In 1903, a 30-year-old captive Indian elephant named Topsy was electrocuted at Coney Island to punish her aggressive behavior. That behavior had been caused by abusive workers who burned her mouth and attacked her with a pitchfork. This gruesomely cruel act of “entertainment” was captured for posterity by Thomas Edison’s film crew.
Joel Silverstein of Mahwah provides a modern perspective on the shocking event in his painting “The Execution of Topsy,” his contribution to the upcoming show “Through Compassionate Eyes: Artists Call for Animal Rights.”
The exhibition was curated by Mr. Silverstein and his wife, Julie Seidman, with the sponsorship of the Jewish Art Salon and Jewish Veg.
Running from October 7 through November 2 at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Conn. (see below for details), the exhibition deals with the conjunction of environmentalism, veganism, animal rights, and Jewish thought.
Vegans do not consume any products that come from animals, including not only meat but also eggs, dairy, and bees’ honey, foods that vegetarians usually eat.
As far as Mr. Silverstein knows, this is the first show of its kind, and it is meant to spur viewers to deeper levels of social thought and action. Not all of the artists who were chosen to participate in the exhibition are Jewish (or vegan), nor were all of the works created to address Jewish themes. The overall idea, however, is to demonstrate the Jewish textual tradition regarding animal cruelty, ecology, and veganism.
The couple and their 20-year-old son, Jacob, also contributed a collaborative work, “From Pig to Pork Pop,” calling attention to “the psychological process of detachment which enables violent social norms to persist” by means of colorful faux hybrid confections sculpted in resin and displayed before a two-dimensional drawing of the “fun” candy product.
Other examples from the show — co-curated by Amy Rubensteen of Florida and Washington, DC — are “Book of Yona 9,” in which Katarzyna Kozera and the director of the Jewish Art Salon, Yona Verwer, highlight the plight of whales through the lens of the biblical prophet Jonah and the “great fish” that swallowed him; Philip McCulloch-Downs’s “The Forgotten,” showing a lone piglet in a factory farm pen; and Corey Rowland’s “Deconstruction by Dairy,” depicting a cow made up of milk cartons to draw attention to the forced insemination, the separation of calves from their mothers, and the excessively mechanized milking and finally slaughter that is a dairy cow’s reality.
A founding member of the 10-year-old Jewish Art Salon, said to be the largest contemporary Jewish visual art organization in the world, Mr. Silverstein has been interested in these issues for a long time, as has Ms. Seiden.
“My wife has been vegan for about four years and vegetarian for 50 years, and she inspired me to become vegan about two years ago,” Mr. Silverstein said. “I was interested in how Judaism weighs in on this.”
His wife introduced him to Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg, a national charitable organization whose mission is to encourage and help Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health, and care for the environment.
Mr. Cohan provided lots of relevant information, including the fact that Israel is believed to have the largest per capita number of vegans in the world.
The base of this movement is young secular adults motivated by concern for animal welfare and environmentalism. Many other Israelis, though, also are embracing a plant-based diet for health and even religious considerations. A growing number of rabbis reason that although animal slaughter is sanctioned by the Torah for specific animals under specific conditions, modern methods of cattle farming, dairy farming, and egg farming violate the Torah’s prohibition against causing animals to suffer.
“It comes down to three basic fundamental Torah concepts,” Mr. Cohan said. “First, the original intention was for us to eat only plants, as we see in Genesis 1:29. Second, we were given permission to eat meat only as a concession to the lower spiritual state of human beings after the flood. Third, the concept of ‘tza’ar ba’alei chaim’ — the Torah mandate against allowing the suffering of living creatures — is being violated in modern animal agriculture even in a kosher context.”
Regardless of how punctiliously a shochet — a Jewish ritual slaughterer — performs his task, Mr. Cohan explained, “The way the animals get to the kosher meat companies is through the violation of tza’ar ba’alei chaim, because they all buy their animals from the factory farming system. In Judaism you cannot have a mitzvah enabled by a sin. So how well the slaughter is conducted is a moot point.”
Mr. Cohan said this is why former chief rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi David Rosen, now the Israel-based director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, advocates for veganism as the new kosher. Rabbi Rosen is one of more than 70 rabbis who signed a declaration last May urging Jews to consider a plant-based diet. Since then, 30 more rabbis have added their signatures.
Inspired by what they learned and wanting to spread the word through the medium of art, Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Seidman conceived of the exhibition and began choosing artists.
“The standards for the artwork were very high,” Mr. Silverstein said. “We wanted to get politically, religiously, and ethically committed people doing excellent artwork.” The curators chose 17 artists from about 80 who submitted works for consideration.
In addition to Mr. Silverstein, Ms. Seiden, and their son, the participating artists are Helen Barker, Sigal Ben-David, Siona Benjamin, Filipe Cortez, Alan Falk, Dorit Jordan Dotan, Katarzyna Kozera, Diana Kurz, Jane Lewis, Boris Lyubner, Philip McCulloch-Downs, Archie Rand, Corey Rowland, Linnea Ryshke, Yona Verwer, Brittney West, and Nancy Wyllie. Some of them contributed two artworks to the show.
“It is an interesting mix of people: Diana Kurz is 78, an Austrian Holocaust survivor,” Mr. Silverstein said. “Linnea Ryshke is only 24. Dorit Jordan Dotan, who wrote the catalog, is an Israeli vegan who did photography in slaughterhouses. Philip McCulloch-Downs is part of a vegan artists group in England.
“We’re also very happy with the mix of painting and photo collage, computer collage, straight photography, anti-meat works, ecological works, and works tied to the Hebrew Bible,” he continued. “They bring up a lot of different issues in an aesthetic and entertaining way.”
Finding a venue for the exhibition proved frustrating. “Religious places thought people would be offended by the images, while JCCs thought kids would be upset by them, even though there’s no blood in the show and we’re not trying to insult anyone,” Mr. Silverstein said. Charter Oak Cultural Center, housed in Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building, welcomed “Through Compassionate Eyes: Artists Call for Animal Rights” as part of its annual celebration of Jewish arts and culture.
The opening event will feature a panel discussion among the curators, Mr. Cohan, Ms. Jordan Dotan, and Ms. Kurz.
“This art exhibit is very important and we’re thrilled to be part of it,” Mr. Cohan said. “The Jewish world has never seen an exhibit like this. It’s really groundbreaking and the quality of the artwork is just off the charts. It’s a powerful way to communicate this message.”
“We believe this show is at the cutting edge of Jewish culture,” Mr. Silverstein said. It could be displayed elsewhere in the future if another venue were to express a commitment to the theme, he added.
What: “Through Compassionate Eyes: Artists Call for Animal Rights”
When: Sunday, Oct. 7 (reception at 1:30 p.m., panel discussion at 3 p.m.) The exhibit runs through Nov. 2, Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford, Conn.
How much: Free and open to the public
For more information: Go to jewishartsalon.org