Examining Israel Through an Artistic Lens

By Liora Alban

I stood in the Maskit showroom in awe of the sumptuous dresses, scarves, and coats suspended around me. Each item hung in its special place, perfectly displayed like its very own art piece waiting to be admired by visitors. Maskit is Israel’s first and only fashion house, founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan, wife of Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan. Dressed in the plain clothes in which I had been traveling for the last week, I must have looked out of place. A woman working at the showroom made a bee line in my direction and asked if I needed help. I told her that I was at Maskit for research purposes and she responded, “Oh yes. Let’s head to the museum.” The museum is located in the back of the showroom and houses a collection of vintage Maskit pieces from the 1960s to the 1980s. She plucked evening gown with embroidered sleeves and explained that the designer was inspired by the embroidered atarot, or neck pieces on tallitot.

The Maskit showroom stands inconspicuously in one of Jaffa’s ancient alleyways made of Jerusalem stone. I managed to arrive to the showroom in the last hour before its closing. I had rushed to get there because of research I was conducting thanks to an opportunity provided by the iCenter for Israel Education. The iCenter is a North American nonprofit organization based in Chicago that provides learning opportunities and tools for Jewish education professionals to enhance Israel education. As a rabbinical and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I joined an iCenter fellowship designed for Jewish education students. Part of this fellowship included a stipend to be used on research or an enrichment program in Israel. Because of my lifelong interest in visual art, I dedicated this opportunity to self-directed research on Israeli contemporary art.

Many incorrectly assume that Judaism lacks visual culture. Jews label themselves as “People of the Book” and tend to outwardly praise text above all other intellectual or creative pursuits. This is partly because of the biblical prohibition on idol worship and on making images of God and partly because Jews have not historically occupied positions of power to proudly invest in the aesthetics of their Jewish spaces or to overtly flaunt their Judaism.

That being said, Jews have always engaged with art in their own unique ways. The commandment to “beautify God” originally comes from Exodus 15:2. Directly following the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, Moses chants the Song of the Sea and states, “God is my strength and might. God is my deliverance. I will beautify my God. The God of my father I will exalt.” In Talmud Shabbat 133b the rabbis ponder the meaning of this verse and conclude, “Make before Him a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful ritual fringes, beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll, and write in it in His name in beautiful ink, with a beautiful quill by an expert scribe, and wrap the scroll in beautiful silk fabric.” In other words, the rabbis of the Talmud believed that it was a command to perform mitzvot using aesthetically pleasing methods.

In college I had the opportunity to intern at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley. This collection houses thousands of Jewish ritual objects coming from family and personal life, synagogue and communal life, and from the relationships between Jews and host communities in the diaspora. As an intern, I had access to the many gorgeous kiddush cups, mezuzot, kippot, tallitot, illuminated manuscripts, and more that the Jewish people have used throughout history. I realized that there is such a thing as Jewish art. Jewish art has tended to serve utilitarian purpose so that Jewish people could blend into their host communities while enhancing the experience of their ritual performances and Jewish text study.

During my trip to Israel, I endeavored to learn about how Israeli artists have turned the Jewish art tradition on its head by repurposing Jewish ritual objects into more explicit art pieces. The creation of the State of Israel means that Jewish culture and ritual traditions are celebrated today and dominant in Israel in an unprecedented manner. I wondered how this has given Israeli artists new freedom to reimagine Jewish themes and traditions in their pieces. I planned my trip to Israel around a variety of museum and gallery exhibitions in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that would introduce me to contemporary Israeli art in four different modalities: sculpture, fashion, street art, and music.

In the week leading up to the visit, I gained more than simply a new appreciation or understanding for contemporary Israeli art. I also gained a new lens through which to view Israel and understood in a fresh way that when Israel educators bring their whole selves into the discipline of Israel education, passions and all, they open uncharted avenues for students to connect to Israel and appreciate its complexity.

Liora Alban is a rabbinic and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She also serves as the rabbinic intern at Leo Baeck Temple.