Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why, Despite My Obviously-Hebrew-Sounding Name, I Resist Calling Myself a Zionist Artist

by Menahem Wecker

When I introduce myself in social or professional contexts, my name generally draws either blank stares or requests that I repeat my name or spell it. Often my new acquaintance tries several times in vain to pronounce my name, and I usually reassure her or him that the final attempt was close enough.

On very rare occasions, the person smiles and reminds me that I share a given name with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. I usually respond in jest that Mr. Begin adopted my name, hoping my tone masks my discomfort with the entire enterprise and my identification with Mr. Begin. I have nothing against the late politician, per se — I do not consider myself sufficiently versed in Israeli political history to have any sort of educated position on the man or his political career — but I am uncertain where I stand on the issue of Zionism, both past and contemporary.

However much it makes me feel like a freshman timidly introducing a class presentation with a lame disclaimer and preemptive apology for the disgraceful quality of the work I am about to present, I must admit that I am very conflicted as I sit to write this essay.

On the one hand, the title of one of the paintings which I most enjoyed creating, and which, years later, I continue to take pleasure in, is “Jerusalem.” It represents a vision of the Old City viewed from the German colony, where I loved spending hours on end at a restaurant and bar called Alexander’s listening to the Israeli and Palestinian musicians playing with the late Jazz legend Arnie Lawrence. For a small cover fee, I could spend hours mesmerized by the music, and by the idea of the collaboration. When my grandparents came to visit, I took them both to the bar, and my grandmother and I drew the musicians, particularly the pianist whose hands danced across the keyboard. When we got up to leave, my grandfather proudly presented the musician with both of our sketches.

I modeled my palette for the painting on the phrase, Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem of gold, and I juxtaposed deep purples with bright yellows and ochres. I hoped the colors and forms of the Tower of David would appear to reach out to the heavens, all the while resembling branches – perhaps of the Tree of Life, said to sustain all of those who had the faith to reach out and grasp a hold of it, or the sly trap of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, all the more mesmerizing because it was the only one-way ticket out of paradise.

In the painting, I tried to capture the disorientation of not knowing where the heavens ended and the earth began. In my studies at the yeshiva I attended about mid-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I had been stumbling my way through a variety of Chassidic and Kabbalistic texts, many of which discussed Rabbah bar bar-Chana, a Jewish version of Odysseus, who took fantastical journeys into the bowels of the earth and into the heavens above, and who encountered monsters that could have come out of one of the paintings of the early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch.

One such story (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Bathra, folio 74a) that particularly impressed me found Rabbah bar bar-Chana traveling to the place where the heavens meet the earth, with an Arab merchant as his guide. When the two arrived, they found it to be full of windows (Hebrew, arubot ha-shamayim). Rabbah bar bar-Chana placed the basket he was carrying on one of the window sills while the two scouted out the area. When they returned, the basket was gone, so Rabbah bar bar-Chana wondered aloud, “Is it possible that there are burglars even in heaven?!”

It seems Rabbah bar bar-Chana was confused himself about the distinction between heavenly and earthly realms. He must have been thinking that Judaism really was unique if God allowed thieves into paradise. But the merchant assured his guest that robbers were not to blame. Instead, the heavens rotated regularly, and if Rabbah bar bar-Chana would only return at the same time the next day he would find his basket. And so he did.

Perhaps, rather than trying to present a bird’s or worm’s eye view of Jerusalem in my painting, I was pursuing a Rabbah bar bar-Chana’s eye view — where Leviathans were as likely to surface as frogs and snakes so large that they could swallow entire villages. My Jerusalem was not only made of gold but also of myths and dreams and visions.

When one of my art teachers told me I would love Israel, because the light was so different there, I did not quite understand how that was possible. A light is a light is a light, I was convinced. Sure I would need to buy new converters, because the outlets that I needed to plug my lights into would be different, but surely the light is a universal phenomenon that manifests itself in pretty much the same way without political, ethnic or religious distinction or discrimination.

I figured it out almost immediately on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, though. Where my peers often confounded me with their declarations about their love for the “spirituality” of the land – try as I did, I must confess I never felt any such thing that I would be comfortable characterizing as “spiritual” – I certainly was conscious of a different aesthetic, a fresh color scheme. I could not find any outstanding levels of religious or moral purity in the Holy Land, but I did find the way the sunlight played off the surfaces of the Jerusalem stone in the Old City to be in a rare form of purity.

Luckily, I had brought two duffel bags with me for the year – one with clothes, and the other stuffed with a roll of canvas, a staple gun, staples, pliers, brushes, charcoal, paints, sketch pads and an easel. When I should have been attending classes, I was alternating hitchhiking to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv each day, either visiting museums and galleries or drawing and painting.

Today, I can hardly call myself a painter in anything but aspiration. My connection with art often seems parasitic. I am an art critic for several publications, mostly religious ones, but I rarely am able to find the time to create my own work.

I am also quite uncomfortable with the notion of calling myself a Zionist.

I grew up in Modern Orthodox and regular old Orthodox communities and often went to Hassidic synagogues — all communities where it was assumed that everyone was a Zionist. When I proudly updated the alumni community director of my high school with the information that I was one of the lead publicists for an event that brought former President Jimmy Carter to speak in Washington at The George Washington University, I was not surprised that the news did not make its way into the alumni newsletter.

I have come to resist the label, in part, because I am not wholly confident that I even properly grasp the meaning of the word ‘Zionist.’

I certainly wish peace for Israelis and Palestinians (and for the rest of the world too, while I am at it), but if I am brutally honest with myself, I feel I am an American primarily, and it is not unusual for days to pass without my once thinking about Israel.

“If I forget thee, O’ Jerusalem,” the psalmist famously declared, “let me forget my right hand.” I have surely forgotten Jerusalem, and if my right hand is symbolic of my painting arm, I have neglected that as well.

When I studied in Israel for those 10 or 11 months, I came to realize that one of the main things I had been taught in my day school education was a myth. In Israel, a Jew can always feel free and safe to openly be a Jew, the rabbis and teachers at my Modern Orthodox day school had taught me and my colleagues, and even if everyone else threw us out (why did it so often degenerate to an us versus them situation?), Israel would accept us with open arms. Somehow I was not convinced that we could expect a replication of the miracle where the Temple courtyard opened up to accommodate far more worshippers than the fire codes would have permitted. Could Israel really accommodate every Jew if push came to shove?

I am partly convinced that Israel could be a safe haven for some of the world’s Jewry if a minor disaster did transpire. But in Israel, I was made to feel not like a Jew, but like an American primarily, and a Jew coincidentally. The rabbis at the yeshiva, many of whom were Americans who had moved to Israel (made aliyah), often shared writings with the me and my peers of rabbis like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who stated that there was no such thing as a Jew outside of Israel.

Just minutes after the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, some of the Israeli children at the Sha’alavim boys’ school responded happily, “Now the Americans will know how we feel.” I am not blaming the young boys for their perspective – they did not know any better, and must have felt frustrated that the rest of the world did not and could not grasp the devastation that accompanies terrorism – but I cite the story to illustrate how different their perspective was. It was almost like we were two very different types of Jews, and I certainly did not feel like I was the imposter and they were the prototype I should be aspiring to join.

And yet, there is something that I have noticed in the drawings of the Ukrainian artist Ephraim Moses “E. M.” Lilien, co-founder of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which has affected me in a way that no other work has. I believe it has affected me precisely for its religious and Zionist content.

I have a poor visual memory generally, and I can’t ever seem to remember my dreams – surely a prerequisite for a Zionist! But Lilien’s art nouveau Theodor Herzl-as-Moses (1908), infused (at least for me) with the eroticism and the absinthe scented drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, is something I have not been able to get out of my mind since my friend Amy Stempler, an expert in Jewish library science and assistant professor at the College of Staten Island, showed it to me at the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection in Washington, D.C.

I am pretty sure Lilien was not only pining back to the bible, to the time of Moses and to the drawings Beardsley had composed just over a decade earlier of Salome dancing with the severed head of John the Baptist on a platter. There is something timeless yet derivative about placing modern heads on historical figures or characters from religious texts. I am thinking of all the medieval artists who appended their patrons’ features to the bodies of saints and prophets and of the late painter, caricaturist, social critic and political satirist David Levine, who told me he loved drawing caricatures of the Roman busts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There is something unique in Lilien’s Moses-as-Herzl, which I will take as a microcosm of the larger field of art and Zionism. I sense something similar in the tortured (yet dignified) faces of Anna Ticho’s subjects (her husband’s patients) and Hermann Struck’s portraits of rabbis. Just as James Joyce’s nostalgia for Dublin was so personal and deeply felt, and yet clearly in retrospect so universal, so too is the nostalgia, sorrow, love, memory and tradition of Jerusalem unique to Jews and Jewish artists.

In Lilien’s Assyrian, or Babylonian looking Herzl-Moses, one cannot help but be struck by the collision – or even simultaneous cohabitation – of the ancient past with modernity.

I am not sure I am an artist or a Zionist. I would certainly resist the title of Zionist artist. But I would be lying if I pretended that I am not sometimes affected by works that I would be comfortable identifying as Zionist art.

Take Rembrandt’s 1640 painting Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, which is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

There is more than enough emotion in the face of the broken old man who has seen his horrifying prophecies realized. Jeremiah sits beneath a column (generally symbolic of fortitude, but here perhaps an ironic prop meant to signify anything but stability and safety) hunched over with his head resting on his left hand. Although well dressed, he is barefoot and sits in a depressingly dark and amorphous space, perhaps a cave. Jeremiah’s elbow rests on a book, inscribed ‘Bibel,’ no doubt a later addition to the work.

In the top left register of the painting, the destruction of Jerusalem can be seen, and one can just barely make out fires and the Jewish king Zedekiah, clutching his eyes which Nebuchadnezzar had ordered be put out. What appears to be a domed building above Zedekiah might represent Solomon’s Temple.

Jeremiah had of course prophesied the temple’s destruction, and Rembrandt captures the prophet as he is overcome with the pain of watching events unfold in real time that he had foreseen. It was too late for repentance; this was no situation like Jonah’s preemptive warnings to the denizens of Nineveh. It was more like Noah holing himself up in his ark.

The prophet’s posture reminds me a little of Daumier’s work, O’ Moon, Inspire Me, which depicts a woman gazing longingly up at the moon. She curses her husband, while Jeremiah mourns the temple, but there is something in the gaze of both figures that is not easy to forget.

Daumier’s work is humorous in a biting way, because it is so familiar. Rembrandt’s Jeremiah is more majestic and distant, but I find it very hard to avoid bringing everything I know about Jerusalem and the bible into the work.

In the course of covering the intersection of Judaism and art for several years, I have often written about Israeli art. Often that art was about victimhood – whether depicting Holocaust memory or suicide bombing – but there is another sort of art that is affirmative in its delineation of the Israeli experience.

One of the Israeli artists whose work has most interested me is Mel Alexenberg, whose book, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, I reviewed in 2007.

I thought Alexenberg’s memorial to the would-be victims of an Iranian attack on Israel was witty and gutsy, and his analysis of the paradigm shift from what he called Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness was both scholarly and accessible.

I appreciated Alexenberg’s art and aesthetic analysis not because his subject matter – Jewish sacred texts, Israel, etc. – were so familiar to me and because they made my nostalgic. Alexenberg and his work are important because he is an artist first, and a creator of Zionist art second. I do not mean to raise the question of hyphenated identities (American Jew, or Jewish American?), and I am certain that Alexenberg would say his faith and his life views cannot be separated from his art.

But it is very important to note that Alexenberg (and many of his colleagues who create Jewish and Israeli art) is not an outsider artist. He has classical training and extensive experience. His art is often about Zionism – and it could be argued by some to even be Zionist – but it is art first, and about Zionism second. Anything else would approach kitsch.

In researching my review, I asked Alexenberg about the would-be memorial, and wondered if it was inviting the evil eye.

“What I’m doing is using my abilities as a new media artist to issue a wakeup call to an indifferent world and to Jews with their heads in the sand and warn of a horrific danger facing Israel and all the free world,” he told me. “To hell with an evil eye. It is evil to sit back and do nothing.”

Although most trends in modern and contemporary art have been toward a deconstructionist (or post-structuralist, or frankly, post-anything-ist) where absolutes like ‘evil’ do not exist (or simultaneously exist and do not exist), Alexenberg confidently states that his art has amulet-like properties. It reminds me of a conversation I had with painter Archie Rand, presidential professor of art at Brooklyn College, where he stated that his works are Jewish precisely because he states that they are Jewish.

Tom Barron, a Boston-based painter, has often told me that a painting is Jewish if its mother is Jewish. Rand, who recently exhibited a 613 canvas series (one per commandment according to the Maimonidean tally), is a Jewish parent so he insists his work is too.

Religious painters, I have found, often create their art in a void for a non-existent public. Religious institutions and clergy often adopt cautious approaches to engaging art, and often censor it. Secular museums and galleries, meanwhile, often consider sacred art to be the worst kind of kitsch. Rand’s The 613 and many other works with significant religious content are caught in the no-man’s land between two hostile territories. He and his colleagues, he once told me, create work that holds up a flag to test enemy firepower.

If Jewish art is the red-headed stepchild of the art world, Israeli or Zionist art is not even invited to the family outings. If I had a shekel for every Israeli artist who diluted the impact of her or his work by stressing how “internationalist” the style was, I would be purchasing real estate in Tel Aviv. Often, it takes many more Google searches than it should to find the nationality and place of birth of artists with obviously Hebrew names. They simply do not state it on their websites, either (I assume) because they are afraid of the conclusions others will draw, or because they themselves are unsure about or uncomfortable with their identities.

The only parallel experience I have had has been with artists affiliated (or formerly affiliated) with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Some share images of Jesus on their websites, but they bury the word ‘Mormon,’ if it even appears on their websites to begin with.

Even if I do not identify as a Zionist artist, I applaud artists who firmly share their political and religious convictions in their work. One of the things I enjoy most about studying sacred art is the element of self-portraiture. In every biblical scene, the artist infuses the work with her or his personal interpretations of the scene (is Moses dressed in so-called “biblical” garb, or contemporary attire? How was the sacrifice of Isaac choreographed?).

The same can be said of Zionist art. It stands to reason that a country whose cab drivers so readily discuss politics and history (reminding me of the taxi drivers in Washington, D.C., where I live) should also produce artists whose works wear their politics and theology on their sleeves. Rav Kook noted this in his writings, in addition to warning the students of the Jerusalem-based Bezalel Academy of Fine Arts about some of the dangers of art-making. Alexenberg picks up, in some ways, where Rav Kook left off, by not only using art cautiously, but even using his work to thwart evil.

Perhaps the most promising (and brilliant) aspect of Alexenberg’s analysis of the Hebraic consciousness, and of many of his installations and performances, is its forward thinking. Long ago, I lost count of the astonishing and ever-increasing number of blogs Alexenberg has created and authored, and he has embraced Facebook and Twitter like someone a quarter of his age. He sees these new and social media platforms as not only means to publicize his art projects, but also as media that are in their own right Zionist and Jewish networks.

It is too early to tell if Alexenberg is right about the impact of new and social media. It will be a long time before we know if the projects stand the test of time. But it is very exciting to see how they, and the Zionist and Jewish artists who are embracing them, are changing the way we think about art and art history.

Despite my name — which happens to be Alexenberg’s first name too, it is worth noting — I am not comfortable identifying myself as part of the phenomena I describe above. Nor do I want to stake out a position that is in opposition to the communities of Zionist artists. As an interested bystander and observer, I am fascinated and humbled by what I have observed over the past few years. And thanks to artists like Alexenberg and Rand, and many others like them, I eagerly anticipate what the future will bring.

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