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Expressing Judaism Through Art



Two recent Living Our Beliefs podcast guests, both Jewish women as it happens, are artists and express their faith through their art. Rabbi Bec Richman uses the scribal arts and pottery, whereas Audrey Reich turns to multi-media painting. While these women use different media, they both use visual art as a language of expression. Bec spoke of art making as welcome quiet time when she can use her hands, body, and visual sense to bring an aspect of Judaism alive. Repairing a torah scroll or creating a ketubah (marriage contract) tie the sacred Jewish history and language together. Audrey said something similar in describing the enriching experience of soaking in lots of visual stimuli, which then mixes with her Jewish identity, visual language, and knowledge of Jewish culture to create her own multi-media artworks. As a teacher, her students are additional sources of inspiration.

 

Unlike in Christianity, Judaism forbids graven images, so Jewish sanctuaries do not have iconography, paintings, and stain glass windows. That does not mean there is no visual arts in the community. There is Judaica – candelabras, jewelry, metal crowns atop the Torah scroll spindles, kiddish cups etcetera – that beautify our sanctuaries, our homes, and our bodies. By directly incorporating sacred Hebrew words, Bec is using and inspired by Judaism for these various spaces.

 

Bec’s scribal art and pottery began while studying in Israel. The study halls and classes were loud with talk and strenuous intellectual effort. Much as she enjoyed the learning, she needed breaks, time when she could be alone, and use her hands and body to create. In point of fact, the activities balanced and fed each other. Upon reflection, she noted: “What was so powerful about doing those pieces of learning together – the rabbinic studies, scribing, and pottery – was the opportunity to bring Torah to life through ancient lettering in my contemporary hand, both on the page and in clay, which is deeply rooted to the earth, this place from which we come.”

 

Audrey is less direct and more personal in her art. She is inspired by her paternal family’s history in Poland and the trips she has taken there. But many other situations inspire her as well. Her students’ intuitive artwork inspire her and prompt a broader way of looking at something. For instance, when she asked her class if they’d watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, she commented on all the colors and sounds that drew her attention.

 

To her surprise, several students in her multi-cultural class talked about their parent’s hatred of the British, so the pageantry that had so captured Audrey’s visual senses conveyed something quite negative to these parents. Coming from Ireland and Jamaica, the British represented colonialism and oppression. To Audrey’s credit, she acknowledged the contrasting viewpoints and their validity. After hearing their family’s views, she told them: “Those are such interesting points you're bringing back. And you know what? I found the funeral fascinating for its multisensory colors and sounds, but you're right.”

 

Taking in different perspectives can be challenging or intriguing, prompting us to become defensive or curious. Artists do both and more. Retaining curiosity and openness to other points of view is likewise vital to any intellectual effort and one that I champion in my research and podcast.

 

In speaking with Bec and Audrey, I recalled my thinking when I was still doing photography. Much as I enjoyed the creativity, I saw it as a mode of communication and decided that when my ideas no longer needed to be conveyed visually, I would use another method. Bec and Audrey are sure about the necessity of conveying their ideas about Jewish ideas or family history pictorially, and it shows in the skillful results.

 

The beauty of the arts, visual or otherwise, is the openness of interpretation. While the creator may have a clear idea, the viewer brings their own history and interests. As Audrey found in her classroom discussion of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral revealed, while she was attentive to the colors and sounds, some student’s tuned into the history of the British empire.

 

If you are an artist, how does your religious or cultural identity appear in your work? Is it a central inspiration?

 

If you look at art, how does work that comes from your religion or culture speak to you? And what about work from other religions and cultures?

 

 

Click here to listen to Rabbi Bec Richman’s episode.

Click here to listen to Audrey Reich’s episode part two.

 

 

To keep up-to-date with the project and podcast click here to sign up for the twice-monthly newsletter.

 

The ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast is available on Apple podcasts, other podcast apps, and through my Talking with God Project website.

 

Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at info@talkingwithgodproject.org or write a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!  Méli

 

 

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