The question presented at the Hadas Gallery at the Rohr Jewish Center serving Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., was “What is Jewish art?” Since it was an artists’ talk, a diverse palette was to be expected. The answers, of course, ran the gamut of Jewish art history, style and perspective.
The event was organized by The Creative Soul, whose founder, Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, rented a storefront in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn over the past two Sukkot holidays for Jewish artists. Moully, an artist and youth director for Chabad-Lubavitch in Basking Ridge, N.J., runs a daily blog, Art for the Soul, on Chabad.org, featuring art, photography, videos and poems, and founded The Creative Soul to bring together artists from Chassidic and other Orthodox Jewish communities, and to promote their work. The two presenting artists that evening were Shoshannah Brombacher and Elke Reva Sudin, who were raised in Jewish homes, became religious as young adults and now reside in Brooklyn. That’s where, for the most part, their commonality ends.
“The Hebrew Midwives in Egypt” (copyright Shoshannah Brombacher)
As a young girl living in Holland, Brombacher said she found a poster in her father’s study of a menorah surrounded by Hebrew letters, which later inspired her to integrate pictures with texts in her works. These resembled Jewish manuscripts, including Passover haggadahs, ketubot (wedding documents) and tikkuns (paintings of psalms and mystical images used for healing), which she once made as a commission to cure someone from illness, and shared with the audience that it healed her instead.
Growing up surrounded by culture and museums, she discovered her home was void of many religious objects—considered Judaism’s first art—so as a teenager, she began creating them herself. Her work included an original Passover Seder plate, Sabbath lamp, havdalah spice box, challah cover and Sabbath plate.
“Good art is to paint what you live and live what you paint,” Brombacher, a self-taught artist, said. “I believe you can make pictures of all events in life.”
As seen during the length of her presentation—which included numerous clips from a career that has lasted for more than 20 years—Brombacher began painting when she was 3 years old, and enjoyed an academic career before becoming a full-time artist when settling in New York in 1992. She studied ancient Middle Eastern languages, and Hebrew literature and codicology, in Leyden, Holland, later lecturing at the Free University of Berlin. She has painted life events based on Jewish holidays, marriage ceremonies, the Holocaust, 9/11, European communities and Lower East Side immigrants, Chassidic stories and portraits of rabbis.
From “Joseph: A Pictorial” (copyright Shoshannah Brombacher)
“When you make Jewish art, you see everything as Jewish,” said Brombacher. “What you do and see influences a Jewish artist, so you have to be careful to see and do only good things, or you’ll make bad art.”
Brombacher admitted to being very influenced by her rich heritage, receiving inspiration from stories from the Torah and Midrash; still, she doesn’t think Jewish art has to have only religious themes.
“You can take a lot from history,” she said. An example she showed is a painting she made based on a story she heard about a boy waiting for the coming of the Redemption at a train station; he was later shipped to a concentration camp from the exact same station.
“Chassidic art is different than others,” said Brombacher. “It skips ethnicity, and can go from Eastern to Western Europe because we have so much history.”
She has proven this by incorporating all styles and locales, despite being a Dutch artist: Russian Cubism, and a Rembrandt-style portrait of the Baal Shem Tov; a Golem of Prague series; the Russian shtetl; and life in Amsterdam, Berlin, Jerusalem and New York.
Brombacher once drew Mozart in a Passover scene, but her father responded and said, “Mozart wasn’t Jewish.”
“I know, but I am,” she answered.
“People today want to show off their Jewishness in their artwork, showing how proud they are of their Jewish identity,” said Stuart Lilian, who attended the event with his wife, Devorah, an artist.
Leah Russell, a Jewish artist who was in the audience, said after the talk that as someone who studied Judaism later in life, she comprehends that “Jewish art now is so much richer, broader and deeper.”
“Jewish art is so personal and universal,” Russell continued. “In Judaism, there’s always more. You can always go deeper.”
Sudin, who spoke after Brombacher, was raised in Massachusetts, and discovered her artistic and spiritual nature while studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York. Originally drawn to Kabbalah, Sudin found the esoteric challenging to portray on canvas, and then began exploring the Chassidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She was living in the southern part of the neighbohood, in a hipster world of artists. She began talking to Chassidic women living nearby and says she found that they were “sort of similar.”
“Ana B’koach (The 42 Letter Name)” (copyright Elke Reva Sudin)
“I can identify with them, even though they’re different,” said Sudin.
This led to her “Hipsters and Hassids” series, which was exhibited in New York galleries and shows the commonality between the two communities sharing opposite sides of Williamsburg. Her current solo show, titled “We Are Patriarchs,” is on view at Hadas Gallery, where she spoke about her work. A stark contrast to Brombacher’s more traditional themes, the series features 15 oil paintings relating to biblical narratives through modern-day subjects.
Sudin, an illustrator and fine-art painter, first photographed contemporary men and women, whom she later embodied as patriarchs and matriarchs in her minimal, quick-stroke style. As a young married couple, Sudin and her husband, Saul, a filmmaker, still socialize with artists from Pratt and attend the Rohr Jewish Center, run by Rabbi Simcha and Ariella Weinstein, for Shabbat meals. Sudin has exhibited in solo and group shows in the New York area; Boston; Philadelphia; Hartford, Conn.; and Colorado.
“The series is about looking back, and also how people will look at us in the future,” Sudin said. “We don’t know how a biblical person looked, but we can all relate to it.”
“When you tell a specific story, it gives something for people to latch onto,” she continued. “I use ornaments to tell stories.”
Among the modern renditions are a Puerto Rican Jewish woman featured as a modern-day Yael, in geisha-patterned clothing, who defeated the Canaanite general Sisera; Persian-American Jews as Jacob and Leah in Leah’s tent, with a large Persian rug; a Yiddish farmer wearing tzitzit from upstate New York, as a chained Samson; and Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, permanent scholar-in-residence at Chabad serving Harvard University, as a contemporary rabbi teaching a student depicted with Torah scroll cases in a painting titled “Joshua, Disciple of Moses.”
Rivka Nehorai, an artist who attended the event, said she related to Sudin. “She’s thinking hard about how she understands the world around her. She’s open and wants to share, stretch boundaries and unite people from different backgrounds.”
Nehorai also enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of the two women in how they define themselves as Jewish artists. “They’re different generations. Shoshanna’s an immigrant; Elke is American-born. They’re speaking different languages and in different circles, but there’s still some similarity.”