There’s no one definition of art; even if you decide to discuss only visual arts, you’d still be flummoxed if you tried to come up with borders that could absolutely keep some things in and others out.
And Jewish art? Once we’ve accepted that it’s not all dancing Hasidim and beatific-looking bearded elderly men, large kippot on their heads and their eyes cast skyward, what is it?
We know that art is something that can transport people, that can open their hearts and their souls, that can challenge their assumptions, that can shake them, that can bring them together.
We also know that if it is real art — whatever real art actually is — every person who looks at it will see it at least slightly differently, from a different angle, through a different lens, in a different light. And that means that art — all art, not just the visual subset of it — is perhaps uniquely able to both bring people together and allow them to exercise their own inherent individuality.
On the evening of August 1, Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck will invite people into the building, in what will be one of its first sort-of-post-pandemic in-person social events, to meet two artists, David Friedman and David Wander. (See box.) Both create art and both also teach at SAR High School. Both became artists because really, they couldn’t not become artists, because the art was too rooted within them. Both are so Jewish that the Jewishness is in their art, even when you can’t see it. Both of them work with Ora Bayewitz-Meier, who also teaches at SAR, belongs to Rinat, and is organizing the evening.
David Friedman, who lives on the Lower East Side now, was born in Washington Heights, but he grew up in Skokie, the suburban city just north of Chicago that he called the Teaneck of Illinois. He went to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, Chicago’s most visible modern Orthodox school. “It didn’t have much of an art program, but I have been making art in a serious way and showing it since I was 16.”
Some of it must be in his DNA. “My mom is a calligrapher,” he said. He took classes with Alain Gavin, a French-born, Skokie-based Jewish artist. “I was always the youngest in the class,” Mr. Friedman said. “I was 14 or 15. Some of the other people were in their 90s. To this day, I am very good at opening jars” for the elderly people whose arthritic hands weren’t strong enough for that task.
From the beginning, Mr. Friedman’s approach to art was informal, non-formulaic, convention-challenging. “I probably failed a lot of courses in high school because instead of paying attention I was painting on my jeans.
“In high school, I usually was covered head to toe with paint. Once, when my parents were out of town, I painted my entire bedroom, floor to ceiling.” How did his put-upon parents react? “Thankfully, my parents always have been supportive,” he said. “They were not too upset. At least, they weren’t too upset until they had to move. I’d used thick impasto paint, and it all had to be scraped off.
“When they planned their move, they hadn’t factored that in.
“I used most of my time and energy making artwork, so I was not a great student in high school,” Mr. Friedman said, perhaps unnecessarily.
But still “I got into a special program at Brandeis, because of my art and because I used to write poetry.” He got a job on campus at the school’s Rose Art Museum; he was a security guard there, among other things. He remembers “working with the guy who put up the shows, and between shows we would take a hockey puck and shoot it around the museum.” That approach — informal, irreverent on the surface but only on the surface — still is with him.
“Art in many ways saved my life,” he said. “It continues to save my life.”
Soon, he began teaching art to children in Waltham, Brandeis’s hometown.
It was also at the Rose Museum where Mr. Friedman met the New York-based artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long relationship to many New Jersey institutions, including the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly — and SAR. “We bonded over an exhibit that neither of us liked,” Mr. Friedman said. They both were honest about not feeling what they were meant to feel. “That was the start of our relationship, and when SAR was created, Tobi is the one who recommended me for a job there. I’ve been at SAR 17 years now.
“So you never know what’s going to happen, and it’s always good to say what you think.”
At SAR, where he is the head of the art program, “I try not to be like some of the teachers I had,” he said. “And also, it is a different time.”
For him, “materiality is key in my art,” he said. “The actual physical material. What does it mean? I could be drawing on my jeans. In my first solo show in New York, it was on paper towels. I like keeping it connected to everyday reality. That’s something that carries through a lot of my work.
“At the same time as I recognize the arbitrariness of what materials we use, I have a love for things being made with real craftsmanship and an appreciation of history.” To illustrate both arbitrariness and history, Mr. Friedman said that the reason that so much great art historically has been painted on canvas is because “there were a lot of leftover sails in Venice.” Venice is a great port city, and sails are made of canvas. Canvas is not valuable when the supply exceeds the demand for it. There were many artists in Venice, who needed surfaces for their work. So canvas, meet paint.
Part of being an artist is always looking, forever noticing small things. “The job of an artist — I think also the job of an art student — is seeing the potential of things,” he said. “And maybe it’s not just the artist, it’s the survivor on this planet.”
When you see what’s around you, and you see it’s potential, you can make things with it. He’s used old pieces of onionskin paper from his grandmother’s house and he’s used cowhides. He hopes that the “experimental joy comes through in a lot of my work, and it’s also part of my teaching practice,” he said.
“If there are 14 students in a class, then there are 14 classes. We don’t want to have one cookie-cutter way of dong things. Color and light and form are everywhere. They’re in everything. If you keep approaching everything in the same way, you’re dead in the water. Life is about noticing our differences and appreciating them.”
Does he make specifically Jewish art? “I don’t believe in that kind of tribalistic approach,” Mr. Friedman said, going on to answer the question in a specifically Jewish way. “If you are making something relevant and real, then it connects to your lived experience. So I am not going to be Jonah, running away from who I am. You can embrace who you are in the moment without having to be overly didactic.”
David Wander moved to Teaneck when he was 9 years old, a middle-schooler, in the mid 1960s. His family belonged to the Jewish Center of Teaneck, then the big shul in town; it was vaguely Conservadox then. He went to Teaneck High School, where “the amazing art teacher, Bill Reilly, inspired me, encouraged me, told me ‘You can do this,’” Mr. Wander said. “He was very good to a lot of people. He got me to apply to a competition by the Art Directors Club of Northern New Jersey, and I won first place. That helped me go to college.”
Mr. Wander’s father, Gustave — his mother was Marilyn — was a printer; later, he became a full-time watercolorist. “He’d bring home color separations, so I grew up looking at it,” David Wander said. “I loved it. I was way interested in fine-art printing.” He also was interested in just about every aspect of art-making, and his career shows it.
Mr. Wander’s freshman year was at the Rhode Island School of Design (more often called RISD); then he transferred to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he majored in printmaking and drawing. He spent a year studying in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and then another year working there; when he came back to the States he opened a print shop. He became a chromist, someone who could separate a piece of art into its component colors and print them back into one piece that would look as it had when the artist created it. It’s a fine art that combines analytic work and intuition.
Mr. Wander had a much older cousin, a Holocaust survivor who’d gone from Lvov to Israel — a journey from slavery to freedom he’d compared to the Israelites’ flight in the Passover story – where he’d become an influential art collector. Zygfryd Wolloch — “who was a visionary who developed the Israeli art scene,” Mr. Wander said — commissioned a Haggadah whose straightforward, traditional, beautifully scribed text would tell the story of the Exodus, but whose illustrations would juxtapose images of the Holocaust. Mr. Wolloch knew that his young cousin was an artist; he first asked and then cajoled Mr. Wander into making the art. Mr. Wander moved to Israel for a year, and working with another artist, the calligrapher Yonah Weinrib, he created the Holocaust Haggadah. The book, beautifully printed on lovely thick paper, was launched at Yad Vashem.
Mr. Wander’s version of the four sons is particularly striking. Each son is represented by a book: one is open, with words visible; one is open but blank; one is closed, and the fourth is afire.
When Mr. Wander came back to the United States, he kept painting. Much of his work is colorful — he had a decades-long love affair with color — and includes American landscapes that the U.S. State Department bought to hang in embassies around the world. He did have a day job, in advertising, which lasted for about 20 years, and he kept painting.
He also continued his passionate interest in Jewish thought; his weekly study sessions with the librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. David Kraemer, who also is a professor of Talmud and rabbinics there — a chevruta that began many years ago and kept going on Zoom through covid — is a close study of text that results in a new piece of art each time.
He also teaches at SAR. “I love it,” he said. “I’d never taught before. I had that art teacher who inspired me, but until I went to SAR I never had the chance to give back.
For the last 13 years — the last three of them with Ms. Bayewitz-Meier — Mr. Wander has taught art. He began at SAR’s high school as an artist-in-residence; with the strong support of the school’s principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, he worked with students to create a Megillat Esther. It was turned into a hard-cover book. “For 13 years, we did a book every year,” Mr. Wander said; the most recent one, not yet released, is a benscher, the booklet the includes the prayer you say after meals.
“This really comes from Rabbi Harcsztark’s belief in art and Judaism,” Mr. Wander said.
As he did in the Holocaust Haggadah and he does in his work with Dr. Kraemer, Mr. Wander encourages his students to listen closely to the traditional text, and without changing the words, to allow their own images the time and space to grow. Those become visual midrash.
He described two images that two of his students created. Rebecca Althotz drew Adam and Eve, based on the biblical texts that describe those two first human beings. “She drew the profiles of two figures; you could see part of their faces, so you could see which one was male and which was female,” he said. “There was a snake crawling up Eve’s leg. They were separated at the heart; when you find your bashert, your heart becomes whole.
“Another student, Dafna Horowitz, lives on the Hudson River; she can see it, and it means a lot to her. At the end of Shabbat, you are supposed to see three stars. She drew the reflections of three stars in the river. It was minimal and gorgeous and clear and beautiful.”
Ms. Bayewitz-Meier teaches in three departments at SAR, she said; aside from the senior elective with the art department, she also teaches art history and literature and film. The interdisciplinary nature of her work is not accidental; she believes loosening rigid boundaries encourages creativity and understanding. That’s why she loves working with David Wander; she loves watching the relationship between text and art unfold.
Working on the benscher during this covid year has been particularly moving, she said, because it seems to have allowed students the freedom to be more specific. She mentioned a piece that she found particularly moving, by Lili Pitkowsky of Teaneck; “it’s of her father, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, teaching her to make challah,” she said. “It’s very personal and powerful.”
She’s excited about the art evening because she hopes that just as it opens the community up to being in person again, it also might open them up to seeing different kinds of art. “People want art for their houses, but people are so used to seeing the same things, the same pieces, the same Kotel on their own walls, but there is so much more,” she said.
“I know what it’s like to be in a home that has art that talks back to you. This is not an experience that people necessarily have.”
Art can be both communal and personal, she said; we all look at the same piece and we all see different things in it. There’s enormous diversity in the Jewish community; she relishes teaching at an Orthodox school that has students who come from across the Jewish world and around the metropolitan area. “There are so many different family traditions in the school,” she said. “I love what I do; I love getting kids to feel more comfortable with each other.” She hopes that the evening at Rinat will have that same affect; it will bring people from across the local Jewish community, in one of their first outings, to look at art and talk about it — and about what it evokes in them — together.
Who: Artists David Friedman and David Wander will join their SAR colleague Ora Bayewitz-Meier
What: For an evening of art, including refreshments, a chance to look at the art, and to buy it, as well as a question-and-answer session with the two artists, moderated by Ms. Bayewitz-Meier
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, at 389 W. Englewood Avenue in Teaneck
When: On Sunday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m.
How much: $18 in advance, $20 at the door
Also: Light refreshments are included
Please note: Both artists will donate a percentage of any sales to Rinat
To register: Email email@example.com or go to www.rinat.org/nerot-art