Feminine art forms

Nine women display works that draw on biblical and rabbinic literature at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art.

Megilat Esther 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Shlomo Kashtan)
Megilat Esther 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Shlomo Kashtan)
Feminism in Judaic art is not a new phenomenon, and a recently launched exhibition in the capital demonstrates this in celebrating the work of nine female artists who took their inspiration from biblical and rabbinic literature.
Titled “Women Inspired by Text,” the exhibition, which opened last week at Hechal Shlomo’s Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in central Jerusalem, will remain until midsummer.
At the exhibition’s opening, Shalom Sabar, a professor of Jewish art and folklore at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, informed the audience that diverse Judaica items created throughout the centuries could be considered feminist. His most obvious example was the ketuba – the standard Jewish prenuptial agreement outlining the groom’s obligations to his wife – which focuses entirely on women’s rights.
One of the world’s foremost scholars on this subject, he said that mostly in the Sephardi world, especially in Italy, it was common to see ketubot decorated with iconography and quotes from Jewish sources extolling women, such as the saying in Proverbs, “Hochmat nashim banta beita” (the wisdom of women is the foundation of a home). He also described a manuscript done for a particular lady in 15th-century Mantua, Italy, which includes a phrase thanking the Almighty specifically for making her a woman and not a man – in contradiction to “shelo asani isha,” the traditional morning blessing that men recite to this day, praising God for not making them women.
Until recently, designing decorative ketubot was the main line of work for Laya Crust, one of the featured artists; she has done more than 500 original creations. The Toronto native was present at the event, which displayed a magnificent Megilat Esther (scroll telling the story of Queen Esther) that she completed last year and exhibited for a period at the University of Toronto’s John M. Kelly Library.
The scroll is kosher, she says. It’s unusual for a woman to practice sofrut (scribal arts), “but with Megilat Esther, it’s acceptable and could be used in [Orthodox] synagogues.”
The elaborately illustrated megila is based on 16thcentury Persian manuscript art. The artist spent time learning about the Persian noble culture of the time and focused on capturing the personalities of the characters.
Esther Farbstein of the Michlalah Jerusalem College, a celebrated author and intellectual, spoke about the holiness of Torah-inspired art. Quoting the famous Maharal of Prague – Rabbi Judah Loew, who lived in the 16th century and who, according to legend, created the Golem of Prague – she said that wisdom comes from two sources: the mind and the heart. Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, a great 19th-century hassidic leader, taught that the hand is a continuation of the heart, she added, alluding to the spirituality reflected in the works.
“Right from the first time that I read the Hebrew text of the [classic Jewish] prayer ‘Nishmat Kol Hai’ [The Soul of Every Living Being], I understood something very deep and profound regarding Jewish art,” declared Nurit Sirkis-Bank, the museum’s curator. “The words of the prayer inspire fantastic visual imagery, created immediately in the reader’s mind and imagination.”
One intriguing creation on display was Yonah Rosenberg’s oilon- canvas painting of fish-like fetuses reading in the womb.
“I was pregnant with my third son,” the artist explained. “It was the middle of July, and he didn’t want to come out. I was overdue [by] two weeks. So then I realized that he had to finish studying Torah” – a reference to the rabbinic legend that babies study Torah while in the womb.
Painter Ahuva Korn Sagi used brilliant colors for her biblically inspired paintings. For each one, she chose a color and had no idea what she would create until she completed it.
Another of the artists, Metavel, has created and bound miniature and full-size books of all five megilot, the Passover Haggada, and most recently a book of creation, which she took from ancient kabbalistic text and chapters from Genesis. She illuminates her miniatures through micrography (also known as micro-calligraphy), a Jewish art form that was used for ancient Torah scrolls from around the third century.
“She continues the tradition in her beautiful works,” Sirkis- Bank said.
Popular artist Shoshana Meerkin’s beautiful watercolors, greeting cards and children’s pictures often feature in Judaica stores and galleries.
“The ones that I chose for the exhibition are those that show Hebrew text in urban views, like graffiti and street signs, and they’re very interesting,” said Sirkis-Bank. “I took her approach of showing how the Hebrew text is relevant to our everyday life.”
Ellen Lapidus Stern, meanwhile, is well-known here for her exquisite oil paintings based on biblical themes.
“She does action painting, and all her works stem from the realistic and develop into the abstract,” explained the curator. “One work – Almond Tree in Labor – regards a tree as a metaphor for a human being. It’s based on a beautiful verse, ‘Ki ha’adam etz hasadeh’ – man is the tree of the field. The word ‘adam’ in its fullest interpretation means both man and woman. She sees the almond tree as a metaphor for a woman.”
Hinda Herbst’s extraordinary glass pieces evoke emotion by focusing on a particular word, such as simha (joy), and embellishing it with an array of color. Using biblical sources, she also portrays the relationship among peace, happiness, brotherhood, faith and joy.
Artist Lynn Broide worked for 10 years interpreting each verse of “Lecha Dodi” (Go, My Beloved), the exquisite poem welcoming Shabbat that kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote 500 years ago in Safed. “Lecha Dodi” incorporates the basic Jewish values of the centrality of Shabbat, unity of God and faith in redemption. According to the curator, “Broide uses the text as an abstract form to show the meaning of the verse that she’s painting.”
The ninth artist, Doni Silver of Los Angeles, was unable to attend the opening. She considers herself a “mark maker,” and according to her website, her “work is defined by its quietude, compulsion, and repetitive variation.”
“The variety and versatility of the works emphasize the extent to which the Hebrew text is a source of inspiration,” asserted Sirkis-Bank. “I hope this exhibition will become a source of encouragement for further interpretative reading of texts and an inspiration for new creativity.”
Hechal Shlomo director-general Shamai Keinan welcomed the crowd, noting that the Wolfson Museum provided the opportunity to showcase works of art that were not exhibited at other galleries, though these works were no less worthy. In fact, he said, Sirkis-Bank introduces new exhibits every three months, and often they include an artist’s first public showing.
The Wolfson Museum is home to a large collection of antique and rare Jewish ritual artifacts. Its permanent collection includes objects from communities around the world, ranging from the time of the Second Temple to the present.