Life of Jewish Art

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

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

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What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of L...

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is that there is no real answer-or perhaps, many answers. The problem begins with the definition of "Jewish"-which is both a historical and a conceptual problem. Abraham was called a Hebrew and Moses and David were Israelites-the words "Jew" and "Jewish" didn't exist yet. When exactly does Judaism begin? What is Judaism: a religion? An ethnicity? A nation? A culture? A body of customs and traditions? A civilization? If we apply the adjective "Jewish" to the noun "art" the problem expands. Are we referring to symbols, subject, content, style, intent, purpose as these elements are part of the work of art? Are we talking about the artist's identity? What of a convert into or out of Judaism: does his/her art suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

What of an 18th-century Eastern European spice box for Havdalah, almost certainly made by a Christian artisan (due to guild restrictions and inhibitions), contrived in the late Baroque style known as rococo and offering a strong visual relationship to Catholic monstrances?  Our criterion in this case must be its purpose. Moritz Oppenheim's ca 1850 painting, "Sabbath Afternoon," will be labeled Jewish art due to the identity of the artist and his subject, but an Impressionist landscape by Pissarro a generation later will be defined as Jewish strictly in terms of the artist-secular but known by everyone as a Jew.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What of Mark Rothko's canonical works of a century later? His chromatic Abstract Expressionism would at first glance offer nothing particularly Jewish about it-until one realizes that Rothko is trying to put the world back together again (tikkun olam) after Auschwitz and Hiroshima on his large, frameless paintings that glow from within with light (that ultimate ordering element, in Genesis I) and which push the viewer's eye toward a unifying center.

The criteria are likely change, depending on the time and place. When we recognize that the First Temple was built for an Israelite king (Solomon) by Tyrians (Phoenicians) and that the second Temple was built by Judaeans, we might well shy away from referring to them as examples of "Jewish" architecture. But we still need to ask what the basis is for defining, say, the mosaics on the Bet Alpha synagogue floor (ca 525 CE) as Jewish. They served a Jewish community; part of their subject and symbols are distinctly Jewish-the image of the akeda and that of the Holy of Holies flanked by two Temple menorot-but the central area offers a zodiac with Helios, God of the sun, riding his chariot. So are the mosaics part Jewish and part not-or are they all Jewish in being part of a synagogue?

Many are the contemporary Jewish artists who wrestle with this question: depending upon the particulars of a work of art and its maker, the criteria cannot be boxed into a simple frame. But then asking questions without easy answers is the consummate Jewish art-ask the rabbis who made the Talmud!

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