Being a Jew

Beverley Jane Stewart’s artistic transformation of British Jewry.

From Kabbalah to Avoidance (photo credit: Courtesy)
From Kabbalah to Avoidance
(photo credit: Courtesy)
British Jewry may no longer be “that strength which in old days/ Moved Earth and heaven,” yet it is still one of the most meaningful Jewish communities in the world today. The community has contributed to the world such noted people as the late painter Lucien Freud, modern artist Anish Kapoor, writer Jon Ronson and actor Sacha Baron-Cohen, and has charted the unknown waters ahead when dealing with toxic extremist rhetoric directed at Israel and the larger Jewish nation by radical members of the European Left.
Yet not many people are aware of the powerful legacy Jews built, and maintain, on the British Isles.
This legacy is explored in writing by people like Rachel Lichtenstein, historian at Sandy’s Row Synagogue and the author of 1999’s Rodinsky’s Room with Iain Sinclair – a book that bravely deals with Jewish arrival from Central Europe to London – and in art by Beverley Jane Stewart in her large, detail oriented paintings.
While visitors to her website will see she is just as skilled in painting London life, “my recent work is much more about being a Jew,” she told The Jerusalem Post, “and how that works in relation to other cultures.”
British Jews, she thinks, were originally “taught to be English and to fit in, but in recent years, the Labour Party made people aware of their Jewish identity in stronger ways.” Meaning, British Jews today seem forced to take on a more forceful course of action, with those wishing to remain Jewish becoming more religious or more vocally Jewish and those who see themselves as mostly British having to cling to that identity in ways that would seem odd to previous generations.
“You were always Jewish [in the UK],” she said, “you couldn’t run away from it, and this [in turn] led to more interest in my work.”
Commissioned by Pam Fox to create the cover art for her 2016 social history book The Jewish Community of Golders Green and selected by UK Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks for the cover of his 1995 book Community of Faith, Stewart will present her latest work, From Kabbalah to Avoidance, at the fourth edition of the Jerusalem Biennale, which is slated to open on October 10. The large-scale drawing will be used to create a large-scale painting to be shown at the Tel-Aviv Artists House from November 19 onwards.
The word “Kabbalah,” which in Hebrew can also mean “acceptance,” creates a play on words as the work can be understood as ‘From Acceptance to Avoidance’ but also as avoiding the rich mystical teachings in Jewish culture known as Kabbalah, which means “that which was received.”
THE BAAL SHEM TOV – which means “he of good name” – was a Jewish healer and mystic regarded as the spiritual master to bring Hasidic Jewish practice into the world.
After his tax invoices were discovered by Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Moshe Rosman in the 1980s (the mystic, being a “doctor,” was exempt from paying taxes), it is now accepted that such a person really existed, yet most of the legends surrounding his life and work originate in the 1814 work The praises of the Baal Shem Tov.
His teachings on acceptance, not to value learning above nature or simple kindness, and his love of music influenced the Jews of Central Europe and eventually led to the creation of Hasidic Jewish life, leaving a profound impact on the Jewish world today.
“The Baal Shem Tov brought people together,” said Stewart, “even if they couldn’t read [the prayer book].” It is this value of inviting everybody into a collective space she feels the Jewish collective today could benefit much from.
“We must have more tolerance as Jews,” she said.
The drawing depicts the inside of a wooden synagogue now in Romania associated with the Baal Shem Tov, next to it are pieces of a larger puzzle, perhaps of the Jewish people, showing a man and a woman in IDF uniforms, a couple enjoying themselves at a musical concert and characters thrown out, dangling from strings appearing bereft of any foothold in the world.
Having traveled to Romania to examine the site, Stewart is deeply aware of the impact the Holocaust has had not only on the Jewish nation as a whole, but the Jewish cultural legacy in lands that are now mostly without Jews.
She is confident that former houses of Jewish worship can be, and perhaps should be, used again as cultural homes serving the general public, which are “also a reminder [that] Jews lived there,” she explained, warning that keeping the sites empty would be a “constant grim reminder.”
“We can’t always look back in bitterness,” she told the Post, “[and] to do that we can’t keep blaming.”
When working as an art teacher in the south London districts of Peckham, Camberwell and Brixton, Stewart felt that “all the children had something to offer.” Now she said that “In my work I’m trying to get the best out of people.”
In one of her works, she painted how the synagogue that once served the Jewish community of Leeds now functions as the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
Due to the historic value of the building, the school kept the façade, complete with the 10 Commandments on display. “They were very proud to be using this place,” she said. “I never think it’s a good idea to be inward looking.” She added: “if you build walls you’re deluding yourself.” After all, she points out, “a job shared is more than a job halved.”
From Kabbalah to Avoidance will be shown as part of the fourth edition of the Jerusalem Biennale starting on October 10 until November 28.
A large-scale painting based on the drawing will be on display at the Tel Aviv Artists House on 9 Elharizi Street starting from November 19.
More works by Beverley Jane Stewart can be seen on her