Brushes with the Bible

Shavuot is the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt, right?

It’s the peak experience for the Israelites, who have had a harrowing escape from the land of their birth — and of their parents’ and grandparents’ birth, because the 10 tribes and their descendants were in the narrow place that was Mitzrayim for more than 400 years, according to the Bible — and they were facing a hard 40 years in the harsh desert. Now they’re at the mountain, after a fierce, terrifying storm, where the midrash tells us that they hear lightning and see thunder. And then Moses descends from Mount Sinai and faces the people, with the Tablets of the Law in his arms.

It’s the culmination of the Passover story, of the slow, often terrifying, often backsliding trek from liberation to revelation.

Joel Silverstein of Mahwah has chosen to paint the second retelling of that story, the one in Deuteronomy. Here, Moshe holds the tablets as he tells the people about the blessings they’ll enjoy if they obey the laws inscribed on them, and the curses they’ll endure (or succumb to) if they do not.

But wait. Who does Moshe look like there? Is that … Charlton Heston? And what are those people wearing? They’re suited and hatted and generally bedecked in 1950s office-wear. And they’re looking up in the sky as if they’re considering whether it’s God, or the mountain itself, or maybe a bird? Or is that a plane? No, it’s….

Mr. Silverstein is a painter whose Jewish identity infuses much — maybe most — of his work, but its expression is neither pietistic nor conventional.

And, really, why would it be?

Before we look at Mr. Silverstein’s art, let’s consider him.

We are the sum of our experiences, but it’s not simple arithmetic of two plus two.

So imagine being, say, a Jewish boy, growing up in Gravesend — that’s pre-hipster, pre-cool, ethnic to the point of being tribal, very deep Brooklyn — in the ’60s. You’re an artist, a smart, sensitive kid, a spiritual seeker, open to experience, alert to ideas, eager to combine them.

Say that you are open to all sorts of imagery, and you try to weave the abstract ideas behind those images so they look good and they also mean something (although a viewer who doesn’t want to bother with the ideas because it’s too much fun just to look at the surface level is okay too).

In his take on Exodus, Pharoah’s daughter, Batyah, rescues young Moses dressed for a summer day in Brighton Beach.

And oh yes, fun. You like having fun, and also you’re funny. Sometimes grimly, sometimes giddily.

Say that the question of your identity — how you put all those influences and experiences together — often is top of mind for you.

So maybe you decide to paint at least one image from each book of the Tanach, each in the style and using the imagery that the story, your subconscious, your always-at-work conscious brain, and the materials on hand compel you to create.

You’d end up with the Tanach series that Joel Silverstein of Mahwah is creating, and that he’s showing at the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in downtown Manhattan. (To be clear, some of them are on display. That project’s not quite finished yet, and only a selection of the pieces are up at HUC.)

Mr. Silverstein is a founding member of the Jewish Art Salon, and organization of Jewish artists, and in partnership with artist Richard McBee, he’s in charge of its exhibitions.

The salon was created because “we found that there are many artists in and around New York who are Jewish by birth or affiliation — and a few who are not Jewish but are interested in the Hebrew Bible — but felt constrained when they tried to express their identity through their art.

Historically, he added, “Jews often didn’t say they were Jewish artists unless they were artists of Judaica. “Rothko, Soutin, Chagall, Barnett Newman — they never said they were Jewish publicly. Chagall never converted — but he was buried in a Catholic cemetery.”

It’s different now, Mr. Silverstein said.

“We started the Jewish Art Salon in 2008 — I think that there were about 10 or 12 of us at first, and now there are more than 500 members, from New York, and also from Chicago, California, Central America, South America, Israel, North Africa, Europe — and there’s one person from Hong Kong. We’re New York based, but we’re global, and I’m very proud of how we’ve grown.”

Jewish art, however it’s defined — “it can be religious, philosophical, cultural,” Mr. Silverstein said — often isn’t welcomed in secular galleries, and “we also aren’t necessarily welcomed with open arms in Jewish spaces,” he added. That’s because “the religious world is still reeling from 19th century constraints on picturism.” What’s that? “It’s the term the secular world uses for second commandment issues,” the constraints that come from the proclamation that there is only one God, combined with the prohibition on making graven images. Although for a long time that prohibition had been taken to mean that Jews should not make visual art, it’s also — and increasingly — understood as a prohibition against making images of God, which can be the focus of idolatrous veneration.

“There have been many changes in parts of the chasidic and Orthodox world, as people have used painting as a way to access spirituality,” Mr. Silverstein said. “In the modern Orthodox world, there is a lot of painting used for didactic reasons.”

Joel Silverstein painted himself as the main character in his take on the book of Joel. There are locusts here — painted from rubber toys — as well as the antiheroic Incredible Hulk.

So although there have been problems in finding places for Jewish visual artists who are making art as visible Jews to display their work — aside from everything else, many Jewish institutions are not physically configured to show art, and “there is a lack of structure for the visual arts in the Jewish world, and a lack of funding”— that situation is beginning to change, Mr. Silverstein said.

“There had been no room for us before, but now the ceiling is being smashed,” he said. “There are many more venues for us, some of which we created for ourselves. And some people have noticed.

“Visual art is one of the key ways to engage secular Jews,” he said.

Mr. Silverstein is not a secular Jew. He is a deeply engaged Reform Jew. Much of his understanding of the Tanach that he is painting comes from his decades-long involvement with weekly Torah study at his shul, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah. And he’s interested in creating pathways to Judaism for people whose connection can be not traditional but visual.

He quotes art historian Matthew Baigell, who retired after a long and influential career at Rutgers and has written several books on Jewish art, as saying that “Jewish art is identity art,” Mr. Silverstein said. They were influenced by feminist and Black art. “But for a long time, they were held back from expressing themselves as Jews in their art.

“They wanted to express spirituality. They found structures within Jewish texts, ideas about spirituality, and they wanted to bring that into the visual arts. But the artists in the first wave had to be oblique and covert. They had to hide whatever Jewish culture they had in order to be accepted. They wanted to be seen as American.”

Abstract art allowed them to do that. “Abstraction gave them a wall, so that they could produce something without showing who they really were.

“But my generation didn’t want to hide being Jewish. Kitaj expressed it very well in his book, ‘The Second Diasporists Manifesto,’ where he talked about being Jewish and a modern artist.” (That was R. J. Kitaj, the American-born, mainly London-based artist whose “Second Manifesto” was published in 2007, the year he died. Kitaj also wrote the ‘First Manifesto,” in 1989.)

“So I took a page out of that manifesto. It was very important to me. If being Jewish is a radical identity for an artist, then I’m sorry. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. But I’m not really sorry. The Jewish Artists Salon gave artists the freedom to say that we’re artists, Jews, and Jewish artists, all at the same time. And we’re American artists, Jewish American artists … we have a multiplicity of identities, and like other artists, we have the right to embrace it. We shouldn’t have to hide it.

“I shouldn’t have to hide it.”

And, he added, “being a Jewish artist puts you right on the forefront of identity, and of what is acceptable, whether people will accept you or reject you or turn their noses up at you or feel uncomfortable with you.”

So those are the negatives, or at least the challenges, of being a Jewish artist. But, Mr. Silverstein said, there are many positives.

Jonah is at the bottom of the sea as the Shechinah, based on a 4th century synagogue mosaic, tutors him.

He loves working with text. It is the nucleus of a rapidly expanding world. “Some people are born into it, and some go to yeshivas and study it.” But whether or not that’s your background, “the brilliance of Jewish culture is that it is highly mobile and easily accessible.

“It might be intellectually and emotionally demanding, but it is open to everyone. And so Jewish text was the best way for me to express the deeper truths of my Judaism and Jewish history and identity and evolution, and fact versus fiction.”

For his Tanach series, “the Bible in and of itself had to be recontextualized, away from religious fundamentalism,” away from the simple literalism that becomes a dead end to an artist. “Judaism is very amenable to creativity, to multiple readings, to different aesthetics. I found out that that’s my Jewish heritage.

“Religion is not only fundamentalism and right-wing politics. I found the texts very free, very creative, aesthetically friendly. And the possibility existed to link Jewish texts to contemporary Jewish arts.”

The Bible operates on many levels, Mr. Silverstein said; some of it is visual and some is “conceptually based and purely intellectual. To most Jewish intellectuals — to most intellectuals — visuality is in a certain sphere” and the intellect is on another. “I think that it’s easy to link those two things Jewishly, but traditionally that’s been done only sporadically, and it’s also hard for people in the secular world to do it.”

When Mr. Silverstein paints a text, he thinks about the midrashim, about mysticism, and about biblical criticism. They all come together; “I can’t exist without that understanding,” he said. “For the modern Jewish artist, the Bible has become a way to envision autobiography. You can think about ‘How do I belong in that text?’”

He offered some specifics.

“There’s a tradition in Judaism that says that all of us were at Sinai.” According to that midrash, every single Jew — that means that if you were born Jewish, or if your parents chose to help you join the Jewish people, or if you made that decision yourself — you were at Sinai, in some unspecified and mystical but real way, when Moshe revealed the Torah he’d gotten from God. “As a kid, that hit me very hard,” Mr. Silverstein said. “When I was 6 years old, I was taken to see ‘The 10 Commandments,’ and the visuals of that story hit me hard.

“At Hebrew school, I just learned what I was supposed to learn, but the movie hit me hard,” and made a much deeper and longer-lasting impression on him.

It’s perhaps ironic that “The 10 Commandments” — the movie was released in 1956, and he saw a rerelease in 1964, at the old Ziegfeld Theater, he said — affected little Joel so profoundly. “Cecil B. DeMille was secretly Jewish.” That is, his mother was born Jewish, although he was brought up Episcopalian, but the near-secret of his family’s history stayed with him. “The whole point of that movie was to resolve some of the differences between Christianity and Judaism.”

So he built up a Jewish identity, first cloaked it in the abstract art he was studying in school and then rebelled against it by becoming an unfashionably figurative painter, and “it just seemed that things were building up in me,” he said. “I taught on the Lower East Side, and in the Educational Alliance building there was a whole group of painters obsessed with the Hebrew Bible.” That’s when he became close friends with Richard McBee. “That was about 40 years ago, and he had a show with Jewish themes,” Mr. Silverstein said. “No one was doing that in a gallery then.”

He became increasingly engrossed in Jewish culture. “The whole thing about it is that the more you read about it, the more you see that everything is in it.” He was talking specifically about modern art, and the Jewish artists and collectors who created and maintained it. “Jews have been very involved in modernism and postmodernism from the beginning,” he said; not only in art but in thought as well. People like Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Gershom Scholem, in very different fields, in very different ways, all of them Jews, have had a strong influence on thought, both in and outside the Jewish world.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve sit under a tree, drinking Cokes; hard work tilling the soil is in their future.

But what about him?

“Judaism gives you the right to rebel, as long as you honor the text,” he said. “Nobody cares what you think — and everybody cares what you think.”

Why is he so very influenced by Jewish thought and art? “I am a Jewish guy from Brooklyn,” he said. “That is who I am. It is very important to me that I was not a Jewish guy who wanted to find God in another religion.” So he explored his own.

“Jewish texts give a framework, and I can think of anything I want,” Mr. Silverstein said. “I can imagine anything I want. The texts are a place to jump off from, to engage with. Most of my work has Jewish ideas in it. Most of it has ideas about spirituality and monotheism.

“I did a big painting of Godzilla, and I spell the GOD part of his name in big letters on purpose.

“When I was trained at Pratt, I was taught that if a painting is about anything, that is a bad thing. If it had to have a figure in it, that figure shouldn’t have a story. Narrative was verboten.

“And I think that’s a lot of crap.

“Post modernism lets me draw from high and low art with abandon. I can filter it all through myself. I don’t need permission.”

What about how funny some of his work is?

“I like humor a lot,” Mr. Silverstein said. “That is part of the Jewish tradition. Humor is a way to honor something. I think that if art is just pietist, it is both boring and inherently unbelievable.”

Perhaps the most obvious of his jokes in the HUC exhibit, at least to anyone who’s met him, is his illustration of the Book of Joel.

He wants to make his art relevant to the viewers, because he would love to have them consider the messages he’s giving, including the relevance of Jewish life.

In the Book of Lamentations, set after the destruction of Jerusalem, the main character wears a gas mask and wields an axe, Friday the 13th style.

Take the way his characters are dressed; some of them walked out of comic books, others would be at home in the 1950s, and others in various centuries, continents, and contexts. Some are recognizably dressed, others, not so much. “In Renaissance art, everyone was dressed in contemporary clothing, even if it were a painting of a biblical scene. Partly that was because the artists didn’t know how people would have dressed — they just didn’t have the information — but partly it was to make it relevant to their audience.

“That’s one of the neat things about Jewish texts,” he continued. “You have all sorts of issues. Is it true or not? Did it or did it not happen? How much history do we have to know? How much philosophy? How much archeology?

“We have many needs, including for deeper truths.”

To address that problem, Mr. Silverstein “uses fine art and commercial art and comic book art, which used to be considered low art. I use images from book covers, films, and advertising.

“If the viewer wants to identify with my journey, that’s fine. I am trying to address something. Is there an existential meaning? Is there something beyond what I know?”

He talked about his Shavuot image, the one with Moshe receiving the Torah. “I use Charlton Heston, who is the cliché signifier of Moses,” he said. He knows it’s a cliché. Of course he knows, “But I am still sucked into it,” he said. “One hundred percent. And also it’s kitsch.

“For me, it’s equally fake and real. If something is really one thing, you flip it over and it’s really the other thing. Even as I try to fix meaning, it’s always refixing.”

He also played with the idea of Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law” and retells some of the Torah’s stories, changing them a bit. “I did a lot of playing with the number two,” he said. Beyond the two mountains, the crowd is divided into the uncomfortably awed and the horrified. There’s a dichotomy between the way Moshe is dressed — it’s deMille’s idea of how Moshe would have been dressed, and while it’s unlikely to be accurate it’s certainly not street clothing — and the buttoned-up Israelites.

And the crowd looking up toward what could be God but also, particularly given their clothing, is more likely to be Superman. It’s the right period. “My thought always has been that Superman is like a Jewish secular messiah,” Mr. Silverstein said; that thought’s backed up by his knowledge that Superman’s creators were Jewish.

“By using visuality, I am trying to refer people back to the text, and also to free them from it. You don’t have to read the Bible to like my paintings. But it is a dialogue.”

Some people are uncomfortable with his art because they don’t understand all of it. “There are people who need everything explained,” he said. It’s another irony; they say the same thing about abstract art. In all art, viewers have to create their own understandings, but in modern art, there is less to work with. In Mr. Silverstein’s art, there are so very many things. His canvases are full of things; they’re mainly paintings, not collages, but they include not only canvas and paint but also cardboard and bits of cut-out magazines. They include so many styles that it would be hard to count all of them. When Mr. Silverstein wants them to work together, they do. When he doesn’t, they don’t. That’s up to him, and then to the viewer.

“That is the beauty of art, and that is why religious figures have always tried to control art,” Mr. Silverstein said. “I think the limits of representational art is a way to comment on things that are greater than it.

“For me, that is God. I do believe in God. I believe in the Jewish version of God. But what does that mean?

“I know that it is beyond what we know.”

Joel Silverstein’s show will be open until the end of June. For information, email pfreedman@huc.edu or call (212) 824-2218.

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