Life of Jewish Art

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

Wendy Rabinowitz: Shaker Connections

For the past two years, while vacationing in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I've been surprised by art exhibits that focus on Jewish themes. Two years ago, the wonderful Pissarro exhibit at The Clark Museum in Williamstown tied together the early Impressionist with his Jewish heritage and political leanings.

This year, while visiting the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield this August, I was struck by Wendy Rabinowitz's exhibit tying together Shaker and Jewish concepts of peace, through her exhibit, "Shalom: Weaving Threads of Peace." As it turns out, around 1842 the Shakers gave each of their villages a spiritual name and Hancock became City of Peace, the traditional translation of Jerusalem.Praise-God56.opt.jpg

"I've always been a peace activist," Rabinowitz said in an interview. "This exhibit is about expanding the intersections of the traditions."

Following nine months of research, Rabinowitz says she started seeing the similarities in the shared Jewish and Shaker experience. She identified 20 aspects, such as Neshama/Soul and Healing Hands. She grew increasingly appreciative of both religions' deep reverence and respect for the earth and creation, the sacred work of our hands and craftsmanship.

Her artwork combines weaving and textile arts with other visual arts, graphics and the written word, resulting in mixed media assemblages. "All of my work is Jewishly based," she says. "I think Jewish art is the art of co-creation with God, nature and goodness in the world."

The month-long art exhibit, in the much prettier than named Poultry House, tied together common themes between Shaker and Jewish culture. Each piece of art was accompanied by an explanation of the intersection.

Rabinowitz's artwork ties together bright fabrics and other media with Jewish icons, such as the Ten Commandments, mezzuzot or tallitot. Often, there is Hebrew text embedded -- a related blessing or quotation from the Prophets. Her piece, Praise God, seen above, includes both the orignal Hebrew and an English translation, placed within a sea of pastels. Shakers, celibate and expressive through music and craft, were deeply committed to the praise of God.

Rabinowitz compares her artistic experience to common Jewish themes: self-discovery like the desert wandering, creation as an act of renewal, and Tikkun Olam as a healing process, responsive to God. "I see living as joyful, but also as a struggle with our relationship to God," she says.

"Shalom: Weaving Threads of Peace" will be on exhibit in January and February, 2013 at The Farber/Miness Gallery Ludwig Schenectady Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna, NY. A different show, "Journey of Peace: Art as Meditation" will be open in November at Osilas Gallery at Concordia College in Bronxville, NY.

Find her website at and her Facebook page at






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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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