Jews and art.

Art and Jews.

It’s one of those weird relationships. Many Jews seem to be drawn to art. (Here, we are talking specifically about the visual arts, but that’s a general statement true about literature, music, performance, and just about every other kind of creative work there is.)

But it can be a troubled relationship nonetheless. Jewish law has prescriptions against figurative art that kept many Jews away from it for a very long time; Jews often did not have the freedom or the resources to make art; and now, with the biblical law in most parts of the community interpreted differently, the freedom so taken for granted as to be part of the air, and resources much more readily available, there seems to be other cultural constraints that often keep artists from making overtly Jewish art.

Other questions that hover over any discussion of Jewish art also are the very basic ones: What is Jewish art? What is a Jewish artist? Do you have to be Jewish to make Jewish art? Can a Jewish artist make non-Jewish art? How about a-Jewish art?

And there’s a question that might seem surprising to the non-artists who hear about it — How can a Jewish artist find another Jewish artist, to talk about Jewish art?

Yona Verwer asked all those questions. The Dutch-born artist now lives in Manhattan. “I realized that I was working with Jewish themes, and I didn’t know anybody else who wanted to talk about them,” she said. “I am very involved in the New York art world, and I didn’t have that for my Jewish work.”

Yona Verwer

Yona Verwer

There is something intrinsically empowering about creating art. It allows all sorts of ideas about identity, truth, and emotion to hover in the air, sometimes hitting a viewer hard in the face, sometimes feathering little gusts of air in her direction. Much of that power is solitary, but there also is power in communities, where artists can talk about ideas and use vocabulary that no one else would understand.

Perhaps because of this, there are many networks for different kinds of artists. For women, of course; feminist art is flourishing. For artists of color, for artists of fluid gender identity, for artists who hold tightly to particular beliefs about economics and social justice, for artists whose styles bind them together or whose histories draw them to each other — all of these artists can find communities.

But somehow, Ms. Verwer said, there seemed to be no network for Jewish artists, or for artists making Jewish art. So, in 2008, she decided to create one.

She started by trying to figure out what she meant by Jewish art. “I define it very loosely,” she said. “To my surprise, I realized that there is a whole movement of feminist Jewish art, and there were many people working in a cartoon style, and then there are many Jews of color who are artists. It covers a wide variety.”

So how do you create a network?

She called some friends — artists who make Jewish art — and came away with enthusiastic responses. “My goal was very modest,” she said. “I hoped to get maybe 10 artists together, which at the time seemed impossible.

“At the first meeting, we had 18.” And it just grew from there. And so the Jewish Art Salon was born.

Yona Verwer and Katarzyna Kozera’s Book of Yona #5 weaves together the coming-to-America stories of the artists with the story of the prophet Jonah. The artist Yona left Old Amsterdam for the New, and resurfaced as an observant Jew. The whale in the Mediterranean has become a submarine in the East River. The painting contains augmented reality — embedded hidden videos.

Yona Verwer and Katarzyna Kozera’s Book of Yona #5 weaves together the coming-to-America stories of the artists with the story of the prophet Jonah. The artist Yona left Old Amsterdam for the New, and resurfaced as an observant Jew. The whale in the Mediterranean has become a submarine in the East River. The painting contains augmented reality — embedded hidden videos.

Because Ms. Verwer realized that some of the people in the group were not artists but art historians and curators, she widened its definition to include them. The Jewish Art Salon met monthly or bimonthly, where artists would bring slides of their work, give short presentations, and then discussions would follow. But “you put a couple of artists together, and the first thing they want is an exhibition,” Ms. Verwer said. “I hadn’t prepared for that.” But soon she began sending out information about exhibits, acting as a resource both for artists who wished to show and institutions — mainly Jewish ones — that wanted a show.

Meanwhile, membership kept growing. Most of the group’s meetings are in Manhattan, with occasional excursions to Brooklyn, but its members — there are around 300 now — come from around the world and keep in touch online.

One of the shows is the Jerusalem Biennale, a big, ambitious show, whose mission is to present Israeli and Jewish art — or, as its website puts it, is “dedicated to exploring the places in which Contemporary Art and the Jewish World of Content meet.” It’s a big deal, and hopes to become bigger every other year.

The first Biennale was in 2013; the Jewish Art Salon had work displayed in the second. Its members had been impressed with the quality of the work there, and approved wholeheartedly of its goals, which dovetailed with their own. The third Biennale is set for this October; the Salon was invited back, with a show called “Jerusalem Between Heaven and Earth,” and it now is trying to raise the funds it needs to get there.

The Salon is made up of artists, not fund-raisers. So what to do?

Miriam Stern of Teaneck, a prominent artist whose work is deeply Jewish and who was an early member of the Salon, “came up with a major initiative,” Ms. Verwer said. “A parlor meeting.”

(It’s set for this Monday, June 26; see the box for more details.)

Ms. Stern also came up with the idea of inviting the artist Archie Rand, all of whose work is Jewish because being Jewish is so deeply who he is — and who also is an unstoppable, warm, and funny speaker — to speak at the meeting. “He is so fantastic, so entertaining, and works so hard for the salon,” she said.

Joel Silverstein

Joel Silverstein

Joel Silverstein of Mahwah is an artist and a curator; he’s also on the Jewish Art Salon’s executive team.

What is Jewish art? “What makes art Jewish is the content,” Mr. Silverstein said. The artists do not have to be Jewish, although certainly most artists who make Jewish art are. But “we accept everyone who is interested in making Jewish art, who wants to address ideas in Jewish philosophy, culture, religion, about Israel, about making a visual midrash.”

Why is there a need for a specifically Jewish art salon? “We all had the experience of trying to show Jewish art and being rebuffed, often being made fun of for it, often by gallerists and critics who are Jewish,” he said, and Ms. Verwer and Ms. Stern confirmed. “So this is an attempt to band together to make our own network.”

It is unfashionable to make your art overtly Jewish, he said. It’s hard to say why. Some of it is a modern phenomenon; “there is a lot of nervousness about religion post 9/11,” he said. “Most artists are liberal; you don’t want to be seen as being anti-Muslim. And of course Israel is a complicated, controversial issue, and so is Jewish identity. It’s sometimes about being white but not having the status of a white person — the whiteness of Jews is an ongoing issue.” That’s from the liberal side.

From the conservative side, “there is a traditional tendency to be nervous about visual art.” Of course, becoming a visual artist would have to mean that the artist has overcome at least some of that discomfort, or at least chosen to ignore it, but “people have internalized the rules,” Mr. Silverstein said. Those artists are careful about what they choose to paint, opting, for example, to skip the classes that involve nude models.

Also, he added, some Jewish venues are careful about the images they allow to be displayed. “It is not like the secular art world, which is like a mirror image of this.”

“We have a coalition of liberal Jews and frum Jews, and we have a lot of ba’ale teshuva. Western art tends to be Christian, or have Christian symbols, and Jewish artists have to navigate through that.”

Joel Silverstein, "Jo-El/Jor-El." The artist plays with superheroes and autobiography; Jor-El is Superman’s father.

Joel Silverstein, “Jo-El/Jor-El.” The artist plays with superheroes and autobiography; Jor-El is Superman’s father.

They combine, somehow. “We have people who are chassidim, or who are very left-wing, at times anti-Israel. We form a coalition, focusing on aesthetics, not on politics. But most of us are pro-Israel, and most of us are okay about visual art.”

Why does he make such Jewish art? “I grew up in Brooklyn, in Gravesend and Bensonhurst,” Mr. Silverstein said. “There was a heavy mix of Italians, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Syrian Sephardic Jews. It was intensely tribal and territorial. I was exposed to real Catholic anti-Semitism and to Jewish tribalism. I was discounted because I was a Conservative Jew among the Orthodox.” (Today, he belongs to Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, the Reform synagogue in Mahwah.) “So there were all these intense kinds of river currents about religion and cultural identity, and I went on a spiritual quest.”

Mr. Silverstein’s quest for the freedom to express his Jewish identity corresponded with and somehow was conflated into his fight for the unimpeded right to make figurative art, instead of the abstract art that prevailed when he was in art school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“What I found was Jewish abstract artists, who told me that any kind of figurative content was bad. Color, good. Content, bad. So I became a figurative artist.

It’s not that he doesn’t see the brilliance of some abstract art, particularly as it began, he added. “I am a great fan of the first generation of abstract artists — they found ways to integrate figurative content into it — but then content became verboten in no time.”

Joel Silverstein, "High Priest (Arnie)." The priest is modeled on El Greco’s work, wears biblical robes, and has the face of the painter’s father-in-law.

Joel Silverstein, “High Priest (Arnie).” The priest is modeled on El Greco’s work, wears biblical robes, and has the face of the painter’s father-in-law.

So he was putting together ideas about figurative content and Jewishness. “I discovered Jewish postmodernism and started seeing Torah in postmodern terms,” he said. “I was reading a lot of philosophy in graduate school. I read Derrida, who had a lot of Jewish ties, and I was reading and thinking about working with Jewish culture and religion in a creative way. Sort of the way William Blake did — he rewrote the Bible, made illustrated books, referred to England as the New Jerusalem.” In other words, he took the cultural references in which he was steeped, which he loved, which were part of the atmosphere he breathed, and he used them consciously, with reverence but also with independence and imagination.

“And then I started noticing things in American culture, like comic books, like Superman and Batman and Captain America, whose creators all were Jews. I was noticing a lot of covert Jewish identity.

“If you are Jewish, and you grew up with Jewish stuff, not Catholic stuff, then when you think spiritual, you don’t think Jesus. You think Moses. I was in my 30s when I found out that the movie director Cecil B. DeMille was a crypto-Jew — his mother converted — but it was right there in the movie ‘The 10 Commandments.’ You could smell it in there.

“Catholics and Protestants don’t have to hide who they are, and if you’re black, you can’t hide it. That changed the game. Black artists said, ‘Listen, I’m black. I’m doing black content.’” Jews just couldn’t do that. “In the art world, there is real pressure to be super left wing and secular,” he said.

“How could I articulate these ideas, and who I was as a person? When I would articulate it to Jews in the art world, they would shoot me down.” When he tried to present those ideas in public — and he did — they would shout him down. “If you stick your nose out, it will get punched,” Mr. Silverstein said.

So how did he become a consciously Jewish artist, a creator of figurative work that incorporated Jewish symbols? That sometimes showed Jews? “It was an evolution,” he said. “It took a lot of work.” But he kept at it, and eventually — and then with the help of the Jewish Art Salon — “I met a lot of other people who were searching for a spiritual identity. And it was okay to be Jewish. You didn’t have to be a populist secularist if you didn’t want to.”

In the art world, where it seems to be okay to be almost anything else, it takes surprising amounts of courage to be openly Jewish, Mr. Silverstein said. He told the story of an artist, a Jewish woman of color, who was showing at a gallery. “She said that she studied with a rabbi every week, and every single piece of work she had in the show had Jewish content,” but she was not allowed to present herself as a Jew. The critics did not allow it. That would have conflicted with the narratives of her as a woman, as not white, as making art from more palatable positions.

The problem is compounded, Mr. Silverstein said, because “you have art people who are anti-Jewish, and you have Jewish people who are anti-art.”

His own art is “a mixture, but even the stuff that is autobiographical can be read in a Jewish way. It is always about the Exodus. It’s always about freedom. And I would say that at least half of my work is overtly about the Hebrew Bible, about making the golem, about Bezalel,” Mr. Silverstein said.

Archie Rand

Archie Rand

Archie Rand, who will speak at the parlor meeting, was one of Mr. Silverstein’s mentors; he is a funny and vigorous speaker who recently published “The 613,” a comic book about every one of the biblical mitzvot.

Mr. Rand, who was born in 1949 — a Brooklyn boy like Mr. Silverstein — “has been doing work with Jewish content throughout my entire career,” he said. At first, it was not overtly Jewish, but even such very early works as the paintings of forgotten jazz musicians “were scroll shaped, and I had been thinking of them as Torah scrolls,” he said. “I was thinking of the paintings as being about zachor” — about the commandment to remember. “We think of the Torah scroll as a living thing,” he said.

At one point he painted work that he named after the 10 victims memorialized in the martyrology read on Yom Kippur, “and they got reviewed, and nobody noticed the names. Names like Amnon of Mainz and Rabbi Chutzpit Hameturgeman.” In other words, not ordinary names, but instead names that demand an explanation. But no. “Jewish critics reviewed them, but they did not notice the names.”

Judaism was in the air Mr. Rand breathed. He went to public school and then to Lafayette High School, then a very good institution, later closed because “of the murder rate there,” he said. The neighborhood had changed. When he was growing up, his family was not particularly observant but still he went to Hebrew school four days during the week and then on Sunday, and he went to shul every Shabbat. “We learned Hebrew, we learned Chumash, we learned midrash. Judaism didn’t play a major part in my life, because everyone was Jewish.”

Because he was smart, and what he called a “Sputnik kid” — aggressively educated because the United States needed smart young people to fight the Soviet Union with their sheer brainpower — he graduated from high school and then from college early. He worked in the art world, came to know many famous Jewish artists, and “it did not occur to me at first that the art world was where Jews go to assimilate. They fear being too Jewish, too vulgar, too loud.” Of being too foreign, too odd, too different. Too much.

Mr. Rand realized that he had to make Jewish art, whether or not he could sell it; understanding, in fact, that the odds were that he could not sell it. “I did a set of paintings on the Shmona Esrei,” the Amidah, the standing prayer at the heart of the service. “I realized then that the stuff had to be made, whether or not it had a market.” It was hard to sell because “Jews who collect art do it to assimilate, and observant Jews didn’t want art in the house, unless it’s a portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“But I realized that it had to be made.

“No culture can exist without some visual component,” Mr. Rand said. “But there is very little visual component to Judaism. There are two reasons for that — one internal and one external.”

First, the external, which is particularly true in the diaspora, Mr. Rand suggested. “If you take a building and you put a mural inside it, you have tattooed the building. That building declares something. It’s unlike a painting, which can be moved. If you declare it Jewish, it is like a flag. It is like waving a red flag. It is considered antagonistic.”

And then internally, rabbis have problems with it as well, Mr. Rand said. It eats away at their communal power. “In Christianity, in a dogmatic religion — this is especially true in Catholicism — you have a parametrical power structure. Someone can come to the priest and say, ‘I saw a picture of Mother Mary. She was wearing blue, and that’s the color of the sky, and so I can say a prayer to Mary, who is in the sky,’ and the priest will say fine. But if you do that to a rabbi, if you say, ‘I saw a picture of Mordechai, and he was wearing a purple turban, and that’s the color of royalty, so that means that the messiah will be ben Mordechai, not Ben David,’ the rabbi will say this is a bubbemeise. It is nonsense.”

Richard McBee, "Exodus Redux." These two sets of doors show the Exodus in 10 images.

Richard McBee, “Exodus Redux.” These two sets of doors show the Exodus in 10 images.

That’s because the Christian iconography is so settled that it is easy to fit things into it, and to come to the conclusions to which it is pointing you. But Jews don’t have that. “If you declare a Jewish iconography, you declare power,” Mr. Rand said. “You declare a cohesiveness to the community. Symbols have to be recognized by the community before they can be uniting.

“Jews have been united through oral Torah, not through visual symbols. Once you have visual symbols, someone is able to draw individual conclusions, and that takes the power away from the rabbinate.

“Non-Jews don’t want to know that Jews feel comfortable enough to make their own coat of arms, so it was a convenient deal that Jews made with non-Jews that Jews not have a visual component.

“But I figure that now, when we live in a time with the Gershwins and Bernsteins and Einsteins, we can invade this territory.”

There is a famous art-world story, Mr. Rand said, that is directly relevant. It’s about the great turn-of-the century art historian Bernard Berenson, and the younger art historian Meyer Schapiro, Berenson’s protégé. Berenson would hold salons at his lavish Italian estate, I Tatti, and “Schapiro, a young genius in his early 20s, was invited to one of these,” Mr. Rand said. “Berenson said something in German to one guest, in Russian to another guest, in Italian to a third. Schapiro said something to Berenson in Yiddish, and Berenson replied, ‘I don’t speak that language.’” (As he told the story, Mr. Rand assumed a snotty if unlikely accent for that line.)

“And Schapiro said to him, ‘Oh yes, you do.’

“So the art world was the place where Jews could go to sew their foreskins back on,” Mr. Rand said. “And it remains so to this day.

“There are tons of identity art — female, queer, Latino, black, so many others — but if you mention Jewish… If you dare say Israel, if you dare say Jewish, it is treated like you have said something disgusting.

“But I am a chutzpadik kid from Brooklyn, and I say enough of this crap. I have been turning out an enormous amount of Jewish inspired, spiritually inspired, liturgically inspired work that there is absolutely no clientele for. The only places where I can show them are Jewish museums and large JCCs. But I do it on purpose, because this work has to be done.

“I want to do stuff so Jewish that it stinks of herring,” he said.

Billha Zussman, Espinosa. This installation piece, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, deals with defining Jewishness and breaking boundaries. The pair of tied hands represents the entangled relationship between old and new.

Billha Zussman, Espinosa. This installation piece, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, deals with defining Jewishness and breaking boundaries. The pair of tied hands represents the entangled relationship between old and new.

He values the Jewish Art Salon. “It shows that we are not isolated, disreputable, failed artists making Jewish chachkes,” he said. “And Yona Verwer is extraordinary. She has organized this group, which by now is fairly enormous. Now, any time there is a show in a shtiebel in Omaha, Yona will put it online. She’ll post that there is a juried show in the basement of Congregation Halvah in Tulsa on the theme of fruit. And instead of three ladies in the Watercolor Society of Tulsa being the only people to submit, someone in New York or Teaneck will send in a picture of the ram and Abraham and a bowl of fruit.

“Yona is quietly and steadfastly courageous. She doesn’t think of herself as courageous, but she is. She is doing this with tremendous energy and education. She continues to pound the idea that it is important not only aesthetically but politically. Her devotion is fierce, and her organizational capacity is remarkable.”

He hopes that the future might look up for Jewish art, if for no other reason than the way the art world cycles rapidly through trends and enthusiasms. “I have noticed that critics act the same way that artists do,” he said. “After about five years or so, they rebel. So I figure that some critic out of Swarthmore or Wellesley will realize that there is this glorious art, and she could make it available and visible.

“She will say, ‘Everyone is afraid of Jewish stuff, but let’s do it. Let’s do something about two marginalized cultures. Let’s do a Jewish and queer show.’ It hasn’t happened yet, but as long as the Jewish Art Salon is making it visible, the potential is there.

“And as the cliché says, ‘If it is possible, then it is inevitable.’”

And, Mr. Rand repeated, “The salon’s work is amazing. Kol hakavod to them for it.”


Who: The Jewish Art Salon
What: Holds a salon to raise money toward its exhibit, “Jerusalem Between Heaven and Earth” in the Jerusalem Biennale 2017
When: On Monday, June 26, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At a private home in Teaneck; call (201) 837-6157 for more information
What else: The guest speaker will be artist, Jewish Art Salon member, and raconteur Archie Rand
For more information: Call (201) 837-6157 or email Miriam.stern9@gmail.com
To donate toward the trip: Send a check to the Jewish Art Salon,
1324 Lexington Avenue, Box 120, New York, NY 10128-1145