The Arty Semite

Art Kibbutz Bears First Fruits

By Rebecca Schischa

There was giant Hebrew letter Shin representing the Shekhina — the Godly presence — constructed out of large branches to be launched on a lake and set on fire, a 12-tone music system assigned to the Hebrew alphabet and the 72 names of God, and organic art installations hanging from trees in the forest.

These were just a few of the experimental pieces of land art being created by artists-in-residence at “The Jewish Waltz with Planet Earth Retreat,” a Jewish artists’ residency at the bucolic Eden Village Camp, in Putnam Valley, NY, during the month of May.

The retreat is the first artist colony run by Art Kibbutz NY, an organization set up to nurture Jewish artists and art collaboration, and to create a stronger community of Jewish artists.

“We’ve brought together a diverse group of Jewish artists, of all different disciplines, ages — from 20 to 70 — religious denominations, and from eight countries, and they’ve all engaged and formed a community. I didn’t even have to do much facilitating — art is such a common language, and through this they’ve built their own community,” said Patricia Eszter Margit, Art Kibbutz NY founder.

At an “Open Studio Day” on May 12 artists ran workshops, concerts and performances and presented their art to visitors.

Print-maker Nikki Green, collaborating on the “Shin” installation with fellow artist Asherah Cinnamon, was displaying her ornate prints of Hebrew letters enrobed in motifs from nature at her studio. “In my art, I look at the juxtaposition of the letter and the land,” said Green, who came all the way from Western Australia to participate in Art Kibbutz. Green’s work is inspired by, and created from, the landscape around her, using dyes from native flora for her Hebrew letters series. “I’m seeing flowers that grow here that I’ve never seen before. It’s very exciting!” she said.

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Mysterious Manuscript Owners Come To Life

By Rebecca Schischa

While a bunch of musty old books may not, at first, sound like a diverting idea for an exhibition, Columbia University has succeeded in bringing to life an illuminating collection of Judaic manuscripts.

Courtesy Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Decision from the Venetian Doge regarding the status of the Jews in Corfu, 17th century

“The People in the Books: Judaic Manuscripts at Columbia University Libraries,” on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library until January 25, is all about bringing to life the stories behind the manuscripts — who were the authors, owners and real people who handled these books, papers and letters hundreds of years ago? This is all about the “paratext” — the scribbled notes written in the margins of books, the changing ownership of a manuscript, the physical aspect of text. In other words, all the bibliographical clues that lead us to visualise the interaction real people had with a manuscript during its active life.

The exhibition, broken up into sections such as “Travellers,” “Congregants,” “Mystics,” “Doctors” and “Timekeepers,” gathers together diverse and rare manuscripts such as philosophical treatises, sefarim, letters, ketubot, and calendars, which are written in Hebrew, Dutch, Judeo-German and Spanish, among other languages, each giving its own vignette of Jewish community life in Europe and beyond.

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Window to a Medieval Seder

By Rebecca Schischa

Each Haggadah tells not just the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but also the story of its owners. Containing worn, loose or torn out pages, covered with wine stains and littered with matzo crumbs, the Haggadah reflects how Jews celebrate the yearly rituals of the Seder night.

This year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is getting into the Passover spirit with “The Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” a new exhibit showing a “priceless” medieval Haggadah.

The Rylands Haggadah, on loan from the University of Manchester, England, hails from Catalonian Spain and dates from the mid-1300s. It is being displayed alongside other medieval works of art that tell stories of the Jewish people in the Bible.

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Monday Music: 'Jewish Voices' in Prayer

By Rebecca Schischa

Courtesy of Tiberii Management

Nina Beilina, a violinist and professor at Mannes College The New School for Music, describes herself as a traditional, if not a religious Jew. It was when she was branded a “Yid” on the streets of Russia that she first felt really Jewish. “I was brought up by my parents to be cosmopolitan, international; then the Stalin era came and anti-Semitism was blooming. I turned to being nationalistic, not international. I was proud to be Jewish,” she said.

Beilina left Russia with her son in 1977. Yet, “as soon as I crossed the border, I was furious because suddenly I became a ‘Russian’!” she exclaimed. “I would say, ‘Why are you calling me Russian? I’m Jewish. I have Jewish blood!’”

On March 28 Beilina will be presenting a concert of “Jewish Voices” at Manhattan’s Congregation Ansche Chesed, featuring Bachanalia, a group of 16 musicians she leads, and the world premiere of “The Breath of All Life — Meditations on two Jewish Prayers,” a composition by Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn.

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High-Tech Messiah in Brooklyn

By Rebecca Schischa

R. Justin Stewart

“Distorting (a messiah project, 13C),” an installation by artist R. Justin Stewart, is a technically ambitious representation of that most elusive of subjects: the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

On view until May 5 at the industrial-chic Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, the large-scale installation is composed of an elaborate web of blue, green and turquoise fleece pods interconnected by rope and plastic stretching from floor to ceiling. It invites the viewer to draw close and interact directly with the art, as well as with the artist’s thought process.

This second element is thanks to a technical twist: On each of the fleece pods, there is a QR (Quick Response) code which viewers are invited to scan using their smart phones, giving them access to a different piece of research Stewart undertook for the project, which draws on 13th-century Jewish scholarly sources.

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Challenging Aesthetics at The Jewish Museum

By Rebecca Schischa

Rona Yefman, ‘Martha Bouke and Andy’s Flowers, Visit at the Museum.’ Courtesy of the artist and Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

Subverted representations of the Holocaust, the Israeli army, and gender roles characterize a new photography exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York.

“Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex,” showing until June 30, incorporates works by seven artists from Israel, the United States and elsewhere, and challenges viewers’ perceptions by confronting pillars of Jewish identity.

The first work we see in the exhibit, “Martha Bouke and Andy’s Flowers, Visit at the Museum” (2011), by Israeli artist Rona Yefman, sets the scene with its transgressive tone. Here, Yefman portrays Martha Bouke, the female persona adopted by an 80-year-old male Holocaust survivor, posing in front of an iconic Andy Warhol painting. The striking, sexualized figure of the masked, bewigged Bouke, dressed in a pretty dress, bright red tights and matching red lipstick, radically plays with viewers’ expectations of an octogenarian great-grandfather and Holocaust survivor.

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Slideshow: Departures, Experiments and 'Degenerate' Art

By Rebecca Schischa

Gert Wollheim, ‘Head of an Old Man’

Among the Nazis’ persecuted minorities were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians and writers branded “degenerate” by the regime.

“Radical Departures: The Modernist Experiment,” an exhibition currently showing at the Leo Baeck Institute/Center for Jewish History in New York, gathers together work by these “degenerate” artists, including Georg Stahl, Samson Schames, David Ludwig Bloch and others.

Although compact, the exhibit presents a whistlestop tour through the major European art movements from the turn of the 20th century, taking in German Expressionism and Weimar Modernism, through to the Second World War period, and the Surrealism and Abstract art of the postwar era.

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Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust

By Rebecca Schischa

‘We Saw Them As Brothers’ by Norman H. Gershman

Of all the stories of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Shoah, there’s one story that rarely gets told: the Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews.

Norman H. Gershman’s photographic exhibition “Besa,” currently showing at the Soho Photo Gallery, redresses this imbalance, focusing exclusively on the unsung Albanian Muslim heroes who hid their Jewish neighbours from the Nazis, as well as thousands of other Jews fleeing across Europe, often at great risk to their lives.

The portraits, which have been published in a book with the same title, were painstakingly taken by Gershman over a seven-year period, in which he tracked down these ordinary Albanian and Kosovar Muslims whose families closely observed the principle of “Besa” to save Jewish lives.

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Theresienstadt Drama Keeps the Evil Underneath

By Rebecca Schischa

Chris McMullan

“What did you expect? Walking skeletons in striped pajamas and yellow stars?” says the Nazi Commandant to his Red Cross visitors in dramatist Juan Mayorga’s haunting play “Way to Heaven” (“Himmelweg”), now playing at the Repertorio Espanol-Gramercy Arts Theater through January 27.

Well, yes, that was exactly what I expected, knowing that the play’s central theme is Theresienstadt, the notorious Nazi transit camp in Czechoslovakia.

In fact, it is the absence of Jewish “skeletons,” barbed wire, guard dogs and death — all the usual motifs of Nazi barbarity — that makes “Way to Heaven” so compelling.

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