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‘Under the Black Hat’ Pop Art in Jerusalem Focuses on Chassidim

‘Under the Black Hat’ Pop Art in Jerusalem Focuses on Chassidim

Rabbi Yitzchok Moully brings spiritual and emotional depth to a new exhibit

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“Orange Socks” fills an entire wall of a gallery in Jerusalem, from floor to ceiling, and depicts the life-size silhouettes of 12 Chassidim, one of whom shows a flash of color. The artwork, by Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, is on display in the curated group show “Popthodox-Black Humor” until Nov. 16 as a part of the Third Jerusalem Biennale. (Art: Yitzchok Moully)
“Orange Socks” fills an entire wall of a gallery in Jerusalem, from floor to ceiling, and depicts the life-size silhouettes of 12 Chassidim, one of whom shows a flash of color. The artwork, by Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, is on display in the curated group show “Popthodox-Black Humor” until Nov. 16 as a part of the Third Jerusalem Biennale. (Art: Yitzchok Moully)

Yitzchok Moully was in the middle of what had been a normal day at work when, he said, he “received an email . . . a heavy email”—one that provokes reaction, that makes your stomach drop and clouds your head. “I said to myself, I can’t just hit delete. I need to print out the email. And burn it.”

For many, that would end with a momentary flare on a backyard barbecue. But Moully is an artist. And a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi.

He began to think of Jewish purging rituals. First, fire: the burning of leaven before Passover, the kashering of kitchens and utensils. But cleansing is also done with water, more gently, through immersion, just as Jews have purified themselves for millennia in the mikvah, the ritual bath. From fire to water, from pain to art, “Digital Cleansing” was born.

“Digital Cleansing” is one of Moully’s pieces on display in the curated group show “Popthodox-Black Humor” until Nov. 16 as a part of the Third Jerusalem Biennale, a once-every-two-years’ exhibition featuring the work of some 200 Jewish artists from Israel and around the world.

“This piece is inspired by the High Holiday energy of realignment with G‑d and each other,” Moully tells Chabad.org. “We’ve all sent or received digital material we’re not so proud of—email, our browser history, social-media posts—that we’d like to rid ourselves of.”

The interactive work allows gallery-goers to send any of their unwanted digital baggage through an anonymous web form to a printer, which, according to the sender’s designation, deposits the document into either a barrel of water, where the ink dissolves, or into a barrel of fire, where it is incinerated.

“It’s bringing together Tashlich and the burning of chametz before Pesach in one succinct way,” explains the artist, who was born in Australia, and grew up there and in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s a very Jewish concept brought into a contemporary digital space.”

In Jerusalem for the grand opening on Oct. 11, Moully puts the finishing touches on his “Orange Socks” mural.
In Jerusalem for the grand opening on Oct. 11, Moully puts the finishing touches on his “Orange Socks” mural.

‘A Point of Connection’

Merging the contemporary art world and the Orthodox world is the mission of Noa Lea Cohen, the curator of “Popthodox.”

“I started as a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in art history and realized that although I had learned so much about art, I didn’t see anything about myself” in that world, she says. “I started in my own way to find myself in contemporary art.”

Working on her Ph.D. at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, Cohen discovered that there were no published sources on Orthodox Jews working on contemporary art. So she had to go find the artists themselves, which eventually led her to becoming a curator.

The theme for this Biennale is “Watershed,” which refers to how rivers and streams split and converge in their journey to the sea. Cohen selected works, including those made by Moully, for the show “Black Humor” (cheekily nodding to the ubiquitous black clothing worn in many Orthodox communities) to show and/or inspire the convergence of all those communities in Israel. Or, as she explains: “to see what haredi Jews think about themselves and G‑d, and not an ethnographic exhibition of them from outside.”

Secondly, she says, “the gallery is a point of connection . . . beyond barriers.”

Attendees mingle outside the Beit Chassid venue in Jerusalem.
Attendees mingle outside the Beit Chassid venue in Jerusalem.

Cohen points to the centerpiece of the show: “Orange Socks” by Moully. It fills an entire wall of the gallery, from floor to ceiling, and depicts the life-size silhouettes of 12 Chassidim, one of whom shows a flash of color. The original was only 10x30 inches, but Cohen convinced Moully to reproduce larger “to allow people to picture themselves in it.” Many people in the gallery have stopped to take pictures with the work, making it appear that they are in line with the figures, “creating empathy,” she says.

The Chassid in the orange socks is Moully’s own self-portrait. After years of working as a rabbi by day and an artist at night, he says: “I got to the point where I couldn’t do both anymore. I called my rabbi, and I said maybe I should stop painting; it’s getting in the way of my rabbinical work.”

Moully was surprised by his mentor’s response: Take the gifts that G‑d gave you and impact the world in a meaningful way. So today, says Moully: “I’m a full-time artist.”

Moully, right, with Noa Leah Cohen, curator of “Popthodox,” and Rami Ozeri, founder and director of the Jerusalem Biennale, a once-every-two-years’ exhibition.
Moully, right, with Noa Leah Cohen, curator of “Popthodox,” and Rami Ozeri, founder and director of the Jerusalem Biennale, a once-every-two-years’ exhibition.

“Orange Socks,” he describes, is about “contrasting what people think of as a homogeneous Chassidic experience. There’s one guy with orange socks, which really says that all 11 of them have their own personalities. The Chassidic experience isn’t as carbon copy as people think.”

“We each have to personalize our Judaism; we each have to celebrate our Judaism; and within the parameters of Judaism, we have to celebrate our uniqueness and what we can bring to the table,” the artist goes on to say. “Part of my job is to tell the wider world that Chassidim do have color, and we all have something unique to share with world. And the other half of my job is to tell the Orthodox community about their own color.”

See Rabbi Yitzchok Moully’s work and the rest of the pieces in “Black Humor” until Nov. 16 at the Third Jerusalem Biennale, Beit Chassid at 47 Emek Refaim, Jerusalem.

“Digital Cleansing” includes a barrel of water, where ink dissolves, and a barrel of fire, where it’s incinerated.
“Digital Cleansing” includes a barrel of water, where ink dissolves, and a barrel of fire, where it’s incinerated.
From “Digital Cleansing,” on display until Nov. 16. (Art: Yitzchok Moully)
From “Digital Cleansing,” on display until Nov. 16. (Art: Yitzchok Moully)


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divorah L.A. via chabadburbank.com November 4, 2017

This is very nice, for first, there is not enough Jewish art in the world today; second, there is not enough Jewish art in schools, colleges, and Universities to teach Jewish art; either that, or many of the colleges have an anti Semitic stance towards Judaica, but they teach African tribal arts, Chinese or oriental arts, Native American arts, and focus on other areas--not traditional Judaica artworks. Reply

Shmuel G. November 1, 2017

Oy. The Orange Socks was cute, but the 2 cans of fire and water are a little too retro 60's "pop" for me. Was that Andy Warhol's ghost standing behind the bochur in the picture? Please Rabbi Moully, remember that for anything to be alive, including art, it must have a body and a soul. In art the body is the subject matter and the materials you use. the soul is the technique and the passion you put into the work. Too much soul without body=wallpaper. Too much body without soul=kitsch. Please try to avoid both! Reply

Divorah/Debbie L.A. via chabadburbank.com November 4, 2017
in response to Shmuel G.:

Shmuel,
That is a wonderful statement: "Too much soul without body=wallpaper. Too much body without soul=kitsch." That is one of the best artistic teachings I have ever heard in my life and I've been studying art in colleges for years and doing art most of my life. Thank you Shmuel! Reply

Shmuel G. Crown Heights November 7, 2017
in response to Divorah/Debbie :

Thank you Divorah. My statements come from long observation and thought. May all your projects live and give life! Reply

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