Local students interpret the masters
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Local students interpret the masters

At the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, we believe that we should expose our students to all areas of Jewish learning,” said Fred Nagler, the school’s principal. “That includes the arts.”
Happily, said Nagler, the school is particularly fortunate this year that a parent who is a practicing artist has been sharing her skills with the students.

Last semester, the school offered a course in Jewish studio arts “to present a new perspective about modern art in Paris during the first quarter of the 20th century,” said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, BCHSJS senior vice principal. “Students learned about Jewish artists Marc Chagall, Amadeo Modigliani, and Charlotte Salomon [and then] created watercolor versions of a famous piece by each artist.”

An exhibition of students’ paintings will take place Sunday morning at the Philip Ciarco Learning Center in Hackensack.

“Students come to BCHSJS with varied interests and skills, and if we can provide a class to enhance [them], we do,” said Nagler. “We were extremely gratified to find Nora Shaked, who knows the historical background of the artists studied and has the hands-on skill to guide our own budding artists.”

Shaked, a resident of Cresskill, has a master’s degree in art history and fashion.

Student Alyssa Walker’s rendition of “Jeanne Heputerne” by Amadeo Modigliani, 1919.

“I’m passionate about art,” she said, “about anything related to art.” Right now, she is doing research for a book on the Mexican renaissance that she is both writing and illustrating.

“For a Jewish school, I thought it would be appropriate to do a section on artists with a Jewish background,” she said. “Jewish artists were pioneers of important art movements.”

If we do not know more about them, she suggested, it may be because “some changed their names, or their religion, and then changed them back.”

Shaked said the more research she did, the more excited she became. In fact, she noted, she was “pleasantly surprised” to find out just how influential Jews were in Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century.

While this year’s class included eight students, some 16 teens have already enrolled for the January semester.

“The trick is to make the class exciting,” said Shaked, adding that today’s students are used to “very high-tech” presentations. The Sunday morning classes are “light” and include “good visual information,” she said, noting that she also plays music during the session.

“I included Charlotte Salomon in the curriculum because I wanted a female,” said Shaked, pointing out that while the students, who knew nothing about Salomon before, were touched by the circumstances of the artist’s difficult life, “I wanted them to look at her work as a happy product.”

Estee Kalina’s interpretation of #207 from “Life? or Theater?” by Charlotte Salomon, 1941.

After presenting information about each artist, Shaked asked students to reproduce pictures seen in the presentation or found in one of the books she brought to class.

“I asked them to do their own interpretation of the work,” said Shaked, “to think about what Jewishness they saw in the artist’s work. They had to present their pictures and talk about them. Some were shy but they learned to express themselves.”

“It was a happy class,” she said. “Students came early and stayed late.”

Shaked also believes that her students grew artistically.

“They really worked when they were here,” she said. “It was very productive. They didn’t waste time.”

Next semester, she will be teaching a class on arts and design, moving her focus from Europe to the United States.

Sixteen-year-old Estee Kalina of Woodcliff Lake had studied art previously at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, but she didn’t know much about Jewish artists, she said.

“It was mostly limited to Chagall,”she said, noting that she had seen his stained glass windows during a visit to Israel.

“I draw all the time,”said Estee, explaining why she was drawn to a course in studio arts.

She is very excited about the exhibition. “I can’t wait for everyone to see it,”she said.

“We learned about the artists’ lives, their style of painting, and why they made their art as they did. We learned what Jewish artists had to go through as Jews to get their art out.” She cited the case of Salomon, who started painting before being sent to Auschwitz.

“She gave her art to a friend to keep for her during the war,” said Estee.

Estee explained that while the students were told to copy a picture of their choice, they could decide on their own colors and fill in empty spaces with whatever patterns they chose.

“It helped me grow as an artist,” said Estee, who hopes to pursue art or fashion as a career. “I hadn’t used watercolors before.”

Jillian Seroka of Harrington Park had previously taken an art experience class at Northern Valley High School in Old Tappan. But, like Estee, the 17-year-old knew little about Jewish artists.

During the BCHSJS course, Jillian said, “I learned the difficulty of families that had to flee to find safety.” She was especially touched by Salomon’s life, and noted that “Charlotte had a boyfriend that she left behind.” Among a group of men’s faces in one of Salomon’s pictures, one belonged to her boyfriend, said Jillian.

Jillian, who said she will probably take art courses in college, said she really enjoyed the BCHSJS course. “It was a lot of fun, relaxing,” she said. “We had music in the middle of the day.”

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