Saturday, June 18, 2005

Jewish Art and Soul

Part of my journey this past year has been discovering Jewish art that is being created right now. Ted and I have a beautiful Ketubah from Rachel Deitsch. I have enjoyed perusing the works of soferet Aviel Barclay-Rothschild .

When I was living in Israel at age 14, my dream was to go to Bezalel Art School and create modern iconography for Judaism. That dream was never fulfilled. As a youngster I butted heads with my parents on this matter. I wanted to pursue art with the single-mindedness that I felt it required. My parents, practical folk, said I could always pick up an art class or two as I went through college pursuing my M.R.S.

But in New York, a student at Barnard, I further suffered from doubts about my ability to be an artist as I met young New York artists who exceeded me not so much in talent but in stylishness and confidence. And then, my first day in art class, I was confronted with a fully nude male model.

As an Orthodox girl, I felt conflicted about this. I told the teacher my religious beliefs led me to prefer to not paint nudes, and so I would rather hone my skills on some other subject. She was a true Columbia University professor and happy to engage with me. We had some spirited conversations about the beauty of the nude body, G-d's creations, and related philosophical matters. But I simply felt uncomfortable facing a young man, my own age, who had on no clothes. After some discussion, she agreed that I could paint landscapes and still lifes instead of nudes for my assignments.

But by this point, I seemed to be miles away from my original intention. I still have a beautiful Rosh HaShana card I designed in my teens. It combined calligraphy and ink drawing with a design utilizing traditional Jewish elements. That was the sort of thing I wanted to work on, but Columbia did not have courses in iconography, calligraphy or even design.

I let art drop after that one painting class and focused instead on my major, English, and on History. Columbia had an excellent Jewish Studies program at the time, so I spent most of my course credits across the street from Barnard, taking Jewish history classes with teachers that included the brilliant young Professor Paula Hyman(who later went on to teach at Harvard). I experienced a rare -- very rare -- moment of parental approval when my father finished reading my 20-page research study on the Marranos, looked up at me, and after a moment of silence, said it was an "excellent paper." (The A from Professor Hyman was unimportant in comparison.)


Last night, at services, our Rabbi showed us a framed Shivisi he had purchased when he was a rabbinical student in Jerusalem. He said it was a very old document from Morocco, or at least so said the man who sold it to him in the Old City. (Yes, I know....) If you want to see images of Shivisi, you have to Google on the Sephardi pronunciation - Shiviti. But according to my rabbi, these devotional aids were used among Ashkenazi Jews as well, and are part of our heritage. Along with the Shivisi, he read to us (in translation from the Yiddish), some words from Tzenah UrEna, the book of prayers and midrash for women. Such items, often disparaged, to me hold much of the soul of Judaism and of our past.

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