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From Emma Lazarus to Anne Frank: Jewish Folk Artist Malcah Zeldis

By Benjamin Ivry

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The Jewish folk artist and illustrator Malcah Zeldis (born Mildred Brightman to a Bronx Jewish family in 1931) is being honored with an exhibit which opened October 20 and runs until October 18, 2010 at the American Folk Art Museum’s Lincoln Square Branch in New York.

The Bronx-born Zeldis went to live on an Israeli kibbutz in 1948 and thereafter married the writer Chayym Zeldis, whom she later divorced. Although she was encouraged in her early efforts to paint, only in the 1970s did Zeldis take her own artwork wholly seriously.

The dozen paintings on view at the American Folk Art Museum include an oil on wood panel showing the now-departed and much-missed N.E. Tells bakery which was once located on Church Avenue and East 18th Street in Brooklyn. Zeldis’s broadly drawn figures are also highly expressive of religious themes, like “Jacob’s Dream,” an exalted watercolor on paper from 1982, and the especially vibrant “In Shul,” a 1986 oil on masonite, displaying a sextet of worshipers so physically solid and square that they resemble upholstered sofas. Such strong, optimistic figure drawing enlivens every subject, adding a kind of gusto which is immediately attractive and reassuring, even when her subjects are fraught with drama, such as a life of Nelson Mandela for young readers, which she illustrated for Walker Books

Zeldis has also illustrated children’s books on historical subjects like Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.

In her homage to the immigrant experience, “Statue of Liberty,” a 1985 oil on masonite (also on view in the current show), the approximate figure drawing of the statue itself as well as Lincoln and Washington on horseback who flank Lady Liberty all correspond neatly to the approximate quotation from the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty. Zeldis paints in bold letters: “Give me your huddeled [sic] masses longing to be free!…” Surely even Lazarus herself, who wrote the line, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” would have allowed the artist this measure of poetic license in her symbolic depiction of the Land of Liberty.

Watch a March 2009 presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum by Malcah Zeldis along with her daughter Yona Zeldis McDonough.


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