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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News January 2011

January 3, 2011

The Torah's Text and Contemporary Art: A New Model of Cultural Collaboration

This winter I attended the opening session of an exhibition, Sacred Presence/Painterly Process at the Derfner Judaica Museum in Riverdale, New York. The exhibit consisted of two projects integrating Torah texts and contemporary art. The first was Seeing Sinai: Meditations on Exodus 33-34 and the second, New Translations: Genesis. The artist whose work was being exhibited was Jill Nathanson, a New York based abstract painter whose work was exhibited in the secular art world for decades and which has received substantial mainstream critical support and praise. She has received fellowship support from the Foundation for her paintings in this show.

Jill is continually experimenting with visual, human responses to paint. Her paintings reflect her search to reconcile the physical properties of paint — viscosities, fluidity, translucency, color relations — with the metaphoric and spiritual transformation that painting can provoke. As a mature artist, Jill Nathanson began to pursue Jewish study and in the 1990's began to integrate this study into Judaic paintings. It appeared to her that in many Jewish texts, especially in Kabbalah, an internal abstract visualization was part of imagining the Divine. In her new work she began to find evidence of an inner "abstract art" of profound beauty and power. She began to feel that she needed a Jewish scholar who could help her access those insights and provide her with the humility required for the study of those texts.

She wrote to Prof. Arnie Eisen, then a professor of Jewish studies at Stanford University and currently the chancellor at JTS, seeking to collaborate with him. He agreed readily and they began to study Torah texts together. Prof. Eisen has a very close relationship with the Foundation, having served on the faculty of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship for many years, one of its most popular lecturers. They agreed to explore the function of "seeing" in the Torah, focusing on Exodus 33-34, the section of the Torah when after the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses goes back up the mountain and asks to "see G-d's glory".

What emerged from that collaboration was visible at the exhibit and also incorporated into a panel discussion that evening in which Prof. Eisen and Prof. Susan Chevlowe, the curator of the exhibit, participated. I was deeply impressed by the fruit of that collaboration as expressed in the paintings, and the discussion that ensued. In that collaboration I believe inheres a new model for linking Torah texts with contemporary art in a most powerful, heuristic fashion. I subsequently met and interviewed Jill Nathanson to learn more about that collaboration.

The Artist-Scholar Collaboration

What ensued at the initiation of their talks at Nathanson's studio was their reading the texts together in Hebrew. As Prof. Eisen re-read the passages he had studied for a lifetime, Nathanson's painting began to alter his reading of those passages. In the new reading, Prof. Eisen understood that when Moses asked to see G-d and when G-d responded, "No man can see me and live," this was not the end of the exchange but the beginning of G-d's re-shaping of that situation. In the following passages when G-d describes how He will reveal Himself, in accordance with Prof. Eisen's new reading and Midrash, G-d allows Moses an experience of G-d's closeness, but on G-d's terms. Prof. Eisen's new understanding was electrifying for Nathanson. At Prof. Eisen's suggestion, Nathanson painted the verbs of G-d's activity from that text — cover, pass, uncover. According to Eisen, we cannot see what G-d is, but we can see what he does.

For Nathanson, the ensuing painting was a breakthrough. The result of the collaboration was translated into the elements of painting. It became possible for Nathanson to paint the Hebrew letters of G-d's speech as if pure energy, light and profound choices of color were evanescing at that moment. Nathanson came to realize that the Jewish painting of Torah texts is a process of experience and knowing coming together. It is not simply painting an image.

Similarly in her next painting, when Moses came down the mountain, his force was glowing. But that sort of superficial reading was not what Nathanson was after. With Eisen's help, Nathanson came to realize that the people ran from Moses until he began to teach, that the glowing light was terrifying until it was merged with the teachings of Torah. Light and glow were part of the teaching. The painting, painted in gold, was intended as an overwhelming experience of light.

For Nathanson, the discovery that the overwhelming light was part of the transmission of Torah, was a powerful insight. For her, it refutes that the Torah is only words, law and intellect. It opens the possibility that the proper teaching of Torah involves presence and vision.

Nathanson's last painting of Seeing Sinai fully answers the role of seeing in the Torah. As Eisen explains, often it was the light the Jews sought and received on approaching Moses, not just the words. Eisen's reading of the Hebrew was that light was part of the Revelation. Her last painting, therefore, integrated the words with the light.

What emerges from Nathanson's work is a form of installation art. Installation art is an environment in which the viewer's affect is taken into account. In Nathanson's paintings, the affect is all about Torah. Some aspects of the text, which the viewer might ordinarily have to struggle with, become clearer.

This fruitful cultural collaboration between Jill Nathanson and Prof. Eisen allows viewers to "see" the text in a new light and presents a space in which Torah can become a present, passionate experience. It represents, in our view, a new model of cultural collaboration between artists and scholars for linking Torah texts with contemporary art.

North American Mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship

The Memorial Foundation has decided to organize a North American mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowship which will take place in Ottawa, Canada, March 27-29, 2011 at the Minto Suite Hotel. As you all know, the Foundation since 1987 has sponsored 22 successful international Nahum Goldmann Fellowships in Western and Eastern Europe including Russia, South America, Southeast Asia, Australia, South Africa and Israel.

In recent years we have expanded our international fellowship model to also include mini fellowships for specific countries and geographic regions. Three mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowships have been organized in Iran, Australia and South Africa. The mini fellowship organized in South Africa on October 22-23, 2009, proved to be immensely successful and will serve as the model for future minis in different parts of the world. Indeed the fellows in South Africa this fall organized a second mini dealing with Jewish education in South Africa which amply demonstrated to both the South African fellows and the leadership of the South African Jewish community the efficacy of this program. The Foundation has therefore decided to accelerate the organization of these minis in several parts of the world in the near future.

Attached you will find the schedule and program of the mini-Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in North America. As most of you recognize, this is our first effort to organize a Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program in North America.

The theme of the fellowship, Re-defining and Reconfiguring our Normative Connections, we believe is both timely and provocative. The faculty chosen — Prof. Jack Wertheimer, Prof. of Jewish History, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Prof. Saul Berman, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of Law, among the outstanding veteran teachers at past Nahum Goldmann Fellowships, and Prof. Irving Abella, Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program at the University of Ottawa. Prof. Abella has also served as past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

With warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President