Scrolling through Jewish art

Scrolling through Jewish art

Local exhibit looks at text and images in old and new ways

Leslie Nobler’s work, above, is a scroll whose richly colored, textured contents include a range of Jewish symbols.

The English letters that Harriet Fincke of Ridgewood learned when she was young are straightforward symbols that combine to form words, just as they are for everyone else.

But Hebrew letters – ah, they are something else again. “They always seemed kind of solid,” she said. “They seemed more like things,” objects in their own right, opaque. “It’s both the meaning and the look, and the relationship between them,” she said.

Those letters were a foundation part of her childhood – she went all the way through school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I’d always had a kind of richly ambivalent relationship with my religious upbringing, and with the text,” she said.

So Ms. Fincke became one of 11 women, most of them Jewish, whose work will be on display in an exhibit called “The New Scroll” at the Arts Guild of New Jersey in May. All of the work is in one way or another about the relationship with that early form of information storage, which is so intimately connected with the transmittal of Jewish words, values, and verbal images.

Leslie Nobler, who lived in Demarest for many years and is an associate professor of art at William Paterson College in Wayne, curated the exhibit and contributed to it.

She began her career as a book artist – “books that are really artworks,” she said. “Not traditional books, where you turn the pages and there is text on the front and the back of the pages.” Instead, it is an interpretation that might or might not include text, and might or might not be a conventionally book-shaped object. So her connection to books is strong, but her definition of book is fluid.

When she came to consider the form of knowledge transmittal that came before books – scrolls – she realized that there is a paradox. Just as human culture went from the scroll, with its continuous flow, to the codex – the book – which can be indexed and searched much more easily, so today we have gone back to the scroll, although it is now in digital form. “In today’s world, ebooks are just a flowing continuum,” she said.

Ms. Nobler is particularly taken with the way that classic scrolls, particularly the Torah, with its great length, “has to be made in pieces,” she said. “I had a big eye-opener on Simchat Torah,” at her synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, “when we unfurled the Torah.” She could see that striping effect from the various pieces of parchment that are sewn together to create the circularity of the scroll. “It’s metaphoric,” she said.

Her work involves fabric, metallic pieces, stones, and other materials collaged onto scrolls, as she plays with the relationship between scroll and texture; scrolls are innately physical and tactile, and her work emphasizes that.

Ms. Fincke trained and practiced as an architect for many years; eventually, as the market responded to the crash of 2008 and her interests changed, she shifted her focus to painting. Like Ms. Nobler, she teaches at William Paterson College.

She belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, and her focus as an artist was heavily affected by the artist’s beit midrash there.

She began by examining the few intense sentences that describe the death of Aharon’s sons Nadab and Elihu, punished for bringing strange fire to the altar, and then describe their father’s response.

“I wrote it out as many times as I could in Hebrew. I wrote them in every possible way; tracing them, with a pen, with a brush, with God knows what; writing them backward and forward and upside down. And then I cut and pared and tore and reprinted and collaged.

“It was very much about the meaning and the idea of tearing text. Of breaking text.”

Ironically, perhaps, much of that text is about silence.

Ms. Fincke had led a learning session at the beit midrash about the Book of Job; the book, she said, is full not only of drama and theology and mystery, but also “the best nature imagery in the Tanach,” she said. That imagery is found throughout the book.

In her basement, she came across a roll of aluminum foil that had been through one of the many floods endemic to the area. “It was dried, but it had discolored and mottled,” she said.

She wrote out the entire Book of Job on that foil, word for word, in the original Hebrew. “I wrote it with a pencil; the pencil just incised the foil,” she said. It was mounted on burlap.

Ms. Fincke now has taken the next logical step; she is no longer focusing on scrolls and words but is taking inspiration from Job’s nature imagery.

The scroll has been rewound.

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