No Longer Taboo?

There is almost no living room in an ultra-Orthodox home without an important rabbi or admor (Hasidic leader) staring down from one of the walls. Ultra-Orthodox from every circle and sect are very literal in observing the verse: "You will see your teacher with your own eyes" (Isaiah 30:20), whether with a poster purchased from a stall on Jerusalem's Geula Street, or with a fancy reproduction, oil on canvas, in a gilded frame.

Mota Brim of Beitar Illit dreams of making a living some day from his main pastime, art, but for now he also paints reproductions of rabbis, on consignment. The ultra-Orthodox - even the rich ones, he says - buy almost nothing other than portraits of admors. "At most, they'll buy a painting with a symbol of Jerusalem. I do it to support myself, but it's a craft, not art."

Brim will have a rare opportunity to exhibit his art works - still lifes - in the next two weeks to the ultra-Orthodox, of all people. Last night the group exhibition "Adam-Ma?" - a play on words meaning "What is man?" as well as "Earth" - opened in Jerusalem, with 26 ultra-Orthodox and religious artists and sculptors exhibiting in an event catering to the ultra-Orthodox public. This is the first time that there is a special event for ultra-Orthodox in the context of the Summer Nights Festival (literally "Free in the Summer"), a project of the Jerusalem Foundation, which offers varied cultural events all over the city, free of charge.

The curator, Elizabeth Dor, and the faculty of the Oman Haredi art school, which produced the exhibition, were given freedom in the choice of content, and in running and publicizing the exhibition.

In a notice published in the ultra-Orthodox press, for example, the Hebrew name "Free in the Summer" was changed to "Vacation in the Summer. "The word 'hofshi" [which means free as well as free-thinking, irreligious] won't go over well among the Haredi public," explained Rivka Vardi, the principal of the Oman school. "They'll say 'What's this?' Are you free to do whatever you want in the summer?" There is to be no separation between men and women at the exhibit; such separation was in evidence only at the opening event.

The modest community center in the Romema neighborhood, at the entrance to Jerusalem, was buzzing this week with carpenters, house painters and electricians.

"We didn't compromise on anything," said Vardi, while inside the hall partitions were being constructed, not for reasons of modesty but in order to turn the place into a space suitable for displaying art. "For the first time, the Haredi pubic can be exposed to works by Haredi artists, who produce art but don't compromise on the religious values. If successful, it could serve as a basis for establishing a Haredi gallery. That's our vision."

The problem of ultra-Orthodox artists, added Vardi, is that they refrain from visiting galleries and museums for fear of being exposed to "inappropriate content."

This exhibit has no such content, but the 35 works differ greatly from one another in their subject matter, their style and their techniques of painting, drawing, photography and sculpture. This variety, admits Dor, who is not religiously observant, is because most of the artists who are on display in the main exhibit - 12 women and 14 men - became newly religious after already being involved in art.

"That proves that the newly religious enrich the religious community," says Noa Cohen, the assistant curator.

"Haredi artists would not have created such works," added Vardi.

This is Israeli art more than it is ultra-Orthodox art. Many of the artists, such as Leonid Balaklav, Ika Yisraeli, Yoram Buzaglo, display works in "regular" galleries, without sectorial labeling. A large percentage of the works lack genuine Jewish content, and there is little connection between them and the name of the exhibit, "Adam-Ma?"

In addition to this exhibit, there will also be one by the graduates of the Oman school, which operates in the same building. There are 120 women studying in the school in a professional track, which aspires to be the "Haredi Bezalel" (School of Art and Design), with departments of art, photography, ceramics and jewelry making.

"Most of the teachers here are graduates of Bezalel who have become newly religious, said Vardi. "I'm the only one who's Haredi from birth."

Among the amateur tracks are another approximately 400 children, men and women, and the staff also operates a community school on wheels, Oto-Manut (Art Car), which travels to one-time activities in ultra-Orthodox institutions and neighborhoods. Last year about 12,000 girls and boys participated.

Adult men who study in the institution come from the margins of ultra-Orthodox society, for example the emotionally disabled, but Vardi is convinced that the time will soon come when ultra-Orthodox society will finally grant legitimacy even to men who are not disabled to engage in art.

"There is a tremendous interest in art today in the Haredi community," she said. "Only 200 people attended the first exhibit of the graduates, whereas the recent exhibits have drawn 500."

Brim is one of the only participants in the exhibit who is "Haredi from birth."

"I have always painted, but when I began it was out of bounds, something that you didn't talk about, not really legitimate," said Brim, who in spite of that received encouragement to paint from his admor, the Boyaner Rebbe. "Recently it has opened up considerably, it interests people. There are many people who want to study art, and there are articles about art in the Haredi papers. I hope that the admiration and the interest will lead to a situation where the public will also appreciate art, and will not choose only kitschy paintings."