Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, where he has been teaching since 1992 and was the first director of Jewish studies, will be the one-month community scholar in the 12th Annual Community Scholar Program. He will speak on “People of the Image: Jewish Identities, Politics & Theology via the Arts” at various venues around Orange County from January 2 to 28.
According to Epstein, Jews have classically been viewed as people of the book, rather than people of the image. “Jewish art,” when it is discussed, is generally relegated to the realm of illustrating customs and ceremonies, but the visual arts have been at the center of the Jewish experience.
Epstein, who teaches courses on medieval Christianity, religion, arts and politics, and Jewish texts and sources, graduated from Oberlin College, received his PhD at Yale University and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written numerous articles and three books on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for and about Jews. During the 80s, Epstein was director of the Hebrew books and manuscripts division of Sotheby’s Judaica department and continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world.
Orange County Jewish Life caught up with Epstein recently. For details, contact the Community Scholar Program at (949) 682-4040 or www.occsp.org.
What’s a nice boy from a Hassidic background doing studying art and art history? I am the product of a “mixed marriage” between the scions of Slonimer and Lubavitcher Hassidim and Romanian socialists. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in sort of a hippie household with Hassidic influences. The compromise was that I went to Conservative day school, where I learned midrash and rabbinic text and became comfortable in both worlds. I look at medieval art that floats over the substratum of midrashic texts and see the whole thing as a species of commentary.
I read art the way people read Rashi. People have lost the ability to do so. I wanted to become an interpreter of art. Art is an accoutrement of life.
How did you get started studying Jewish art? Why do you prefer to talk about “Jews and art” than “Jewish art”? And why do you prefer to call it “Jewish visual culture”? Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “Jewish art”? My father taught me how to look, and my mother taught me how to read. I wanted to know what Jews were doing artistically in the Middle Ages, especially animal manuscripts. I went to Israel at age 17 as a junior in college and met Professor Bezalel Narkiss at Hebrew University. He was tops in the field of Jewish art. He said that no image of an animal in any Jewish manuscript has any meaning beyond decorative. He said he was opposed to my work, and that fueled me to “pursue the unpursueable.”
We don’t know who made the art, but we know that Jews paid for the art, that they were viewers, that a repetitive audience was Jewish. Visual culture is not simply what hung on walls but included things that people use – from Kiddush cups to ads for pastrami to clothing – anything that could be encountered visually. I wanted to know whether it was a symbol of Jewish identity or a way of showing how Jewish consciousness works.
Why has Jewish art been neglected in favor of Jewish texts and what do you think we can learn from studying Jewish art? Some people think art is a cute ornament at best and a distraction at worst. I want to teach people how to look. It’s one facility Jews tend to neglect, because some of them have ideas that our eyes will lead us astray.
Art can be a locus for studying Jewish consciousness, but it’s less well known. It’s a repository of Jewish lore showing identity, relationships with non-Jews, relationships within the community and relationships with God. It’s a forum to express thoughts and feelings that they couldn’t in text.
Can you describe your latest book – what it is about in general terms? (Epstein’s most recent book, The Medieval Haggadah:Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination [Yale, 2011] was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011.)
The Haggadah is not just a book but a performance. The book describes how it was expressed visually. There are four famous Haggadot from the Middle Ages. In the Bird’s Head Haggadah from Germany in the 1300s people have the heads of birds. The Golden Haggadah from Spain in 1320 looks like a Christian manuscript of this time and place. The other two are also from Spain at that time. One includes a lot of women, and one doesn’t. One is gentle and quiet, keeping a lid on Jewish anger, but the other is powerful and violent.
The fact that this book was sold out at first printing and acclaimed by the London Times Literary Supplement tells me that Jewish art can be part of the mainstream and can be taught in art history classes.
You look at images as vehicles of interpretation and as texts of a kind in themselves, and you mention they are part of what you call the “inner life” or the “secret life” of a Jewish art. What do you mean by this term? Jewish art illuminates the consciousness of identity. It’s a secret language. Some pieces of art are commissioned by women. Patrons are talking about themselves when they think of themselves in the guise of their ancestors.
On Passover Jews are enjoined to put themselves in the place of the slaves who fled. Nobody thought of this before the Haggadah. The text is 2,000 years old, from the time of the Mishnah. It was illustrated in the High Middle Ages. Beginning around the 14th Century, people could commission manuscripts, and there are examples of both Ashkenaz and Sefarad.
Can you talk about future projects and what you might be working on now? I’m interested in margins and marginality, the use of marginal space in art. In Christian art, creatures are cavorting in the margins. As Jewish space, margins are usually commentary. Up to contemporary ultra-Orthodox art, no women are portrayed. How about the Megillah of Esther? You see a hand or the back of a head. Esther doesn’t appear, but Haman’s daughter does. I’m working on something called Extremities: Mapping the Margins of Jewish Art. I’m also working on a survey of Jewish art called Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Manuscript Illumination.