Most Jews who are not involved in the visual arts mistakenly believe that there is a prohibition against this kind of religious artistic expression," says Deborah Ugoretz, a co-founder with Arlene Sokolow of the Artists’ Beit Midrash based at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck. She and her group "have completely dashed that notion. In its place, our ABM artists have opened the eyes of our congregants to myriad interpretive possibilities of text and prayer."
Harriet Finck’s 40" x ‘0" paper collage "Nadavihu" uses the Hebrew words from the four verses of the Torah that tell the story of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Avihu.
Six ABM artists will be sharing their visual interpretations of religious texts with a wider audience. Their work will be featured in New York next month in a juried exhibition sponsored by the National Women’s Caucus for Art.
Harriet Finck, who joined the beit midrash as a student and serves the group, which is based at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck, as an artist/teacher, says she is "incredibly proud" of the six.
"All of the women who submitted pieces were accepted," said Finck, a collage artist and painter who teaches at the Old Church in Demarest and William Paterson College. "I get a lot of pleasure, as both a participant and a teacher."
In addition to Finck, from Ridgewood, Ugoretz, from Teaneck, and Sokolow, from Bergenfield, the artists accepted to the National Women’s Caucus for Art/Jewish Women’s Artist Network Exhibition called "words within" include Ellie Hirsch of Englewood, Teela Banker of Woodcliff Lake, and Debbie Schore of Teaneck.
The beit midrash artists have "varying backgrounds," said Finck, some "more experienced," others "emerging." They also come from diverse Jewish backgrounds.
Each year, the group, which is generally made up of 10 to 1′ artists, has two leaders, one who focuses on Jewish content and one who offers information on art history and critiques students’ artworks.
This year’s Jewish texts teacher is Teaneck resident Anne Lapidus Lerner, assistant professor of Jewish literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary and former JTS vice-chancellor.
Debbie Schore will exhibit "The Binding of Isaac," composed of pencils, pencil parts, and test sheets.
According to Ugoretz, the 11 local artists in this year’s session are studying the poems of Yehuda Amichai. Their task, as in previous years, is to create interpretive works based on the texts. Ugoretz described the artworks as "visual midrashim," fashioned in different media, "such as collage, painting, sculpture, paper cuts, and poetry," to be displayed later in the year at Cong. Beth Sholom.
Ugoretz said, "I would like to believe that we have, through our art, generated and strengthened the ties that congregants have to their religious teachings."
Ellie Hirsch’s "Hannah’s Prayer I" is based on verses in which Hannah silently prays at the temple at Shiloh for a son. God answers her prayers with the gift of her son, Samuel.
Finck said that the group previously studied for two semesters with Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, the Judah A. Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary, who used Torah texts illustrating the theme "Speech and Silence." Other teachers have included Rabbis Jeffrey Fox of Cong. Kehillat Kesher in Englewood and Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park.
Finck noted that some of the participating artists have used their experience in the beit midrash as an opportunity to "stretch themselves" and expand their range of techniques. For example, she has begun tearing materials for her collages, rather than cutting them with a knife. For others, she said, it is simply "a new experience to deal with the Hebrew subject matter and engage with the text."
From Arlene Sokolow, "Who is that Cushite woman?"
Trained as an architect at Harvard, Finck said she began creating art some 15 years ago is delighted to "bring art and [her] Jewish background together."
"I wanted to do something else," she said, "something more creative, be my own manager . Motherhood was a catalyst for change," she added, since raising children gave her "different skills, different responsibilities, and a different way of seeing the world."
The upcoming exhibition is juried by Laura Kruger, curator of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. The show will be held at the Columbia/Barnard Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life from Feb. 1′ to March ‘9. It will then travel to The Rubin Gallery at Boston University-Hillel Student Association from April through June. An opening reception will be held Sunday, Feb. 18, from 3:30 to 6 p.m., at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, 606 West 115th St., New York, N.Y.
For more information about the exhibit or the artist’s beit midrash, call Ugoretz at (’01) 833-9010 or e-mail duspin5’@aol.com