A Magical Mystery Tour of Jewish Art

A thought-provoking new exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot reflects on the role of magic and mysticism in contemporary Israeli art.

Yair Garbuz, Dganit Berest, Nurit Yarden and Raafat Hattab are some of the participants in a Beit Hatfutsot exhibition dealing with the attitude of Israeli art toward portents, good luck charms, myths and superstitions.

For the first time since its establishment in the 1970s, Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, on the Tel Aviv University campus – is holding a group show of contemporary art within the permanent exhibition that includes models of synagogues from around the world, antique and modern faith-
mediating objects from Bill Gross’s rich collection and other exhibits and reproductions typical of the venue. As part of the process of renewal and change at Beit Hatfutsot of late, a selection of Israeli artists have embedded their works in various ways into the exhibition “Mazal U’Bracha” (Good Fortune and a Blessing), which opened on July 25.

Beyond the deepened understanding that can emerge from combining the traditional view of the story of the Jewish People in the diaspora with contemporary art, the importance of the exhibition also lies in its physical location, within the Gate of Faith section that until recently was Beit Hatfutsot’s permanent exhibition space. This symbolizes the gradual change taking place at the museum. Items destined for the new wing were removed from the space and “within the emptiness that was created, this exhibition has come in and is conducting a 
dialogue with the concepts of faith, ... art and creativity,” explains the museum’s chief curator, Orit Shaham-Gover.

Mazal U’Bracha (after the traditional blessing uttered by diamond merchants around the world) deals with attitudes expressed in Israeli art toward portents, good luck charms, myths and superstitions in the Jewish world. Whether the relationship is one of faith and submission, or opposition, total defiance and dismissal, the exhibition was born of the recognition that magic, mysticism and various beliefs “are integral elements of the basic human constitution, sometimes even unconsciously,” says the curator of the exhibition, Carmit Blumenson.

Most of the works on display were created especially for this show, with an eye toward the permanent exhibition that surrounds them. The exhibition is made up of three parts – prayers and incantations, amulets and superstitions, and myths and symbols – which together form a whole put together by 13 artists.

For example, in a painting by Shai Azoulay, one of the few religious artists active here, the question of the connection between art and faith is very strong. “Azoulay witnesses everything that is going on around him, and cannot rest easy until he has painted them and imprinted them in his canvases, one after the other,” writes Blumenson. “His brush is feverish, inspired by this broad view that sees the wonder happening around him every second and every minute – the miracle of existence, the miracle of faith, the miracle of painting. Skilled and experienced, he helps the viewer continue his journey to beyond what is obvious, to the metaphysical level in his paintings.”

Dganit Berest is showing her series of works from the late 1980s, “Loch Ness Investigations,” which related to the famed myth of the mysterious monster. Gary Goldstein is showing a series of 
images and such objects as spoons, small bottles, plastic fruit, toys and teeth. He has painted these with a thin layer of white Tipp-Ex and has drawn on them, in his characteristic illustrative style, letters, kaballistic words, signs or images laden with meaning. According to Blumenson, his work is kind of a personal diary, a mechanism of self-defense, “which enables him to deal with his thoughts and his doubts with the aid of Sisyphean, laborious work that repeats itself day by day over many years.” Goldstein fills areas with dots and broken lines in a repetitive way that create a kind of meditative state, as in prayer. “I realized that in many senses,” says Goldstein, “my paintings are a kind of X-ray image of the ceaseless noise inside my head.”

In the series of paintings by Yair Garbuz, historical times and events are combined with phrases relating to local culture and folklore, the history of settlement in the Land of Israel, Arabs, and a variety of types from the history of the Jewish People. The Baba Sali, the Hafetz Haim, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other rabbis star on the blue wall put up in the exhibition by Yosef-Joseph Dadoune, who returned to his childhood living room in Ofakim. In front of the wall is the original divan where his mother used to sit, and on it a rug adorned with the image of a deer and a snowy northern landscape, “as an expression of a longing for unattained classical worlds,” writes Blumenson.

Also in the exhibition: dream-
catchers by Raafat Hattab, which are both mandalas and objects somewhere between space drawings and sculptures; a series of photographs by Nurit Yarden recreating the aesthetics of the displays in souvenir shops on Allenby and Ben Yehuda streets in Tel Aviv; and a joint video work by Maya Attoun and Meital Katz Minerbo, focusing on the interactions during the course of a séance between a medium and a parapsychologist. Other participants in the exhibition are Avi Sabbah, Ravit Mishli, Assi Meshullam, Shony Rivnay and Khen Shish.