You won’t find any dancing chasidim in Miriam Stern’s art.
No Jewish stars, no candles, no challah, no menorahs, no kiddish cups, no bearded men staring beatifically at a text or a scroll or a little boy. No Jewish kitsch.
But Ms. Stern’s art is deeply Jewish, down to its DNA and out through its last jots and tittles. Her love of color and of shapes and curves, her willingness to experiment with different forms and styles, and her unblinking desire to explore questions of identity, religion, culture, and the intersection of those large issues with gender — and to do so as a Jewish woman — make her work both satisfying and challenging, surprising and insightful.
Now, as she is about to turn 70, Ms. Stern’s art is being celebrated in a new retrospective book, called, logically enough, “Miriam Stern.”
Ms. Stern, who primarily is a painter, printmaker, and conceptual artist, has lived in Teaneck since 1968, and has watched as Jewish life in the town in particular and Bergen County in general has changed radically. Before that, though, she began life just on the other side of the George Washington Bridge, in Washington Heights.
Her parents, Bertha and Fred Stern, escaped to the United States from Germany in 1939; although they’d met before, they met again on the boat as it crossed the Atlantic. Miriam Stern’s mother’s father, about whom she knows very little, had owned the only kosher restaurant in the town of Fulda; her father, a student at the yeshiva there, would eat there occasionally. “My father was four years old than my mother, so when my mother was a 12-year-old girl, she’d notice a 16-year-old boy, but that 16-year-old boy wouldn’t notice that 12-year old girl,” Ms. Stern said. On the boat, though, the now 20-year-old Bertha had no problems capturing the attention of the 24-year-old Fred. The two married soon after they landed. Fred became a watchmaker — meticulous work, meticulously done — and Bertha, who “I don’t ever remember not working,” her daughter said, did administrative work in various small companies.
The Stern family — Miriam was the youngest of three children — were among the founding members of the Breuer community, the famously, rigidly German Orthodox group that flourished in northern Manhattan. “The minyan was in my parents’ living room even before Rav Breuer came to the United States,” Ms. Stern said. Miriam, like her siblings, went to a day school. (The school was in the Bronx; that was a time when children were able to take public transportation by themselves, or accompanied only by slightly older siblings. Taking a public bus to school was not an issue, Ms. Stern said.)
But she always loved art; “I was drawing since I was about 3 or 4, my mother told me,” she said. “I was always drawing and getting into trouble because of it at school.” When it was time for high school, her parents wanted her to stay in a Jewish school, “but I had my first rebellion,” Ms. Stern said. “I wanted to go to Music and Art,” the legendary public high school that nurtured visual and performance artists, once its highly selected admissions process winnowed out most applicants.
Her parents could have asserted their authority, but instead they relented in the face of her overwhelming desire. They let her interview there.
“I had no portfolio,” Ms. Stern remembered. “I was really pathetic.” Other applicants had big leather portfolios filled with luxurious stock; “I had just a little manila folder with drawings on flimsy paper. But they were impressed that I’d never had an art class before.”
She was asked to make a few drawings. One was of a boy and girl, in a cabin, being scared by a bear. “I realized that I had no idea how to draw a bear, so I made it into a huge spider-like monster, and when the interviewer asked me what it was I said it’s a bear monster. I think that impressed her. And so I got in.”
Her parents “arranged for me to have classes in Jewish studies,” she said, and her immersion in Jewish life continued; she rarely saw her school friends outside school but maintained her social life within the community. “Music and Art was the best experience,” she said. “I had wonderful teachers and mentors. I knew that I wanted to be an artist, and I also continued my life as an Orthodox girl, surrounded by friends and family.”
After high school, she lived at home and went to the City College of New York. And then, soon after she started college, Ms. Stern met Michael Chernick, who soon was to become Rabbi and then Rabbi Dr. Chernick, with a doctorate in rabbinics, but then still was a student at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Chernick is a fascinating man (full disclosure — he is one of our op-ed columnists) and deserves a full story of his own. Here, it is relevant to mention that he is an Orthodox rabbi who recently retired from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York as the Deutsch Family Chair Emeritus in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice. Which is a fancy way of saying that as a firmly Orthodox rabbi with unassailable credentials, he also is curious about other streams of Judaism, and open to working with Jews across often hard-to-breach barriers.
And so is Miriam Stern.
When the couple moved to Teaneck, to the apartments that have housed generations of young married Orthodox couples, “there were maybe three to five couples like us,” Ms. Stern said. They joined Bnai Yeshurun, which was the only Orthodox shul in town. “Within two years or so, there were 40 couples like us,” she said. “How did it happen? I have no idea. I think that word just got out.”
At Bnai Yeshurun, “we were still praying in someone’s house,” she continued. “We had a meeting. Should we build a shul? How much money would it take? It was a huge commitment. But someone said ‘If you build it, they will come.’” So they did build it, and they did come.
“The other thing that we liked about Teaneck back then was that it was a very integrated community,” Ms. Stern said. “There were blacks and Jews, and many different kids of Jews. Before we had children, we would go to various synagogues around town to see what they were like.
“The rabbi whose sermons we really appreciate was Rabbi Sigel,” she said. Rabbi Louis Sigel, who headed the Reform Temple Emeth, was an ardent advocate of integration.
Ms. Stern’s interest in shuls unlike her own started during summers she and her husband spent as faculty members in Camp Kutz, run by the Reform movement in upstate New York. “We were always inquisitive, and open to seeing how other people practice their Judaism,” she said. “At Camp Kutz, the first time I went to a service, it was actually the first time I had ever been to a prayer service that was not Orthodox. I remember taking a siddur, finding my place in it, turning the page, and what I expected to be there wasn’t there. I walked across the room to get a new siddur, and it was the same thing. I finally realized that the pages were going in the other direction, like an English book.” (More recent Reform siddurim no longer are paginated in the English direction; back then they were.)
“I was completely turned around and thrown off. My first reaction was to laugh uncomfortably, and then to figure out what it meant, and what it meant to me.”
Ms. Stern’s most significant conflict with her Orthodoxy as it was exposed to the outside world came through feminism. She had never been bothered by the position of women in the Orthodox world, she said, but the art world was different. “I had teachers who were women and feminist, role models, but there was a separation for me between that world and the observant world. Like there was a mechitzah between them. But all of a sudden this made me question women’s participation.”
As a result of that questioning, Ms. Stern joined a women’s tefillah group in the 1980s. “We started with a call for mothers who were interested in having a bat mitzvah for their daughters,” she said. “They might not have shown up for themselves, but, we felt, for their daughters they would. And it worked.”
It wasn’t necessary for her children. Ms. Stern and Rabbi Chernick have two sons. Both now live in Brooklyn, and both are visual artists. Jeremy Chernick does special effects for Broadway productions, and Saul is a fine artist. Both went to Yavneh Academy and then to MTA.
But it was necessary for her.
The Stern/Chernick family belongs to three Teaneck shuls — Congregation Rinat Yisrael, which is Askhenazi Orthodox; the Sephardi Orthodox Shaarei Orah, and Congregation Beth Sholom, which is Conservative.
“Now, if you ask me what am I — Orthodox, Conservative, anything else — I say I am Reconservadox. It’s a funny answer, but in truth I don’t want to align myself to any particular camp. I feel a loose affinity to several of them. I don’t feel a conflict when I am davening in an Orthodox shul. I am okay being behind the mechitzah, as long as I am not far away. And I am comfortable when I daven at Beth Sholom. Very comfortable.
“You can learn a lot from every movement. Unfortunately, there isn’t much dialogue or learning between them. That is very sad.”
At the same time that she belonged to the women’s tefillah group, Ms. Stern also belonged to an artists’ group. She was active in both, but she kept them separate. In a way, she led two lives, lives that came together only in her work.
“There are a lot of artists who are Jewish, and who do what is called Jewish art,” she said. “I think that Jewish art has to come from knowledge and study. Approaching your work from that place makes the art better. Just as with any kind of research, in literature or music or anything else, having some experience is one thing, but being steeped in it makes it richer and deeper.
“I have always tried to do something on a deeper level, something that is meaningful, that comes not only from the heart but also from the kishkes.”
There is a great deal of feminist content in Ms. Stern’s work, as well as a bone-deep understanding of the community; often there is a willingness to look but a reluctance to judge.
More than a few pieces of her work deal with wigs. Her mother wore a sheitel, although she does not. One of her earliest pieces is a face she’d drawn on one of her mother’s wig stands. Another shows a group of sheitels, on their backs, with their interior webbing showing.
Another was created from a great feeling of discomfort. (Not coincidentally, Ms. Stern says that “any art that is worth anything makes the viewer question. If I don’t feel that conflict, it wouldn’t be good art.”) When she wanted to paint a series about sheitels, she sent away for brochures, and soon learned that a commonly used selling point was that it was made of “100 percent human hair.”
“That really jolted me,” she said. “I started thinking about women in the Holocaust,” where their murderers cut off their hair and saved it. “I started thinking about women who had to sell their hair.” (Think Jo in “Little Women,” or Della in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”) “I was trying to think of something that was 100 percent not human, and I found this old fox collar and draped it around one of skeletal-looking Styrofoam heads. The name of this painting is ‘100 Percent Natural Fiber.’” (It’s here on page 39.)
Another painting about wigs shows a progression of sheitels marking a woman’s aging, as they go from bright red curls to less exuberant waves. A third, also on page 39, shows sheitels from the inside.
Ms. Stern has created space — chairs, a table, and a window — for ushpizot, the female counterparts of the ushpitzim, the ideal symbolic guests who are welcomed, at least figuratively, in sukkot every year. She worked on a project, called Ezrat Nashim, that uses physical objects to show the literal space between the center of a religious service and the start of a women’s section, a distance that upsets her but not too much to get in the way of her wit.
She uses many tools to create art — she owns a press, a gleaming chrome and black object that is only a few decades old but looks much older, Industrial-Revolution age, because the technology is so basic. She works with ghost images — the wonderfully evocative name for the remnants of ink that come out on some of the lovely paper she uses — paper that demands that you touch it, just so that you can have the pleasure of feeling it. She cuts up some of her work to collage into other pieces. She uses everything.
She does some work on her computer as well.
In 2008, when her mother died, Ms. Stern said Kaddish for her. “I wanted to do an installation, but it would be expensive, and I couldn’t find funding and I couldn’t find a venue, so someone suggested doing it on the internet. I’d reach more people that way.”
That project is no longer up, but it was called BetheTenth.com. “It asked you what gender you were, and what kind of minyan — all men, all women, mixed — you wanted to make the tenth for. And after you picked your minyan, you’d press the button and recite the Kaddish, and hear it recited by women, by men, or by mixed voices. So you had the choice of being in any kind of minyan you wanted to be in.” The words were there, in Hebrew, in English translation, and in English transliteration.
“I was clear that it didn’t count halachically, saying Kaddish there, but I did want to give people the choice,” she said. “I would still love to do it as an installation, meaning that you would be surrounded by a video. It’s many years later, but I still think that it would be very effective.”
Ms. Stern had a studio in the basement of her house ever since she moved there from the apartments, decades ago. (Now, with her sons long out of the house, her studio has expanded from the basement to bedrooms as well.) She also always had practical work. “I taught Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake for 23 years,” she said. “I also started a business doing faux finishes and murals. I did that for many years. And then in 2008 the economy tanked, and Michael said to me, ‘Why are you still climbing on scaffolding?’ So I decided to reinvent myself and start a color consulting business.” It’s called miriamsterncolorconsulting.com, she still works actively at it, and if the colors in her house and in her art are an example of her color choices for clients, she’s very good at what she does.
At the same time, Ms. Stern also worked to show her art in galleries. “In good places,” she said. “It’s not easy. Artists always have a very basic dilemma — do you make art, or do you market it?” Both are necessary, but both demand more time than most people have. Still, she said, “And I have had some success.”
Not all of Ms. Stern’s art is overtly Jewish. “I do everything from a Jewish perspective, because that’s what I am,” she said. “I am a Jewish woman.”