It’s not particularly easy to get to the Derfner Museum.
It’s at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, in the northernmost and westernmost part of the Bronx, the part that feels not only not like the Bronx but not like any part of New York City. It’s all narrow twisty roads and huge beautiful houses and the occasional apartment tower. In the summer, it’s a luscious green, and in the winter the bare trees loom, brown and witchlike.
The Hebrew Home is at the very western edge of Riverdale. It’s a vast complex, with one small, virtually unmarked gap in the fence that is its only visitors’ gate. You have to present ID before you drive in, and then you search, following the guard’s vague directions — which didn’t seem so vague when she gave them to you, but that was then — and eventually you find the circle you’re looking for, at the far western end of this place, at the far western end of Riverdale, at the far western end of the Bronx.
Then if you’re lucky the gods of parking bless you — if you’re not you drive around until they are propitiated — and you find a space and leave your car and wander through the building until you get to the museum.
And then you walk in, and oh my.
It’s a small museum, but it’s filled with light, and its windows open up on the Hudson. It’s colored with river light.
And with art.
Next to its small but lovely collection of Judaica, the Derfner now is housing “Jerusalem — Between Heaven and Earth,” the exhibit from the Jewish Artists Salon that was among the exhibitions at the Jerusalem Biennale last summer.
The show is similar to what visitors saw in Jerusalem, but there are some differences, and the change in the light and the configuration changes it further.
The biennale’s theme was watersheds, defined in any way that the artists chose to define it — as a physical thing, a literal place, the place in a landscape where water flows to one river or to another, but not to the same one. Or it could have been a metaphor for change, for transition, or for something else about water’s force and mystery. Or it could have been a metaphor for time, a kind of sea change. Or, for that matter, it could have been whatever else the artist could have chosen. Art is rarely bounded by literal definitions.
The Jewish Art Salon is headquartered in New York, although it draws artists from all over the metropolitan area, the country, and even the world. Two of its core members are local — Miriam Stern of Teaneck and Joel Silverstein of Mahwah. Another, Tobi Kahn, lives and works in Manhattan but often teaches at the JCC (and will offer a JCC U class in March. We’ll write about it in a few weeks).
Yona Verwer is the Jewish Art Salon’s cofounder and executive director. Working with another artist, Katarzyna Kozera, she contributed a piece — part painting, part video — about Jonah, the reluctant prophet who tried to escape God’s demands by boat, was the cause of dangerous storms, was thrown overboard by reluctant sailors, swallowed by a big fish, vomited up onto shore, and remained reluctant if not actively obdurate throughout his self-imposed ordeal.
The prophet’s name, spelled and pronounced Jonah in English, is Yonah in Hebrew. And like the prophet’s life, Ms. Verwer’s has been “intertwined with water,” she said. She was born in the Netherlands, the country that as its name implies is below sea level. She crossed the sea to come to New York, where she now lives. And she was born Catholic; to become Jewish she had to immerse herself in the mayyim chayim — the living waters — of the mikvah. In her piece, “I made the river the East River, and the whale is a submarine. The video shows me and my family sort of submerged in the water, and that morphs into the Hebrew text of sefer Yonah,” the book of Jonah. “And then the last frame is me standing on the shore, in a terrible storm, but unlike Yonah I don’t get thrown into the water.
“I am redeemed, and standing on the shore.”
Miriam Stern’s piece, “Crusader Bible,” is based on the Bible, finished in about 1250 CE, that the Morgan Library displayed a few years ago. It is a brightly colored, glorious work of art that includes scenes of bloodshed and devastation in lush colors that belie the terror they depict. “The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in order to wrest the holy land from the hands of the infidel,” Ms. Stern said. “My work seeks to reclaim those images, shown from a Christian point of view, to show a renewed Jerusalem.”
The watershed that her work shows, Ms. Stern said, is the movement from that Christian idea of a demolished, subservient Jerusalem to the Jerusalem of today, embattled but also the source of light and life and rebirth, of culture and diversity and creativity.
Her work uses some of the same castles, towns, and battling, armored knights that the original Crusader Bible used, but hers are deconstructed, reimagined, almost unidentifiable. “I have transformed those elements into a present-day midrash,” she said. “They represent the return of a people from distant lands back to their homeland, the State of Israel.”
The show includes works by such well known Jewish artists as Mark Podwal and Archie Rand. It also has pieces about environmentalism, about multiculturalism, about colonialism, about desalinization; for a fairly small collection, it touches on a surprising number of themes either straightforwardly related to water and watersheds or can be related to water and watersheds if you squint really hard.
Joel Silverstein is an artist who lives in Mahwah, where he is active in his shul, Beth Haverim, but he comes from Coney Island. And as we all know, you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but…
Mr. Silverstein contributed a big piece to the Jerusalem Biennale, “Ten Commandments and a Question,” a “magnum opus,” as he put it, 10 feet by 5 feet, “set in both New York City and Israel,” he said. “It was the parting of the Red Sea, and it shows all kinds of characters from all kinds of sources — movies, magazines, comic books, traditional art. It included Moses and Aaron from the movie ‘The 10 Commandments,’ Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner. I was very happy with it.”
He included the Schechina, the mystical female aspect of God, in the painting, in the person of Wonder Woman.
“Ten Commandments and a Question” is based on the art discovered in the Dura-Europos synagogue. The shul, unearthed in Syria in 1932, is “the first fully painted synagogue. The whole inside is painted.
“People think that there is not a visual tradition in Judaism, but they are wrong,” he added.
Mr. Silverstein’s huge work was set to be the first piece viewers would see as they entered the museum for the Biennale. There were eight spaces that housed art from around the world. The Jewish Art Salon’s work was hung at the Hamachtarot Museum; that’s the Museum of the Underground Prisoners.
“The building had been a Turkish monastery and a Russian sailors’ home, and then a prison,” Mr. Silverstein said. “The English ran the prison, and they executed Jewish and Arab prisoners there. They still have the hanging room, which originally had held a wine press, and it still has the cells where prisoners were held.
“It is a spooky place. Really creepy.”
Unlike most of the other Biennale venues, this one was run by the military, and the director did not allow “Ten Commandments and a Question” to hang in the space allotted for it. The show opened just before Sukkot, and he expected charedi visitors who could not be expected to view Wonder Woman’s bare shoulders with aplomb, or for that matter with anything beyond pure horror. “I said that I would repaint it temporarily,” but no. After some disagreement, the piece was ejected from that museum, and eventually was hung in the back hallway of another museum, “sort of like a Jewish hipster venue.
“It was very interesting,” Mr. Silverstein said. “In Israel, that just is the way it is, and I got to see it firsthand.”
“Ten Commandments and a Question” is not at the Derfner either, but not because it’s too risqué. It’s simply too big. Instead, Mr. Silverstein is showing another, smaller work, called “Promised Land.”
Mr. Silverstein was born in Gravesend, at the tip of Brooklyn; the evocatively named neighborhood is not a tribute to a cemetery but based on the Dutch word for groves. “It is the oldest part of New York City, from the mid 1600s, and it was the first community set up for tolerance and freedom,” he said. That was very much in his mind as he worked.
“Promised Land” is part of a series “based on the Exodus from Egypt, and set in Brighton Beach.
“In Moby-Dick, Melville said that sailing was his Harvard and his Yale. I said that Coney Island is my Egypt and my Israel.”
This piece is “more realistic and less symbolic and expressionist than my other work,” he said. “It is a straight view of the parachute jump from the beach. I wanted to show what the immigrants saw when they approached New York from the harbor.
“The parachute jump is my unsung Eiffel Tower. I want people to see what it looked like.”
He’s thinking a great deal about immigration, which is a watershed not only in the immigrant’s own life, but in the lives of everyone in the immigrant’s family, all the way down the generations.
“My grandfather was a draft dodger,” he said. “He fled the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. He had stories to tell, stories about things like swimming across a river. My grandmother came to New York with her family, but he came alone. My mother and father were first-generation Americans. She was born in Bensonhurst and he was born on the Lower East Side. It’s a typical Jewish American story.
“Just like Israel was the promised land in the Bible, America was the promised land for immigrants in the aughts and teens and 20s,” he said.
How do his two works — the one in the Biennale and the one at the Derfner — relate to each other? “Reality and fantasy are kind of flipped, especially for Jewish subjects,” he said. “I like having the realistic and the mystical side by side. And the past and the present. It’s all part of the same mix. That’s very much part of being Jewish.”
Who: The Jewish Art Salon
What: Presents Jerusalem Between Heaven and Earth
Where: At the Derfner Judaica Museum, at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, 5901 Palisade Ave. in Riverdale, N.Y.
When: Until May 27; Sundays through Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For more information: Call 718-581-1596 or go to RiverSpringHealth.org/art
How much: It’s free, but you need ID and some patience to get in