I am sitting with a group of American students, some, but not all, Jewish, in the military cemetery at Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem corridor. It is Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers. An obelisk-like memorial chamber designed by the artist Menachem Shemi (1897– 1951) stands at the far end of the area. The inscription on the structure, in block Hebrew letters, reads: “To the Harel Palmach fighters who sacrificed their lives to die for Jerusalem, Judea and the Negev in the War of the Liberation of Israel.” Shemi’s son Aharon, known as Jimmy (1926–1948) was a beloved Palmach commander who fell in the 1948 war. The book published after his death, Friends Talk about Jimmy, became an Israeli classic. What started out as a temporary burial ground became a small military cemetery. Parents of soldiers who died then were given the option of being buried near their sons, and so Shemi and his wife are buried there as well. Today, the small cemetery is full of visitors, even though most of the graves are from the battles of 1948. People of all ages—children, soldiers, young couples, senior citizens—are crowded under the makeshift tent erected over the graves. The two-minute siren during which everybody stands still, in silence, is about to sound.
The study of Jewish and Israeli art teaches us about Jewish values, influences from the outside world, and the way Jews have contended with their historical circumstances.
The choice of day and place is not coincidental—we are on a tour of the art of memory and memorial in the Jerusalem area, for my course titled History of Art in Israel from the Yishuv to the Present. Questions to be discussed: How have these events been commemorated in art? What does the artistic language of these works say about the period in which they were made, about those who made them, and about those commemorated? By attending this ceremony, the importance and power of memory and commemoration in Israeli society are directly experienced by the students, who most likely have never witnessed a comparable event
I have been teaching Israeli and Jewish art to students at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University since 2007. In recent years, prior to the outbreak of Covid- 19, besides students from the United States and Canada, I have had students from places as diverse as Australia, China, England, France, Italy, Hong Kong, and Germany. In order to teach Israeli art, one must start with the basics: How did Jews express themselves through art, either by making art or commissioning art, before the Emancipation? The next questions, of course, are: After the Emancipation and the entry of Jews into art academies, what changed and what didn’t? What were the ideological forces that led to the founding of an art school, the Bezalel Academy in 1906, before the founding of the first kibbutz?
The challenges of teaching this subject are many. For example, the subset of Israeli art is an important branch in the study of Jewish art (and art history as a whole), and different in many ways from the Jewish art produced elsewhere. i Is all Israeli art created by Jews “Jewish” art? Some Israeli art is informed by Jewish tradition, history, and politics, while other works (as in many artistic traditions) are about the basic universal themes of love, childhood, the world we inhabit, beauty and ugliness, life and death. Israeli art has always shifted back and forth on the continuum from the particular to the universal, and sometimes even in the same decade one can find both trends.
Should I have the opportunity to give a virtual tour for those abroad, other sites of Israeli art, besides the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, would include: the Bezalel Academy in downtown Jerusalem, Reuven Rubin’s house in Tel Aviv and the Bauhaus-style buildings of the 1930s there, and the Ein Harod Museum in the North, established on a kibbutz before the founding of the state. All of these have a part in the history and nurturing of Israeli art since 1906 and its importance in the development of Israeli culture. After all, the establishment of the State of Israel was declared inside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on May 15, 1948. What I would hope to show is that the cultivation of artistic expression was considered essential not only to the growth of a Jewish entity, the state-in-the-making (from the Hebrew המדינה שבדרך) but to the rehabilitation of the Jewish people as a whole and as a key to their acceptance as equals among the nations. Moreover, the variety of these venues would show that the artistic languages of each of those periods reflect ideological needs as well as aesthetic/artistic needs.
Israeli art is but one color on the spectrum of Jewish artistic expression. Israeli art should not only be studied under the rubric of Jewish art—let alone art history as a broader academic discipline, where it is rarely discussed—but as a branch of Jewish Studies as well. Indeed, I would argue that the study of Jewish and Israeli artistic expression is vital to the teaching of Jewish Studies in general. Adding the study of works of art to the curriculum can also open windows into Jewish experience through time and place: the world of ancient Jewry, via the frescos of Dura Europos (3rd century CE), or medieval Jewry, for example, through the depictions in illuminated manuscripts, or modern and contemporary Jewry, through the art of the Holocaust and the art of commemoration. The study of Jewish and Israeli art teaches us about Jewish values, influences from the outside world, and the way Jews have contended with their historical circumstances. We need both—the existential issues facing Israeli Jews and Jews living elsewhere are of necessity different, and these differences are reflected in their art: certain texts and experiences are taken for granted here in Israel, such as a knowledge of Hebrew and the experience of living as a majority in the land with all of its religious and political complexities.
As one adult student said to me upon seeing the frescoes of Dura Europos for the first time: “Why have we not been taught this before?” The student, a retired doctor, was encountering a Jewish mode of expression that he had never experienced, and was intrigued. In this way, too, the study of Jewish visual culture offers a fresh perspective for those who have seen their Judaism only through the prism of tikkun ‘olam, humor, and food. Jewish and Israeli art is a birthright for Jews, and an invitation for non-Jews, to learn about the rich tapestry called the Jewish experience.
iI would like to leave the questions of definition aside—see my article “A Jewish Art,” Milin Havivin 7 (2013–2014), http://library. yctorah.org/journals/milin-havivin-vol-7-beloved-words/.