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Of course I knew about the Jewish imprint on American musical culture. I knew about Irving Berlin, Al Jolson and Eddie Fisher. I grew up hearing Gershwin and the Andrews Sisters' Bei Mir Bist du Shein. My grandfather, an accomplished singer, always sang Yiddish and folk songs by Jewish composers.
But the notion of a "Jewish artistic imprint" comparable to the Jewish musical imprint never occurred to me, even though I've worked as an artist all my adult life.
The "'graven images' myth
Then about five years ago I began volunteering my artistic services to my neighborhood synagogue, Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, which has a strong museum collection as well as a history of featuring art and artists in exhibitions. My computer skills and artistic training led to work with on a continuing series of illustrated lectures about "Judaism and Art" by the congregation's senior rabbi, Lance J. Sussman, who is also a visiting history professor at Princeton.
From Sussman I learned that although it was customary— even traditional— to assume that Jewish culture lacked much in the ay of visual art because religious restrictions against "graven images," this wasn't really so. In fact, Sussman contended, Jewish art dates back to the Israelites.
After Googling simple phrases like "Jewish artists" and "Jews in art" as part of my research for our project, I soon discovered that, without my having realized it, many of the great 20th-Century artists I had studied happened to be Jewish.
My favorites, for example, include giants like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Jacob Landau, Louise Nevelson, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Jonathon Borofsky, Sonia Delauney, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Audrey Flack, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Sol Lewitt, Amadeo Modigliani, Jules Olitski and Jules Pascin, George Segal, Ben Shahn, Nancy Spero, Raphael Soyer and Lee Krasner.
Then there are the great photographers like Man Ray (whose work I always loved for its extraordinary innovation), Alfred Stieglitz and of course Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alfred Eisenstadt and the great Robert Frank. Almost all of my favorites, it turned out, were Jews or at least had one Jewish parent who was. For that matter, a great number of Philadelphia artists I have known and worked with turn out to be Jewish as well.
Of course, Jews hold no monopoly among history's greatest artists, as countless examples from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Picasso to Jackson Pollock can attest. Nonetheless, for the past half-century Jews have dominated most lists of the Top 50 contemporary artists.
Why so many Jews in the visual arts? And why now? Is it just a coincidence? Or is there something about that Jewish genetic imprint that has produced such a plethora of brilliant artists?
War's ripple effect
I can't answer my own question, except to speculate that the ripple effect of being either much maligned or overly scrutinized and tragically singled out in the 20th Century has somehow produced a psyche that looks inward for self-expression and for an outlet for hidden fears— a combination of self-adulation mixed with pain, accompanied by the salve or burden of over-achievement. Add it all together and you might end up with that slightly twisted, slightly loosely screwed up inner core that characterizes many an artist.
For a more scholarly historic perspective, you'll have to attend "Art and The Holocaust," Dr. Sussman's latest exploration of art and Judaism. For myself I will simply add that my own work on this three-part mini-series has left me profoundly touched by the creativity and depth of my fellow Jewish artists before, during and after one of the most devastating periods in human history.&diams
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