How Jewish Artists Reclaimed Jesus as Their Own

Though Jesus has traditionally been a taboo subject among observant Jews, he has served as a common theme for modern Jewish painters and writers. Now the Israel Museum is devoting an exhibition to portraying the way local artists have engaged in dialogue with 'that person'.

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Reuven Rubin’s 'Temptation in the Desert.'
Reuven Rubin’s 'Temptation in the Desert.' Credit: Avraham Hai / Israel Museum
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Blaring headlines in 1994 cited rumors to the effect that the popular Israeli musician Matti Caspi, who was then living in the United States, had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect. The suggestion that he now believed in Jesus almost destroyed his career. In the 2015 documentary film “Matti Caspi: Confession,” directed by Dani Dothan and Dalia Mevorach, the singer-composer relates how overnight he began losing jobs as a music teacher in the Jewish and Israeli community in Los Angeles. As will be remembered, most of Caspi’s fans were secular.

The writer Haim Be’er, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Jerusalem, relates that as a child he was taught that it was forbidden to learn Torah on Christmas eve, and also that it was considered useful to eat bread and garlic in order to create unpleasant smells on that night. In school, the math teacher cautioned the children against making the plus sign in the form of a crucifix; in its place they were to draw only a vertical line and a horizontal one below it. There were other strictures, too, but, as Be’er recalls, the monasteries and churches, with their smell of incense, their high walls and the colorful paintings always captivated the imaginations of Jewish children of Jerusalem.

It’s not surprising, then, that it took so many years for the Israel Museum to dare to mount an exhibition in Jerusalem of Israeli art dealing with Jesus. That institution, the closest thing we have to a national museum, generally tries to rock the boat as little as possible. But time has apparently calmed the tempestuous feelings about “that person”: Quite a few religiously observant folk were spotted on a recent visit to the exhibition “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” (which opened shortly before Christmas and runs until April 16.) None were visibly upset by the fact that Israeli artists were occupied with what was once such a volatile subject.

Only one painting in the exhibition hints, perhaps, at the artist’s concern with the public’s response. It’s a 1948 work by Moshe Castel, in which the artist portrays himself as the crucified Jesus, with the inscription “The Jew Castel” above the figure’s head. The background is a searing personal tragedy. Castel’s first wife died in childbirth, and the son she gave birth to died three years later. The artist moved into a monastery on Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) for a year, and it was there that he painted the portrait of his tormented self. For years, the work was locked up in the safe owned by his second wife, Bilha Castel. It was not displayed in the museum in the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim that was built after his death to house his works. The director of the Moshe Castel Museum of Art, Eli Raz, who was also the adviser to the widow (she died last December; Castel died 25 years earlier), first saw the painting in 2008.

Bilha Castel didn’t know what to do with the work, says Raz; she considered giving it to the Vatican. According to Raz, the painter had locked it away because it was bound up with a private tragedy he did not wish to share with the public. Indeed, the story was not even known among Castel’s close circle.

“The catalyst for his occupation with the subject was his personal distress,” Raz explains. “It started with more than 27 paintings depicted the akeida [binding of Isaac], but apparently they were not adequate to express his pain. So he turned to this image, of the crucified Jesus.”

It’s not that he was ashamed of the painting, Raz continues, but he didn’t think it was appropriate for display: It was too personal and sensitive. “You see the man in agony on the cross, you see the pain on his face. Castel gave expression to his whole soul in this work. It was his private secret, and that is why it was never exhibited.”

As for why it was not displayed in the Castel Museum, Raz says it’s because it doesn’t relate to anything else done by Castel: “If we’d exhibited this work in the museum, it would have been foreign to the other works and foreign to the museum. You can’t show something that has no context.” He rejects the suggestion that the painting was not shown out of fear that objections would be raised to Castel’s close and perhaps provocative identification with the crucified Jesus.

'Jesus in Judaism is the forbidden place.'

When Raz heard, in a talk by Amitai Mendelsohn, the senior curator of the Israel Museum’s department of Israeli art, that the museum was planning an exhibition centering on the figure of Jesus, he realized that this was the opportunity for Castel’s painting to be shown to the public. Though Raz considers it to be one of Castel’s finest works, he still doesn’t think it will be put on permanent display at the Ma’aleh Adumim museum, which owns it. The reason, he reiterates, is lack of context.

According to Mendelsohn, who spent many years organizing the Jesus exhibition, of which he is the curator, Castel’s painting is exceptional, because the artist was not born in Europe and thus influenced by Christian art, as were many of the other Israeli artists whose works are in the exhibition. Castel, an observant Jew, was born in Jerusalem (in 1909) and was the scion of a rabbinical family, which, according to the family tradition, arrived in Jerusalem immediately after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

“It’s surprising,” notes Mendelsohn, of Castel’s painting, in an interview with Haaretz. “When Castel looks for a way to depict the most powerful human suffering, it’s the figure of Jesus that suggests itself. For a Jewish artist, that means crossing a certain boundary. We perceive Castel as a religious, right-wing artist – it’s not by chance that his museum is located in Ma’aleh Adumim. He was occupied with Jewish themes and afterward with abstract art of the Canaanite art school, so it’s very surprising to discover this work. Jesus in Judaism is the forbidden place, so Castel kept the painting hidden.”

Mendelsohn tries in the exhibition to show the powerful attraction the figure of Jesus has for Israeli artists. It’s an ambivalent situation, he observes – one that intertwines a deep closeness with a feeling of danger and rejection: “On the one hand, this land is where the Christian story took place, and highly personal subjects can be conveyed through the image of Jesus. On the other hand, there is a type of recoil, which is also [the sign of] a blind spot among the majority of the Israeli public. The exhibition aims both to expose the blind spot and to show that among many artists, the approach to Jesus stems from very deep places.”

Proceeding chronologically, “Behold the Man” presents different modes of Jesus’ appearance in Israeli art: as a personal, corporeal, religious, social and political figure. Mendelsohn embarked on his journey in the footsteps of Jesus – which is also the theme of his doctoral thesis – in the wake of a painting by one of the icons of Israeli art: Romanian-born Reuven Rubin (1893-1974).

At the time, Mendelsohn was the assistant to the Israel Museum’s chief curator, Yigal Zalmona. While in the museum’s storerooms working on another exhibition, he came across an unfamiliar painting, one that had never been displayed at the museum: an early Rubin self-portrait. The position of the hands recalls Jesus’ display of the stigmata, a well-known motif. Intrigued, Mendelsohn began to examine Rubin’s use of Christian imagery in general.

Piety and pioneers

An entire section of the current show is devoted to Rubin’s work in the years 1913-1923, the decade before he settled in Palestine. During this period, Rubin produced very personal works, influenced by Symbolist and Expressionist art, and the presence of Jesus is felt in them.

'The Wandering Jew,' by Samuel Hirszenberg (1899). Credit: Eli Posner

“Because Jesus is such a problematic and prohibited figure in Judaism, an artist like Rubin, who was raised in a religiously observant home, takes a risk by evoking him,” Mendelsohn explains. “It came as a surprise to me that an artist of Rubin’s stature, who is so closely identified with the pioneer ethos, Judaism and forging the language of Land of Israel art – the most important artist of his time, together with Nachum Gutman – made use of the figure of Jesus at the outset of his career.”

There is, however, says the curator, a long tradition of Western artists who viewed Jesus as an archetype of the anti-establishment individual, one who stands alone against the opinion of the masses and is ready to be crucified on the altar of his truth: “Many artists – such as van Gogh, Gauguin, Oskar Kokoschka – have used Jesus as the model of an artist, identifying with him as the figure of an outcast. Rubin, who was influenced by and adopted the style of modern art himself, inserted himself into it and identifies with Jesus personally. The same is seen in other artists in the exhibition. But what’s interesting is that Rubin also took it in the Zionist direction. More surprising is the fact that he uses Christian symbols to express Zionist ideas.”

For example, in “The Madonna of the Vagabonds,” painted by Rubin in Bucharest in 1922, a woman with a bared breast sits in the middle of a field, surrounded by four seemingly sleeping men, who resemble pioneer farmers of the pre-state period; at her feet a sleeping infant.

“Rubin uses Jesus as a symbol of the idea of resurrection, which is connected with the Zionist revival of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel,” Mendelsohn explains, adding, “At the same time, he uses Jesus as a symbol for his own personal suffering.”

The exhibition begins not with Rubin, but with canvases by Maurycy Gottlieb, Samuel Hirszenberg and Marc Chagall, and with a sculpture by the Russian artist Mark Antokolsky. They were all European Jewish artists, not Israelis, and they, Mendelsohn says, brought Jesus back into his original Jewish setting.

'Rubin uses Christian symbols to express Zionist ideas.'

Antokolsky’s 1876 sculpture “Christ Before the People’s Court,” is nothing short of revolutionary, Mendelsohn notes, adding, “It’s the first time a Jewish artist sculpts Jesus. Throughout the Middle Ages and, indeed, until the 19th century, the Jews’ had an extremely negative attitude toward Jesus. But the 19th century saw a theological development that brought about a change in this regard, at least among the Jews who were part of the Enlightenment movement. This was particularly the case in Germany, but also in Eastern Europe.

“Jesus was now taken as a sort of prophet or person of moral stature,” he continues, “and this made it possible to accept him as part of the Jewish people, though without accepting Christianity. Jews were coping with anti-Semitism and assimilation, so there was a desire to create a distinctive Jewish identity; but at the same time the attitude toward Christianity underwent a sea change, because Jews came to possess equal rights [in some European locales]. The whole relationship between Judaism and Christianity is expressed in the attitude toward Jesus.”

The next stage, Mendelsohn says, following Jesus’ depiction as a positive figure who could connect between Judaism and Christianity, was his transformation into a symbol of Jewish suffering. In a lost painting from 1941-1942, Marc Chagall painted Jesus as an artist on the cross. Chagall’s 1938 work “White Crucifixion,” which is also in the exhibition under review, also depicts Jesus on the cross, his loins covered by a tallit (prayer shawl) and around him scenes of Jews being persecuted: A mother flees with a baby, a man carries a Torah scroll protectively in his arms, houses are burning, attackers approach wielding swords.

From the artist’s point of view, this is not, says Mendelsohn, an act of appropriation – that is, an attempt to take over an image that did not belong to Judaism. It is, rather, the return of an image that had once belonged to the Jews, too, but which Christians had made exclusively theirs in art over a period of hundreds of years: “The paintings effectively accuse the Christians of having seized possession of the image of Jesus. Chagall removes Jesus from the Christian field and places him in the field of Jewish suffering. He foments a profound change in the symbolism, and it’s also an interesting reversal in theological terms.”

The Jewish artists who arrived in Palestine from Europe in the 1920s brought with them a familiarity with an extensive array of images that were related to Christian culture. They’d grown up alongside churches, icons and artworks depicting scenes from the New Testament. None of them, Mendelsohn emphasizes, had an affinity for the Christian religion itself, but the visual mother’s milk they imbibed inherently included these images. In Palestine, Jesus was naturally part of their repertoire. Leopold Krakauer saw Jesus in the ancient olive trees of the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem (lying beneath what is now the Israel Museum); Mordechai Ardon saw and painted the cross in the kabbalistic “Tree of Life,” depicting the 10 sefirot (the creative forces described in Jewish mysticism); and Naftali Bezem discerned Mary and her infant son in the person of a new immigrant in a 1950s’ transit camp, and Jesus as a Palestinian victim of the 1956 massacre by Border Police at the Israel-Arab town of Kafr Qasem.

“These artists succeeded, each in a different and original way, in using the image of Jesus for a range of different things that are not Christian in their essence,” Mendelsohn notes.

Jesus in a tallit

In the pre-state period, Hebrew literature and poetry also began to engage with the figure of Jesus, says Haim Be’er, today a novelist and professor of Hebrew literature.

“Palestine engendered the re-encounter with Jesus. Jesus emerged here through the country’s landscapes. When we came home, he too was brought back, legitimized,” Be’er explains. “The literature of the Enlightenment continued a Jewish tradition that had begun earlier – of the return of prodigal sons who had been rejected by traditional observant society, such as Spinoza and Elisha Ben Abuya [a Talmudic sage turned heretic]. In Europe, it was difficult to engage with Jesus because of the pogroms and the churches’ incitement, which cast the guilt for his murder onto the Jews. But once here, they decide to bring back the prodigal son. He’s taken down from the cross, wrapped in a tallit. [The poet] Uri Zvi Greenberg tells Jesus: Go to Mea Shea’rim and buy yourself a tallit. Uri Zvi said that there’s a difference between ‘Jesus,’ the sacrificial figure from the churches, and [his Hebrew name] ‘Yeshua’ or ‘Yeshu,’ who is ours.”

In this context Be’er also mentions the writer Pinhas Sadeh, whose texts resonate with Christian themes. Sadeh’s work displays “a great attraction to the other,” he notes. “It’s like people who, after someone dies, discover that they have a stepbrother they didn’t know about. There is great joy when the lost brother is found. Suddenly the family becomes bigger. There is hardly any important Hebrew-language writer into whose worldview Jesus hasn’t entered: from S.Y. Agnon to Yona Wallach to Amos Oz in his latest novel. The motifs are omnipresent in Hebrew literature – including in my work. Jesus is like part of the lining of a coat. When the coat flaps in the wind, a bit of the lining is revealed each time.”

So the pre-state writers didn’t make do with rediscovering the heroes of the Hebrew Bible?

'The whole relationship between Judaism and Christianity is expressed in the attitude toward Jesus.'

Be’er: “They were familiar, self-evidently clear. And Jesus did not belong to the Jewish religious public: This development is part of the secularization process of pre-1948 Hebrew culture and society here. In [Yosef Haim] Brenner’s 1911 novel ‘From Here and There,’ a grandfather and his orphaned grandson, whose father was murdered by an Arab, are given a little flour and then go to collect wood for the stove. The grandfather and the grandson carry a stack of thorns on their shoulders, and that converses with the binding of Isaac. But here they are not going to offer a sacrifice, but to bake bread. It’s a life-saving action. The thorns derive from the New Testament as well, from the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head when he was declared ‘king of the Jews.’

“The Zionist movement called for a boycott of Brenner,” Be’er continues, “on the grounds that he was preaching Christianity. Brenner himself said: I am neither a religious Jew nor a religious Christian, but I appropriate their symbols. He’s saying: Don’t adopt the Christian ideology of the victim, but take symbols from it. In the Israel Museum exhibition you can see all the options of the use of Christian motifs and the way they are softened or neutralized in favor of other issues.”

The exhibition devotes considerable space to works by sculptor Igael Tumarkin, who was born in Germany in 1933. He grew up in Israel but in the mid-1950s lived in Germany and Paris, where he embarked on his artistic career. When Tumarkin returned to Israel, he brought with the use of ready-made objects as well as influences of pop art and Dada. According to Mendelsohn, Tumarkin identified personally with the figure of Jesus and frequently used the image of the cross, precisely because he knew it was controversial.

“In a well-known work from 1984,” Mendelsohn says, “Tumarkin takes a soldier’s cot and turns it into a crucifixion situation. This was at the height of the first Lebanon War, and he’s effectively saying that the government is sending soldiers to be sacrificed, that they are pointless victims. To express a social or political protest, he uses a symbol that is almost anathema.”

For his 1982 work “Bedouin Crucifixion,” Tumarkin collected objects that were left behind in unrecognized villages, whose inhabitants were evacuated by the state. He attached the objects to steel plates, creating a crucifixion image.

Tumarkin’s contemporary, Moshe Gershuni, who died on January 22, also felt a personal closeness to Christian images, particularly the blood theme. Says Mendelsohn: “Blood is an essential element of Christian iconography and at the base of Christianity: the blood of Jesus, the wounds of Jesus. Before Gershuni, the symbolic use of this motif was not very present in Israeli art. Gershuni’s attitude toward European culture and Christian iconography passes through Jewish texts and the story of the binding of Isaac. He combined a biblical text, the yellow patch, and a shoebox flattened out in the form of a cross. He is both personal, collective and also physical. Everything is there in something that is simple but complex.”

Among the more recent items on display in the current show are video works by Sigalit Landau and Erez Israeli, respectively, a series of pieces in wood done between 2011 to 2016 by Joshua Borkovsky and works by several photographers. These include Adi Nes’ famous evocation of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” using Israeli soldiers, Boaz Tal’s “Self-Portrait with My Family,” and a photograph by Micha Kirshner evoking Madonna and child, in which a woman from the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza holds on her knees a sleeping infant covered in a tallit-like cloth.

Even though the present day is represented only by Borkovsky (Landau's and Israeli's works are from over a decade ago), Mendelsohn is convinced that the influence of the figure of Jesus and of the Christian religion continue to be represented in Israeli art, albeit in different modes from the past, perhaps in a more introverted form. Where he does find frequent use of Christian iconography – as a universal element – is in work by photographic artists who document the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other political issues. Along with the well-known works by Nes, Mendelsohn mentions the photographers Michal Heiman and Miki Kratsman, and even cites a Last Supper-like shot by the Jerusalem portrait photographer Emil Salman of Benjamin Netanyahu, together with ministers and advisers, that appeared on the front page of Haaretz several weeks ago.

“When photographers, both Israelis and from the international arena, deal with the conflict, they arrive, almost naturally, at Christian iconography. It’s very natural for the photographic medium and also resonates universally,” the curator explains. “Adi Nes’ recreation of the Last Supper will be understood even by people who have no connection with Israeli culture. It’s a language everyone knows.”

'Chagall's paintings effectively accuse the Christians of having seized possession of the image of Jesus.'

Haim Be’er points out that Christian themes continue to figure prominently in Israeli literature too. “The motif hasn’t yet been played out,” he says. “My next novel also deals with these themes. Hebrew literature isn’t yet done with Jesus. The visual arts have already done everything in that regard and sometimes look for gimmicks. You picture an artist asking, ‘So what haven’t we done yet?’ There are themes in art that are sometimes placed in deep-freeze. You say, ‘It’s been overrepresented, let’s drop it.’ It’s possible that the image was excessively exploited in Israeli painting, so artists are taking a break from it.”

Mendelsohn emphasizes that the exhibition doesn’t deal only with iconography and the use of visual images of Christianity. It also aims to say something about Israeli identity.

“As a Jew, when you evoke Jesus,” he says, “you are not dealing with your inherent identity but with a foreign element that is connected to the other. This exhibition tries to say that we are not only self-enclosed and deal only with ourselves. Art contains an opening to different cultures, some of which are contrary to Judaism. The State of Israel is a result of Christian anti-Semitism, and we are in this story because of a tie to ‘that person.’ Our identity is linked to his deeply, even though he is not present in our consciousness. Israeli history continues to be locked in an embrace with him, and that embrace is manifested in fascinating ways in Israeli art.”

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