What is Judaica Art?
What is Jewish Art? I have attended many a lecture and course on this exact topic and still don’t know the answer. Is it art done by a Jewish person? Is it art on a Jewish theme? Is it artistic movement — since dance is also art — based on a Jewish topic? My favorite example of this dilemma was given by Ori Soltes — the former director of the B’nai Brith Klutznick Museum in Washington. He showed us a painting done by Mark Rothko. It was a totally black canvas with a vertical white line about two inches wide vertically placed down the middle. He asked, “Is this Jewish art? It is painted by a Jewish artist…” My first impression was no — it is color and allows us emotion in interpretation but I wouldn’t call it Jewish art. Ori then continued to tell us that it is a painting about the first day of creation. The white line is the creation of light out of darkness. We then saw something different in the white line and the black — the image had not changed, but our perception of it was entirely new. This was definitely Jewish art.
Just as the physical elements of Jewish art tend not to stray from the materials of any artist’s trade, so the process of creating Judaic art tends toward established techniques. We take a brush, or a sewing needle, words on a computer, some paint or some fabric, or even our bodies. These are all physical, touchable items, really just objects until we emote something into them that allows others to have a reaction to them. A blue blob on a piece of paper reminds the artist of the sky, the sea — and further, a wonderful time we had at the ocean with our family, when our youngest daughter… and so we go on into something which makes us feel good. The person who put that blue blob on the paper is in awe — at least when it is me — that something the artist does causes such a wonderful reaction in others. But that is what all artistic endeavor does — it allows us to feel something about ourselves because of what others feel about it.
But here is where my experience as an artist becomes more specifically Jewish. I cannot count the number of times that someone will enter my exhibit booth at a Judaic convention and begin to talk about “my tallit” — whether she made it herself, it was made by a special relative or friend, it was given to her by someone in her family — that person’s eyes seem to glaze over and they are lost in reverie, reliving that wonderful time. Just by being there I have allowed people to remember touching times in their lives and to feel great for a brief moment as they explore their personal Jewish histories.
And to further remind myself what is truly Jewish about my art, I need only think of an experience I had tying the tzitzit with one particular family. The grandfather was a holocaust survivor. He cried as he was trying to tie the tzitzit, and remarked that he never thought he would experience tying the tzitzit on his grandson’s tallit. His hands were arthritic and he and “grandma” tied one side together. She held each knot and the strands tightly so he could maneuver the strings more easily. There was not a dry eye in the shop.
Or of a time when a 9-year-old sibling of an almost-Bat-Mitzvah girl was watching as the family was tying. The mother told the son that he couldn’t help, since he didn’t want to have a Bar-Mitzvah and refused to go to Hebrew school. I don’t know what he experienced sitting there watching, but it transformed him. He announced when we were finished — after having said not a word the entire two hours — that he would like to do that for his tallit. His mother reminded him that he was not having a Bar-Mitzvah and therefore would not get a tallit. He told her there and then that he wanted one and would start Hebrew school. She called two years later to tell me that he was continuing with his studies, that they had set the date for his Bar-Mitzvah, and they would be coming to my shop to design his tallit next year. In moments like that, my questions melt away and I know what Jewish art is.
Reeva Shaffer is a designer of fine tallits, huppas, torah mantles and wall hangings. She is owner of the design company Reeva’s ‘Ritings With Ruach.
Her work is displayed in the permanent collections of the Spertus Museum in Chicago, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Wilshire Blvd. Temple in Los Angeles, the Hebrew Union College Gallery in New York, and Liberaal Josdse Gemeente in Amsterdam, among many others.