Authenticity of Jewish art to be celebrated

DC’s Adas Israel Congregation offers 70 works by 40 different artists from Israel, US, and Europe.

‘MOSES MEETS MODOK’ by Joel Silverstein (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘MOSES MEETS MODOK’ by Joel Silverstein
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, says that “being alive” is the first principle of its vision for Jewish American culture. In Authenticity and Identity, curated by Prof. Ori Z. Soltes, 70 works by 40 different artists from the US, Israel and Europe will be presented in honor of this principle while attempting to answer the nagging question: What is, exactly, Jewish art?
Abstract painter Mark Rothko, for example, was a Jewish human being, does it mean that all of his works fall into the domain of Jewish art? 
Taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument seems too similar to the Nazis for comfort. To argue that, for example, “The Little Mermaid” by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky is somehow “Jewish” due to the faith of the musician is a little too close to banning it altogether for being allegedly “degenerate” because of his ethnic origin. 
On the other hand, to argue that the content is what matters, making biblical themed artworks and paintings of Jewish life “Jewish art”, would make Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and a multitude of other artists into very surprised Hebrews.
In his introduction to the virtual presence of the exhibition Soltes offers to distinguish terms. Abraham was a Hebrew, Moses and King Solomon were Israelites, Jesus was Judean, Bar Kokhba and Maimonides were Jews. 
Soltes claims that the spiritual current that began with Abraham runs through the various material expressions of the cultures which came after him. From the Israelite Temple in Jerusalem to, in a sense, later Christian and Islamic art, and eventually (for example) to painters Yehuda Epstein and Naftali Bezem, among others. 
The current still runs through the works presented with some, like the 2019 painting Moses meets Modok by Joel Silverstein, being somewhat playful.
Modok is a comic book villain and the work is very much in step with the Jewish-American artist’s habit to employ comic-book heroes to address larger themes. 
Some address the conflicts of Jewish life in the Diaspora that was often, sadly, in peril or brutalized. 
One such work is the 2019 sculpture Why do we stay up there if it is so dangerous? by Soviet-born artist Julia Ilyutovich. 
Borrowing from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in itself a Jewish-American adaption of the much more serious novel Tevye’s Daughters by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, Ilyutovich presents a traditional Jewish-dressed bearded man playing the violin while standing on a roof. 
Now widely recognized as a visual representation of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Central Europe with its dichotomy of being creative and artistic (playing the violin) and also at risk of pogroms and financial ruin (falling off) the object re-introduces the danger aspect present when the people of Israel live among the nations of the earth. Sadly, the tragic 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting is such a recent example. 
AMERICAN-ISRAELI artist Heddy Abramowitz, who is also a Jerusalem Post staff editor, presents About the Conversation. It is a collage piece that places the cover of the same-titled book by the German theologian and writer Albrecht Goes next to a Shakespearean-style dandy and a collection of hand-written postcards and other letters and envelope parts. 
“I grew up in a German-speaking household with two parents who were Holocaust survivors,” she told the Post, “so German was very familiar to me.” 
While Abramowitz grew up fully aware of being Jewish, she describes an American childhood that included attending mass with Catholic friends and going to university. She remained conflicted from seemingly double messages of pluralism alongside the importance of Judaism as a personal responsibility. 
After Abramowitz’s first year in Israel, she moved to Jerusalem and spent 35 years living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. She still resides in the capital in the Greek Colony.
Abramowitz says she believes the line between Jewish and Israeli is blurry, just like it is not always clear when a Hebrew speaker speaks modern Hebrew, uses a biblical expression, or switches to a Russian or Arabic slang to make a point. 
“I also paint landscapes and cityscapes,” she points out, “they are Jewish on some level as they are of Jerusalem, but they also function as landscape paintings in their own right.”
The writer Goes was one of the first people in Germany to address the elephant in the room, what Germans did to Jews under the Nazi regime (this is the conversation to which the title refers to, the ones Germans and Jews began having in the 1950’s). Abramowitz reckons that this conversation between Jewish culture and the general one is still very much needed today.
“The male figure, to me, does not need to be that of a Christian,” she told the Post, “he might be a stand-in for Jewish people who are deeply assimilated and feel perfectly comfortable where they are.” 
She points to how many Jewish Americans never visit Israel despite traveling to other places. “Take film director Woody Allen,” she points out, “he has never visited Israel.”
Her choice of postcards is the result of her interest in “discarded means of communication” and is slightly nostalgic. However, she suggests that the digital age where printed books become digitized and people turn to podcasts and streaming to spend their time is not without its own merit.
The conversation will continue, online and in person, “as long as people want to learn,” she says.
Authenticity and Identity will open on Monday, April 5 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and will be open to visitors starting from Wednesday. Opening hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 1:00 p.m. Admission is free but tickets must be bought ahead of arrival to ensure health safety. The entire exhibition can be viewed online at https://authenticityandidentity.com/.