All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

The ark at Cleveland’s Orthodox Green Road Synagogue looms on an intimidating platform above the congregation. Alternating tan and umber rays — evocative of the divine lights that emanate from the sun in ancient Egyptian art and of St. Francis’s stigmata in Christian paintings — culminate in diamond-shaped niches above the chairs reserved for synagogue officials. There is, as one would expect, an eternal light, and beneath it, a depiction of the Ten Commandments: the double-humped variety recalling the McDonald’s logo.

But the two fierce beasts guarding the ark in the synagogue — which traces its roots back to immigrants from Marmaresher Sziger, Hungary, who built a congregation in Cleveland’s Woodland Hills neighborhood in 1910 — are unusual.

Instead of naturalistic lions, symbolic of the tribe of Judah and of the rabbinic injunction to be “strong as a lion” for morning services, Green Road’s ark features a pair of winged lions. (I initially mistook them for Gothic-styled griffins, but Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, corrected me; they are Beaux Artes, art nouveau, or Victorian neo-Gothic, and they lack the eagle heads one expects of griffins.)

Read my article “All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


Mystical Gardening and Digital Art

 Allen Hirsh. Early in the Big Bang

Allen Hirsh. Early in the Big Bang

Growing up in central New Jersey in the early 1950s, Allen Hirsh knew virtually nothing about Judaism as a religion. “My family was rather typical of the community: extremely left-wing labor Zionists,” he said of his parents, who spoke Yiddish at least half of the time in the house. Hirsh’s father, a chicken farmer-turned-landscaper, went to kheyder for 11 years and “was considered a Yiddish language scholar by other farmers,” Hirsh said. His father, he notes, took several “extended trips” to Israel during the Suez crisis “to help build the fledgling chicken industry at Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv in northern Israel.”

As a young adult, though, Hirsh, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based biophysicist and artist, turned to his faith. After what he describes as a “tumultuous period” in his life as a neurophysiology graduate student at Columbia University, he studied Jewish mysticism as part of what he calls “my teshuvah.”

“It has long sat in the background of my life,” he said, “but its rich concepts of an infinite God are compatible with my theological, artistic, and scientific instincts.”

Those instincts, honed at Caltech prior to Columbia and in a doctoral program in plant physiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, have led Hirsh down a rare path. The self-declared “abstract gardener” — whose digital print “Early in the Big Bang” is on display in the exhibit “Fireworks” (through July 27) at Washington’s Foundry Gallery — maintains an exotic garden.

Read more of my article “Mystical Gardening and Digital Art” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


Sephardic Legend Keeps Singing at 90

Soon after she assumed the makeshift stage during her July 16 performance at the Washington D.C. JCC, Flory Jagoda, 90, lit a candle. “Sephardic women always believed in light, in a candle,” she told the audience of about 125 people. “With these candles,” the Bosnian-born artist sang in Ladino, “We pray to God … to grant us a healthy life.”

Flory Jagoda. Credit Tom Pich

Flory Jagoda. Credit Tom Pich

A few songs later, however, an accidental thrust of the guitar sent the candle flying, and for a split second before it was clear whether a firefighting team would need to be summoned, the assembly’s collective heart skipped a beat. “Let’s just sing,” said Susan Gaeta, one of the two musicians accompanying Jagoda, defusing the mood.

The candle was encased in a glass box, so catastrophic danger probably wasn’t too likely. And Jagoda, for her part, has seen music do the exact opposite of destroy. “I did save myself with music,” she said, recounting her parents placing her alone on a train out of Croatia in 1941. “Don’t open your mouth,” her father had told her. “Just play your harmonica.” (Throughout the performance, Jagoda used the word “harmonica” to refer to an accordion.)

At 90, Jagoda appears to have a healthy sense of humor about her performances. In response to a false start on one song, where the trio wasn’t in the same key, she told the audience, “You know at my age, I don’t hear good.” Eying her colleague Howard Bass, she said, “He’s going to play beforehand, which is good, because it leaves me a good in.” Without batting an eye, Bass told her, “I’m just playing what you wrote!”

Read more of my article “Sephardic Legend Keeps Singing at 90” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


Getting Back to the Garden (of Eden)

Looking at an image of a serpent encircling an apple branch, most of us will think of the snake from the Garden of Eden. In popular lore, Adam and Eve’s consumption of the taboo meal from the illicit Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as it is called in the Bible, resulted in their expulsion from Eden. But actually, in Genesis, the original couple’s departure from Paradise had a lot more to do with God’s anxiety that Adam and Eve would eat from the Tree of Life.

Mark Dion. The Serpent Before the Fall. 2014. Photo by Menachem Wecker

Mark Dion. The Serpent Before the Fall. 2014. Photo by Menachem Wecker

Those who don’t study medieval theology or history or Judeo-Christian mysticism extensively likely haven’t heard nearly as often of the Tree of Life as of the Tree of Knowledge. It comes as no shock, then, that artists have continued to probe the tale of the couple who had it all, lost everything, and had to rebuild and endure despite having never forgotten the taste of the perfect life they’d once enjoyed.

According to Jennifer Scanlan, the story “takes up only a few verses in the Bible, Genesis 2:8-3:24, with just four main characters and a simple narrative that continues to resonate.” Scanlan is guest curator of the Museum of Biblical Art’s exhibit “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden.” The exhibit traces some of the ways that contemporary artists have addressed Eden in their works, whether intentionally or unintentionally; their treatments often probe the relationship between people and nature. In recent centuries, that power structure has changed, Scanlan notes. Where man was once dwarfed by and subject to threats from nature, the roles have reversed. “Most people only encounter truly dangerous snakes in zoos,” she writes. “Yet these symbols persist as remnants of a time when people had a different relationship with nature.”

Read more of my Jewish Daily Forward article “Getting Back to the Garden (of Eden).”


Meret Oppenheim’s Magical Tables and Teacups

Although it stands still, Meret Oppenheim’s “Table with Bird’s Feet” (1983) brims with kinetic energy. The work comes exactly as advertised; had it not anticipated “Beauty and the Beast” by some eight years, it could have been a remnant of the magical castle’s set, and at first glance, the viewer is thrilled that the sculpture is encased in glass, as it appears on the verge of walking off of its podium and clear out of the museum.

Meret Oppenheim Table with Birds Feet

Meret Oppenheim. Table with Bird’s Feet. Credit: Suzanne Khalil/NMWA

An avian table is just the sort of thing one might expect from Oppenheim, whose plainly titled “Object” (1936) consists of a cup, saucer and spoon lined with fur. There is something foreboding about the table, which evokes, perhaps, the footed bathtub in Joanna Cole’s popular children’s book “Bony-Legs,” but the fur tea set has even less promise as a functioning object. It might hold water, but the drinker is sure to finish her snack with a mouth full of hair.

The hairy teacup does not appear in the exhibit “Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships,” on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. through September 14, but the table and a variety of other works and letters are present.

Read more of my review, “Meret Oppenheim’s Magical Tables and Teacups” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


“Obedience to authority” experiment in DC

Stanley Milgram-style experiment in DC

Stanley Milgram-style experiment in DC/Menachem Wecker

Pedestrians seeking to walk on the west side of 18th Street NW in Washington, D.C., between K and L streets were confronted by about a dozen people in hazard vests directing them, if they were using their phones, to walk in an aisle designated for cell phone use.

The first man in a vest I asked about the nature of the organization directed me to someone with a wire in his ear wearing a Minnesota Twins cap, who identified the project as a high school program of Gonzaga — presumably Gonzaga College High School, a Catholic boys school in the District. He refused to give his name or to reveal the nature of the project. (It being summer and the lack of high school students present were both causes for suspicion.)

Another person in the line was handing out what initially appeared to be tickets (see image).

DC documentary on obedience to authority

DC documentary on obedience to authority

When I got to the end of the sidewalk arrangement, after I had snapped a picture of the “ticket,” another producer, who identified herself as Louise (spelling?) approached me and explained that she was one of several freelancers working on the project, and that it was a documentary on how people obeyed authority, which would air in the winter on National Geographic. She did not give her last name, and explained that the group had been using the high school story, because media had shown up, and they deemed that as a bad thing.

I asked if the group had a permit for the project (which involved signage stenciled on the sidewalk and a slew of personnel), and she said just a regular filming permit.

She asked what I thought of the project, and I said that I thought it was an invasion of pedestrians’ privacy and an annoyance. She then asked if I would say that on camera. When I mentioned that I wanted to write about the project — which at least evokes the language of Stanley Milgram — however, she appeared disappointed. Another man approached me as I was walking away and said that the producer had asked that I not Tweet pictures or information about the project.

It will be interesting to see what exactly this is.

'No cell phones' sign

‘No cell phones’ sign


In medieval manuscripts, music was both heavenly and hellish

Details from the funeral procession of Reynard the Fox

Details from the funeral procession of Reynard the Fox. from a Book of Hours, England, ca. 1300 (W.102, fols. 73r, 74v, 75r, 75v)/Walters Art Museum

Writing about music — the famous saying sometimes attributed to Elvis Costello — is like dancing about architecture. Seeking clarity in the synaesthetic may be extremely difficult, but as a new exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore demonstrates, painting musical subjects can be extremely revealing, nuanced and instructive.

The 21 medieval and Renaissance objects in the Walters exhibit “Seeing Music in Medieval Manuscripts” through Oct. 12, collectively make a compelling case for an artistic program designed to highlight the multidirectional and often contradictory significance of music and the roles it has played in both religious and secular life…

Read more of my article “In medieval manuscripts, music was both heavenly and hellish” in Arlington Catholic Herald.


Exhibit showcases German artist’s version of saintly and secular female subjects

The Virgin, enthroned, closes her eyes and tilts her head to the side slightly as she wears a crown in Albrecht Dürer’s 1485 drawing “Madonna with Musical Angels.” The infant Jesus, naked and with rays of light emanating from his head, stands on Mary’s lap as two angels serenade the pair with a lute and a medieval harp.

Melencolia Durer

“Melencolia I” (1514) by Albrecht Dürer, part of a current exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art

The German artist’s drawing succeeds particularly for its build up, through cross-hatching, of the details in the folds of the Virgin’s and the angels’ garments and in their hair, while elsewhere Dürer employed a lighter touch. A carefully balanced tug of war between the work’s different elements keeps the eye from straying from the important details.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Dürer (1471-1528) was only 14 years old at the time he drew it. And he had already executed a well-drawn self-portrait the previous year. “Madonna with Musical Angels” foreshadowed what would prove a productive career of religiously themed works.

A new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art titled “Dürer’s Women: Images of Devotion & Desire” (open through Sept. 28) focuses on more than 50 of Dürer’s works from the museum’s collection that contain female subjects. As the title reveals, those women were often saintly.

Read more of my review “Exhibit showcases German artist’s version of saintly and secular female subjects” in National Catholic Reporter.


Mystery Mosaic Discovered in Ancient Galilee Synagogue

elephant mosaic Huqoq

Detail, elephant mosaic, from the Huqoq Exploration Project. Credit: Jim-Haberman/UNC

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brigham Young University, Trinity University (Texas), University of Toronto, and University of Wyoming believe that they have uncovered the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.

In 2012, the team, led by Jodi Magness, Kenan distinguished professor for teaching excellence in early Judaism at Chapel Hill, excavated a mosaic at the 5th-century synagogue at Huqoq, in Israel’s Lower Galilee, which represented Samson tying torches to foxes’ tails, per Judges 15:4. Last year, the scholars found a second mosaic, which depicted Samson shouldering Gaza’s gate (per Judges 16:3).

Read more of my article “Mystery Mosaic Discovered in Ancient Galilee Synagogue” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


Northwestern U. exhibit draws on Birobidzhan propaganda

Mabel Dwight Danse Macabre

Mabel Dwight, ‘Danse Macabre,’ lithograph, c. 1933–34. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1995.5. Hitler is depicted in the suit of armor.

CHICAGO — A 1931 Russian lithograph poster shows a man wearing a hat pointing his finger in a manner reminiscent of the Uncle Sam “We want you!” genre. But in this case he implores the reader to spend 50 kopecks on a lottery ticket “to build a socialist Birobidzhan, the future Jewish Autonomous Region.” Another lithograph poster from 1930, which was also hawking lottery tickets to benefit Birobidzhan, appeals, “Let us give millions to settle poor Jews on the land and to attract them to industry.

Founded in 1928 along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Birobidzhan (also spelled Birobidžan) was designated as a “Jewish Autonomous Region” (J.A.R.) in 1930. Subsequently, international ad campaigns soliciting both domestic and foreign funding went into full force.

In 1928, about 525 Jews moved to Birobidzhan, and six years later, the number of immigrants who arrived reached 5,250, according to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. But, the encyclopedia adds, 60 percent of the 1934 immigrants left that same year, and Jews continued to flock away from the would-be agricultural Jewish utopia, including a recent emigration in 1989-1991.

… Among the cheerleaders from afar were a group of 14 Jewish Chicago artists, who created a series of woodcuts titled the “Birobidjan Folio,” which they sent to the J.A.R. And, in 1944, Marc Chagall illustrated a wedding scene in Birobidjan, which he based on a poem by ltzik Feffer. The works of the former group is part of the current exhibit “The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940” on view through June 22, 2014, at Northwestern University’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill.

Read more of my article “Northwestern U. exhibit draws on Birobidzhan propaganda” in Times of Israel.