Jewish art is not hip. It can be beautiful, sure. It can be meaningful, of course. It can be valuable, no doubt. But cutting-edge? Current? Cool? Meh.
If you believe that, you clearly have not yet been to the first-ever Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, which opened this week at five venues around town, with the participation of more than 50 artists showcasing a panoply of visions of what contemporary Jewish art can be.
“Don’t get me wrong,” begins Ram Ozeri, the 33-year-old mastermind behind the biennale and one of its seven curators. “It’s not that I don’t love menorahs or Torah scrolls,” he says, referring to the kinds of images that, along with pomegranates, dancing Hasids and the walls of Jerusalem, often come to mind -- and with good reason -- when the words “Jewish” and “art” combine.
“But this is something different.”
Take the work of Kansas City, Missouri-born Andi Arnovitz, 54, a firecracker of a former graphic designer, who moved to Israel with her high-tech wunderkind of a husband and five children -- becoming religious along the way -- 14 years ago.
Her two works, created specially for the biennale, challenge assumptions of what Jewish art is and can be -- but do so by focusing on that quintessential of all Jewish themes: worrying.
“What do I worry about? Oh, everything,” she says simply.
“The Taliban. Getting fat. The justice system. Weapons of mass destruction. Yellow teeth. Assimilation. Termites. Fault lines. The Green Line. Arthritis. Split ends. Hair in my nose. Credit card debt. Athletes foot. Contaminated drinking water.”
She is, Arnovitz easily admits, “an Olympic worrier.”
“Being successful. Breast implants. Lack of hygiene. Stretch marks. My kids being happy. Being rejected. Never being calm. Child pornography. Price-tag attacks. Bed bugs. Osteoporosis. Law suits. Black holes. Unattended packages. Nasty neighbors. Not speaking another language. Class-action law suits. Oil dependence. Racism.”
Translating these worries into art, Arnovitz’s first piece -- called “A Coat for Chicken Little” -- is a coat of white feathers, into which hundreds of strips of plastic film are sewn and on which are printed concerns, both big and small.
“Getting raped. Tsunamis. Food in my teeth. Pedophiles. My kids marrying the wrong person. Iron dome. Bad sex. Global warming. College applications. Going to the dentist. Eating margarine. Being inappropriate. Drug addiction. Spina bifida. Things leaking into soil. Landslides. Bomb shelters. Repeating history. My Facebook page. Sirens. Gas masks.”
“A Coat for Chicken Little” plays with and synthesizes aspects from Arnovitz’s Jewish background on one hand, and her American background on the other. The piece conjures up associations with the popular American children’s story “Chicken Little,” that Arnovitz grew up on -- in which a chicken believes the sky is falling and the world coming to an end -- as well as the Jewish pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kapparot, in which a person’s sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken, that she learned about as she became more religious.
“I am transferring my worries, my kapparah, to Chicken Little,” she explains, padding around her cluttered, bright Jerusalem home studio in flip flops. “…And just as the chicken is swung around the person’s head in kapparah, so too my worries circle around Chicken Little.”
“Trust issues. Incest. NGO corruption. Genetic mutations. The water table. Learning disabilities. IUDs. People who want to be martyrs. Endangered species. Drunk drivers. Smoke detectors. Leaving a legacy. Egyptians. Over breeding. Plastic in microwaves. Perverts.”
Arnovitz’s second work for the biennale, an installation called “My Worry Beads,” features worry beads similar to those popular in Greek culture. Only her beads are larger, ceramic ones that are too heavy to be strung on a cord. They are engraved with her personal worries, as well as a whole series of worries, in Hebrew, taken from morning prayers and the Talmud:
“Keep us away from nasty people, evil men, evil neighbors, evil friends, evil lust, and libel. Keep us from falling into a situation that humiliates us, or from moral crisis. Save us from bad diseases, harsh judgments and being sentenced to hell.”
The Hebrew beads, she says, allude to a sub-theme she is playing with -- that of Jewish men’s worries. “Jewish woman have long taken the rap for taking worry to the level of fine art,” she says. “But the daily prayers are full of worries. ‘Protect me from this, or that.’ What is that, if not a worry?”
Arnovitz’s two pieces are being shown as a part of the exhibition in the German Colony, in one of the two historic Templer-era buildings that the Achim Chasid contracting and developing firm contributed to the biennale for use.
Among the biennale’s other venues are Beit Avi-Chai, which is presenting a joint exhibition of Israeli artist and musician Neta Elkayam and her artist father, Michael Elkayam; Hechal Shlomo at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art, where the exhibition includes pieces from graduates of the Oman art school for haredi women; the neighborhood of Musrara where a “path of art,” featuring contemporary interpretations of traditional texts and customs run through public spaces; and the train station, where photographs by Israeli photographer Ziv Koren depict his idea of “Jewish” places and situations meeting complicated Israeli realities.
“One important part of the concept is we don’t have one venue,” says Ozeri. “…As such, we are saying, we don’t know ourselves what contemporary Jewish art is. We are presenting various interpretations, from Haredi to Modern-Orthodox to the secular, and mapping out the field.”
“When I arrived in Israel in 1999, everything that smacked of Judaism, or halakha [Jewish law] was dismissed by the contemporary art world. They did not want to touch it,” says Arnovitz. “And the contemporary art scene in Israel, wanting to be accepted, did not want to be perceived as too Jewish and also rejected that stream.”
That is changing, she says. Arnovitz believes is coming on the heels of larger shifts in Israeli society. There is more dialogue and engagement between religious and non-religious today, she argues, which -- while perceived by most as being angry and negative -– is also serving to whet curiosity and open windows to understanding. In addition, she senses that secular Israeli society, perhaps feeling that it has lost a connection to spirituality, is looking to reclaim a spiritual component in life.
“This is part of the maturation of the country as a whole,” Arnovitz concludes. “The days of nitty-gritty nation-building are finishing, and now the question becomes, what about the people who live here? What do we believe in and what gives us meaning?”
The biennale runs September 15 to October 31. Entrance to two of the venues (Beit Avi-Chai and Musrara) are free, thanks to private funding and donations, while entry to the other three venues costs NIS 20 for one or NIS 30 for all three (not restricted to one day). For more information, including details on various associated workshops, discussions and lectures, go to http://jerusalembiennale.org/