NEW YORK – In the basement of a boutique hotel in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, surrounded by yeshivas and kosher food stores, three Hasidim sit and talk art – one a Satmar, one from the New Square sect, the third from the Bobov dynasty.
Around them hang dozens of artworks in the spirit of the neighborhood that houses the Shtetl Art Gallery, the first Hasidic gallery in Williamsburg and probably all of New York. Displayed there are realist depictions, whether the picturesque alleyways of Safed or a portrait of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who's hunched over the daily page of the Gemara – commentaries on the second-century written version of the oral tradition.
One wall shows expressionist art on large canvas sheets – much less Hasidic and a lot closer to Van Gogh and Munch. There are also still-life installations. At the center of the space is the installation “Difference in Harmony,” 10 sculptures of violins in various shapes and sizes.
“I wanted to show how on the one hand we all wear different hats, and on the other we can all exist alongside each other in harmony,” says Zalmen Glauber, the creator of the work and the owner of the gallery.
And why violins? “It began with me wanting to create an installation of a violinist hunched on a chair, different colors running down the tzitzit, dripping to the floor and creating art on it,” he says, referring to the fringes protruding from a religious man’s undershirt. “After I sculpted the first violin I fell in love with its shape and decided to sculpt another, and then another and another.”
Glauber, 47, is a father of five. A year and a half ago he made his dream come true and opened the gallery in the basement of the Condor boutique hotel, of which he is part owner. Seven Hasidic artists are currently showcased at the gallery. “I don’t want too high a turnover,” he says, adding that he plans to rotate the works at the venue every four months.
There are “secular” pieces there that could be seen at any New York gallery. Is it a place for Hasidic art for a Hasidic audience, or an attempt to break out of the community’s confines and flirt with as many potential buyers as possible? “My only condition is that the art at the gallery has some affinity to the Hasidic world,” Glauber says.
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The gallery is open one day a week to the general public and other days by appointment. Since June 2020, Glauber has sold seven pieces at prices ranging from $800 to $15,000. The latter sum was fetched by a sculpture by him of a synagogue warden looking at his own image through a window pane serving as a mirror.
“This is a figure of a shammash [warden] going to wake the worshippers for early-morning slihot prayers, but when he looks through the window, he sees his own image and thus wakes himself up rather than the townspeople,” Glauber says.
The only Hasid who took psychology
Glauber is a Williamsburg native, brought up in the Satmar Hasidic sect. As a child, nobody exposed him to art.
“I had a friend who could draw, and I’d watch him mesmerized, feeling like it was some sort of magic,” Glauber says. “Every time we’d meet I’d ask him to draw something for me. It seemed unnatural to me, how somebody picks up a pencil, scribbles stuff on paper and a picture comes out.”
When he was 10 he stayed at a relative’s sukkah for the Sukkot holiday and first discovered the wonders of miniature sculpting. “Like people build miniature train models, my cousin would buy tiny dolls and make these whole displays of little windows he would put in the sukkah,” Glauber says. “In each window was a biblical figure with trees and angels, and Jacob with the sheep, and Isaac with the well.”
He asked his cousin to teach him, and Glauber’s installations kept getting better. “By the third year I had already built a little installation of Joshua conquering Jericho with the Jews and Philistines in the background,” he says.
Glauber, who is dyslexic, had a hard time delving into a tenet of Jewish law without straying from his desk. Nor did he see sculpting as anything but a hobby. When he was 20 he got married, and after six months at a kollel, a yeshiva for married men, he got a job. He worked for a while at a gift shop, then at a men’s clothing store. At some point he decided to study psychology.
He went to Touro College in New York, which accepted students who graduated from recognized yeshivas. “The first time I went there the guy asked me what I wanted to study. I told him psychology, and then he asked me what I thought about Freud,” Glauber says.
“I asked him, ‘Who’s Freud?’ and he broke out laughing. There were other religious students there too, but mostly in computers and business classes. I was the only Hasid who took psychology.”
Upon graduating and after having his five children, he switched careers and went into real estate. He bought low and sold high. A decade ago, with two partners, he opened the Concord Hotel. Such a place in Hasidic Williamsburg is as rare as the gallery. “Ninety-five percent of our guests aren’t Jewish but rather tourists from all over the world looking for accommodations near Manhattan at a sane price,” he says.
After 12 years in real estate he decided to go back to school, this time for practical training in art. For seven years he sculpted every day until he met the singer and composer Lipa Schmeltzer. Schmeltzer, a New Square Hasid, is one of the greatest celebrities of modern Hasidism. His buoyant comic style – and the pop music that he tailors to Jewish and Yiddish tastes – have made him famous outside the Hasidic community as well.
“About nine years ago I began to fear that my music had run its course,” says Schmeltzer, 43. He then went to Rockland Community College, right next to the ultra-Orthodox hamlet of Monsey. He says he showed up and said, “Hi, I want to be therapist.”
“They asked me if I had a diploma. I answered, ‘What’s a diploma?’ They asked me if I had finished high school. I asked, ‘What’s high school?’”
For a year he studied with a tutor but realized he wasn’t going to become a therapist. A yeshiva student told him about a program at Columbia University designed for veterans and people with unique backgrounds. Schmeltzer was accepted and earned a degree in visual arts and creative writing.
“I envy Glauber for having self-discipline. With me it’s more when I get the muse and have inspiration. As an artist dealing with modern art, my work is inspired by the world around me, and at the same time I’m constantly learning artistic techniques from the past,” Schmeltzer says.
“The essence of my art is based on music, rhythms and song, including personal childhood experiences that range from nostalgia to trauma. The object of my art is to heal and give myself inspiration, in the hope it will have the same effect on other people.”
As seen on Instagram
Another artist whose work is on display at the gallery is Pinny Segal Landau, 30, a Canadian originally from the Bobov Hasidic sect. “As a child they put me in the middle of the class at a special table the teacher called ‘the dunces’ table,’” he says. He couldn’t study in pairs, as is the yeshiva custom; nobody wanted him for a partner anyway.
Landau wandered from one yeshiva to the next, living at his parents’ house in Canada, then his sister’s apartment in Brooklyn, then back to Canada. Finally he found a job at a small metalworker’s shop in New York. He took an online photography course and worked at the warehouse of a friend who sold goods on Amazon; eventually they needed someone to photograph their products.
When his visa expired he went back to Canada and enrolled in art classes at a Montreal studio. “My style is more urban, modern, realist art with Jewish motifs,” Landau says, standing in front of his paintings that adorn the gallery.
One shows a rabbi bent over a liturgical book, another shows a Hasidic family strolling through the alleys of Safed. The turning point was when he saw Glauber’s art-filled Instagram page; he messaged him and asked to meet.
Glauber says the community’s reaction to the gallery is positive. No one has come out against it or demanded that it be closed. “When I began to sculpt I consulted three different dayanim [clerical judges]. I asked them what was permitted and what was forbidden halakhically” – based on Jewish law.
“All three said that there’s no problem with sculpting, even the image of a human, as long as the image is incomplete. You can sculpt a human form as long as it doesn’t have 10 fingers, or if the face is incomplete, or if it doesn’t have hair. At that moment I realized that there was nothing wrong with what I do. To me, art not only doesn’t contradict Judaism, it enriches the Jewish religious world.”