Sheltered art

A gallery in the haredi neighborhood of Mekor Baruch is experiencing a revival.

Mordechai Arnon (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Mordechai Arnon
Looking for the bombshelter- turned-art-gallery known as the Art Shelter in the haredi neighborhood of Mekor Baruch, I stop to ask a group of girls for directions.
The girls, all wearing school uniforms (light blue blouses and dark blue, pleated skirts), know immediately what I’m looking for; one of them comes along to show me the entrance on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street.
The Art Shelter has existed for about 40 years, but it has recently attracted attention as a beacon for the growing number of haredi men and women who need a place to quench their thirst for the plastic arts – particularly painting and photography – in a manner appropriate to their lifestyle. Exhibitions, gallery talks, encounters with artists, and gender-separate classes in painting can all be found at the Art Shelter, which also has a center that commemorates the Holocaust through the arts.
Painter Ika Yisraeli, one of several artists who left behind the Tel Aviv art scene and became ultra-Orthodox, set up the space in the 1970s after moving to Jerusalem. The Art Shelter soon became a gathering place for religious men – and those on their way to becoming religious – who had moved on from Tel Aviv’s Bohemian atmosphere.
Mekor Baruch, located between the Geula and Mea She’arim neighborhoods on one side, and the Mahaneh Yehuda market on the other, was not haredi at the time, but it was not far from the stronghold of the haredi community, and most of the residents were at least religious or traditional.
Though the topics of his works changed in accordance with his new way of life, Yisraeli did not give up his art. Soon, two close friends from his former life in Tel Aviv – actors Uri Zohar and Mordechai Arnon – followed in his footsteps and moved to Jerusalem, where they also joined the haredi community and were ordained as rabbis.
Later on, in the early ’90s, painter Leonid Balaklav used the shelter as an art space during his first years in Jerusalem. He, too, became religious; today Balaklav, a Chabad Hassid, lives in Gilo and is one of the country’s most prominent painters.
“This place is so important for our community, because being haredi doesn’t mean we don’t have artistic needs like anyone else,” says Arnon, who works to find sources of support for the Art Shelter and its activities.
Two curators manage the center: Pnina Frank, who teaches painting classes, and recently added lecturer Noa Leah Cohn. “We have three main programs in the shelter,” explains Cohn. “First of all, it is an art gallery, like any other art gallery.
Then we have a workshop for painting classes, which are gendersegregated, and we are also a memorial [promoting] Holocaust studies through art, which is also an issue that attracts a large part of the haredi and religious sector.”
Cohn, a lecturer on art history at the haredi branch of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, stresses that well-known artists, both local and from abroad, want to display their work at the Art Shelter’s gallery, and that the growing number of neighborhood residents who attend the gallery discussions is an indication of how important the institution is for them.
“We have, of course, some rules fitting our values,” notes Arnon.
“We cannot display paintings that show naked bodies. But there are no limitations on the artists themselves; non-religious artists are welcome to [exhibit] here.”
THE TOPIC of the Holocaust has held particular interest for the haredi community in recent years. More haredim than ever are visiting the Yad Vashem museum, and haredi schools are teaching Holocaust studies (based on a training program that Yad Vashem runs). For Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, the Art Shelter’s gallery hosted a bold exhibition by multidisciplinary artist Shimon Lev, who grew up in a strictly religious family and is now secular.
Lev’s “Hidden and Revealed” exhibition (see below) consists of photographs and two documentaries he made about a branch of his family that was exterminated by the Nazis. At the screening of the documentaries and the discussion on the exhibition, the gallery was packed with men and women and several teenagers, from the neighborhood and elsewhere, all of whom watched and listened attentively.
“When I teach art in one of my classes, I ask my students to write a paper on an exhibition or on an artist’s work,” says Cohn. “When we’re talking about religious or haredi students, I have to be sure I’m sending my students to an appropriate place.
This shelter, with the many exhibitions we hold in it, is the perfect place. Here, we provide a high artistic level, without compromising on our rules of modesty, so this place is very important. There are not so many of this kind.”
Despite its importance to visitors and painting students, however, Arnon says the shelter does not obtain enough support from public funds and barely gets by on the few private donations it receives.
“For the general Arts and Culture Department at the municipality, we are considered an institution that belongs to the haredi budget [category],” explains Arnon. “But then, in the haredi sector, they have other things to finance before us, so the bottom line is that we don’t get any support from the municipality at all, despite our providing a valuable service to residents of this city who are also taxpayers.”
In fact, the Art Shelter used to get a small budget from the Arts and Culture Department, but that support is no longer available – and in any case, those funds were not enough for the place to develop in accordance with the increasing demand of neighborhood and city residents.
A municipal spokesperson told In Jerusalem that the Art Shelter had not submitted a request to the culture department for funding, but that if it does, the submission will be considered.
Indeed, both the Art Shelter’s curators agree that the thirst for quality artistic events and experiences is growing all the time in the haredi sector. At all the gallery discussions the two have organized at the shelter, the room is packed with men and women, haredi and national-religious, and some secular visitors who have heard about the place as well.
Frank has been working and teaching there for many years.
At first, she was only teaching art classes, but after Yisraeli’s death in 2009, she took upon herself to be the curator for exhibitions there as well. She says she doesn’t look particularly for religious artists.
“That is not the point at all,” she says. “It’s true that I have to make sure that the works on exhibition here have to meet our rules of modesty, but the thread that [leads] me [is] the artistic value of the works. If it’s a secular artist, and I can find beautiful and serious artistic works, I’ll bring them to the shelter.”
In some cases, these choices have nevertheless led to misunderstandings – for instance, in the case of one artist she invited to exhibit, Frank chose appropriate works, but one of her students was slightly scandalized on discovering that this painter had not-so-modest works on her website. Still, Frank doesn’t allow such situations to deter her.
“We are well aware of our duty here, so we tell people – nicely – who exhibit here or visit that modest dress is politely requested. Sometimes they listen and sometimes not so much, but we manage,” says the curator. She adds that she has organized outdoor workshops for religious and secular women together, “which were a great success for all participants.”
The painting classes, too, are in high demand among haredi women who have been busy with familial issues for most of their lives “and now have the time for art,” says Frank. “My mission is to help them discover and learn one more language – the language of art.”
Revelations on the Shoah
Jerusalem-born photographer, artist, curator and writer Shimon Lev is the son of a Holocaust survivor whose entire family was killed. His exhibition at the Art Shelter, “Hidden and Revealed,” showing until June 8, is about the search he has been conducting all his adult life, trying to grasp tangible threads of his family’s history in Europe.
In the maps at the exhibition, Lev erases all of Berlin, leaving only the trail that his family took from their synagogue courtyard to the railway station from where they were taken to Auschwitz.
During an artist’s residency in Vienna, he met an Austrian artist who came from a Nazi family, and the pair’s improbable relationship has resulted in a documentary on the stories of both sides, which is showing at the Art Shelter alongside the maps and archives that form the exhibition.
Although Lev comes from a strictly religious family, today he is secular. Nevertheless, on the evening dedicated to his exhibition and the screening of the documentary last month, he expressed his emotion over presenting his work in a haredi environment. The Art Shelter’s management had planned the event to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.