Artists on antisemitism

Artists on antisemitism

Local artist’s downtown gallery reacts to our new world

ON THE COVER: In Mike Wirth’s self-portrait, “Silent Remembrance,” a digital illustration printed on canvas made this year, he holds a self-portrait of Felix Nussbaum, a well-known artist who was murdered in the Holocaust.
ON THE COVER: In Mike Wirth’s self-portrait, “Silent Remembrance,” a digital illustration printed on canvas made this year, he holds a self-portrait of Felix Nussbaum, a well-known artist who was murdered in the Holocaust.

The art world isn’t a terribly comfortable place for Jewish artists right now.

Even before October 7, being Jewish was becoming increasingly less fashionable; now, after Hamas terrorists invaded, raped, tortured, and murdered 1,200 people inside Israel, often the feeling in the art world is that they had it coming.

“Yitler” dominates one of 81 Leonard Gallery’s walls.

Even before October 7, Nancy Pantirer of Short Hills, a painter and the founder of the 81 Leonard Gallery in lower Manhattan, had been thinking about a show about antisemitism. “The art world has been very outspoken about their pro-Palestinian feelings,” she said; the recent acts of vandalism at the homes of the head of the Brooklyn Museum and two board members there, because they’re Jewish, is a dramatic display of that unnerving hostility.

“This is painful for Jewish artists.

Joan Roth, “Painting Over Antisemitic Graffiti in Lutsk,” 1998

“So we” — Ms. Pantirer and artist and curator Hannah Rothbard, who often heads shows at 81 Leonard — “wanted to do something. I’m Jewish. Hannah is Jewish. We didn’t know what to do — but after October 7, we knew we had to do something, and do it quickly. So we reached out to the Jewish Art Salon, and they reached out to their members, and we came up with this concept.”

The Jewish Art Salon is a New York City-based nonprofit with members around the world. According to its website,, its “exhibitions, publications and collaborations with institutions have played a vital role in the development of the contemporary Jewish visual art and scholarship. The Jewish Art Salon’s engagement with the global Jewish art community promotes synthesis between leading thinkers and makers and seeks opportunities to advance new connections across the field.”

The show that Ms. Pantirer, Ms. Rothbard, and the salon came up with is called “Artists on Antisemitism”; it will be up until the end of August. (See below.)

Susan May Tell, “Requiem 10,” 1998

The show is not political, or at least it is as apolitical as anything focusing on such a tense, fraught, and ugly subject can be. “We didn’t want to deal with the war because it is too complicated,” Ms. Pantirer said. “Hannah and I just couldn’t wrap our heads around it.” Instead, it focuses on the age-old, brand-new hate behind the war.

The exhibit is not only about pain, though; it’s also about resilience, hope, and the possibility of healing.

Israel Rabinovitz, “An Opinionated Yehudia,” 2023

“This is very meaningful to me,” Ms. Pantirer said. “It is so personal, and it makes me so proud. I am a proud Jew — and these are desperate times.”

Murray Pantirer, the father of Ms. Pantirer’s husband, Larry, “was a Schindler survivor,” she said. He was a highly successful real estate developer who devoted his life to helping other Holocaust survivors and working to ensure that the Holocaust not fade from memory. Murray and Lucy Pantirer — her husband’s mother, another survivor with another harrowing story — were part of the community of survivors who settled in Hillside. “My father-in-law probably taught me more than anyone else I have ever known,” Ms. Pantirer said. “He taught me everything about life. One of the greatest things in the world is that I have his grandchildren.

Diane Britt “Dona, dona/Dos kelbl,” 2015

“Thank God for Oskar Schindler.”

That background made Ms. Pantirer’s desire to collect, curate, and open this show logical, if not inevitable.

Last week, Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whom President Joe Biden named the country’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism — that position gives her the title of ambassador — visited Ms. Pantirer’s gallery. She was drawn by the show in general, and in particular by the enormous piece, by Los Angeles-based artist Marina Heintze, that combines Kanye West’s face with Hitler’s. But she didn’t know that the show also includes a portrait of her, by Isaac Ben Aharon; she also didn’t realize the connection between Nancy Pantirer, whom she had not known, and her father-in-law, whom she did know. The Jewish world is full of surprising connections.

Dan Harris, “My Friend in Crown Heights,” 2024

Yona Verwer is the Jewish Art Salon’s founding director, and she was another of the curators of “Artists on Antisemitism.”

“After October 7, so many artists turned to me,” Ms. Verwer said. “People wanted to connect. They wanted to know if there was anything they could do, or that we could do. I realized that we had to get everyone in the salon together — artists, and also scholars, art historians, art directors, curators, everyone. Everybody felt a sense of isolation, so our group had to connect more with each other.

Mike Wirth, “Silent Remembrance,” 2024

“And then, when the art world started to turn virulently antisemitic, we had to push back.

“We came up with this exhibit, and another one, related more to October 7, that will be up next year. Another curator, Judith Joseph from Chicago, came up with the idea for an online exhibit, but I said no. I said that it had to be in person. Protests are in person — we had to be in person too.

Marina Heintze, “Yitler,” 2023

“I persuaded Judith to join us, and Ronit Levin Delgado,” another Jewish Art Salon member. Then she approached Ms. Rothbard, who had joined the salon about two years ago. Ms. Rothbard brought along Ms. Pantirer, now a salon member as well, and very soon work on the show began.

“We put out a call, and 50 artists applied,” Ms. Verwer said. There was space for only 21 — and the need that they not be too graphic, which ruled out some otherwise very good pieces.

Mark Podwal, “Providence,” 2014

She said that the Kanye West/Hitler piece — it’s called “Yitler” — is “the piece that everyone is talking about. It’s gigantic. And it’s framed by shoes, alluding both to Ye’s hugely-successful-until-scuttled-by-antisemitism deal with Adidas and to the piles of victims’ shoes that became a visual reminder of concentration camps. “And the colors are just insane,” Ms. Verwer said. “It just jumps out at you. It is the most surprising piece in the whole show.”

The show, though, has many surprises, and many evocative images, she said. “Everybody assumed that it all would be grim and sober” — to be clear, much of it is — “but many of them are colorful, and some are hopeful and optimistic.” Some artists, she said, work with the theory that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Ruth Schreiber, “Pieta,” 2024

Still, much of it is dark. “I am taken with the work of Israel Rabinovitz, an artist who is quite well known for sculpture but started to focus on women and children after October 7. His series here is about the Holocaust. It’s a series of six artworks based on the photograph where Nazis had scrawled the words ‘field whore’ on a Jewish women’s chest, and erased her identity.

“So Rabinovitz painted the breasts of six women, and underneath he described their real identities.” On top of each one he wrote “Yehudia,” in Hebrew — that’s Jewess — and those brief descriptors are Anarchist, Stand-Up, Formerly Religious, Spiritual, Liberal, and Opinionated. “The idea is to give them their identity back,” Ms. Verwer said. “It’s a very modern take on the Holocaust, which is a hard thing to do.”

Goldie Gross, “Neck Piece,” 2024

There’s a photograph by Ruth Schreiber called “Pieta”; like its stone namesake, it’s a mother with her son draped over her lap. “There’s a tiny little golem, made of Legos, by Maxwell Bauman. It’s behind a glass door; you can break it in case of emergency,” Ms. Verwer said.

“Ronit” — that’s co-curator Ronit Levin Delgado — has a piece called ‘Chai’” — the Hebrew word written out in connected bubbles drawn in blue lipstick. Dan Harris’s ‘My Friend in Crown Heights’ is a paper cut of a man in Crown Heights. You see him from the waist down; he’s holding a baby, you see his tzitzit, and you also see pepper spray dangling from the same belt. It’s all about the dichotomy of faith versus reality.

Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt looks at Isaac Ben Aharon’s 2022 work, “Our Voice – Ambassador Lipstadt,” in the gallery.

“And I really love Goldie Gross’s piece. She always had necklaces that were openly Jewish” — in this painting, called “Neck Piece,” it’s her name, Goldie, in golden Hebrew letters — “but she didn’t wear them very often. After October 7 she wanted to wear one of them again, but at first she was nervous, and kept it under her shirt. But then, on October 13, after the Days of Rage,” the days that Hamas wanted to be full of attacks against Jews, although few materialized, “she knew that that it would have to stay out.” The painting shows the before and after.

Israeli-born Mira Sasson of Florham Park has two pieces in the show. “The Woman in Red” and “The Child from the Train,” both made of fibers, nails, and thread on wood, are based on photographs of Jews taken during the Holocaust.

Mira Sasson, “The Woman in Red,” 2017.

The boy in the photograph is Joseph Schleifstein, who was taken to Buchenwald when he was 2 1/2 and survived because his father had the courage and strength of mind to hide him in a sack. His story is astonishing. He’s still alive today; at last report, he lived in New York.

Long before she knew his story, Ms. Sasson “saw his photograph, and I fell in love with it. I didn’t know that there was a lot of material about him. I just fell in love with his face.

“I wanted to use rough, distressed material. I decided to do it on wood, so I bought some wood and didn’t try to make it nice. I played with it, and I traced the image with big nails, and with thread.

Mira Sasson, “The Child from the Train,” 2016.

“I love details, and I made them with fiber. When you first see this image, you think it’s paint. You have to go very close to it to see that it’s not paint but fiber. There is no paint.”

She works with symbols, Ms. Sasson said, and there is a great deal of symbolism to this piece. The small pieces of fiber connect to form one image; they’re also easily destroyed. “Every little thing in our lives is important, and each one of them combines to make a big image,” she said. “And we have to be careful to keep it the way we want it.”

Remember, she said, not only does her work have no paint, it also has no glue. “At any minute, a person can come in and take out the fiber.

“It is our job, in every generation, to keep the world alive. To teach our kids not to hate. Not to do things that hurt. To stop and think. I teach my kids to see the world without hate, and to respect other people. To give people the wings to believe in human beings, and to see the good in them.

“Because, remember, any minute anyone can change the image. It is so delicate. But we have to teach our kids not to hate. And hating Jews is not going to stop Jewish people. It just hurts everyone.”

Who: 81 Leonard Gallery and the Jewish Art Salon

What: “Artists on Antisemitism”

Where: 81 Leonard Street in lower Manhattan

When: Thursdays through Sundays, from noon to 6 p.m., through August 30

For more information: Go to

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