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.
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.
Jacobs 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.
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 www.art2uplift.com