As Jewish Art Takes Europe, Debate Rages over What Jewish Art is

Several years ago, the Hungarian sculptor Levente Thury spent months poring through disorderly stacks of paintings which had been locked, undisplayed since the Holocaust, in the storage area of the Jewish Museum in Budapest.

A secular Jew whose work is inspired by the Jewish legend of the Golem, Thury was putting together what was intended to be an exhibition of “Jewish art.”

In the end, however, he found it impossible to determine just what made a work “Jewish.”

He gave up the idea of showing “Jewish art” and instead chose a different criterion that to his mind, in Europe, still linked the exhibit together.

This was a sense of Diaspora.

The works displayed presented overtly Jewish themes such as portraits of Jews, biblical scenes, nostalgic set-pieces or interiors and specific Holocaust imagery, as well as non-Jewish or “neutral” themes, such as still lives, landscapes and city scenes.

“We understood that Jews have a very strong experience as Diaspora beings — but a lot of other people who work in the arts also share the same mentality,” he said.

Thury’s choice was his own way of dealing with provocative questions that have long sparked debate — the issue of what is Jewish art and the related issue of what is Jewish culture.

These debates have raged most fiercely within specifically Jewish communal, artistic or intellectual confines. But they also often spill over into the mainstream.

For the past several years they have, to a certain extent, gone public during the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, a continent-wide celebration of Jewish culture that this year is scheduled for Sept. 7.

An expansion of an “Open Doors to Jewish Heritage” program initiated in the French region of Alsace in 1996, the European Day of Jewish Culture became a Europe-wide event in 2000 and now takes place in nearly two dozen countries, from Spain to Scandinavia, from the United Kingdom to Ukraine.

The initiative is coordinated by France’s Agency for the Development of Tourism of the Bas-Rhin, B’nai B’rith Europe, the European Council of Jewish Communities and the Red de Juderias de Espana, in Girona, Spain.

In past years, as many as 500 Culture Day activities in 250 towns and cities have taken place, drawing as many as 175,000 visitors for just one day of events.

This year, the theme of the Culture Day is “Judaism and the Arts,” and the agenda includes a rich array of events ranging from guided tours to special exhibits, to lectures, food-tastings and book launches.

“Art, understood in all it its diverse forms, is the protagonist, and there are meetings, exhibits and round tables devoted to the subject,” said a statement from the organizers in Italy, where events are scheduled in 46 sites up and down the peninsula.

These, it said, include presentations that underscore traditional forms of Jewish creativity that shun figurative representation and focus on ritual objects, as well as modern examples of secular artistic expression whose limits are much broader.

Italy’s 35,000 Jews are a tiny minority in a country with a total population of about 60 million.

In this situation, attitudes toward Jews often draw on stereotype and preconception. One of the aims of the Culture Day is thus to introduce mainstream Italians to the little-known reality of Jewish life, history and heritage as well as specific cultural expressions.

In recent years, Jewish leaders, intellectuals and artists have increasingly recognized the importance of Jewish art and culture as a means of promoting Jewish identity as well as engaging and educating mainstream society.

But like Levente Thury, they have had to grapple with how to define Jewish art and culture in meaningful ways.

For some, Jewish culture continues to mean purely the religious, traditional teachings, texts and customs carried out within the internal world of observant Jewry — or in Israel.

Others feel that it also encompasses works of art, music, literature and the like, produced by Jews, on Jewish themes, for a Jewish audience.

Others broaden the definition still further, at times seeming to allow it to embrace all or much of the intellectual and creative production of Jews, on whatever theme or subject, simply because they are Jews: the identity of the producer, in effect, defining the product.

Some commentators, such as the Israeli scholar Stanley Waterman, prefer to speak of a variety of “Jewish cultures” rather than “Jewish culture.”

“It is the responsibility of Jewish artists to speak authentically from their own experiences,” the American-born Israeli writer Miriam Sivan said at a recent seminar in Prague on the Jewish contribution to European theater.

“Jewish art is the convergence of memory and history,” she said.

The European Association for Jewish Culture, a grant-making body founded in 2001 which sponsored the Prague seminar, decided to use a broad definition in its own approach.

Since its inception, the association has awarded grants to several dozen painters, sculptors, playwrights, actors, filmmakers and other creative people in the visual and performing arts whose work “reflects the Jewish experience in Europe.”

The association’s mission is to “enhance Jewish life by fostering and supporting artistic creativity and achievement, and encouraging access to Jewish culture in Europe.”

But at the same time, the role of culture and the arts in representing Judaism to the wider world is considered equally important, particularly at a time when the promotion of cultural diversity is a key policy of many European institutions.

“The forces that drive Jewish creativity are the constant need to explore one’s identity, to challenge perceptions of what being Jewish means and to take a stand on ethical and political issues of today,” said the association’s director, Lena Stanley-Clamp.

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