Around seven years ago, the Israel Museum ran an exhibition called “A World Apart Next Door.” The showing was subtitled “Glimpses into the Life of Hassidic Jews,” which basically spells out the thinking behind the display venture. The project incorporated photographs, video clips and artifacts pertaining to a community that, at best, is generally viewed by secular Israelis with at least one eyebrow raised, and often with suspicion and even revulsion.
At the time, the curator remarked, “This is about a neighborhood just a few minutes away from here, but how much does the regular secular Israeli know about them other than the demonstrations and bad stuff that gets into the media?”
Hopefully, we have all made some progress since then, but there are still yawning gaps in the knowledge of “the regular secular Israeli” about the mundane goings-on in the world of the ultra-Orthodox community. How many of us, for example, even consider the possibility that haredi women harbor a penchant for creative pursuits, let alone actually put them into physical aesthetic form? Surely, with umpteen offspring to care for, haredi mothers don’t have the time or energy to put paintbrush to canvas or even manage the odd snap with a camera, or cell phone, that is, if they actually have access to either.
If you happen to have some legal business to take care of at the Magistrate’s Court over on Heshin Street, you may find your time, while you wait your turn in the labyrinthine maze of corridors, a mite more pleasant these days. That would be principally down to the efforts of Shai Azoulay, curator of an innovative exhibition called “On the Border of Reality” currently on display, both at the main court edifice, at 6 Heshin Street, with larger works hung on one of the upper floors of the administration building down the road, at number 1.
Granted, a hallway of a largely nondescript, if not intimidating, legal facility in downtown Jerusalem may not be the ideal space to proffer works of art to the public – those that actually use the said legal services. But the mind-set is certainly admirable, and Azoulay deserves a pat on the back for the initiative.
SOME OF the exhibits were created by students from the Oman Center for Visual Art for the Haredi Community. The school was established in the haredi heartland of Romema, by the municipality, in conjunction with the local Gross Community Administration. Oman – “artist” in Hebrew – is said by the municipality to be “a unique art center in Israel and the world, which serves the haredi community and combines professional arts studies with wide-ranging community activity.”
That sounds like a game changer for the haredi sector and also, possibly, for the secular majority’s perception of what the ultra-Orthodox get up to when they are not engaged in matters of a religious, or familial, nature.
The other items on display were provided by Azoulay’s students at the haredi offshoot of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design based in Givat Shaul. That, in itself, is a strong statement that there is the demand for arts education in the haredi community. It should be noted, however, that there may be a gender issue here. Azoulay’s painting class is exclusively female.
But this is not just some PC-oriented gesture, a PR stunt designed to change the public’s perspective on a community that is seen, by some, as a non-working, over-populating parasitical sector. As I passed through the corridors, together with Azoulay, I saw some intriguing creations that could certainly bring a welcome interest factor to the time spent in what could be an otherwise pretty soulless, if not frightening, environment.
“They definitely add color to these bland walls,” the curator notes, somewhat superfluously.
They do, indeed, although judging by the handful of people waiting in the corridor in the building at 1 Heshin Street while I was there, the relatively diminutive prints had not exactly caught their eye.
“What do you think of the artwork here?” Azoulay asks a middle aged man ensconced on a bench. Judging by his monochrome garb, the person in question was a member of the legal profession, and a regular there. He momentarily lifted his gaze and appeared surprised by the subject matter and, probably, being addressed at all. “What artwork?” came the raised eyebrow response. “I didn’t notice any,” he added, momentarily dragging his focus away from his cellphone screen.
The other two sitting there at the time were similarly engrossed in cellular communication data. Perhaps it takes time to change one’s perspective of what such utility facilities have to offer, and to become aware of the possibility that there may be something other than drab, or even daunting, legal matters to be encountered.
THE EXHIBITS cover a broad spread of themes and approaches. The official show blurb says that On the Border of Reality “deals with the meeting of the artist’s worlds, her worlds and works of art, and tries to capture the moment when reality becomes imagination, the moment when an image takes on a new and supplemental dimension.”
Nicely put, but that could apply equally to almost any artistic venture.
Be that as it may, there is no lack of variety across the several dozen works hung on the passageway walls. The topics and the portrayal thereof indicate a diverse array of interests and avenues of expression. Noga Greenberg clearly went for a quirky approach to her “Afternoon” photograph of a pair of feet clad in blingy footwear espied through the partly open window of a limo. The shot appears to have been taken around sunset time, and we get a richly hued celestial reflection in the glass planes, too.
Iris Ahuva Pykovski’s painting of a Torah scribe’s workroom conveys a very different sentiment set, but is no less left-field. There appears to be a perspective problem with the picture, but that is clearly intentional and imbues the scene with some complementary visual dimensions and elements that may catch the viewer off guard.
“Yes, there are all sorts of twists in here,” Azoulay notes adding, with an entirely forgivable hint of pride, that Pykovski attends his painting class.
Yael Ashkenazi’s black and white shots of the building that houses the exhibition are strikingly aesthetic, and include some unpredictable nuances. Abstract art also gets a look in, with Naama Erez’s “37 Square Meters” and Shoshana Sternbuch’s aptly titled “Maze of Dream with Color,” in particular, presenting largely non-figurative efforts that demand more than a cursory glance.
Shoshi Sirkis’s enlarged photograph is something of a teaser, too. The lower strip of the frame shows overlapping, undulating mountain ridges, in varying degrees of focus. However, much of the picture is seemingly blank, taken up by a creamy-looking sky. Closer inspection reveals some dark spots dotted across the bright yonder.
“Yes, this looks like the wall [of the corridor], although these pull you up short,” Azoulay observes. “They could be dirt or birds. There is nothing up here, not even some kind of color transition.”
Perhaps Sirkis wants us to “complete the picture” with our own imagination.
“I like open works that allow you into them. You don’t have to spell it out for people,” the curator muses.
He feels that allows for a free-flowing relationship with the artist’s intent and their offerings.
“You can communicate directly with this. You don’t have to go through the artist or the curator.”
Azoulay rails against the misconception of the haredi Jew, irrespective of gender, not being capable of engaging in visually creative pursuits.
“I don’t think most intelligent [secular] people have that attitude. People are people. They [haredi Jews] see things, absorb them and want to express them.”
AZOULAY IS a case in point, even though he started life as non-observant. Now 48, he became religious at the age of 30 but maintained his artistic pursuit, becoming an internationally renowned artist with works displayed in New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Rome.
He says that, regardless of the secular Jewish Israeli’s handle on what goes on in the haredi sector, the latter has become increasingly accepting of artists within its own ranks.
“In recent years there has been far greater openness in that respect,” Azoulay notes, adding that there are signs that the secular world is waking up to that, too.
“The secular sector gets on with its life, but don’t forget the fact that Bezalel decided to open a haredi branch of the academy must mean something.”
The man has a point, and TV viewers may have caught the popular 2013-16 series Shtisel, in which one of the main characters has a gift for drawing and painting. Rabbi Kook, the late chief rabbi of Israel, also weighed in on the subject. A poet himself, he noted that anyone who has artistic gifts is duty-bound to put them into practice.
Then again, there are some minefields to be navigated and Azoulay has personal experience of the challenges integral to the life of a religious artist.
”I exhibit all over the world. I have had a solo show at the Tel Aviv Museum, so all is well with me,” he says.
Even so, Azoulay feels that it is easier to be a religious artist abroad than in Israel.
“When I had my exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum, Moti Omer, who was then the museum director, said to me, ‘Wow! You are religious!’ I am part of this discourse, but I can say there is a strong movement [within the religious sector] that wants to be part of the art world – places like the Art Shelter Gallery [in Jerusalem’s Makor Baruch neighborhood], Pardess [art school for religious Jews at Givat Washington] and the haredi branch [of Bezalel]. I believe that, within a few years, we will see the fruits of all this.”
Some of the buds are now out there at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. At the very least, should you be unfortunate enough to be involved in some litigation there, it could make the wait for your hearing more pleasant and, possibly, even inspiring. Or you could just pop over there and enjoy the view regardless.
On the Border of Reality closes on December 31, 2020.