The Arty Semite

Emerging Artist: Tanya Fredman's Talmudic Vision

By Rukhl Schaechter

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A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Courtesy Tanya Fredman

Last month, New York’s central Jewish education agency changed its name, and is now celebrating its new identity with a fascinating exhibit of a fresh new Jewish artist and art educator.

The exhibit, hosted by the Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education of New York) until May 23, is called “The Art of Seeing,” and features the work of Tanya Fredman, a 25-year-old native of St. Louis, Mo., whose oil paintings, portraits and collages depict an unusual blend of cross-cultural diversity and Talmudic study.

At the exhibit’s opening on December 9, Fredman explained that she gets deep satisfaction from directing community-wide art projects, using art as a form of expression and as a tool for uniting people of different cultures.

In 2008, Fredman’s interest in cross-cultural art education led her to Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, a onetime haven for orphans from the Holocaust that today houses adolescent survivors of trauma and displacement. There, Fredman managed to bring together 30 boys from Ethiopia, Ukraine, Sudan and China to create a colorful mural celebrating their diversity.

“The kids didn’t always get along,” she said, “but that made the project even more meaningful, because despite their disagreements, they were learning how to work together.”

Several months later Fredman moved on to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in rural Rwanda, a residential community modeled after Yemin Orde. Agahozo-Shalom, a project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, cares for 125 teens, most of whom lost their parents in the country’s 1994 genocide. Fredman’s experience with the people of Rwanda forms the center of the present exhibit.

“I had a deep respect for the strength of these women who survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994,” Fredman said. “Similarly, they told me that they felt a kinship with me because of the Holocaust, even if I didn’t experience it myself.”

In an oil painting of one Rwandan mother and wife, titled “Mama Anny 2,” Fredman has several lines of the Hebrew hymn, “Eshet Chayil” (“A Woman of Valor”) written across her bonnet, juxtaposed with the words of the Rwandan national anthem.

Not all the paintings were related to her experience in Rwanda, however. Two intriguing self-portraits, called “Keva” and “Kavana” were created while Fredman was an art fellow last year at Drisha, a women’s learning institute in Manhattan. These two Hebrew terms are often used to describe the two main aspects of prayer: formal, fixed prayer (keva) and the more spontaneous kind that pours from the heart (kavana).

In both self-portraits, Fredman is covering her eyes, apparently reciting the Shema. While in “Kavana” she covers her eyes completely, representing true intention and devotion, in “Keva” one eye is playfully peeking out, revealing that she’s not fulfilling the commandment with the proper intention. The mosaic-like design in the center of the portrait is actually from the Talmudic text discussing this issue.

“By creating a grid, from right to left, and from top to bottom, I was conscious of the details, but not thinking of the painting as a whole,” Fredman explained. “That’s similar to the idea where you’re focused on fulfilling the details of the requirements but don’t really have an understanding of what you’re doing.”

Born in St. Louis in 1984, Fredman attended an Orthodox Jewish day school and high school. “I always loved to draw, but got more serious in high school, while taking an afterschool art class,” she said. She was also inspired by her grandmother, Ruth Fredman, who loved art and even owned an Israeli art gallery. Mrs. Fredman would go to Israel with her husband, meet artists, buy their work, and then bring it back to the U.S. Then she would travel around the country selling their works to others.

After graduating from high school in 2002, Tanya spent a year in Israel studying at Midreshet Harova, a Zionist women’s seminary, and then attended Brandeis University where she studied art, as well as Jewish studies, anthropology and global studies.

Last August, the Jewish Education Project approached Fredman about showcasing her work, and she agreed. In addition, Tanya plans to lead hands-on workshops with the staff, which they can use in their training sessions with teachers.

View a slideshow of Tanya Fredman’s paintings:


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