Category Archives: Art

Jewish Ritual Reinvented

If you’re in New York or are planning to be, you need to get to the Jewish Museum and check out their latest exhibit, “Reinventing Ritual, survey of “the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that has occurred since the mid-1990s.”

The exhibit celebrates the post-modern age as a time in which Jewish ritual can be radical as well as a return to its elemental basics:

This attitude of innovation is shared by a wide range of artists inclusive of generation, nationality, and religion. Contemporary artists and designers focus on Judaism as a lived experience by transforming the physical acts of ritual into new forms.

Outstanding works of industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, installation, and textiles from Europe, Israel, and North America reveal the diversity within Judaism. The exhibition will present works in thematic groups and environments that suggest the spaces and situations in which ritual is performed.

Here at JRC, we’re particularly honored that our new synagogue building is included in the exhibit. The Museum was interested in our LEED Platinum rated facility because “its principle of active conservation is at the heart of the exhibition.”

If you can’t make it to NYC, you can still see and read about many amazing pieces from the exhibit at the Museum website (like artist Michael Berkowitz’s combination wedding dress/amulet, above).

Eerie Harmony, Hot Rhythm and Radical Braininess

You haven’t discovered Charming Hostess yet?  Well, if you’re interested in the latest in the radical Jewish creative spirit unleashed, then you’ve been sleeping on the job.

There’s no way I could do them justice, so I’ll let them describe themselves:

Charming Hostess is a whirl of eerie harmony, hot rhythm and radical braininess. Our music explores the intersection of text and the sounding body – complex ideas expressed physically, based on voice and vocal percussion, handclaps and heartbeats, sex-breath and silence. We live where diasporas collide, incorporating piyyutim and Pygmy counterpoint, doo-wop and niggunim, work songs and Torah chanting.

ChoHo’s leader is Jewlia Eisenberg, a San Francisco-based  “composer, extended-technique vocalist, lay cantor” who has been exploring exciting musical terrain with a variety of collaborators.  Their last CD, “Sarajevo Blues,”  juxtaposed music and text from the Jewish, African, and Bosnian Diasporas to explore

(Genocide) and nationalism, freedom under siege, the nature of evil, and resisting war by any means necessary – themes that Jews think about, maybe even obsess over.

And if that’s not enough for you, just check out ChoHo’s current work-in-progress, “The Bowls Project:”

The Bowls Project is an immersive music performance that takes place in a dome. (It) is based on texts from incantation bowls, common amulets 1500 years ago in Babylon. Simple clay bowls were inscribed with a householder`s secrets and desires, then buried under the house. Incantation bowls speak of mysticism and sex; angels and demons;and the trials and joys of daily life. Especially (and unusually) audible are the voices of the era`s women–their work, hopes, and dreams.

These spiraled Aramaic inscriptions from the same time and place as the Talmud open up a larger discussion: of the connections between material and literary culture, between canonized and marginalized voices, between ritual power and popular practice, and of how music mediates these relationships.

Click the link below to  “Yedidi,” my personal favorite from “The Bowls Project.”  On the YouTube clip above Jewlia Eisenberg performs the classic Ladino lullaby “Durme, Durme” at the 2008 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.

The Voice of Reason and Honest Hearts in Dark Times

I’ve been reading With an Iron Pen, a newly translated anthology of Israeli protest poetry from the past two decades.  I can’t recommend it enough – especially for those prefer poetry that goes straight to the heart and the gut.

Though I’d heard of some of these poets, I was unfamiliar with the remarkable depth and breadth of this particular genre.  It’s a diverse collection with one critical aspect in common: all these poems express a powerful voice of protest against Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians dating back to the days of the First Intifada. The collection felt to me like nothing other than forty-two poets letting loose one singular prophetic howl of rage and sorrow over what their nation has wrought.

And like all protest poetry, this is art that clearly seeks to transform. As the editors write in introduction:

The ethical stand taken by the poets and poems of this anthology represents today the minority position – a minority that is seen by the majority of the Jewish Israeli public as “self-hating” and as desecrators of sacred ideals. And still, throughout history, literary creations have expressed  the forbidden and revolutionary and have preceded – in fact precipitated – changes in attitudes and societal norms. The day will come when the poems collected in With an Iron Pen will be read as the voice of reason and of honest hearts in dark times.

I see something quintessentially Jewish in the inner struggle reflected these poems – and at the same time, the tradition of protest they draw upon is so clearly universal.  I can’t help but think that these works represent, in their way, a contemporary form of sacred text.

Check out Richard Silverstein’s wonderful review for Tikkun. Click below for two of my particular favorites from the collection:

Continue reading

Underground Genesis

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OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.

Banksy and the Art of Protest

I just read that the famed anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy is mounting his largest project to date: an unusual showcasing of his work at England’s  Bristol Museum. Although this particular project was legit, it still bears the hallmarks of Banksy’s trademark guerrilla approach:

He filled three stories of the building with his art in 36 hours under tight security, as only a few museum staff were aware of the shows’ imminent arrival.

His work is hidden among the museum’s usual exhibits and is split into different rooms, including installations, paintings and sculptures.

Reading this reminded me of another one of Banksy’s projects:  a series of amazing protest art he painted along Israel’s barrier wall a few years ago.  Scroll down to see some of the more well-known images he put up in Bethlehem.  Click the clip above to see the mysterious artist in action…

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The Ottomans: Gone But Not Forgotten

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Read an interesting article in the NY Times Saturday about the new $200 million museum opening in Athens. Apparently there is now hope in Greece that it will become the permanent home for the Parthenon Marbles – an ancient frieze from the Parthenon that was taken by the British in the early 19th century.

Toward the end of the article:

Greece retains only 36 of the 115 original panels from the Parthenon frieze, which depicts a procession in honor of the goddess Athena. Britain has long asserted that when (British Ambassador) Lord Elgin chiseled off the sculptures some 200 years ago, he was acting legally, since he had permission from Greece’s Ottoman rulers.

Ottoman law, Ottoman law…

Something about this sounded strangely familiar – then it hit me. Ottoman law has also been invoked in defense of a very different sort of theft: namely Israel’s nationalization of Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories.

From a 2005 B’tselem report:

The declaration of the territory as state land was grounded on a manipulative use of the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, which was absorbed in the British mandatory legislation, and later in Jordanian law. According to the 1858 law, the state may take possession of land that is not worked for three consecutive years. In accordance with the military legislation, through which the Ottoman Law was applied, the burden of proof was on the person contending that his parcel of land is not state land.

Who knew? It’s almost a hundred years since the Ottoman empire went under, but its legal genius is still appreciated more than ever…

Theater of Crisis in Israel/Palestine

It seems that two remarkable, powerfully self-reflective theater productions are currently being staged in the same little patch of land: “Gaza-Ramallah,” a Palestinian play produced by The Haya Theater in Ramallah; and “Bat-Yam-Tykocin,” staged jointly by The Habima Theater and the Contemporary Theater of Wroclaw in Tel Aviv.

For its part, “Gaza-Ramallah” appears to skewer Gazan and West Bank culture with equal opportunity satire. Interestingly, Palestinian actor/playwright Imad Farajin chooses not to dwell on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but instead turns his sights on Gaza’s materialistic consumer culture. He seems to be just as unsparing in his portayal of Palestinian Authority corruption in the West Bank.  From an Amira Hass feature in Ha’aretz:

It is a culture where Palestinian businessmen, politicians, dialogue and research institution directors associate with Israeli counterparts and former senior military officers and the Shin Bet security service. A culture that allows a few individuals to accumulate wealth at the expense of the struggle against occupation. It is the “Oslo culture,” which has given peace, dialogue and coexistence a bad name.

“Bat-Yam-Tykocin” appears to be equally as emotionally/politically raw.  The pair of plays, written by an Israeli playwrignt and a Polish playwright respectively, is performed in Polish and Hebrew and takes head-on some of the common assumptions Jews and Poles harbor about the Holocaust.  The results seem to be, understandably enough, fairly challenging and painful – you can read more about the production in another newsy Ha’aretz piece.

I’m consistently struck by the ways theater can address the inner truths of complex issues in ways that far transcend media reports and history books. And I’m heartened that in the midst of this tragic crisis, there are still Palestinians and Jews who are ready to plumb their respective experiences with unflinching honesty…

The clip up top features “Bat Yam” in rehearsal; below you can see an excerpt from “Gaza-Ramallah.” (No subtitles, however – you may have to find an Arabic-speaking friend to translate).