Off the Shelf: Jewish artwork by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A great deal has been written about the current flowering of Jewish literature. There has been far less discussion about Jewish art. In “Jewish Identity in American Art: A Golden Age Since the 1970s” (Syracuse University Press), Matthew Baigell notes that this artwork deserves far more attention than it’s been getting. He believes that this generation of artists – those born from the 1930s-60s – are “the most vital and interesting artists within the history of contemporary Jewish American art, the ones most willing to take risks with their material, the ones who have opened up new ways of thinking about art with Jewish religious and secular content.” After noting how these artists differ from those of previous generations, the author discusses 20 artists in greater detail. 

Baigell writes that the majority of these artists focus on their American identity (“Americans who happen to be Jewish, not Jews who happen to be American”) and most prefer to be labeled as artists who are Jewish, rather than Jewish artists. Yet, their work focuses on themes and stories found in the Bible, Talmud and midrash, although they are given contemporary meaning. These artists are not looking for religious answers in their work and research; instead, they are exploring their heritage and how it relates to their life. This is particularly true of the artists who are women; their works offer feminist interpretations of Jewish texts and stories. The 20 artists under discussion are not monolithic: they have very different artistic styles and use different material to create their works. They also do not view Jewish practice in a singular way. What they do have in common is that they are not looking to create a nostalgic view of the Jewish past, but rather offer works that speak to their generation.

The major artists under discussion are Mark Podwal, Ruth Weisberg, Janet Shafner, Siona Benjamin (the only non-American born artist), Carol Hamoy, Robert Kirschbaum, Tobi Kahn, Richard McBee, David Wander, Archie Rand and Joel Silverstein. For this reader, much of the religious meaning of the works – especially the more abstract pieces – would not have stood out without Baigell and/or the artist’s explanation. That doesn’t mean the works weren’t beautiful or didn’t strike an emotional chord, but their specific relationship to Judaism sometimes felt hidden. 

“Jewish Identity in American Art” is a beautiful book with more than 90 color illustrations. It is more than an coffee table art book since Baigell offers scholarly insights into the artists’ work. Baigell believes that what makes members of this generation “unique” is that they are completely comfortable with both their American and Jewish identities, something that allows them “to perpetuate Jewish memory materially through their religiously themed art.” Anyone interested in this chapter of Jewish American art history will want to explore “Jewish Identity in American Art.”