About10 times per year, MenachemSafrai helps pack over 120 crates with
watercolors, serigraphs, woodcuts, oils, prints, tapestry, sculpture and other
art forms, as well as many large white pegboard display stands.
He then hops on
a plane in order to arrive at an overseas synagogue, community center or
organization in time to hang each piece himself and design a particular
presentation for each exhibition. The exclusive artists of his Safrai Gallery in
Jerusalem create most of the 1,500 works in his
show, “Young and Old Masters of Israeli Art,” but he often purchases additional
items he feels might appeal to a specific community.
Safrai is always on
hand to answer queries about art in Israel, and also gives lectures at the
exhibits. The over 100 contributors to his exhibitsinclude established names
like Marc Chagall, Shraga Weil, Abraham Binder, AmramEbgi, Shemuel Katz, Reuven
Rubin, Raphael Abecassis, SlavaIlyayev, David Sharir and Tarkai, or lesser-known
Israeli artists such as Michael Kerman and Alexander Klevan. Safrai aims to give
his overseas viewers a comprehensive, illustrative look at the Holy Land,
through the perspectives of some of its most creative citizenry.
Detroit, Sacramento, Houston, Virginia, Massachusetts and other points across
the US, he does it all with vigor—and it’s not hard to see why. Safrai is a
third-generation gallery owner, a man driven to introduce and expose Americans
to Israeli art, as well as art enthusiast himself.
“The exhibits provide
a unique opportunity for Americans to get a glimpse of the exciting and
expanding world of Israeli art, which can only be otherwise seen by traveling to
Israel,”Safrai told JointMedia News Service by phone from
According to wall texts at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, old
and new themes covering the last 100 years of Israeli art reflect a sweeping and
diverse range of both style and worldview. The Israel Ministry of Tourism
website says, “The art scene in Israel had its beginnings in the early part of
the 20th century, when the rebirth of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was
beginning to take shape.”
Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, named
for Bezalel Ben Uri, the first artist mentioned in the Bible and founded by
sculptor Boris Schatz in 1906, originally produced Jewish and Biblical-themed
art works. But as secular trends manifested, a “Rebels of Bezalel” movement
began to focus on the landscape and residents of the area, with its members
identifying themselves as “Hebrew” rather than “Jewish” artists. Their influence
continues to this day, and Bezalel, now located on the Mount Scopus campus of
Hebrew University, is currently the leading academy for art and design in
Safrai attributes the founding of Bezalel as a “rebirth of Jewish
art in what would become Israel.” He looks further back, to periods of creative
After the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Judea, Jews
were forbidden to decorate homes with art as an expression of grief, and in the
Diaspora, Jews were discouraged by foreign rulers from expressing themselves
through art,” Safrai said.
During exile, Judaica and ritual objects were
hidden within art works, and books such as Haggadot and Megillot were made
small, so that they could be hidden.
“This created a gap in Jewish art history,”
Following World War II, the abstract style became popular and was
carried on in the 1970s and ‘80s by Russian immigrant artists. Safrai said that
archaeological findings depict human figures, animals and the Zodiac, and these
early renderings continue to influence modern artists. Although the Bible and
all of its tales, characters and meanings have had a profound effect on Jewish
art as a whole, Safrai noted that current events have shaped the genre over the
“The uniqueness of Israeli art comes from the intermingling of the
rich variety of cultures and styles of the artists who immigrated to Israel,” he
said, explaining that there is no certain style attributable to Israeli art.
“This is due to the influence of a number of different waves of artists who came
to Israel over the past century, each with their own artistic
The Safrai Art Gallery’s storied history long predates the
establishment of Israel. In 1888, Safrai’s maternal grandfather, Mendel
Harrison, moved to Israel from Weshbelov, Lithuania, where he was a rabbi. He
manufactured mirrors in the old city of Jerusalem and then moved his family to
New York, where he established a small art gallery that he operated for 37
Following his retirement, the family returned to Israel, where Harrison’s
son-in-law, Julius Bookbinder, became Asher Safrai and opened a gallery in the
Nachlat Shiva quarter of Jerusalem. The gallery became popular with immigrants
from Western Europe who had fled the Nazi threat, but retained an appreciation
for the arts they had formerly enjoyed. After performing nightly guard duty in
the Haganah, Safrai would open the gallery, which also held illegal weapons for
the defense unit in its basement.
British Army officers and government
officials oversaw the area before the War of Liberation, and frequented the
fledgling gallery. In 1949, Asher’s son Dov, who had also served in the Haganah
as well as the IDF as a Lieutenant, inherited the management of the gallery, and
brought in his wife, Shoshana. He began bringing exhibitions of Israeli art to
the US and Canada in 1958. Their son, Menachem, who was born in Jerusalem in
1963, went on to study art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and
continues the legacy.
“My wife, Sharon, works with me in the gallery, and thank
God we have four wonderful children, one of whom just got married,” Safrai
In recent years, the gallery moved to its current location at 19
King David St. in Jerusalem.
Safrai draws a distinction between the
American and Israeli Jewish communities, one that eases his efforts.
America, the synagogue is a place for prayer and community action, and the
congregation can organize this type of activity very well,” he said. “It’s hard
to find that kind of organization in Israel.”