Art for Jewish Sake

An occasional view of art from the Jewish perspective, as just one more to appreciate art and our Jewish identity.
Robert Barkin is Executive Director of Jewish Art Education and a specialist in nonprofit management.

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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Where the Jewish Things Are

In the Night Kitchen

In the Night Kitchen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maurice Sendak, author of the children's book,...

Maurice Sendak, author of the children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was instrumental in the creation of Sesame Street, and attended Lesser's curriculum seminars in 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My girls were always a lot more fond of "Goodnight, Moon" than "Where the Wild Things Are," but it still was regular bedtime reading. And, even if it came in second, that doesn't make me appreciate any less the artistry of Maurice Sendak, or the influence of his Jewishness on his work. There is little doubt that Sendak's work reflected his Jewish heritage. He said so himself.

In a series of interviews with NPR, Sendak, who passed away at 83 on May 8, related the impact of the Holocaust on his youth, as the child of Polish immigrants. "If I came up late for dinner, I'd hear about Leo and Benjamin and the other children who were my age who could never come home for supper and were good to their mothers but now they were dead, and I was lucky," he said in a 2003 NPR interview.

Asked about who was the inspiration for the famous monsters in "Wild Things," Sendak said, "I went back into my head as to who were the monsters in my life," he reflected. "Well, they were my uncles and aunts." He said the spikes in the hair of his monsters came from the memories of his relatives.

Though he was upfront about his Jewishness, he said, "I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets... the war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I -- it made sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish... You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Milville, Emily Dickinson -- she's probably the top -- Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."

Taken by itself, Sendak was a beloved artist, whose work has fascinated children for generations and will continue to entertain and delight them for generations to come, long after others have forgotten the artistic importance of his Jewish identity. Still, his work was enriched by that identity and, in turn, he enriched the lives of all of us, regardless of our ethnic heritage.


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