Life of Jewish Art

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

Finding a Niche

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Neb...

Joslyn Art Museum fountain court in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October, I gave a tour of Jewish artists in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.  The tour was just of the permanent collection that was hanging in the galleries that day.  My tour was for a group of Jewish scholars who had been invited to Omaha to present papers at the Klutznick Harris Symposium.  After 2 days of listening to scholarly presentations, the group of 10 scholars looked forward to enjoying a visit to the local art museum.

I like giving tours of the permanent collection of the Joslyn, because I’ve been hanging around the museum since 1993 when I moved to Omaha for an internship there.  I was looking forward to having a group of Jewish scholars with diverse backgrounds to chat with about the art and artists.

Doing research about the Jewish artists in the collection was eye-opening to me.  Most were definitely acknowledging that they were Jewish, but for the most part, they were artists who happened to be Jewish.  Jewish themes were the farthest thing from the subjects of their art.

So why give a tour of Jewish artists, when most didn’t want the viewing public to even know they were Jewish?

This brought up a question that I’d struggled with in graduate school.  My advisor had begun to write a lot about Jewish art and artists.  It was eye-opening to me at that time in my life when I was trying to find my way as a young scholar.  Everyone knew I was Jewish, and I actively participated in assorted Jewish activities on campus.  However, I really wasn’t interested in pursuing research on Jewish art or artists.  It seemed, at that time, very limiting, and I didn’t want to put myself into that box,  a Jewish art historian writing about Jewish art and artists.  I was much more interested in women artists and the Feminist movement, and limiting myself to Jewish artists didn’t feel comfortable.

After moving to Omaha, finishing my dissertation, and realizing that I was going to stay here to raise my family, I began thinking differently.   What could I do research on, and where could I present it?  What niche could I fill in this city where I now lived?  Then I began to realize that I felt comfortable in the role of a Jewish art historian who researched Jewish artists, and there were actually people in Omaha who were interested in my research.

So, here I am in Omaha, feeling  comfortable being known as a Jewish art historian who has found my niche, and JAE is a great place to explore being a Jewish art historian.

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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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