'The Only Haredi Gallery in the World'

A bohemian artist turned ultra-Orthodox is trying to change the taste of the religious community.

Dana Gilerman
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Dana Gilerman

Ika Yisraeli, a bohemian who became religious several decades ago, is now an older, chain-smoking, ultra-Orthodox Jew. Five years ago he opened an art gallery in a public shelter given to him by the Jerusalem Municipality, which he calls "the only Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) gallery in Israel, in the world, in history."

He describes himself as a person who lives by religious laws and does not deviate from them, and that for that reason he limits his culture consumption. He loves film, but does not go to cinemas, due to a rabbinical ban. Since becoming religious 35 years ago, he has seen only five films, at the home of his friend Rabbi Mordechai ("Pupik") Arnon, who in his time was a member of the legendary "Lool" comedy troupe.

Yisraeli likes art, but does not visit galleries or museums. Not necessarily because of proscriptions or bans, but because he does not have any control over what happens there. Not on what is displayed, and not on the gathering of men and women together. Still, he does not seem to harbor much interest in contemporary art, either.

Many years ago, he attended a major exhibition of the artist Edward Hopper, at the Tate Gallery in London. He then walked into one of museum galleries in which a small painting by a woman who painted Picasso was on display. "Nothing in modern art or in present-day art compares to it," he says.

Yisraeli opened a gallery so that he and people like him - born-again religious artists - would have a place to exhibit their work. "A lot of artists have become religious," he says. "I know at least 150 painters, of which 25 are really good practitioners who studied art. The majority of them are from abroad, from America, Russia and France."

Asked why they cannot exhibit in existing display spaces, he says, "Some artists don't have any problem exhibiting in such spaces. Not everyone is as punctilious as I am about observing halakha (Jewish law). But I discovered that I was cut off from the art world, and I didn't have anywhere to exhibit.

"Most galleries are open on the Sabbath, and besides that, I can never know what they will be exhibiting in the space next to mine. For instance, The Jerusalem Artists House is closed on the Sabbath, and in those terms is fine, but next door to the hall in which I was supposed to exhibit was an exhibition of nude paintings. I cannot invite people to my exhibition and cause them to see those sort of pictures."

Aside from the need to exhibit, there is also the matter of a livelihood. The gallery was opened, in part, in order to cultivate in the Haredi audience an aesthetic that differs from that to which they have been accustomed.

"They buy landscapes of Romania painted in Hong Kong, for NIS 50," says Yisraeli. "They have to be educated to have better taste, better taste in the aesthetic sense," he says. In the meantime, the educational effort has stalled. The Haredi sector does not have NIS 5,000 for a painting, and Ika Yisraeli has a new idea. "We intend to print paintings of about 20 artists using a relatively new technique of printing on canvas. We'll sell them at NIS 600 each. Right now, we are trying to raise the initial investment funding."

To date, 20 group painting exhibitions have been mounted in the gallery. A first photography exhibition is currently underway, in which six artists are taking part. The subjects are diverse: documentation of everyday scenes in the Haredi street, figures in the community, landscapes and also surrealistic photographs. Skullcaps hanging on a clothesline, waving in the wind against a blue-sky background, a girl pushing a stroller with a doll on a stairway, a boy holding the hand of a Haredi senior citizen. The photographs offer a glimpse into a closed and unfamiliar world. Most of the photos are of impressive quality, on a professional standard. The amateur hanging and the unprofessional lighting in the gallery, where we meet, detracts from the exhibition.

Against the background of these works, a series of portraits photographed by Yocheved Sheinen at the old-age home in which she works stands out. Without being a part of the field of art, Sheinen has created a series of photos that is highly reminiscent of the language of contemporary photography, local and international. This is reflected not only in the serialism - photographs of the residents of the home, one after another, in the same position - but in the way that she poses her subjects: head-on, facing the camera, with a white background. It is a seemingly neutral portrait, and yet one that very much exposes the subjects.

Alongside this series, Sheinen exhibits a series of black-and-white photographs of residents of the old-age home in their rooms. The human, empathetic lens of the photographer is unable to put a pretty face on the poverty and impoverishment.

Yisraeli notes that some 500 to 600 people visit each exhibition at the gallery, the majority of them from the Haredi sector. He would also like Israelis from the secular sector to come, but does not have the money for publicity. "As a rule, there is no money for anything," he says. "We recently had to let the cleaning person go, and the painting students here share in cleaning the premises. I am no longer a young man, and it is getting harder to raise contributions."

He occasionally flies to London for fund-raising purposes. In the past, when he set up Kiruv Rechokim, a religious-outreach non-profit, with Mordechai Arnon, they would raise most of the funds in America. "We used to hold large-scale symposia on Jewish subjects. It was very successful, but we were always subsidizing our activities," he says. "We received one-third from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, one-third from the Jewish Agency and one-third we underwrote by ourselves. When the Ministry of Religious Affairs closed, it all fell apart. Today, the gallery has remained practically the only thing. We try to get contributions to set up a group for video and film studies for fringe youth. Do you know what fringe youth is? Haredi youth who have left the path, who hang out in the streets, punks. We've got them, too."

Gallery address: 7 Yehuda Hamaccabi, Jerusalem. Open on Monday and Wednesday, 20:30-22:30. The exhibition closes on January 25.

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