sins) is portrayed in a 16th c, woodcut, a 19th c., engraving, and a 21st c. sculptural vessel.  Another custom, Kapporot, is related to atonement on Yom Kippur and is depicted in a 16th c. woodcut, two mid- 20th c. expressionist sculptures, and a late 20th c. naïve painting.

Shabbat Shuvah/The Sabbath of Return or Shabbat Teshuvah/The Sabbath of Repentance is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In Europe, rabbis did not give sermons regularly but often gave a sermon about repentance on that occasion. An 18th c. woodcut in a Minhogimbukh (Book of Customs) depicts just such an event.

An illumination from a 14th c. Mahzor (Holiday Prayer Book) used the two Hebrew letters that spell Kol, for the Kol Nidre (All Vows) service.  A contemporary papercut on this same theme is a special phenomenon.  An etching, and two paintings show different Frontispiece of Illuminated Transcriptaspects of Yom Kippur.

The technique of micrography was used to relate the story of Jonah in a 13th c. manuscript.

Two woodcuts and two paintings follow a series of Shofars from different times and places.

The program ends with a L’Dor V’Dor (One generation to another) tallit (Prayer Shawl) and Kippa (headcover) and an abstract painting, Onement, capturing a sense of equilibrium, balance, and peace.


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12425 Hits

Suzan Shutan: Sculptor, Social Activist, and Hiddur Mitzvah

I met Suzan Shutan while we were in graduate school at Rutgers University in 1986.  When I moved to Omaha in 1993, she was already here, as a resident at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art.  A few months ago, she announced her collaborative exhibition "Watered Down" at the Norfolk, Nebraska, Arts Center.  I wanted to review the show.  However, since I'm publishing on the JAE blog, I asked her, "I don't suppose you're Jewish?"  

To my surprise, Suzan's answer was "yes," and she explained to me how her paternal grandmother spoke to her throughout her childhood about Kabbalah. Suzan infuses her sculpture with the idea of dualities or opposites, which reflects her vision of this ancient text.Shutan Watered Down

Focusing on the subject of water as an essentially nurturing yet potentially destructive part of life on Earth, Suzan references the third day of creation, when God divided dry, fertile land and the sea.  She explains, "Water is significant for me because, in the Kabbalah, it is a metaphor for wisdom (a divine source), and for abundance or deficiency.  Water is still used for ritualistic purposes in Judaism.  It also makes our planet unique because it supports life."  

Suzan's most recent sculptures, the "Tar Paper" series, reflect upon the interconnectedness of water, earth, and life, a concern for the environment, and her social activism.  In "Porosity," 2012, Suzan connects strips of tar paper and colorful Japanese handmade paper into organic shapes, gluing them together into what looks like a waterfall. Yes, this is paper saturated with tar, used for waterproofing roofs.  

However, the shapes represent globules of oil or pollutants sinking through "undulating underground terrain, … illustrating the groundwater reservoir and its porous contents."  The shapes attract and repel each other at the same time, pulled together by a chemical bond, but pushed away because water and oil don't mix.  Suzan's sculpture reveals the shape of what is hidden below the surface of the Earth in the land and the seas.  

Depicting what is hidden in the pores of the Earth, "Porosity" visualizes Suzan's understanding of Kabbalah.  While not outwardly showing Suzan's Jewish roots, her interest in the interconnectedness of opposites, and making works of art out of recycled objects, shows the principle of "hiddur mitzvah," making ordinary, everyday things beautiful.  

"Watered Down"
Norfolk Arts Center, Norfolk, Nebraska, and on Facebook
May 31-July 3, 2012
Sponsors: Alter Metal Recycling, The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District, Karla Huse Visual Arts Endowment, Western Office Technologies

M'Dor L'Dor video directly relates to Shutan's Jewish roots:

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29516 Hits