Ultra-Orthodox Art Dealer Takes Unorthodox Approach to Contemporary Art

Uri Rosenbach outlines the challenges of opening an art gallery in Jerusalem, from both a halakhic and commercial perspective.

Uri Rosenbach sits and curator Noga Davidson stands with artwork around them at their contemporary art gallery in Jerusalem
Emil Salman

After spending 20 years working at brother-in-law Lucien Krief’s gallery, Jerusalem art dealer Uri Rosenbach decided go it alone and break into uncharted territory – contemporary art.

“The world is changing, progressing. Tastes are changing,” he says by way of explanation. “Finding a buyer for a Chagall doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as dealing in contemporary art. I was sitting here in the gallery for six weeks looking at a new video work by Elham Rokni. I could look at it five times a day and every time see something new.”

The streets of Jerusalem aren’t exactly bustling these days, as both the cold and fear of terror attacks keep people indoors. It is especially difficult to find passersby near the luxurious hotels on King David Street, which is usually full of tourists at this time of year.

Rosenbach opened his gallery (Rosenbach Contemporary) three months ago – just before the latest wave of terror attacks – and hoped to stand out on a street full of stores peddling mostly Judaica, jewelry and other religious artifacts aimed at the wealthy, mostly religious tourists who frequent the Holy City.

Despite things not being so great for business right now, Rosenbach and curator Noga Davidson remain optimistic that their new venture will succeed – and, over time, become the first of its kind – a commercial, private gallery for contemporary art in Jerusalem.

In his previous field – selling works of art from the 19th and early 20th centuries – Rosenbach got used to dealing in sums amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now he deals with contemporary Israeli artists and prices in the tens of thousands of dollars (in the best cases). Despite that, he says he prefers dealing in contemporary art, where he can help artists develop and advance their careers.

A colorful work featuring vertical lines against a blue backdrop, at the "Modernism" exhibition at Rosenbach Contemporary gallery.
Yair Hovav

Art as dialogue

As an ultra-Orthodox man, Rosenbach’s ability to engage in the field is restricted, but he still intends to expose the Haredi public to the form. “When I spoke to gallery owners who deal in contemporary art, they told me that the religious community aren’t buyers. The reason for that is clear. In many cases, these galleries deal in subject matter the religious community shies away from. They told me I would have a hard time convincing artists to present in my space, especially if I was limiting them – because there are things we won’t display.

“But I look at art as dialogue,” he continues. “The artist wants to communicate with the viewer, so in cases where it’s more difficult, it’s actually truer, I believe. I think I’ve been successful and created dialogue here between people with very different views.”

Rosenbach was born in the United States to a secular family, became religious and moved to Israel in 1979. He lives in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, and has seven children and 14 grandchildren.

Do your friends come here? People from the community?

Rosenbach: “I’m not sure they even know I opened a gallery. They know I deal in art, but my wife and I are very private people. My friends are all over 55; I don’t think they are people who will find contemporary art that interesting. But my children’s friends will come here. People I used to work with do come by. This interests them. They’re curious about why I made the switch.”

Do you feel you’re on a kind of educational mission?

“I wouldn’t call it that – the word mission is connected to faith; to call it my mission is to sell my next life short. But you could say I want to build a community of buyers and instill within them an understanding of what I have to offer. Most of the people who buy art look, first and foremost, to see if it matches the sofa or the drapes, but it works differently here. People who come here are asking – and we explain to them – why they should buy art. We need to explain that it’s not as if someone decided to paint a pretty picture, but that there is a purpose behind it. Some artists paint things because they know the subject will sell, or the color will sell, or the size will sell. But I want to offer something different here.”

Davidson spent five years at the RawArt contemporary art gallery in Tel Aviv before joining Rosenbach on his Jerusalem adventure. She finds his explanation funny, saying it highlights the differences between their perceptions and approaches to art, and the different places from where they’ve come. “These artists you describe, they come from your world,” she says to Rosenbach. “In the world I come from, the artist has no idea what will sell and what won’t.”

"Blue Moon," by Guy Avital, being shown at the "Modernism" exhibition at the Rosenbach Contemporary exhibition.
Guy Avital

The initial encounter with Rosenbach was a surprise, she admits, but the challenge of learning to speak in a different language aroused her curiosity. “At RawArt I knew exactly what I was doing,” she explains. “I worked with the same community – people who knew what they were aiming for. Here, it’s different. Different communities, differences in working with the street, the window displays. At RawArt, the discourse was internal, art-focused. A large percentage of the people who visited the gallery came from the art world. Here, it’s much more heterogeneous and I need to make things more accessible.

“I didn’t understand the extent to which I used to speak in a closed and incomprehensible language. But here, suddenly I saw that people didn’t necessarily understand the language of contemporary art, that there were gaps to bridge. And that’s a role that interests me: how to present the art that I find good and interesting, and how to create a space that’s more accessible.”

Did Uri tell you what you couldn’t display at the gallery?

“Uri spoke mostly about modesty. When we started to discuss the details, I looked at things I’d curated in the past and didn’t think I’d feel censored here. I didn’t feel I’d dealt so much with sexuality in my previous work, even without this limitation. Nudity isn’t important enough to fight over. Today, it seems outmoded to display a nude model – without even discussing the sexist motif of the female nude.”

Are there things you wouldn’t want to display?

Rosenbach: “There are things that I personally do not find in good taste, like a very extreme political statement – it doesn’t matter if it’s from the right or left.”

Aside from modesty, are there any halakhic difficulties with art?

Rosenbach: “No, there’s no problem at all. About the commandment against making images, it depends how that is interpreted. The main problem is three-dimensional art. For example, a 3-D statue of a face – there are problems with that. There are some people who are so strict, they even cut the noses off the dolls they give to their daughters, so they don’t look human. There are some opinions to support that. But when it comes to statues, some people are stricter.”

What about photographs of women?

Rosenbach: “The question regards the purpose of the photograph. Specifically when dealing with issues of modesty, the borders are much more complicated than the length of the skirt or the sleeve. It could be that everything is okay in terms of halakha [Jewish religious law], but the woman still isn’t depicted modestly. There are things that appear in the books in certain ways, but we need to use our brains.”

Davidson says that for the first three exhibitions, she intentionally opted to deal with stereotypes pertaining to the street on which the gallery is located – specifically, things being displayed by the street’s other galleries. In doing so, she’s trying to define a different path for the neighborhood’s latest addition.

The first exhibition related to questions of the center. The second, which opened last week and runs until January 29, 2016, is called “Modernism” and features artists such as Guy Avital, Elad Kopler, Yanai Segal and Yaara Oren. The third will focus on Judaica from a contemporary perspective, with art mostly from secular artists.

“I chose to strike the places that are supposedly sensitive,” explains Davidson, adding that the new exhibition “displays contemporary aspects of modernism. There have been exhibitions throughout the world recently that focused on modernism and received criticism for being more commercially oriented, being shaped by market conditions and potential sales.

"The artists we’re displaying are going back to basics," she adds. "They deal in form, color and composition. It’s an exhibition that won’t please everyone, but I’m not really interested in pleasing the contemporary art world. From my position as a newcomer, I’m definitely asking myself questions like, ‘What is accessible art?’ It’s an exhibition to which I could invite my family and they’ll enjoy themselves. I haven’t curated many exhibitions like that before.”

Rosenbach Contemporary, 16 King David Street, Jerusalem. Opening hours Sun.-Thur. 11 A.M.-7 P.M.; Fri. 10 A.M.-2 P.M.