Haredi artists join multifaith exhibition

The artistic melting pot spanned sects and continents, presenting at churches and a Conservative Jewish seminary

Goldie Gross’ “Forbidden Fruit.” Courtesy of Jewish Art Salon

Aug 3, 2023 2:00 PM


You may not expect Haredi artists to display their work alongside images from the Quran and New Testament, but three women did just that in what was celebrated as an “unprecedented” exhibition.

“Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity,” was housed in sections at the Jewish Theological Seminary and two nearby churches last month, and continues online in a permanent digital offering. It includes artists from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular backgrounds for an exhibit that brought religion to the fore.

Artists Yehudis Barmatz, Bruria Finkel, and Goldie Gross hail from a range of Haredi backgrounds and live on different coasts and continents, but they joined each other in displaying work in “Genesis.” Barmatz, based in Israel, contributed a meditative sculpture; Finkel, in California, an enigmatic quadriptych; and Gross, in New York, a fresh take on an old story, 

The exhibition encompasses stories from the first four chapters of Genesis, the Book of John, the Quran, and later literature from all three traditions.

From Bais Yaakov, to a BFA and Breslov.

For Barmatz, going back to “In the beginning,” meant going back to some of her beginnings.

“Breishit was the first Parsha I ever learned, after learning to read,” Barmatz told Shtetl in an email interview, corresponding from her home in Israel. “It sits at the base of the unconscious.” 

Barmatz, who grew up attending a Bais Yaakov school in Boston’s Litvish community, contributed a piece made from papier-mâché and found materials, entitled, “The Old Man with the Extra Long Beard.” As the name suggests, it depicts an elderly man seated on a tree stump, which is installed on a wall, like a floating shelf. A long beard of rope collects in his hands in loose, plunging spools. 

Yehudis Barmatz’s “The Old Man with the Extra Long Beard.” Courtesy of Jewish Art Salon

“He is as old as the earth is, the archetype of the old man, the figure from midrashic tales, the core soul of Adam,” Barmatz said. 

An imaginative gloss rather than a literal representation of the first human creation, Barmatz’s “pensive and accepting” man, in her words, is an extension of her interest in the psychology of Carl Jung; she says she uses Jung’s “study of culture, symbolism, and archetypes” to explore religion and the human condition. 

Today, Barmatz observes religiously as a Breslover Hasid, just like her very first art teacher from middle school, whose encouragement led her off the “beaten path” for a typical Bais Yaakov student, to obtain a BFA from the Pratt Institute. “Perhaps his guidance is what brought me to marry a Breslover Chassid from Bnei Brak.” She and her family live on Moshav Yesodot, a Haredi farming community in central Israel, where Barmatz has built a community art studio.

The Kabbalist in California.

Bruria Finkel’s “Mayim Sham Mayim” is the most esoteric of the three Haredi contributions to the exhibition. Created with acrylic paint on Japanese handmade paper, the four-part piece offers its interpretation of the story about the seven days of creation, addressing divisions – between light and dark, sea and sky – and related cycles.

Bruria Finkel’s “Mayim Sham Mayim.” Courtesy of Jewish Art Salon

“My work covers cycles,” she told Shtetl. “Cycles of time, cycles in human beings, cycles in nature; that was very attractive to me, to deal with cycles, because they are a phenomenon and something we experience every single day.”  

Finkel pointed out that the Hebrew word for sky, shamayim, spelled out at the bottom of her piece, is composed of two words, sham and mayim, which respectively mean “there” and “water.” She said it is a quirk that invites us to consider the water cycle, in which water on earth evaporates and becomes clouds – water over “there” – before returning as precipitation. 

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Finkel, who now resides in California, was raised Hasidic in Jerusalem. Her family’s home did not have art on the walls when she was a child, so Finkel said she “absorbed” her attention in symbols: her mother’s challah, or the engravings of a tall house and a tree on her father’s kiddush cup.

She named 13th-century Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia as a “very important influence” on her thinking ever since she translated one of his pieces in the 1960s. In Abulafia’s spirit, her work is “heavily involved in kabbalistic imagery,” but it is guided by an “intuitive sense” before any preconceived image. She will be opening a solo exhibition about meditation, using Abulafia’s concept of the Hebrew alphabet, at the Jerusalem Theater on October 8th. 

A “Triple Threat” on Forbidden Desires.

Goldie Gross updates two classics – Albrecht Durer and the story of Adam and Eve, in her piece, “Forbidden Fruit.” Applying oil paint to custom wood panels crafted by Aaron Ciner, Gross depicted two nude figures standing on either side of a green bush. 

Goldie Gross’ “Forbidden Fruit. Courtesy of Jewish Art Salon

“I wanted to create an Adam and Eve for the modern day,” Gross said. “Instead of etz hadaas [“The Tree of Knowledge”], with an apple, it [is] a coffee bush with coffee beans,” which Gross says makes her subjects “a little more contemporary.” Her piece is based on Durer’s painting, “Adam and Eve,” completed in 1507.

Gross grew up in Crown Heights and comes from a Chabad-Lubavitch background. In addition to contributing an art piece to “Genesis,” she served as a chief curator for the exhibition alongside co-curators Joel Silverstein and Richard McBee, corresponding with artists, editing the catalog, and helping select pieces. 

“She’s a triple-threat,” Silverstein raved about Gross, referring to her talents as a writer, editor, and artist. “I sing her praises.” 

Gross, Silverstein, and McBee hold various leadership roles at the Jewish Art Salon (JAS), a hub of contemporary artists and art professionals that was established in 2008 and has more than 400 members. To present this exhibition, JAS partnered with CARAVAN, an international arts nonprofit that fosters artistic “encounter points” by bringing together artists of “divergent backgrounds,” according to their website.

“It seemed like the whole world was pulling itself apart – politically, religiously, spiritually,”  Silverstein said of the context that gave birth to “Genesis” when the three curators began work about three years ago. “Art has the ability to bring people together and heal.” 

Asked about Haredi participation in the larger art community, JAS Founding Director Yona Verwer said it is “increasing” and that JAS has a number of Haredi members beyond the three featured in this exhibition, such as Yitzchok Moully, Leah Caroline, Shoshannah Brombacher, and Zalmen Glauber — founder of Shtetl Gallery (unconnected to this publication) in Williamsburg’s Condor Hotel, which has marketed itself toward the “greater public.” 

“There are many incredible artists coming from Orthodox backgrounds,” Gross said. “A lot of them make really, really, really good art.”