The Day Of Rest Reconsidered

HUC show invites artists to consider a new the idea of the Sabbath.

04/23/2014
Culture Editor
Photo Galleria: 
David Wander’s “Creation” menorah. Courtesy of HUC Museum
David Wander’s “Creation” menorah. Courtesy of HUC Museum

Carol Hamoy’s “Sabbath Bride” holds court in a corner of one gallery at the HUC Museum. She’s both stately and heimish. Covered with strips of lace, embroidery thread, buttons, pearls, mesh and feathers, this bride is a tailor’s drawer full of shimmering odds and ends layered on a headless torso. In the words of “Lecha Dodi,” sung on Friday nights, the Sabbath arrives as a bride and departs as a queen.

The artist’s mother and grandmother were seamstresses who always seemed to have threads and fabric stuck to them. On Friday afternoon, her mother — like the sculpture — would also be covered with chicken feathers after plucking the birds for Shabbat dinner. 

Hamoy is one of about 50 international artists represented in a wide-ranging exhibition, “The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat” at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. Laura Kruger, curator of the museum, invited artists to consider anew the idea of Sabbath, rest and renewal, in this age when technology is so much a part of everyday life.

Following last year’s “The Sexuality Spectrum” and preceding next year’s show, “Evil: A Matter of Intent,” this show offers a more traditional theme.

While Kruger and her colleagues were trying to tease out the meaning of Shabbat and the ways it is celebrated by Jews of different backgrounds, she came across the Reboot “Shabbat Manifesto,”  which for her, “says it all.” She quotes, “Avoid technology, Connect with loved ones, Nurture your health, Get outside, Avoid commerce, Light candles, Drink wine, Eat bread, Find silence, and Give back.”

Margalit Mannor’s photo is a riff on the theme of prohibited labor, “Shabbat Baby, April 30th, 1966,” which shows her just-born baby in the folds of her doctor’s gown, just after her own “labor” was completed. This obstetrician is the baby’s father. While he enjoyed going to synagogue on Shabbat, he rarely got to stay, as he was a physician specializing in high-risk pregnancy and was often called to the hospital.

“The seventh day in our family was not always a resting day, but sometimes we were blessed and touched by the Shechinah,” the artist says, referring to the feminine side of God.

Perhaps because I saw this show on Passover, when risen bread is forbidden, I was drawn immediately to Heddy Abramowitz’s large photos of challah — ring-shaped loaves, buyers and sellers of challah in a lively market, racks of challah just out of the oven and an Arab shop selling challah alongside thin rounds of bread, with its teudah, kosher certification in the window. Abramowitz is an American-born artist living in Jerusalem.

Another Israeli photographer in the show, Dorit Jordan Dotan, presents a bold photo, “Observing, Within” with views through the windows of a home, with an observant family and its guests seen inside beginning to gather around the table for the rituals of Shabbat. The viewer is outside, looking in, a witness, and at the same time fulfilling the commandment to remember and observe the Shabbat. At the top and bottom and along the windowpanes are the words from Genesis, including “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

Judy Chicago’s “Rainbow Shabbat” also depicts a large group sharing Shabbat dinner. At the head of a long table, a woman lights candles while her husband makes Kiddush at the other end. The seated guests all look toward the woman, and they include people in different head coverings suggesting an Indian woman, an Arab man, a Chinese worker, a priest and others. Here, there’s room for all at the table.

Several other pieces relate to women lighting Shabbat candles, but not one of them is ordinary. As part of a series of black-and-white photographs of Jewish women around the world, Joan Roth captures a Jewish woman in India, reaching up to light a Shabbat lamp hanging from the ceiling, as her servant stands at her side. In an excerpt from her memoir, Helene Aylon describes lighting candles with her mother, and presents a large photo of the two of them. Aylon recalls her mother and grandmother, and sees herself as a feminist foremother.

David Wander, Emil Shenfeld and Luigi Del Monte present striking candelabras and candlesticks. Wander’s “Creation” is a silver-plated sconce with images representing the six days of creation and a mirror to reflect the light. Emil Shenfeld’s pair of candlesticks is made of aluminum and stainless steel; the form of one is cut out of the rectangular block that is the other, as though they would fit back together into a block of stainless steel. They were inspired by his mother’s experience during World War II, when she fled to Brazil during the war. Del Monte’s “Reflections, Shabbat Candlesticks” are a modern take, sending out light in all directions.

Tobi Kahn has made candlesticks, spice boxes, tzedekah boxes, Kiddush cups and other ritual items out of natural materials in graceful, organic shapes. Other artists show ritual items out of steel and other metals, stone, wood and glass, and there’s a humble spice box made of a dried pomegranate.

Suspended from the ceiling, Andras Borocz’s yads (the pointers used for reading the Torah, with a pointed finger at the tip), titled “Measuring the Words,” are made of foldable rulers — they catch the air movement in the room to point to different objects.

“I expect objects to be used,” Kruger says. “In many ways, art has become too precious — we don’t get up too close, we don’t touch. You can bridge that with objects. Your hands remember. Your eyes remember.”

Emmett Leader’s large earthenware tzedekah box is on wheels, like a pull toy, or an item to be shifted from one diaspora to another. Titled “Slonim Revisited II: Let justice dwell in the wilderness, righteousness in the fruitful field,” this is among the most unusual of objects, with a Hebrew quote from Song of Songs inscribed, along with images of books and buildings that represent the charitable support of study and institutions.

There’s much to consider in this show. Be sure to pause in front of Deborah Ugoretz’s “Mountain,” where the artist suspends a mountain over a village of papercuts, quoting the Mishna that the laws of Shabbat are like “are like mountains suspended on a hair.” Texts incorporated into the piece refer to the laws of the eruv, an enclosure that makes carrying possible for observant Jews on Shabbat.

Archie Rand’s visual interpretation of prohibitions on Shabbat, “The 39 Forbidden Labors of the Sabbath,” takes up a wall of the exhibition; his brightly colored, illustrative paintings are in a cartoon-like style, with the name of the category of forbidden behavior in a bubble. Few of us separate wheat from chaff (the separation of a natural product from its natural container) on any day of the week, but the injunction against separating applies in other ways.

“Many of these artists,” she says, “think not just out of the box, but have evolved a life mission of what they want to say.”

An intriguing bookend to the “Sabbath Bride” is Ayana Friedman’s digital photograph, “Legend of the Soiled Shabbat Dress,” relating to the popular Israeli story about a young girl whose white dress gets soiled just before Shabbat as she rushes out to help a poor man with a heavy sack of coals. She fears that she won’t be able to properly welcome Shabbat, but the prophet Elijah appears to help her. The white dress, soiled and then pure white again, reflects and spreads the Sabbath light like Carol Hamoy’s assemblage of remnant fibers fit for a bride and queen.

“The Seventh Day: Revisiting Shabbat” is on view at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, One W. Fourth St., through May 30. Huc.edu.

 

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