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Jews and the Arts

The theme of this month’s issue of JLife is Jewish art. When we think of Jews and “the arts,” both visual and performance, several areas come to mind: film, Broadway, painting and sculpture, music and dance, etc. But what makes it Jewish? Is it the artist or the subject? Is it the echoes of Jewish themes found in the music of George and Ira Gershwin or in Marvel comics?
One could say that Jewish art actually began when Betzale was commissioned to create the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And despite the prohibition of the second commandment,“You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” Jewish art flourished, reflecting the experiences and culture of the Jewish people. By embracing the concept of “hiddur mitzvoth” (beautification of the commandments) and focusing on creating ritual objects of great beauty, we “skirted” the second commandment, one could say. Splendid murals with narrative scenes from the Bible covered an early fourth century synagogue’s walls; painted tiles of zodiacal symbols ornamented their ceilings. Visual art was also used to decorate texts, for example the well-known Sarajevo haggadah, and of course the ketubot. Music, always an integral part of Jewish worship, thrived as well. With the Enlightenment, Jews began exploring other subjects for their artistic endeavors. They often reflected their Jewish identities, but some Jewish artists did not incorporate their Jewishness at all.
As artistic expression extended into theater and film, Jewish artists, writers, musicians and performers began to make their mark as well.
In the early twentieth century, Yiddish Theater rivaled English-language theater in quantity and often in quality. There were over a dozen Yiddish theater groups in New York City alone. As many sought to adapt to the culture of their adopted country, they adapted their art as well.
The settling and establishment of the State of Israel in the twentieth century provided another dimension to Jewish art. Many young, often European Jews came to the Land of Israel as pioneers, and their connection to the land accentuated their art. As numbers of Jews made aliya, they brought their talents, adding to the growth of other art forms.
Just what constitutes Jewish art is a question that has no simple answer. And it is an example of the larger subject we will be exploring in our series, “What is Jewish,” in the next several issues.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A. has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.

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