The Plight of a Museum Standing on the Seam Between Jerusalem and Israeli Society

In what may be its final exhibition, the Museum on the Seam confronts the complex relations between religion and art in Jewish society

"Saint Anne" by Channa Goldberg. A self-portrait in the image of a Christian saint.
Ouzi Zur

Standing as a last fortress is the Museum on the Seam, on the multiple seams of Jerusalem and of Israeli society. This “socio-political contemporary art museum,” as it terms itself, was founded in 1999 in the building that functioned after 1948 as the so-called “Turjeman Post” at the edge of the no man’s land between Israel and Jordan in Jerusalem. From 1932 until 1948, the building was the home of the family of Andoni Baramki, a Christian-Arab architect who also designed and built it. After 1948, the structure came under the aegis of the Custodian of Absentees’ Property, a monument to the complex situation of the city and the country. The Museum of Tolerance that was established there might perhaps balance the scales of justice somewhat. It was created and supported by the Von Holtzsbrinck family from Germany at the initiative of the Jerusalem Foundation and the museum’s founder, Raphie Etgar.

Over the years, the museum has hosted a series of impressive themed exhibitions that have brought to Israel works by artists who refused to exhibit in any other venue. The museum has broadened the perspective on issues such as coexistence, human rights, violence and the social and political elements that are the focal points of conflicts (Israeli-Palestinian, secular-religious, women’s status and others). But its location is also its curse: the museum is isolated from the consciousness of most of its “natural” – ostensibly enlightened, secular, left-wing – public.

The museum is now on the brink of closure: Its only source of support, the external benefactor, can no longer fund it, and its isolation and character are its bane. It remains to be seen whether local sources who understand and appreciate the institution’s importance for this place will step forward.

In its present exhibition, titled “Thou Shalt Not,” which, symbolically, might be its last, the museum directs its gaze at the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhood of Mea She’arim, which lies behind it. The show copes in a complex and intriguing way with relations between religion and art in Jewish society, and with the halakhic prohibition “thou shalt not” as a simultaneously crippling and fruitful element in Jewish and Israeli art. In addition to a large number of well-known, important artists, the exhibition features works by artists from Haredi society, or who were formerly part of it, some of them unknown and some who have remained anonymous, at their request. The quality and language of creativity are interwoven naturally in this contemporary art.

“Kiss,” a video by an anonymous artist, is a stationary frame on opaque glass on which honey-dipped Hebrew letters are stamped. On the other side of the glass, the artist’s face approaches and recedes, as she kisses and licks a different letter in each cycle – the woman who was the girl who was denied participation in the ceremony of communion with sacred writing, which is reserved exclusively for boys.

From “Kiss,” a video by an anonymous artist in the “Thou Shalt Not” exhibition. Communion with sacred writing.
Ouzi Zur

“The Heavens and Earth,” a diptych by an artist whose name is not cited “for reasons of personal privacy,” is an abstract work in which a battle takes place between the geometrical and the expressive, between the primordial chaos and the creation process that begins to imbue it with order and form. It’s a world in which color has not yet come into being – black-and-white, heaving darkness and splotches of light, with a beautiful touch of collage on a primary horizon line.

Above the stairs that lead down to the basement floor is Ken Goldman’s installation, “Confession Machine,” in the tradition of “the Jewish brain invents gimmicks,” associated with the likes of the iconic entertainer Uri Zohar, humor fraught with self-irony. The work consists of a metal arm with a plaster fist at its end, which, driven by a small engine, hits the “chest” of the wall over and over, while below it is a list of sins in Hebrew and English – we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen – which the confessing Jew recites as he “hits on a sin” (in the literal Hebrew phrase) and pounds his heart with his fist.

“Saint Anne” is a painting by Channa Goldberg, who comes from the Haredi world. Channa becomes Anna, or Anne, Mary’s mother and Jesus’ grandmother. It’s a self-portrait in the image of a Christian saint, an icon that Goldberg – violating prohibition on top of prohibition – saw during a visit to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on Lake Kinneret. This is an icon painted according to all the rules of the tradition that passes from generation to generation in the Christian world: the saintly halo, the color palette, the rigid folds of the robe glistening with white light, the fabrics in red and blue, the palm of the hand that blesses, the gaze directed upward. Goldberg appropriates this masculine Christian icon in an act of daring and tolerance. An artist and a woman possessing the courage to be defiant from within the tradition.

Seventh heaven

Porat Salomon’s video “Let There Be Firmament” is a stationary close-up that overlooks the roof of the artist’s home in Tel Aviv, where three Hasidim from the Bratslav sect in white smocks are turning the surface into the image of a Baroque sky, with the aid of pails of whitewash and brushes. This is seventh heaven, the entry to paradise and the divine kingdom, in its Judeo-Christian version on an ostensibly secular roof in the land of holiness to three religions.

The work “504 Years Later,” by Andi Arnovitz, a Haredi woman, dives into Western Christian art, specifically Albrecht Durer’s “Adam and Eve.” Arnovitz leaves Adam naked in the Garden of Eden, his private parts hidden only by leaves from an apple tree (an apple still hanging from the branch). As for Eve, the artist uses delicate needlework to sew leaves that cover her body from head to foot as she stands next to Adam; only an eye and the palm of a hand are visible, the hand grasping an apple that dangles from a branch in the mouth of a snake – the genesis of original sin according to the male tradition. In the modern perception, she counterpoises the activist Eve to the passive Adam as the source of the creativity that fructifies the world. Arnovitz casts aspersions on the masculine consciousness that circumscribes women’s freedom and seeps into women’s consciousness. It’s a distinctive, inseminating connection between contemporary Jewish art and the history of Western Christian art, flying in the face of the conventions and prohibitions.

There is also “Salt Crystal Bridal Gown VIII,” by Sigalit Landau in collaboration with Yotam From – a photograph of a black Hasidic dress of the sort that Hanna Rovina wore in the role of Leah, the bride whose body is inhabited by the spirit of her dead fiancé in S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk.” The dress was immersed in Dead Sea water for half a year until it became a pillar of salt, like a burst of femininity and creativity fallen silent. A theatrical religious tradition abandoned to the elements of nature like a force that preserves and destroys, womanhood that is liberated from the male splint, which fetters like a corset. In contradistinction to the personal privacy suggested by the museum exhibit, “Salt Crystal Bridal Gown VI” is now ultra-visible in public as a billboard above the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv, as part of a project in support of Israeli art. It’s fascinating to see what the difference in size and location does to the work.

On the roof of the museum is Menashe Kadishman’s sculpture “Prometheus.” The rusty metal silhouette wounds one of the most tormented – and beautiful – vistas in the world, like the eternal torments of Prometheus, who rebelled against Zeus for the sake of humankind. Will halakhic prohibition triumph over the existential need for creativity in Haredi society? Will the Museum on the Seam be swallowed in the hostile sea or become a beacon of light?

“Thou Shalt Not,” Museum on the Seam, 4 Hel Hahandasa St., Jerusalem, (02) 628-1278; Fri 10.00-14.00; Mon, Wed, Thu 10.00-17.00; Tue 14.00-20.00; no closing date specified