Fusing Israeli art, life and Judaism

“If I was going to ask American artists to travel 8,000 miles, I really wanted to honor them with a beautiful space,” Weisel said of the location.

ERUSALEM BIENNALE founder Rami Ozeri (left) and deputy director Dr. Ido Noy (photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
ERUSALEM BIENNALE founder Rami Ozeri (left) and deputy director Dr. Ido Noy
(photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
Curator Mindy Weisel enthusiastically introduced her handpicked artists for the grand opening of the Of Wonder exhibit, part of the Jerusalem Biennale.
A mix of young and old, Israeli and American, the creators were united under the theme of “For Heaven’s Sake.”
From black-and-white and minimalist to colorful and bold, each of the seven artists displayed their interpretation of the general theme for the Biennale, which goes on until November 28, and the specific theme of the Of Wonder exhibit.
Weisel herself is a wonder, having been in the art world for 45 years and coming from a fascinating background. She was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, both of her parents being Holocaust survivors. She noted at the reception that her 94-year-old father is still active and currently lectures about his experiences.
Weisel is a relative of the famous author Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize winner for his books on the Holocaust. Both Wiesel, who changed the spelling of his name, and Mindy’s father were interred together in the Auschwitz death camp.
Those experiences were worlds away from the decorative treasure that is the North Africa Jewish Heritage Center, the venue for the exhibition, tucked away on King David Street near several local art galleries.
Weisel spoke to In Jerusalem about the event.
“I knew they loved Israel and it would be meaningful for them,” Weisel said of her selected artists. She insisted on “not just random American artists – I wanted to make sure there was a connection between Israeli art, life and Judaism.”
The Jerusalem Biennale is a series of exhibitions throughout the city. This year’s theme of “For Heaven’s Sake” is explained by the directors with a quote from the Ethics of the Fathers, stating, “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure.”
Weisel elaborated on the theme, asking, “What does heaven on earth mean? I look at the world with eyes that let God in, and let in the wonder of our world, our heaven on earth.”
A follower of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Weisel used to make his writings required reading at George Washington University’s art department, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts and taught.
“It didn’t matter if you were Jewish or not because he really understood the creative spirit and the connection to it being a very spiritual and religious experience,” she said.
Weisel also made a point of not featuring her own works in the exhibit.
“Everyone asked me why I didn’t,” she said, “but I am at a stage in life where I am grateful for every success and recognition I have enjoyed and I felt it was my time to honor artists I believe in.”
Transitioning to heaven
Among those artists is a young Israeli who stood out at the exhibit for being the only mixed-media presentation. Rather than a painting, dancer and silversmith, Maya Resheff displayed a video presentation, entitled “Monumental Air.” The video with accompanying music shows Resheff walking gracefully on the soil as she “plants” air using special handmade tools.
“The piece is an outcome of my mother’s death seven months ago,” Resheff said. “It’s how I dealt with the idea of transitioning between body and wonder of heaven.” Fitting in with the theme, Resheff explained that she depicted herself “seeding the air, the presence of a body, of a self, without the need of a physical form.”
What looks like hoes and rakes are actually custom-made tools representing the process of the “burial of air” and ultimately a tribute to her American-born mother. The longer version of the piece includes the handmade silversmithed tools, a participatory sound piece and a performance. It was shown at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she earned her master’s degree in fine arts.
Born in Jerusalem, Resheff toured with the Vertigo dance company and also studied silversmithing at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, a skill she used in creating her tools.
“I am a fourth-generation silversmith,” she explained, noting that her great-grandfather assisted Boris Schatz in creating Bezalel back in 1906.
Where the sky meets the water
The dreamy blue paintings of Raquel Sanchez also fit the theme of the event. Born to an American mother and a Venezuelan father and now living in Israel, Sanchez spoke about what she called “a picture that tells a story about an entire feeling.”
The water and the sky merge in her piece, handpicked by Weisel, whom she met at the Uri Rosenbach Contemporary gallery just down the street, where both artists’ works are displayed. “Blue is connected to the heavens – the waters below and the waters above,” she said, alluding to verses in the Book of Genesis regarding creation of the world.
Sanchez’s mother is noted artist Ellen Lapidus Stern and her father, the late poet laureate of Venezuela, Juan Sánchez Peláez. Sanchez wrote poetry like her father and when he died in 2003, she felt compelled to switch to painting, drawing inspiration from both parents.
“I grew up traveling and was always connected to oceans and seas, especially the Mediterranean,” she explained. Later in the week, Sanchez participated in a performance hosted by the Jerusalem Biennial. Musicians Daniel Zamir and Kobi Arad performed as Sanchez painted in front of the audience.
Other artists in the exhibit include Susan J. Goldman, Madalyn Marcus, Miriam Mörsel Nathan, Michael Kovner and Ariel Berlatzky, all of whom attended the opening at the North Africa Jewish Heritage Center.
The ground floor of the building includes an authentic synagogue in the style of Jewish communities of Morocco, Tunisia and other North African Diaspora communities. The elaborate tiled floor and decorative carved doors added to the ambiance. Fragments of various historic artifacts from North African Jewry are displayed on the walls along with photos of community leaders and rabbis. A large sukkah greeted guests outside in the courtyard by a colorful water fountain.
“If I was going to ask American artists to travel 8,000 miles, I really wanted to honor them with a beautiful space,” Weisel said of the location.
As a child, Weisel said never met any artists until she got married at the age of 18. She has been painting since however and credits her husband Sheldon Weisel of 54 years for his supportive attitude.
Regarding the Biennale, Weisel praised founder Rami Ozeri, director of content, Dr. Ido Noy, and the rest of the staff.
“They are creating a real platform for the future of art and culture in Jerusalem,” she said. “Everybody thinks the art center of Israel is Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem has a lot of outstanding artists, studios, museums and galleries, and the Biennial really recognizes all of it.”
The Jerusalem Biennale 2019 runs through November 28 at 12 venues in the Jerusalem city center area. It features 200 participating artists from 15 countries. For details:
Modern ‘Shalom bayit'
Shalom bayit, literally “peace in the home,” usually refers to marital bliss. It is the theme of one of the 12 exhibitions in the Jerusalem Biennale and the female artists have interpreted the expression in their own way. A photo of an empty kiddush table, the wine spilled on it – a husband and wife, in two separate side-by-side photos, as seen from the back. These are some of the thought-provoking examples in the “Shalom Bayit” exhibit currently on display at Studio of Her Own, which promotes religious women artists.
One of the featured artists and a member of Studio of Her Own, Heddy Abramowitz, spoke about the exhibit.
“The idea of shalom bayit is the relations between men and women as couples and the artistic approach to seeing that situation of coupleness, or zugiot,” she explained. “It breaks preconceptions about what religious women artists see as the concept of shalom bayit.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Washington, DC, Abramowitz has been living in Israel for decades, mostly in the Old City of Jerusalem. She has been married for 40 years.
“The view of Jewish art is often placed in a prism of kitschiness, very traditional or very ideologically bound,” she said. “This art is done by religious artists from across the spectrum and is meant to revisit the idea of shalom bayit from a different approach.”
What qualifies one to be a religious artist?
“We include anyone who identifies themselves as such,” she said. “We don’t check people’s affiliation.”
As for her personal contribution to the exhibit, Abramowitz created a line of paper dolls that from different angles can be seen as men dancing together with men, women with women, or mixed dancing.
“It’s a play on the expression, ‘It could lead to mixed dancing,’” she explained.
Curated by Haya Fierstein-Zohar, the other participating artists are Julia Aronson, Yehudis Barmatz-Harris, Yael Buchbinder-Shimoni, Tiferet Damari, Ann Ruth Facktorovich, Avigail Fried, Nechama Golan, Pesi Komar and Linda Lieff Altabef.