Looking for the Spirit of Judaism, on the Canvas

Has the secular Israeli public’s growing interest in Jewish sources trickled down into the art scene? A new exhibition in Tel Aviv tackles the question.

Eitan Buganim
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Eitan Buganim

What effect has the resurgent spirit of Judaism and Jewish studies being offered by pluralistic organizations in Israel had on the art scene in this country? That is the question at the heart of a new group exhibition, titled “Secular Judaism: The Impact of Jewish Renewal Organizations on Secular Israeli Culture,” at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv.

In recent years, many Israelis, in their obsessive pursuit of self-identity, have adopted the principle of “Judaism as culture” and taken up Jewish studies in institutions that term themselves a “secular beit midrash” – a reference to a traditional Orthodox place of study. Members of the secular public who wish to re-bond with their religious roots have flocked to institutions such as Elul in Jerusalem (whose website notes that it “uses traditional and modern Jewish texts to create pluralistic dialogues in a beit midrash-style that are relevant and current”) and Alma in Tel Aviv. These organizations offer “a learning experience based on an interpretive, pluralistic and humanistic reading of the [Jewish] sources, together with Hebrew and Israeli texts,” according to the exhibition’s curator, Monica Lavi.

The exhibition at the Gutman Museum, which will run until May 31, sets out to examine whether transformations in the secular public’s perception of its self-identity have trickled, directly or indirectly, into the arena of contemporary Israeli art, and the ways in which art has grappled with the tectonic shifts occurring in Israeli society.

The exhibition was inspired by a feeling that arose during the summer of social protest in Israel in 2011. For Lavi, the protest movement, with its multiplicity of voices and opinions that were fused into a coherent unity, evoked the growing use of Jewish content as a source of renewal and inspiration and as a basis for accepting the “other.” Lavi herself takes part in a program run by Kolot, which describes itself as a “pluralistic Beit Midrash [that] serves secular and religious participants from a broad spectrum of Israeli society.” During the summer of protest, she felt that “a new realm had opened that draws inspiration from a place I found familiar. The motivation [for the exhibition] was to examine whether there are other developments that are taking place in the public and cultural sphere which are not direct manifestations but more the result of a seep-down process and which possess depth.”

To get a more accurate idea of how potent and widespread the influence of Jewish sources on contemporary Israeli art actually is, Lavi drew solely on already existing works – she did not commission any works especially for the exhibition. She found strains of Judaism in poetry, cinema, painting, photography and, indeed, in every possible field of art. “The secular space is in constant motion,” she says, “and the Jewish presence is contained within it as one of the places toward which it is moving.”

Like the concept of the secular beit midrash, which does not preach and does not bear a missionary character, the exhibition, too, is “polyphonic, thought-provoking and active,” she says. Some of the 40 or so works on display offer a direct response to the sources; others operate on frequencies that are picked up from the air, unconsciously. Lavi: “The exhibition contains both acceptance and criticism, and it is certainly not promotional. The atmosphere is not one of sanctity, but of looming tension.”

During the exhibition, the museum will host batei midrash, organizations and communities that are engaged in Jewish renewal for evenings of study and lectures.

Noam Venkert, “Self-portrait as Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai,” 2012. Credit: Tal Nissim