When Art and Zionism Converged to Give Jewish Holidays New Meaning

The catalog of the exhibition ‘Local Judaica’ shows how the Zionist tradition in applied art was invented in pre-state Palestine.

A New Year’s greeting card

“Local Judaica: Judaica Artifacts Created in the Land of Israel, 1880-1967,” catalog of an exhibition curated by Nitza Baharuzi-Baroz, Eretz Israel Museum, 336 pages, Hebrew and English, 100 shekels

Rosh Hashanah greeting cards from the 1950s and ‘60s, adorned with images of Israeli soldiers, bearing a holiday message that is still used today: “May it be a year of peace and security”; a Simhat Torah flag from the late ‘50s that combines Israel Defense Forces emblems with a traditional representation of the Tablets of the Law, and the inscription “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law”; a decorative 19th-century plaque, hung in synagogues and homes as a reminder of God’s presence, on which Psalms 16:8 is inscribed, and functional Hanukkah menorahs created in Bauhaus style – these and many more items appear in the catalog of the exhibition “Local Judaica: Judaica Artifacts Created in the Land of Israel 1880-1967.” This new exhibition, at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, was curated by Nitza Baharuzi-Baroz.

The catalog’s photographic section opens with images of objects created in the Old Yishuv in Palestine – that is, Jewish communities, many Sephardi and of ancient lineage, that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were dependent on the largesse of foreign donors. One example is an album of pressed flowers with pictures of the country’s landscapes.

Also featured are pictures of various items of Judaica produced in the early period (1906-1929) of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem – works that combine different styles by means of traditional motifs (holy sites, symbolic figures of lions and so forth). These are followed by objects decorated with biblical motifs and other items used for religious festivals and secular celebrations; among them are Hanukkah menorahs that combine the old with the new. One menorah pictured in the catalog, for example, features a “biblical” figure and the figure of a soldier jointly supporting the nine candles.

“Local Judaica” deals primarily with the invention of a tradition, though it also addresses the way in which motifs from traditional Judaica were implanted in Zionist applied art. In fact, in this project, “local art” is almost exclusively “Zionist art.” Yet even in the realm of “Zionist” Judaica, the book, and the exhibition itself, does not cover all the existing riches. Missing, for example, are dining-room decorations used in kibbutzim on holidays, and the focus on the Passover Haggadah is confined largely to kibbutz Haggadot and does not include those in which the text retains a more traditional form but the visual images have been recast.

The subtitle of the volume notwithstanding, pre-Zionist Judaica is featured here as a sort of prelude, with the purpose of being juxtaposed with Zionist Judaica – which is considered the genuine “local Judaica,” according to the catalog. As a result, traditional Judaica is presented as a realm without a history and devoid of chronological development.

The three articles in the catalog (all of which are translated into English) also deal largely with Zionist Judaica. Art historian Gideon Ofrat traces the use made by Zionist artists of traditional Jewish iconography. He shows how the interplay between traditional Judaica and secular Zionist culture sometimes produced untenable juxtapositions, such as Shabbat candlesticks embellished with a figure of a man plowing a field.

According to Dr. Ofrat’s narrative, the artists who flourished before the founding of the Bezalel academy in 1906 “confined themselves to primitive, flattened representations of the holy site” – referring to the Western Wall and its surroundings – though in fact realistic depictions are found also in traditional art of the period (such as in depictions of the Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on the Mizrach plaques, placed in homes to mark the direction of prayer, to the east).

The artists of the Old Yishuv were not necessarily disconnected either from history or contemporary events when they produced their work. Ofrat ignores the fact that the Bezalel artists themselves made use of recurrent schemata and drew on “borrowed images” (such as that of Rachel’s Tomb, or of mythic and Orientalist figures), which are only loosely connected to a concrete time and place.

Drawing on the classic Zionist narrative of the Jewish people’s return to history via Zionism, Ofrat contrasts the old and the new, the “historical” and the “meta-historical.” This disparity is blatant in his descriptions of the holy sites in the art of the Old Yishuv. He contrasts these works – i.e., what he refers to as representations of “crisis and sacrifice” – with art containing the symbols the Star of David or the word “Zion,” which evoke “practical redemption.”

In another article, Haim Grossman, a researcher of Israeli folklore and material culture, shows how Zionism instilled new meanings into the traditional religious festivals – a development that was accompanied by the creation of new Judaica. For example, the “Zionist precept” of donating to the Jewish National Fund on holidays called for the invention of objects such as boxes in which to place the contribution, and ribbons to be affixed to the donor’s lapel to show that he had done his duty.

Grossman focuses on the educational realm and in particular on objects created for children. This is a sensible approach, as one of the ways in which pre-modern religious festivals were adapted to life in the industrial world was by aiming their celebration at children. Education was often at the center of Zionist public culture, not least because of the hope that the Hebrew-based school system would act spur the national revival.

Exceptionally, in the catalog, Grossman also mentions an item aimed at children in the ultra-Orthodox community. His discussion of Zionist “Shana Tova” (New Year’s) greeting cards is illustrated not only by examples bearing a Zionist message, but also by a card that represents the “Old World”: children with earlocks, wearing skullcaps and studying the Torah. Grossman is correct in saying that the Zionists of the period in question viewed the “Hebrew” children, who were presented as “animated and vigorous,” as the antithesis of the “Diasporic, bookish” children who were “confined to [their] studies in a gloomy religious setting.”

Yet, the greeting card with the religious children motif uses warm colors, and the picture on it is far from gloomy. In any event, the inclusion of the non-Zionist greeting cards alongside the engagé Zionist ones partially subverts the catalog’s canonical story. For a moment we hear the other story, too, the one that barely appears in the book.

The catalog is handsomely designed, with useful articles. The decision to mount an exhibition focusing on Judaica from a perspective of a particular time and place, based on specific themes, deserves special praise. This is an intriguing innovation, as Judaica exhibitions in museums usually tend to present the works and objects in the context of the yearly cycle of Jewish events, or Jewish rites of passage, or as a collection-based display.

Wicked and bourgeois

However, certain new information is missing here. For example, the custom of planting trees on Tu Bishvat stems not from a Jewish tradition but from the American Arbor Day.

Overall, indeed, research shows that cultural formats that were developed in the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine were not derived from Jewish tradition, even though they preserved complex affinities to it and were quickly dubbed “traditional.” There is no doubt that Zionist Judaica intertwined Zionist values with traditional Jewish festival observance, and also made use of traditional Jewish iconography. Still, attention should also be paid to the the origin of objects created under the inspiration of non-Jewish sources, which brought into being an utterly new Zionist-based Judaica.

In his article, Grossman describes a sophisticated response to the Zionist controversy that found its way into a Haggadah in the 1950s. In this depiction, the so-called Wicked Son (one of four sons discussed in the Passover text) is a bourgeois figure who is scornful of the land-settlement project, which is portrayed by means of the symbols of a watchtower, a spade, a water pipeline and a sapling. However, the catalog does not address visual representations of opposition to Zionism (if they existed), or objects fashioned by those who did not subscribe to the dominant Zionist ethos.

The canonical Zionist story of the development of local Judaica artifacts has already been told – now the time has come to consider visual representations aimed at the members of the Old Yishuv or at the ultra-Orthodox population. It’s precisely the spheres of applied art and Jewish folklore that can extricate us from the restrictive discourse, and provide a model for uncovering the “unofficial” story in the realm of local art.

David Sperber is an art historian and a Ph.D. student in the department of gender studies at Bar-Ilan University. In 2012, he curated the exhibition “Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art,” at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod.