I will be participating in the Salon ha Cubia exhibit opening October 28, 2017, at 8 pm in Nayot in Jerusalem, as part of the city-wide Manofim project. Closing January 25, 2018. Hope to see you there. Invitation

Pleased to be participating in the exhibition HOME(less) at HUC-JIR Museum NY. Running through the end of June 2018. For details see post

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nature Calls: Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov at Artspace

Untitled, 2011 116 cm x 120 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov

The hills are alive in Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s exhibit, “The Same Landscape,” at the German Colony’s Artspace Gallery. Whether you prefer Julie Andrews or Carrie Underwood, there is no bursting into song and dance. These are, after all, not Swiss Alps, rather softly undulating Galilean hillsides.
Kestenbaum Ben Dov, in this, her third solo at this charming off-the-beaten-track Jerusalem venue (a review of the previous one can be seen here), digresses from the art work we have come to associate with her, such as Hebrew texts and self-portraits. She has chosen, instead, to concentrate on her own front yard.
And what a front yard it is. American-born, Kestenbaum Ben Dov has lived in Israel for over thirty years, holds a BFA in art from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and lives and works in the village of Eschar in Misgav in the north of Israel.
These works, all created in close proximity to her studio were done in  the same landscape, session after session over a three year period, between 2010 and 2013. Most entail long hard looks at the views to pin down the subtle color changes resulting from differing times of day, seasons or atmospheric changes.
This is not an exhibit that shouts out at the viewer. The volume has been turned down very low. Seeing is paramount and no intellectual gymnastics are required. Try to listen for the hush of the bristles.
While their approaches to painting the landscape differ widely, it is Claude Monet who comes to mind as an antecedent to these works. Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s works are a close response to the nature as seen, rather than painting an impression of one’s perceptions which Monet did, bringing him to be considered the founder of Impressionism. His series of paintings of haystacks changing color and light with the angle of the sun spring to mind, as well as the later series of views of the Rouen cathedral at different times of day.
In the mammoth exhibit, “Claude Monet (1840-1926),” shown at the Grand Palais in 2010 -2011 in Paris, John House pointed out that these works represented a shift in the artist’s approach:
Two points are crucial here: Monet’s emphasis on the changing light effect as his primary subject, rather than the material motif represented, and his insistence on the value of the entire series, seen together.
Here too, Kestenbaum Ben Dov sees the same view afresh in each painting, open to shifts in light, a different angle or emphasis. Light is also her main subject. By exhibiting these works of the same landscape together, like Monet, the artist demands from the viewer to slow down and look at what may, at first glance, seem like very similar paintings, yet are all unique.
The artist standing en plein air has the experience of smelling the earth, hearing the shrubs rustle, feeling the wind in her hair, the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the breeze, as well as the more annoying aspects of nature like gnats and flies drawn to the smell of the oil and paints. Of course, these sensations are unknown to the viewer.
Nature is often overwhelming in its complexity. Seeing the works of repeated engagements with the hills together, one gets to share in the decision-making process of the artist vicariously. Like an editor, the artist must decide what is included, what is important, what is superfluous to convey the particularity of each separate outdoor session. The paintings vary in sizes, from small studies to more sustained larger paintings, from classically proportioned rectangles to elongated narrow ones, with the occasional vertical view as well. In some, a unifying underpainting color may be used which peeks through later applications of paint, in others not. The viewer can compare all these nuanced choices, without the sweat and dust.
"Untitled II, 2010" 2010 100 cm x 50 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov
Untitled II, 2010, 2010 100 cm x 50 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov
The Western approach to landscape painting traditionally divides the image into foreground, middle ground and background. For many painters, very often it is the foreground that presents the greatest challenge, and some of her works evidence that battle. In one effort she uses an arc to delineate the space, in another Kestenbaum Ben Dov simplifies it in a blurry shortcut to a solution. One title reveals a painting focusing on a centered single flower that is pulled from memory, another tack.

Three from "Five Views"
Three paintings from the series "Five Views," 2013, 160 cm x 32 cm oil on canvas by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov

Many of the stronger works take on less and stand well on their own with nature providing the answers. Her atmospheric series called "Five Views" includes gentle fog rounding a bend, like that which “comes on little cat feet” a delicate evocation of winter drives through the cooler times of the year, as now (nod to Carl Sandburg- this gallery is owned by a poet, after all).

Though her approach is a narrow one vis à vis the range of contemporary approaches to landscape painting, Kestenbaum Ben Dov succeeds in conveying the experience of her vista with the sensitivity of one who breathes it in and out each day. For the rest of us, the city dwellers and those that live far from the splendor of the Galilee, these paintings make her front yard ours.

Doing what comes naturally works. Over and over again.

Artspace Gallery, exhibit extended through the end of January, closing date undetermined as of this writing. Hours are Tuesday and Thursday from 5-7 p.m. or by appointment (02) 566-2423.

Announcement: The exhibition "My Soul Thirsts" at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem, part of the Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art that was reiviewed here, has been extended through December 22, 2013.
This post was originally published on the Times of Israel here or

Monday, November 25, 2013

"What Is Art?"

In response to the post on the Venice Biennale here, painter Ruth Keusch asks the fair question:

"The questions remain... 'What is Art?' We won't be around in 100 years to see what is art and what has remained. I guess we try everything... but is everything Art and how do we define it? We know that money and protection will get a big show... does that count for something? It gets more and more confusing. The camera is being replaced by the i phone- where do we go next?"
Guest blogger Ahuva Passow-Whitman responds:

"When my daughter was in third grade I was invited to talk to her class about art. I started by writing on the blackboard 2 x 2 = 5.
The class screamed out to me that it was wrong. I answered that yes, it was wrong if we were teaching arithmetic. But since I was asked to talk about art- there is no wrong answer. And we proceeded from there.
The question was put to me, as a response to my guest blog on the Venice Biennale, how we can know what art is. I can only begin by saying that we know what it is NOT: It is not science (although in dealing with problems of perspective it can be quite mathematical). Art, and all the arts, have changed over the centuries.
Abstract art would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greeks; jazz would have seemed like screeching sounds to Mozart. Photography and video are now respected members of the artistic repertoire, and cinema is the seventh art. Martha Graham's ballets would seem chaotic to a 19th choreographer. e.e.cummings wouldn't make sense to John Donne.
So we see that what was once perhaps unthinkable or unimaginable is now very much a part of what we naturally accept in the artistic canon. Time is often a crucial factor: Bach was forgotten and only "resurrected" by Mendelssohn. Raphael was out of favor in the 18th century, yet Michelangelo was immediately recognized, at age 24, as 'il divino,' the divine.
Our problem is more complicated when we are bombarded with masses of art, at a museum, or at an event like the Venice Biennale, where there are so many styles and so many diverse forms of expression. We would like to make some sense out of what often seems chaotic. The problem is how to do it. Are there really rules to guide us?
A while ago, a quiz was sent to me on the internet. The point was to see if the observer could differentiate between scribbles made by a 4 year old and abstract painting done by artists. The results showed that a trained and educated eye could almost always see the differences. Even what may seem at first glance nothing more than random scribbling, when done by an experienced artist, does have some innate structure or composition to it.
So, perhaps, what we long to see in art, in any art form, is some sense of composition, order, unity. What we often feel we are lacking are the guidelines by which to judge what was judged created now, right around us.
How do we decide 'what is art?' Sadly, given the free-for-all that can pass as artistic license or liberty, we do not always have the means to make those judgments clearly and we have to rely on instincts or immediate reactions to what we see.
In 1997, I went to the Venice Biennale and had my 6 year old daughter with me (the same daughter from the later third grade class on art). We entered one of the pavilions in the Giardini which had its walls completely covered with cockroaches. And her immediate, stunned question to me was 'is this art?' And my immediate, one word answer was 'no.'
Was it because it was cockroaches, a clearly unpleasant creature to most of us, or because of the lack of structure and/or order in the way they were put on the walls, or perhaps a bit of both? It felt as if the artist wanted to produce an effect of 'anything goes,' and epater le bourgeois- angering the respectable middle class, as it were.

In fact, anything can and does go nowadays, and it is truly getting harder and harder to make sense out of it all. Elephant dung, artist's urine, dead animals- all these can now be found in art exhibitions, sometimes accepted by the galleries or museums, sometimes not.
Creative artists in any field have achieved super celebrity status; so have actors and musicians of all types of music. To the lovers of operatic spectacle, the stage extravaganzas of Lady Gaga seem lewd and ludicrous. All these aspects are a part of the larger phenomenon of art(s) criticism and judgment.
I have not meant to offer any easy or clear answers. All I can say again is that there are a number of elements that can help facilitate trying to answer that question.
The first is an exposure to the arts, from earliest childhood. The more you read, see, listen to and experience, the broader the knowledge becomes. The second is an education in the arts, helping us understand what we are reading, seeing, hearing.
But the last two are the very same elements that refer us back to the example I gave to the third graders: art is NOT science, and therefore the element of time enters in thereby helping us see things differently at different times in our own lives and often only much later down the line.

That never changes in mathematics: 2 x 2 is always 4, no matter when the problem is posed. But, perhaps, like judging fine food or fine wine, judging art comes down to a 'sense of taste and smell,' involving a mysterious, 'je ne sais quoi' quality which cannot always be defined but somehow, when it is there, you know it is good.
Really good."
              - Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Really an age-old question and a kind of Pandora's Box. We know we are in an ever-changing world.  Is the answer the test of time as Passow-Whitman suggested at the end of her blogpost? Is it, like the US Supreme Court's test of pornography the subjective "I know it when I see it?" Or are there shared and agreed conventions and tastes still today that once were the mark of the Academy? Does the commercial world hold the answer with the financial test - if it sells and makes oodles of money does that make it good, does that make it art?

Thanks Ruth Keusch for opening the discussion.

 ~ /// ~

Because I can't resist the Thanksgiving season, I will close with this video clip from the movie "Avalon," directed by former Baltimorean Barry Levinson who captured the immigrant Thanksgiving experience in what I think of as a classic scene. "You cut the turkey without me!?" This is surely art.

Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukah.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Art Island: Venice Biennale 2013

Exterior, Israel Pavilion, Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Now hopping from a fledgling biennale in Jerusalem discussed here to the mother-ship of all biennales, this post focuses on art in the wider world.

Since opportunity struck in the manner of an astute colleague visiting the famous Venice art extravaganza, it is with great pleasure that I have invited guest blogger, curator Ahuva Passow-Whitman, to share her impressions of the Venice Biennale 2013.

One of the recurring issues I have noted throughout Israeli art history and which continues to echo today, is the dissonance between those who wish to emphasize the particularity of national identity as opposed to those seeking to flatten such differences and emphasize the commonalities with all peoples everywhere.

This tension also is reflected in the Venice exhibitions and is just one of the observations Passow-Whitman notes from her dive into the dense art waters of the famous lagoon. An expert in both Israeli Art and art history, she gives us her highlights of the Biennale and context for the Israeli presentation, as follows:

"WATER, WATER-AND ART- EVERYWHERE: Impressions of the 55th Venice Biennale"  by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

The Venice Biennale, established in 1895 as a venue for contemporary art, began its life in a beautiful park on the outskirts of Venice known as the Giardini, which are now organized into 30 national pavilions and one very large central pavilion which houses the main themed exhibition. Later, the Arsenale, once a warehouse to the Venetian fleet, joined as an additional large exhibition space.

Today, the Biennale has grown so much that it has literally invaded the city in every available space. One can hardly walk anywhere within Venice without coming across yet another "collateral" show, as these are known. The buildings used range from deconsecrated churches to empty medieval palaces through educational institutions. Peeking in these spaces can be as much or more of a draw than the art exhibited, so says a Venetian friend, since many are otherwise closed to the public. Another advantage is that they are free, whereas the Giardini and Arsenale charge hefty entrance fees.

I have been fortunate to attend every Biennale since 1997 and able to follow many of the trends in modern art, in what is clearly, the "greatest (in the sense of biggest), non-commercial art show on earth." Of course, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this mega production being in Venice.  The magic of Venice and its vast art treasures invite inevitable comparisons.

Out of national solidarity and curiosity my first stop is always the Israeli Pavilion. Established in 1952, designed by Zeev Rechter, it is a very odd- shaped building and is divided into three equally odd- shaped floors. In the past there have been some excellent shows (Michal Rovner, Yehudit Sasportas, Sigalit Landau), some interesting ones (Guy Ben-Ner) and some strange choices (Rafi Lavie).

Heads on Stands from "Workshop" 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Heads on Stands from "Workshop" 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
This year Gilad Ratman (born 1975) represented Israel in Venice. Like so many other artists today, video was his main choice of medium and he created a piece which is called The Workshop which spreads out over the pavilion. It is meant to show the progress of a group of his friends from caves in northern Israel, through the earth, as it were, arriving through a hole, ostensibly dug in the floor of the pavilion itself. This group created clay heads in which microphones were placed, making unintelligible sounds and are exhibited on wooden stands dispersed in the space. Their creation is also documented in a video. The main video screen seen at the entrance shows the artist playing on a synthesizer (which itself is placed next to the screen), beating out very loud trance music.

There is basically no explanation to all of this; you have to try and figure out the progress of the group and the meanings of all these sounds. I found it rather amateurish and, frankly, unsettling. This is not the first time that video works cause that sensation; it seemed more like MTV clips put together than a coherent, complete work of art. I feel that there are far better artists on the Israeli scene who could have been chosen to represent the immense creativity we enjoy here.

Compared to the Great Britain pavilion, the Israeli entry came up even shorter. English Magic, an immense and varied work by Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller, also used videos and music as parts of its many elements. But what a difference! The main video, starting with a slow motion flight of a rare Harrier, sets the mood for a hypnotizing aura. In contrast to Ratman’s work, the music pulls you in, rather than pushes you away.
Stonehenge video from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Stonehenge video from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

One of the most charming scenes shows a huge inflatable trampoline showing a mock up of Stonehenge, also made of giant inflated balloons. As a group of children happily jump on the central area, Stonehenge collapses before your eyes. While entertaining in itself, another layer of meaning could be a darker message warning about the future of Britain.

Tea sign from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Tea sign from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Additionally, the pavilion shows various aspects of English life and culture in many unexpected ways, including one of the rooms simply called "Tea," in which every visitor could partake of a (free) cuppa, sit down, rest and relax and contemplate the moment in the midst of an intense artistic visit. In our globalized era, it is actually quite refreshing to see a pavilion that celebrates its national character rather than succumbing to the trend to homogenizing distinctions in favor of the universal.
"Bang" 2010- 013 by Ai Wei-Wei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
"Bang" 2010-2013 by Ai Weiwei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Global mixing is very much the order of the day in the Biennale: the German offering is showing, amongst other artists, the famous Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei. Two years ago, Israeli Yael Bartana exhibited in the Polish pavilion. Also, this year, France and Germany decided to exchange their pavilions, so you see the German contribution in the French pavilion and vice-versa. This is becoming more and more popular and underscores progressive thought that there are no national boundaries or style. Very often one feels that if there weren't a title or name on the pavilion, you would have no idea which country was being represented. Also, with so much video art exhibited, in the event of an electrical outage, one suspects there would be many fewer works to see.

The main pavilion, known as the "Encyclopedic Palace" serves, as always, as the exhibition space for many different artists chosen by Massimiliano Gioni, the Biennale's curator.  Named after a work created in 1955 by a self-taught Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, the piece was a model of an imaginary museum that was meant to house all the world's knowledge. As Gioni said, his work examines “the point at which this desire becomes an obsession." Obviously, any exhibition with such a goal will encounter trouble making sense of it and giving it direction. In fact, one has the feeling of being lost and trying to decipher what it all means. Very few rooms leave you with the impression of having seen something meaningful and worthwhile.

One of those rooms which stood out shows powerful black paintings by Thierry de Cordier, with small sculptures made of steel blocks by Richard Serra sharing the space. The central pavilion is a rather dizzying experience.

The last national pavilion I viewed in the Giardini was from Belgium showing work by Belinde de Bruyckere, showing a single display in a totally black environment. Called Cripplewood, the work consisted of an enormous tree lying on its side, with parts of it bandaged as if to try and heal it, surrounded by benches provided for contemplation. Photography was prohibited to avoid breaking the aura of the sad darkness that enveloped the spectator. Very powerful and moving, it was enhanced by a short text by South African writer, J.M.Coetzee.

Some of the spaces themselves were fascinating venues, such as a deconsecrated Baroque church in the center of Venice which housed an exhibition called Glasstress. Venice and its neighboring islands have long been associated with the craft and manufacture of glass, usually in a decorative context. This exhibit was mounted by an association of contemporary artists who explore glass as a fine art medium.
Glass work with church interior, from "Glasstress" 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Glass work with church interior, from "Glasstress" 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Their effort shown was essentially molten glass poured over machine engines. The juxtaposition between the surroundings and the exhibition was striking, with an additional sensory reaction achieved upon entering the exhibition, where one was enveloped by Vivaldi's music being played as an effective promo for a concert scheduled a few hours later in the same space. All combined to leave the visitor with a complex multi-sensory response.

Of all the smaller pavilions I saw, the Irish one was the most shattering on two levels: the exhibition itself, and the surroundings. The show, called The Enclave was a series of six video screens of films not shown simultaneously, nor set out in a way that they could all be seen at the same time. A cooperative effort of the Irish director, Richard Mosse, and American cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, who document the on-going civil war in the Congo by using an infra red camera, which turned everything green to red – so that trees and uniforms were tinged red. The images gave the viewer the impression of blood being spilt everywhere. With war-like noises as the audio, the often violent images were very hard to watch. The quality and displacement of the double-sided screens were reminiscent of the works of Bill Viola, whose videos are in their own league.

Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

That pavilion was very small, completely dark, and housed in an old Venetian building that stands at the very end of a tiny alleyway. When exiting after watching the 39 minute exposition of war, one almost falls into the Grand Canal, with its calm waters, gently floating gondolas and breathtaking architecture, resulting in a shock to senses and sensibility.

"Perspectives" 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
"Perspectives" 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Every now and then the Biennale gets it right, as it did in a work by British designer, John Pawson, who showed a very small work set in a very large space. His piece, (another collateral exhibit, this one supported by the Swarovski Foundation), named Perspectives, is a half dome, set on its rounded side, and made of a large piece of Swarovski crystal. A smaller round piece of crystal is placed in the center, reminiscent of a candy bowl or ash tray. Despite its small-scale, the piece does not get lost in the breathtaking cavernous church of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio.When looking down at this “crystal ball” sliced in half, the church is literally turned upside down in its reflections, leaving the spectator feeling an imbalance between past and present.

Overall, seeing the greats of Venetian art and its unique architecture leaves one asking the question: in another 500 years, it is most likely that Titian and Tintoretto will still be remembered and admired. Who, from the Biennale, will share that honor?

Only time will be the judge.

Having said that, it is still very much worthwhile visiting the Biennale to see our world through the eyes of artists today, for good and for ill.

Ahuva Passow-Whitman,  served as Senior Curator at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for 28 years, where she was responsible for maintaining and enlarging the Permanent Collection, installing art works throughout the campus grounds and mounting varied special exhibitions.

The Venice Biennale 2013 ends November 24.

This post was originally published on Times of Israel here or:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The GA and The Road Not Taken

"Judean Hills" c. 3013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Earlier today I was having a business breakfast, Israeli style: cafè hafuch and an open lap-top to peruse artwork in a coffee shop. When I mentioned that I was on my way to the GA to my art colleague, she said "what for?"

Indeed, I asked myself the same question. The GA is the grand slam of Jewish organizational life, with the heavy hitters of the Israeli establishment from politicos to soldiers, from journalists to educators, and from CEOs to students, every stripe of mover and shaker meeting eye to eye with the top echelons of the organized Jewish world of North America. This event is a rarity, occurring only once in a five year cycle in Jerusalem. With existential questions such as a nuclear Iran at the forefront of the agenda, and with cries for plurality in religious worship not far behind, what could  a blogger on culture and the arts come away with?

A quick glance through the schedule showed that there was little to come for. Zionism? yes. Start-ups? yes. Medical care? Haves and have-nots? Great Jewish Thoughts? Yes, yes, yes. Lots more than that, yes, but little in the realm of support or overt interest in the more nebulous needs like the visual arts and the spirit of the soul.

Lacking a target panel, I randomly chose one -- a plenary session, aptly em-cee'd by "Times of Israel" editor, David Horowitz, where he lightly interviewed various personalities and success stories in the format of a late-night TV show. These included Ziv Shilon, whose personal story of overcoming combat wounds, involving the loss of an arm and reduced function of his remaining arm, his insistence on returning to active service, followed by his recent decision to attend law school at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herziliya, had everyone in the largest Binyanei ha Ooma auditorium on their feet in honor of this inspiring young man. Though others were very impressive, such as Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of Soda Stream; Eleyezer Shkedy, the CEO of El Al;  MK Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and MK Shelly Yacimovich, the head of the Labor party and Oppostion Leader, no one else touched the attendees in quite the same way.

So, there I was in the audience and my mind wandered. Thirty-four years ago I graduated law school, took my bar exam, boarded an El Al plane and joined my boy friend, now husband, in Israel, going to ulpan to learn Hebrew in the WUJS program in Arad. I would not say I had stars in my eyes, more like dust from the arid desert that surrounded Arad. I had so much to learn, so many gaps in my education to fill. Those were the first steps.

And I stayed. I am reminded of this piece of my childhood:
"...I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." ("The Road Not Taken"- Robert Frost)
It was in this very same building that I, as a WUJS alumna, attended a gathering for Israeli and American students in 1980. I don't even remember what the conference was about. What I do remember is hearing the resentment in the voice of one of the Israeli students who challenged the audience with an impatient question about the burden that Israeli youth were expected to carry in the business of nation-building, a responsibility he felt belonged to all Jews, this a mere seven years following the Yom Kippur War. It had never occurred to me and it struck a nerve.

I was already a changed person, feeling my life, however simple, would have an added significance led here in Israel. Israelis, who were all anxious to go to the States and get a coveted Green Card to work there, were incredulous that two educated American kids would choose to come to Israel.When I would call my relatives to wish them holiday greetings, they would respond with "At od po?" (Are you still here?). No one expected us to stick it out.
El Al Airlines storefront c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

Had I climbed back up the steps (yes, we actually had to climb steps to board the plane back then) on a returning El Al flight, instead of being a player in the great Zionist enterprise, I would have been a spectator.

Had I done the assumed, the obvious, the expected thing, I would have been in the GA audience as a delegate from abroad. I was likely to get a job as a young lawyer in a medium to large firm, sweat bullets till I made partner, maybe get to Israel as a participant in a Young Leadership Mission for UJA. I would have led a life along the typical trajectory. It would have been 34 years of organizational work, dinners, and tributes to the ones doing the lion's share of the work of Zionism, like Ziv.

Had I done the expected thing, the trade-offs would have been obvious. Material success would be on a different standard than we live on, but as the years go by, it seems that we are a bit less needy and life here improves.

The things we cannot measure, the things we cannot track or enumerate, the things that are intangible- are the up side. My children, now all young adults, all were born in Jerusalem, they speak flawless, fluent Hebrew  (not like their mother), and a reasonable English, too. They live and breathe Judaism in the most natural way. They know who they are, they know why they are here and they don't need reminding. Their attitudes to being Jewish are so far off the recent Pew survey, that it is an understatement to say that it is "a different world." The sad picture of young Jewish life that comes through entertainment films like "Jewtopia" which, though having some acerbically spot-on observations, mostly make me quietly cringe.

I exited the convention center with a group of delegates. We were indistinguishable. We all carried our bright green environmentally-friendly GA gift bags with printed material. We all were dressed nicely, though I had made a special effort to only wear locally purchased items in a spurt of economic patriotism. We all spoke English fluently. I share some of the same credentials on my CV. We all care passionately about Israel.

And then they headed straight for the shuttle buses to their hotels, and back to their lives abroad. And I was home in ten minutes.

And that has made all the difference. Sigh.

This post was previously published on the Times of Israel here or:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Art-Up Nation: 'Fringe' Art on The Biennale Map

A Coat for Chicken Little 2013, Cotton, feathers, thread and film, 59 cm. in diameter, by Andi Arnovitz, photo by Avshalom Avital

The Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art is the new kid on the art block. Though the Jerusalem Artists' House has been hosting a Biennale for Drawing since 2001 and it has a strong following amongst art aficionados, one does not come away feeling that there is necessarily an essential tie-in between the Jerusalem location and the art shown. The move to bring together Judaism and contemporary art in Jerusalem takes advantage of the city's centrality to the religion that inspires the art made. The organizers expect that it will be established as a bi-annual event, as the title suggests.

I have invited Dr. Susan N. Fraiman, an expert in Jewish Art, to share her impressions of the ongoing Jerusalem Biennale. Though the news of the festival has been covered widely, including here, here and here, my sense is that this event is much more significant than yet another festival to draw tourists to Jerusalem. Guest blogger, Dr. Fraiman, helps us to see why, as follows:

Few know that one of the first Zionist institutions established in Palestine was not Kibbutz Degania, which was established in 1910, but the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, established in 1906. The pursuit of art was seen as a necessary part of the Jewish national revival by cultural Zionists. In fact, Martin Buber, wrote
"a nation without art is not a nation."
Even Rav Kook wrote a letter to the founders of Bezalel in 1907, comparing the rebirth of Jewish artistic activity to the healing of a sick child. In this light it is an appropriate and most welcome development that for the first time Jerusalem is the site of a "Biennale" of art in dialogue with Jewish sources.

For many years, the Israeli art establishment denied that there could be such a thing as art produced by "religious" Jews, claiming that it would be "enlisted" art, propaganda for religious Judaism. As such, artists coming from a religious perspective were often side-lined, much in the way figurative art was pushed to the margins of Israeli art for at least 20 years.

The blossoming of visual expression among the growing numbers of artists who feel connected to their Jewish heritage belies that claim.Yet, perhaps paradoxically, there are still few professional venues for such artists.

This Biennale was the brain child of Rami Ozeri, 34, originally a student at Bezalel. While certainly not of the size and scope of its famous namesake, the Venice Biennale, Jerusalem's, like Venice's, is spread over a few venues in the city, and each venue has been curated separately. What is uniquely Jerusalem is the connection to Judaism; moreover, the connections are in no way uniformeach exhibit has a slightly different spin on the many aspects of contemporary Jewish art. Most of the art exhibited in the current Biennale relates in some way to Jewish texts or to the Jewish experience, spiritual and historical. Many of the 50 artists represented by works come from the "religious" community, but not all.

This makes for a refreshing (albeit for some, perhaps, overwhelming) blend of media and subject material. At the Hasid Brothers complex in the German Colony one exhibit is called "Now, Now," the other "Here and There." Both exhibits contain figurative, video and conceptual art. The latter has come to the fore in recent years as a vehicle for expression among religious artists, perhaps because it enables them to sidestep issues of representation while at the same time allowing them to grapple with ideas and conceptssometimes in a critical way, sometimes playfully.

A fine example is the work by Andi Arnovitz, A Coat for Chicken Little, in which the artist conflates the American children's tale about an alarmist, worried chicken with the chicken used by many on Yom Kippur eve as a kapparah, an atonement to which one's sins are transferred, much as the biblical scapegoat. The intricately-fashioned garment, a kind of diaphanous collar, is petalled with the artist's regrets/fears/worries—worries that she hasn't been a good daughter or a good mother, to name two.

Ruth Schreiber's video piece, Creating Adam and Eve, attempts to reconcile the two creation stories in the book of Genesis by juxtaposing Jewish texts with animated clay figures as they are formed and then reshaped by the artist, whose (feminine) hand represents the “hand” of the Divine.  It is interesting to note that traditionally, from the 3rd century synagogue of Dura Europos through the arts of medieval Jewish manuscript illumination and up until the modern period, G-d's presence is often portrayed as a hand by Jewish artists. The artist's hand and its manipulation of the figures adds yet another midrashic layer to the texts quoted and depicted in the work, many of which are unfamiliar and even unsettling.

The “Now, Now” exhibit includes several intriguing video pieces. What happens when a group of men transports an object bearing a strong resemblance to the Holy Ark near the Knesset (Guy Briller, holy ark, 2010, video)? There are also a few works whose meanings may be inscrutable for the average visitor (Eran Nave, Untitled, 2013, mixed media)—the kind of works that raise the question of whether the artist creates to communicate or not, and if so, with whom?

The exhibit in Heichal Shlomo in downtown Jerusalem is entitled, "My Soul Thirsts." Nurit Sirkis-Bank, curator of both the exhibit and of the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art housed there, scoured the country to find works expressing a spiritual thirst, a yearning for the "dimension beyond"— whether in an attempt to approach the holy, to experience inner growth, or "to move beyond the here and now and the mundane"— in short, works that succeed in making the intangible tangible or visible in some way.

Many of the artists are well-known: Chana Cromer, Belu-Simion Fainaru, Toby Kahn, Judith Margolis, and Israel Rabinowitz; others less so. Some are the students and teachers of an ultra-orthodox art academy (a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, recently taken under the wing of Bezalel) named "Oman" (artist) but spelled without the "vav" so the name of the academy can be read "Amen."

In the words of the curator,
I wanted to find works in all the media, of all kinds by all kinds of artists, religious and non-religious, teachers and students, men and women.
Sirkis-Bank has succeeded in putting together textile art, painting, photography, and various other media; some works are exhibited in the entrance hall, others on the third floor among the Wolfson Museum's venerable collection of Jewish ritual objects.

"The Child is Not," 2010 Hand dyed linen100 X 75 cm by Chana Cromer, photo by Yair Medina
The Child is Not, 2010 Hand-dyed linen 100 X 75 cm by Chana Cromer,
photo: Yair Medina
The entrance gallery on the right as you enter is dominated by a deceptively understated work by Chana Cromer, The Child is Not, based on Genesis 37:29-30. An off-white garment, open at the sides like a tallit katan, is torn at the front in a kind of zig-zag. We see and feel the implication of Joseph's disappearance at the hands of his brothers, through his brother Reuven's response, extrapolated to his father Jacob's response, and by extension to the loss of any child. The plain linen is also reminiscent of a shroud, so the piece signifies not only the mourner, but the mourned. It succeeds in rendering the unseen visible.

Further down King George Street towards town is the exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, "Thread of Gold." This exhibit, by father, Michael Elkayam, and his daughter, Neta Elkayam, is probably the most coherent of the three exhibitions I visited because of its strong unity—a father and daughter communicating through their art.  While the father has consciously adopted the use of a naïve artistic language, the daughter combines a variety of media and techniques. By doing so she builds and comments on the hidden levels of her father's work.

The title "Thread of Gold" is not only a reference to the threads hanging from the ceiling, but also to the thread of their Moroccan tradition, symbolized by the beautiful gold threads sewn on the garments worn by Moroccan women or used for synagogue embroideries in those communities. Michael Elkayam sees joy and color, birds and fish even in his portrayal of Memorial Day, while Neta Elkayam takes these same symbols and uses them to comment on the difficulties of life in the development town of Netivot, the sacrifices made by the immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s, and on other trials and traumas of Israel society, such as suicide bombings. In addition, she touches on the differential status of men in Moroccan culture as illustrated by Self-portrait as a Bar Mitzvah Boy.
"Baba Gurion,"  2009-10, mixed media on panel,  80 X 70 cm by Neta Elkayam, photo by Susan Nashman Fraiman
Baba Gurion 2009-10, mixed media on panel, 80 X 70 cm by Neta Elkayam,
photo: by Susan Nashman Fraiman

She comments not only on the place of the Moroccans in Israeli society and social injustice, but also on the status of women in Moroccan Jewish society. Despite the seriousness of its subjects, the exhibit is not without humor. In the portrait of Ben-Gurion as the Baba Sali, Baba Gurion, is shown with a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary before him—imagine that twist in modern Jewish history.

One questions whether the Biennale may have to hone itself down more—should it be about whatever "religious" artists are doing, even if the theme is not ostensibly connected in some way to Jewish sources? Moria Levi's series of photographs, Only About Myself, on display at Heichal Shlomo, in which she has photographed herself in recreated Old Master interiors, is one such example.

The Biennale suffers a bit from its newness—the lack of signs on the gates of the Hasid Brothers complex is due to the fact that city has been giving them fines for so doing. The poster/brochures produced are not as user friendly as a more conventional small pamphlet that could have more information about the artists inside (emails, websites, etc.). The range of artistic ability is wide.Yet, for anyone interested in the juncture of Judaism and the arts, the Biennale is a must.

All of these venues could benefit by holding regularly-scheduled gallery talks. Friday October 11 at 12 noon there will be one at the "Now, Now" exhibit at the Hasid Complex on Emek Refaim.  At Heichal Shlomo, there are two-hour informal talks on Sunday mornings devoted to different aspects of the exhibit.  On Sunday, October 13, Professor Ziva Amishai-Maisels will be discussing the works of Yael Avi-Yonah, z"l, at 11 AM.

For 30 shekels one gets a ticket that grants entrance to the three venues charging admission (The Hasid Brothers complex on Emek Refaim, Heichal Shlomo and the Central Gallery of the First Station complex), while the exhibits at Beit Avichai and Musrara are free.

Exact hours and more info at the web site: . Rumor has it that there will be an art sale at the end of the exhibition in support of a future biennale— for further information contact here.
Closing October 31

Dr. Susan Nashman Fraiman received her doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University, specializing in Jewish and Israeli art. In 2012 she served as an adjunct professor at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

This post originally was published on the Times of Israel here or:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Bi-Polar Reaction to Sukkot

"Sukkot Pilgrims, Coming and Going" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
I don’t know if my reaction to Sukkot is clinically bi-polar or not, but there ought to be a way to describe my erratic mood-swings as this week-long holiday approaches.

The anticipation buoys me up, thinking of the preparations underway, the hauling out of decorations made when hands were oh-so-much-smaller, the warm memories of past holidays, I’m all smiles. I love this chag (holiday).

Reality in the Jewish Quarter is what swings my mood the other way, anticipating being at the center of a human onslaught as it seems the entire world is clogging up my streets, making the simplest of errands a Mission Impossible. My shoulders become locked into permanent tension, the bubbling anger rising in me as the strategies of coming and going becomes an escalating theater of the absurd.  I hate this chag.

And so it has gone for many years, living life in the middle of the Jewish Magic Kingdom, but without the E-Z planned access of a corporate resort. Sukkot, a pilgrimage holiday with biblical origins, requires every Jew to visit the Temple in Jerusalem. Not so sure David and Solomon were thinking park ‘n’ ride or rapid transit.

It takes a rugged individualist to live in the Jewish Quarter, and, much like life in Israel overall, it is the intangible and inexplicable that tips how one feels about living here. This is a unique place, unlike any other. That is the compensation for the counter-intuition that bypasses inconveniences which come with this piece of real estate. Indeed, after the Jewish Quarter, everywhere else is Poughkeepsie.

In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em,” I created this video clip to illustrate a bit of the enormously varied crowds that visit the Old City during this week. I found it valuable to turn my camera on the throngs, see them as individuals rather than invaders, and found myself truly marveling at the diversity of the people who value this pilgrimage in our day and age.

It makes me like totally Zen with the holiday, without meds.
"Sukkot: See and Be Seen" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz, All Rights Reserved

This post was originally published on Times of Israel here or

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Looking Out, Looking In: Seaside Reflections for the New Year

"Fishing at Dawn" © 2013 by  Heddy Abramowitz

A view of the sea was mine for a month, but vacation did not win me that pleasure. Family health issues brought me out of my normal environment to a seaside refuge, an apartment on loan in Haifa’s Bat Galim neighborhood, easy walking distance to Rambam Hospital. This chesed (an act of selfless kindness) and countless other such acts large and small, gave me a new slant on Blanche DuBois’ words, when unexpectedly, I found myself depending on the “kindness of strangers”(Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire).

"Samsonov House 1921" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
Bat Galim, Hebrew for “daughter of the waves,” is a neighborhood founded in the early 1920’s, sandwiched between train lines and ocean, with the rise of the Carmel mountain providing a muted backdrop of pine trees to balance the brilliant aqua of the sea. It also reflects the mix of the north, with Jews from every background, Arabs, and Druse taking walks or jogging on the promenade hugging the ocean, though Russian was the predominant language heard. This comfortable mélange was also apparent in the hospital mini-mall and waiting rooms, where families gathered while visiting their relatives, making the accusation of apartheid laughable.
"Bulletin Board, Bat Galim" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Bulletin Board, Bat Galim" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

"Samsonov House Balcony" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
Though the sauna-like humidity was a constant, a cooling breeze off the waves provided relief. It was also a relief be in a zone still under-exploited for commercial purposes, nary a corporate franchise was present. The reasons for that lapse include a hornet’s nest of social, preservation, and planning issues ranging from proposals for a marina to ones for high rises. There is still time to explore this low-key spot before the developers take over.
"Shutters Bat Galim" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

"Shutters Bat Galim" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

There was a mix of structures from different periods: older Templer-style and Bauhaus ones with arched windows, those with crumbling stucco walls and flaking wooden shutters eaten by the salty air, alongside brutally utilitarian apartment blocks. The neighborhood post office never had a line longer than one – and that was just poor timing.

"Mirrored Windows" ©2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Mirrored Windows" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
Windows are of great interest to me, they serve as a both a defender of what is within and an opening to expand outwards, bringing the outside in.   That thought accompanied me as I returned to Jerusalem, where pre-holiday preparations were in full swing.

"Apartment Block" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Apartment Block" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
The contrasts to my sojourn in Bat Galim could not be more striking. Going from an endless unobstructed horizon continuing to lands unseen, I came home to the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, where glimpses of sky are treasured.

"Beachfront Shell" c.2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Beachfront Shell" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

The Jewish Quarter has in recent years become a focus of tour groups who visit to conduct “selichot tours” in the lead-up to Rosh Ha Shana, the Jewish New Year, a time when observant Jews of the Sefardi tradition conduct penitent prayers at dawn complete with shofar blowing for a full month. The Ashkenazi Jews limit this tradition to the night following the Shabbat before the holiday for that week. Whichever the tradition, the observant are in preparations for the somber two days of self-examination that is at the center of Rosh Ha Shana.
"Sun Umbrellas" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Sun Umbrellas"  © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz

The easy-going and skimpy beach-side wear is nowhere to be found. Instead of oppressive humidity, the dry Jerusalem air seems a bit chilly, a welcome re-discovery. Clothing reflects this: for the religious it is a question of modesty, for the secular, it is common sense.

The nature-ordered schedules of surfers, wind-sailors, dawn to dusk sun-worshipers, and fishermen, are replaced by the devoted Jerusalemites who keep to their prayer schedules; the Jews seek out synagogues three times a day, the muezzin calls out five times a day, and the church bells chime the hours as they pass. Both lifestyles share an order and devotion to something greater than themselves.

"Beach Walkers" c. 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
"Beach Strollers" © 2013 by Heddy Abramowitz
The rhythmic pounding of the waves have come home with me and will remind me that people, essentially, have the capacity for wonderful acts of kindness, which I saw in so many ways over the long period leading up to and including the last month, relatives, friends and strangers alike.

With much gratitude, best wishes for continued health, and peace in the New Year.

This post was originally published on The Times of Israel here or: