Last month, while researching an article for The Forward about Indian Jewish cuisine, I spent the afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey with Siona Benjamin. A home cook who grew up in Mumbai’s Jewish community, Benjamin demonstrated how to prepare a traditional Shabbat coconut curry and a sweet rice and coconut dish called malida that Indian Jews make in honor of the Prophet Elijah. But, as often happens when I cook in other people’s kitchens, I learned about much more than food.
Benjamin’s home is filled with art — specifically her own technicolor paintings and multimedia pieces, which weave together Jewish and Indian images. A classically trained artist (she has two MFAs in painting and theater set design), who is inspired by “traditional styles of painting, like Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons, and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts,” her work has been exhibited across the United States, Europe and Asia.
In 2011, Benjamin traveled to India on a Fulbright scholarship to interview, photograph, and document the lives of more than 70 of Mumbai’s remaining 5,000 Jews. Back at home, she transformed these stories into a stunning collection of oversized photo collage paintings called “FACES: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives.”
Toronto isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of Pharrell Williams, the peripatetic Grammy winner and Daft Punk collaborator.
But this spring, Williams’ name adorns the marquee of the city’s Design Exchange museum. And it’s Shauna Levy, the museum’s new director, who’s responsible for the coup.
“THIS IS NOT A TOY,” a blockbuster show of toys as art, includes work from Williams’ personal collection, and from artists around the world who blur art, design and street culture. The exhibit, whose centerpiece is a $3 million, diamond-encrusted sculpture by Japan’s Takashi Murakami, is Levy’s latest swipe at clearing the dust from what had been an esoteric gallery with a wonky reputation; last year, she shook up the staid DX with a retrospective of French shoe guru Christian Louboutin.
A Montreal native, Levy founded Toronto’s popular Interior Design Show, which she sold to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties in 2012. “I started to feel restless for a great big new challenge,” she told the Forward from Toronto. “Days after I acknowledged this to myself, I was contacted by a recruiter on behalf of the Design Exchange board. There is something to be said for putting it out there.”
Michael Kaminer: You’ve scored big with Pharrell Williams as guest curator for “This Is Not a Toy.” How did you get him?
Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins, ‘piETa’ (2007), image courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Pietà, or the Virgin Mary mournfully cradling Christ’s dead body, is an artistic invention, which, as the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “has no literary source.” One of the most important representations of the Pietà is Michelangelo’s late 15th-century marble sculpture at St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo’s Christ lies on the Virgin’s lap, as limp as the folds in her flowing dress; Mary is not only a particular mother grieving for her dead son, but all mothers who have ever grieved for a child.
Sacred cows, however, are particularly prone to reappropriation and, on occasion, mockery. Denver-based artist Cedric Chambers’ “The Prophets” shows Darth Vader holding the dead Christ over a pile of skeletons in front of the toppled Twin Towers, some parts of which resemble crosses. (It seems that a Huffington Post write-up at one point questioned whether it was “the most offensive painting ever,” although that grandiose claim no longer appears.)
Photo Credit: Tom Morris/Wikimedia Commons
“I see a lot of young Jewish gay people today who are very confident about being out. I see them on Old Compton Street wearing their Star of David like it was just a piece of jewelry. They think it’s fun,” Russell Vandyk says. “But they have to be aware that things weren’t always so easy. The danger is that people get too relaxed and comfortable. Actually, it’s a serious matter and one needs to be on guard, because at any time the wheel could turn.”
Vandyk, who was immersed in the struggles of the 1970s and ‘80s and was a key part of London’s Jewish Gay Group, is one of several individuals who recorded their stories for “Rainbow Jews.” This oral history project, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, seeks to capture and preserve the testimonies of LGBT British Jews, encompassing the range of experience from the 1950s until the present.
The persons interviewed for the project include Lionel Blue, the first British rabbi to declare his homosexuality publicly, Abi Jay, the only known Jewish intersex person in the U.K., and Sheila Shulman and Elli Tikvah Sarah, the first openly lesbian rabbinical students. “We were putting together what it meant for us to a lesbian, to be a Jew,” Tikvah Sarah says. “We could see strong similarities because in both cases [we had] minority marginal identities.”
Their experiences and their voices form the basis for a new exhibition at the London School of Economics, also named “Rainbow Jews,” staged to coincide with LGBT History Month in the U.K. Tikvah Sarah and Shulman are among those who feature in the two movies that make up part of the exhibit: “Now and Then,” an intergenerational conversation with eight Jewish people sharing stories about LGBT lives in Britain, and “Rainbow Jews: Pioneers and Milestones,” a historical narrative interlaced with taped interviews.
Standing naked on a Tel Aviv beach, Sigalit Landau spins a hula-hoop around her waist. But instead of plastic, the hoop is made of barbed wire — and lacerates Landau’s belly throughout the minute-long performance.
The mesmerizing video piece, “Barbed Hula” (2000), is one of six video works in a new retrospective of Landau’s work that opened at Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts on February 6. Canada’s largest city marks the starting point for a show that will continue to Moscow, Johannesburg, Beer-Sheva, Rome, Gdansk, and Tronso, Norway.
‘Moving to Stand Still’ marks the first solo show in Canada for Landau, a bona fide art-world star who’s twice represented Israel in the Venice Biennale. “We don’t often show existing work, or do surveys of one artist’s work,” said Mona Filip, director and curator of the Koffler. “But Landau’s doing vital work that expresses critical thinking from an artist dealing with issues of her time. And she’s considered one of the most representative contemporary artists in Israel.”
Yeshiva University is reportedly not interested in having its students wear their hearts on their sleeves—or faces, for that matter.
Y.U. administrators put the kibosh on plans by YU and Stern College students to bring Sacramento,California-based photographic artist Steve Rosenfield to campus for his “What I Be” Project, according to Haaretz, Rosenfield, 38, has visited half a dozen other universities for the project, in which he photographs young adults after they have written a word or phrase expressing their greatest vulnerability on either their face, arm or hand (in some cases, all three).
Rosenfield’s portrait of Ben Faulding, a 30-year-old member of Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Chabad community, has recently been shared widely on social media. Faulding, who has a black father and white mother, chose to have “SHVARTZE” (Yiddish for black, and used in a derogatory way) written on his forehead. He wrote a post about the experience and gave it the title, “I Hate This Word And So I Let A Man Write It On My Face.”
Rosenfield engages in a serious interview with each model about their greatest insecurities before photographing them. “In that 30-minute interview Steve uncovered something that I hadn’t even talked about in two years of therapy,” said Dasha Sominski, a Stern College student who was among those who led efforts to bring the project to Yeshiva University.
Nearly 50 years since his first student films, David Cronenberg is getting a pair of well-deserved tributes in his hometown of Toronto. For the Jewish-Canadian filmmaker, it’s been an unlikely ascent from genre outlaw to artistic heavyweight. And twinned exhibitions make the case that his intellectual and cultural significance extends far beyond his onscreen output.
The more elaborate of the two exhibitions, “Evolution,” provides a thrilling look at the Cronenberg’s work and process. The title of this dark, dazzling show — at the Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival — fits perfectly. Cronenberg has evolved as a major figure in world cinema, from the brainy grad-school filmmaker in the late 1960s who explored pitch-black themes of paranoia and control to the mainstream-movie maker he’s become.
His work has evolved from the intellectual body horror of “Shivers” (1975) and “Rabid” (1976) to heady explorations of what it means to be human in “A Dangerous Method” (2011) and “Cosmopolis” (2011). And the world has evolved to catch up with his prescient mashups of humanity and technology in fleshy sci-fi like “Videodrome” (1983) and “eXistenZ” (1999).
With in-your-face video clips, eloquent wall texts, and props from his films — including the notorious gynaecological tools from “Dead Ringers” (1988) and an actual Mugwump from “Naked Lunch” (1991) — “Evolution” lays out an eloquent case for Cronenberg’s import as an artist and thinker.
It also manages to evoke the high-low thrills of his movies, which ground serious existential musings in razor-edged pulp. Seeing some of the effects and objects from films — like the gristle “guns” from “eXistenZ” — makes you realize all over again how radical some of Cronenberg’s visions have been.
There’s no way of getting around the violence in the noteworthy, but often neglected, Hanukkah-related story of Judith and Holofernes. Judith’s heroic action, the political assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes, is one of the reasons, some say, why one Jewish legal code states that women shouldn’t work while the Hanukkah candles are burning.
Here’s the short version of the story. Apparently unaware of Jael’s successful strategy — detailed in Judges 4 — of lulling Sisera to sleep with a jug of milk and then pounding a tent peg through his temple, Holofernes invites Judith (Yehudit in Hebrew) into his tent one night while he is in one of his drunken stupors. That mistake costs him his head, which Judith brings back to the Jewish camp.
Although Holofernes gets decapitated in every telling of the story — whose canonical status is questionable in the Hebrew scriptures — artistic representations of the political assassination prior to the 17th century were relatively tame.
The London Group exploded onto the British art scene in 1913 as a radical alternative to the art establishment. Founding member and sculptor Jacob Epstein was credited with naming the group and fittingly one of his pieces, “Flenite Relief” (1913), is included in “Uproar!”, a small but powerful exhibition that opened November 1 at Ben Uri gallery in north London. It is one of two simultaneous exhibitions celebrating The London Group’s centenary year. The other exhibition, organized by The London Group itself, is showcasing contemporary work by its current members.
“Uproar!” presents 50 works by 50 artists and is the first extensive survey of the Group’s first 50 years. It hosts “a potted history of British modernism,” said Rachel Dickson, one of the exhibition’s two curators, and reflects the group’s “multi-tendencies” and “clash of styles.” These were artists who were determined to embrace new movements from Europe and a number experimented with Cubism and Futurism. It quickly became a forum for progressive artists and their innovative works stimulated the public’s appetite for the new.
Ben Uri has strong links with The London Group and a number of artists in its collection, such as Epstein and David Bomberg, were involved in the group’s inception and early shows. Founded in 1915, in London’s East End, Ben Uri was a response to establishment prejudice and exhibiting restrictions.
Although the Jewish contribution to ‘Uproar!’ is very much in the minority, it is significant. The show features work by the Whitechapel Boys — most of whom were artists whose parents had come to the U.K. from Eastern Europe — such as Bomberg’s uneasy “Ghetto Theatre” (1920), Jacob Kramer’s rather chilling “Clay/ The Anatomy Lesson” (1928) and a piece by affiliated “Boys” artist, Bernard Meninsky. Additionally, a charcoal by Leon Kossoff, “Portrait of N M Seedo” (1957) and a bold yet brooding oil, “Narcissus,” (1942) by German émigré Hans Feibusch, are also included.
When Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ main exhibition opens to the public in September 2014, it will add to the city’s Jewish historical trail something which does not presently exist: a history of Jewish life.
The core exhibition has been in development since 2003, when the master plan, including the concept and narrative line, was first conceived. Created and curated by an international team of more than 120 scholars led by Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, the multimedia narrative exhibition will consume the 43,000 square-feet of space located beneath the lobby of the museum. The 1000-year story the exhibit will tell is, Deputy Director of the Museum Zygmunt Stępiński told the Forward, “a unique moment and unique example of Jewish life” in Europe.
In the absence of source materials — the physical evidence of Judaism in Poland having been largely erased during the 20th century — the core exhibit will utilize interactive, theatrical, and textual elements to immerse visitors in the story. Thus, when visitors enter the first gallery, they will find themselves in a poetic forest, where tales and legends of the first Jewish settlers in Poland are to be carved onto the trees and projected onto the floor.
Following the medieval gallery examining the life of the Jewish merchant, the second gallery brings the history up to 1500 when, during the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland was becoming the centre of the Ashkenazic world. The exhibition will make available to visitors a Virtual Library where they will be able to explore the earliest Hebrew and Yiddish texts printed on Polish soil, as well as an interactive scale model of Krakow and Kazimierz.
Many people are familiar with an iconic photograph of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo titled “Frida at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, NYC 1933.” In the picture, Kahlo is seated, and a small painted self-portrait hangs above her and slightly to the left on the wall. Less known than the photograph itself is the name of the woman who took it. Her name was Lucienne Bloch, and she was Kahlo’s friend, and an artist in her own right.
The Jewish Community Library in San Francisco currently has an exhibition of photographs by Lucienne Bloch, along with some taken by her father, the famous Swiss-born Jewish musical composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). The show, titled “A Shared Eye,” highlights the father’s interest in artfully documenting nature, and the daughter’s preferred focus on people and what the camera can catch of their psychological make-up.
Some of Ernest’s photographs of life in the Swiss countryside grab the eye, including “The Mushroom Lady, 1912” featuring an elderly woman in a witch-like ensemble looking straight into the camera while holding a giant mushroom in each hand. Lucienne’s photos of social and political demonstrations in New York and Detroit in the mid-1930’s are well composed. Also of note is her rare photo of Albert Einstein playing violin in a musical group at Princeton.
English soccer is having a Jewish moment.
The conclusion of David Bernstein’s term as chairman of the Football Association (FA) in July in tandem with the publication in paperback in August of Anthony Clavane’s “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” brought the matter of the contribution of Jews to the beautiful game to the fore. At the same time, the reigniting of the debate over the use of the Y-word by Tottenham Hotspur supporters, as well as England midfielder Jack Wilshere’s recent comments concerning what exactly constitutes an Englishman, has focused attention on the place of Jews within soccer, and of the outsider in what has traditionally been a white, working-class sport.
Soccer’s Jewish moment looks set to continue and to grow with the opening October 10 of the Jewish Museum London’s new exhibition, “Four Four Jew: Football, Fans and Faith,” running until February 23. Forming part of the FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations, “Four Four Jew” examines the ways in which soccer became intertwined with and inseparable from English expressions and interpretations of Judaism and Jewishness. Soccer became both a pathway of assimilation into English society and a way of promoting and asserting Jewish identity.
When people think of Hasidim, the image that comes to mind is often in black and white. An art show currently exhibiting local Hasidic artists’ work at a storefront space on Kingston Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is challenging that notion.
The third annual Sukkot art show, titled “Pure Joy,” opened September 21 and runs through October 13. The roughly 25 men and women whose works are on display at the pop-up gallery, along with those who are performing there for open-mics, improv comedy nights, films, concerts, literary events and a TEDx style evening called Chabad X ( “sharing what they are passionate about in Judaism”) are expressing their creativity in ways that are both colorful and Hasidic. An open mic night September 3 included both male and female performers, though a partition separated the audience by gender.
The project is led by The Creative Soul, a group co-founded by pop-artist Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, who organizes the annual art show in addition to other events and meetings for Hasidic artists. This year’s offerings of prints, paintings, photography, sketches and digital media works have all been selling moderately, according to Moully, whose own pop art is on display.
Lucian Freud did not live to see the first exhibition of his paintings in Vienna, the city his grandfather Sigmund fled in 1938, but he helped plan the retrospective that opens this week.
Freud, considered the greatest British painter of his generation, moved with his family from Berlin to London in 1933 to escape the rise of Nazism. Four of his great-aunts were killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“Vienna was never home for him and it could never be home for him,” curator Jasper Sharp said. “I don’t want to go so far as to say it was a healing or the closing of a circle for him, but a ghost was somehow laid to rest.”
After refusing numerous invitations from German and Austrian galleries for decades, the German-born British figurative artist agreed to the show and helped select the 43 works on display because of his love of the artistic company in which they would be seen.
“He has done this exhibition because of the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum first and foremost,” said Sharp, a friend and neighbour from childhood of the Jewish artist who died in 2011 aged 88.
The museum houses the Habsburg royal family’s extensive collections of artists including Titian, Velazquez andRembrandt who inspired Freud, a keen museum-goer who said visiting art galleries was as curative for him as trips to the doctor.
Google and Moscow’s main Jewish Museum launched a virtual exhibition on Russian Jewish theater.
The project was launched last week on a dedicated, English-language website that is part of Google’s Milestones in History series and is accessible online worldwide.
The Internet giant set up the exhibition conjointly with Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, according to a report published last week by the Russian news site Jewish.ru.
The museum, opened in November 2012, is the sixth Russian cultural institution to team up with Google, according to the Komersant newspaper.
“We believe that we are facilitating a dialogue between our children and our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” Peter Adamczyk, Google’s head of programs for southeast Europe, told the news site News.ru.
“This is the first major event I have ever produced,” said Ram Ozeri about the Jerusalem Biennale, taking place in Israel’s capital until October 31. “Well, the first major event other than my wedding,” he quipped.
All joking aside, it was no easy task to put together six simultaneous exhibitions of contemporary Jewish art in the Holy City. Having decided three years ago to study art at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, after completing an MA in economics, the 33-year-old Ozeri was looking for a way to bring together his two major interests. Then, he got the idea for a Jerusalem biennale when he visited the Berlin Biennale in 2010.
“I kept the idea on a low fire, and then I started working seriously on it beginning last November. The past few months, the work became very intensive,” Ozeri explained in a phone interview with The Arty Semite.
Ozeri put together a team of curators from various disciplines including design, photography, installation art, fine arts, dance, and music. The goal was to represent all of these, but to also make certain that different Jewish streams, backgrounds and approaches would be included.
Rather than issuing an open call, the curators reached out to their circles and invited artists to participate. More than 50 artists, mainly from Israel but also some from other countries, are participating in the six exhibitions being held at five different locations around Jerusalem.
For 40 years, the Ontario Jewish Archives has chronicled one of North America’s most vibrant Jewish communities. Now, the Archives is raiding its vault with an anniversary exhibit of 30 rarely seen images that focus on historically Jewish neighborhoods, local political activism, and society portraits — a field dominated by Jewish photographers. Once a staid institution with a hushed profile, Canada’s largest archival collection documenting Jewish life became buzzier with last year’s hiring of Dara Solomon, a native Torontonian who’d been a curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Along with ramping up the Archives’ digital capabilities, Solomon is pushing to make recent immigrants a bigger part of the project. The Forward caught up with her in Toronto.
Michael Kaminer: The headline of the exhibit’s press release claims that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” For Toronto Jews, what’s changed, and what’s remained the same?
Dara Solomon: Toronto’s Jewish community, in many ways, feels very similar to how it did 25 years ago. There’s a high level of participation in Jewish life. Children are attending Hebrew day schools in record numbers. Support for Israel is unwavering. I’ve also witnessed a renaissance of Jewish life in the downtown area, where I live. And a number of the original synagogues downtown are experiencing a renewal. So, what’s old is new again, as the early Jewish community lived and thrived in this area.
Looking at the archives as a whole, what would you say characterizes the Jews of Ontario?
Moving around Jerusalem you always have to be on the lookout for suspicious objects, and to keep your distance from them. The Tower of David museum, however, has a collection of suspicious objects you’ll actually want to take a closer look at.
Conceived together with “Threads,” a companion fashion exhibition, “Suspicious Objects” brings contemporary design to the museum this summer. High up in what was once the Ottoman governor’s room in the ancient citadel’s Phasael Tower, sit some 30 practical design objects and installation art pieces commenting on life in modern Jerusalem.
“It’s a commentary on Jerusalem being made not only in Jerusalem, but in the heart of the city,” said Tower of David spokeswoman Caroline Shapiro, making reference to the museum’s location near the Jaffa Gate, inside the walls of the Old City.
The exhibition highlights the creative work of 31 up-and-coming Israeli industrial designers (or design teams), who were asked to create pieces — preferably of practical application — inspired by Jerusalem. The objects they came up with either use humor in an attempt to deal with complex issues, reduce serious problems to manageable proportions, or approach the city in a poetic fashion.
It’s a striking experience to enter a hall dating to the Crusader period deep in the bowels of the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem, and to encounter mannequins draped in haute couture by some of the Israel’s top contemporary fashion designers.
This is exactly the effect desired by new museum director Eilat Lieber and the exhibition’s curator, fashion photographer Tamar Karavan. “It’s a groundbreaking exhibition for this museum,” said Tower of David spokeswoman Caroline Shapiro, about the institution, which is known more for its archeologically excavated layers of the Holy City than for layers of fabric draped over models.
“Threads,” as the exhibition is titled, invites visitors to “experience contemporary fashion embroidered by history.” On view are exquisite garments created by 10 of Israel’s leading fashion designers — all women — inspired by 10 remarkable women from Jerusalem’s past. It’s a fashion show and feminist history lesson all rolled in to one.
“The brief to the designers was, ‘This historical character walks into your studio — dress her,’” explained Shapiro. “That’s it. The designer did not have to be historically accurate in any way, or even be historically inspired. She was free to interpret the woman in any way she wished.”
“The genius of the Satmar rebbe,” Williamsburg-based artist Michael Levin says of the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the post-Holocaust leader of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community, “was to say that if you wear a shtreimel and long peyes, everyone will be freaked out and hate you and stay away from you. But in the end, they’ll also respect you.”
Whether or not the Satmars have gained the respect of the world is up for debate, but the Satmar Rebbe’s ideology of separatism has proven effective at preserving the Hasidic lifestyle. Hasidic garb, the subject of a new art exhibit by Levin called “Jews of Today,” as well as a book called “Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress,” has perhaps been the most important factor of that ideology.
The exhibit, which opened July 20 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is at once an expression of the artist’s fascination with Hasidim as well as a recognition of his outsider status. His work, while deeply respectful — even reverent at times — includes imaginative interpretations of Hasidic life that would strike Hasidim themselves as alien.
Raised in Los Angeles, Calif., with what he calls “Hollywood-style” Reform Judaism, Levin, 28, moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and developed an interest in the Hasidic community. “I was jealous,” he says. While not religiously observant, Levin says that as a Jew he identifies with the Hasidim in a powerful way. “If there were a race war in this city, I’d run to the Hasidim.”