Jewish Art Museum Jerusalem
History, Collection Highlights, Paintings, Judaica, Haggadahs, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Bezalel National Museum.

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The Israel Museum Jerusalem

In this article we examine a selection of highlights of Jewish art from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, one of the best art museums in the Middle East, which holds the world's most comprehensive collection of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Oriental Jewish religious art, crafts and artifacts. The museum's permanent collection includes a wide range of archeological artifacts, Judaica, Jewish ritual and ethno-graphical objects, as well as haggadah illuminated manuscripts, painting, and Jewish craftwork, although we will be focusing on its fine art content.

History of the Jewish Art Collection
The Scope of the Collections
Jewish Artists
Contemporary Judaica
Jewish Art - Status, Research, Iconography, Style
Exhibits in Permanent Collection

For biographies of the greatest
Jewish painters and sculptors,
see below:
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)
Chaim Soutine (1893–1943)
Mark Rothko (1903-70)
Lucian Freud (b.1922)
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97)

For a list of the world's greatest
libraries and museum collections
of Muslim culture, see:
Museums of Islamic Art.

Best Art Museums in America.

See: Art Museums in Europe.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For a list of the finest works of
painting, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever
Oils, watercolours, mixed media
from 1300-present.
Greatest Sculptures Ever
Works in stone, bronze, wood
from 33,000 BCE-present.

See: The Jewish Bride.

History of the Jewish Art Collection

The Jewish cultural treasures of The Israel Museum have been progressively gathered over the last nine decades. The origins of the collections can be traced back to 1906 when Boris Schatz founded the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. Schatz set up a collection of archeological and traditional Jewish folk objects to inspire his young students in their quest to create a new national style. At first, the collection could be viewed only at the annual Bezalel students' exhibitions, but in 1912 the Bezalel Museum opened its doors to the public of Jerusalem. During the First World War the collection was hidden in a large cistern in the courtyard of the school. In 1925, under the directorship of Mordechai Narkiss, the museum was expanded and renamed the Bezalel National Museum. In 1965 the collections of the Bezalel National Museum were integrated into the newly established Israel Museum.

Over the years donations of individual objects, and even entire collections, have enriched the displays of what has become the repository of the Jewish people. Among the people who assembled such collections, and who were instrumental in having them brought together at The Israel Museum, were several prominent figures.

Dr. Abraham Ticho, the great Moravian-born ophthalmologist, emmigrated to Jerusalem in 1912. He collected various objects from all over the world, but was primarily interested in Hanukkah lamps. His extensive and impressive collection was bequeathed to the museum in 1980 by his widow, the artist Anna Ticho, upon her death.

Dr. Heinrich Feuchtwanger, a dentist, arrived in Jerusalem in 1936, having begun to collect Judaica objects a decade earlier in his native Munich. He continued collecting Judaica in Jerusalem, often coming across rare objects in the shops and markets of the Old City. The Feuchtwanger collection was donated to The Israel Museum in 1969.

One of the few private collections to arrive in Israel after the Second World War was the Stieglitz collection. Abraham Stieglitz was an antique dealer and purveyor to the royal palace in Krakow, Poland, at the beginning of this century. During the war, part of his collection was hidden away and eventually returned to his son Joseph. After the war, the Stieglitz family emmigrated to Palestine where Joseph opened a shop in Tel Aviv and continued to augment his already impressive array of Jewish art. This important collection, containing many exceptional objects of a very high standard created by professional craftsmen, is very different from the Feuchtwanger collection, which focuses more on objects of folk art as well as traditional crafts originating from rural communities. The Stieglitz Collection was donated to the museum in 1987.

During the Holocaust of World War II, tens of thousands of Jewish ceremonial art objects were lost by individuals and communities. Some of them eventually found their way to the Bezalel National Museum after the war through the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization, which distributed recovered Jewish property among Jewish cultural institutions in America and Israel. See also Holocaust Art (1933-45 and postwar).

For details of the generous donations by Jewish philanthropists to art museums in America, read our articles on the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York: see resources listed in the left hand panel.

The Scope of the Collections

The treasures of Jewish art and culture at The Israel Museum include objects brought to Israel from virtually all Jewish communities throughout the world, both oriental and occidental. This gives the museum's Judaica collection a certain versatility and all-encompassing nature and makes it one of the most comprehensive of its kind. This unique aspect of the collection is due in part to the fact that cultural remnants of vanishing Jewish communities arrived in Israel, accompanying the waves of immigrants which flowed into the country following the establishment of the Jewish state. In addition to the wealth of Judaica collected, invaluable ethnographical material was rescued during the course of field surveys conducted by the Julia and Leo Forchheimer Department of Jewish Ethnography at The Israel Museum.

Accordingly, The Israel Museum's collection of Jewish artifacts at the Skirball Department of Judaica originates from many different communities: Ashkenazi,
Sephardi, and Oriental. The Ashkenazi strain of Judaism originated in Germany, eventually spreading throughout the continent, and taking hold particularly in
Eastern Europe. Among the most cherished treasures of the museum are medieval Hebrew illuminated manuscripts from Europe which are of special interest. The "Birds Head Haggadah", the earliest known illustrated Passover haggadah, is one such treasure of unique importance. The Horb synagogue, painted by Eliezer Sussmann, is another precious remnant of Ashkenazi culture and its traditional art.

Thc Sephardi Jews, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal some five hundred years ago, settled in Italy, Holland, Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa. A few rare Jewish ceremonial objects which come from pre-expulsion Spain are preserved at The Israel Museum. They include the 14th-century "Sasson Haggadah" (illuminated manuscript) and the "lusterware seder plate" (ceramic art), both objects rare and unique examples of their kind. Moreover, thousands of artifacts from the Sephardi diaspora have made their way to The Israel Museum and form large collections from some vanishing cultures.

From Renaissance art some outstanding Jewish treasures have survived. One well-known example is the magnificent Rothschild Miscellany of the fifteenth century, with its beautiful illuminations. Another unique work of art is the bridal casket (cofanetto), presented to a Jewish woman in northern Italy in the fifteenth century. From the same region, but of a somewhat later period, is the splendid baroque synagogue from Vittorio Veneto.

The roots of oriental Jews can be traced back to Yemen, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. In oriental communities the Torah scroll is generally kept in a wooden or metal case. The museum houses a wide variety of such Torah cases, some of them with particularly unique forms and decorations, such as the unusual Torah set from Afghanistan featured in this book. A striking 18th-century synagogue prayer stand (tevah) from Yemen, skillfully carved in wood, is also included.

Jewish and Christian Artists

Many of the craftsmen who created early works of Judaica remain unidentified, and only a few of the early Jewish artists are known by name. Shalom Italia was a 17th-century Italian copper engraver. He settled in Holland and there produced some magnificent illustrated Esther scrolls and apparently several rare marriage contract forms (ketubbot) as well, including one particularly impressive example from Rotterdam, dated 1648, now part of The Israel Museum collection.

The revival of the art of Hebrew manuscript illumination in the 18th century brought to light a number of skilled scribe-artists. Aaron Wolf Herlingen was a professional scribe at the Royal and Imperial library in Vienna. He is represented in this book by his "Five Scrolls", written in minute script in seyeral languages and illustrated with delicate drawings. The work of his contemporary, Nathan, son of Shimshon of Mezeritz, is exemplified by the profusely illustrated "Grace after Meals" manuscript.

Several craftsmen expressed themselves artistically by decorating the interiors of synagogues. Eliezer, son of Shlomo Katz Sussmann, of Brody, Ukraine, was an itinerant 18th-century artist who painted fresco murals in synagogues in Germany. His works include the synagogue interior from Horb, Bavaria. The Jewish artisans who created the heavy tin doors for the Torah ark of the Rema synagogue in Krakow proudly signed their names to their work, as well as on another pair of 17th-century Torah ark doors from Krakow.

The exclusion of Jews from goldsmiths guilds in great parts of Western Europe until the 18th century, particularly in Germany, forced them to commission ritual objects from Christian artisans. The Torah shield from Augsburg, for example, was made by the Christian goldsmith Johann Christoph Drentwett. The spice box from Nuremberg, pictured with a group of spice boxes of different shapes, was created by the renowned Christian artisan Johann Conrad Weiss. Later, however, the situation changed, and Jewish artisans and firms specialized in the creation of Jewish ceremonial art crafted in gold and silver. One of the most notable manufacturers of this sort was the firm of Posen, whose elegant set of Torah ornaments is now part of the collection.

In Islamic countries a different situation prevailed, and most of the artists and silversmiths were Jews, Some of them achieved a very high level of craftsmanship, as can be attested to by the jewellery and Torah ornaments in the museum's collection.

Embroidery and weaving were in most cases performed by Jewish artisans, both in the East and in the West. In many countries, particularly in the East, it was thought that Jews possessed "professional secrets" with regard to this type of textile art. Professional embroiderers made Torah ark curtains (parochot) for the synagogues in Bavaria, for example. One such richly embroidered curtain from the Torah ark from southern Germany, evidently embroidered by a professional Jewish artisan although unsigned, is housed at The Israel Museum. Some of the artists who created the curtains and were active in the eighteenth century are known by name, such as Elkone of Naumburg and Kopel Gans. In Italy, Torah mantles and wrappers (mappot) were embroidered by Jewish women and often bear their names. On the round cloth (malbush) placed between the finials of the Afghanistan Torah scroll, an embroidered inscription bears the name of a woman, although it is unclear as to whether she made the piece or simply donated it to the synagogue.

All of these early artists, Christian and Jewish alike, produced functional art that was decorative in nature. The objects were designed for use by Jews in
performing their religious duties in the synagogue and in the home. Only from the 19th century onward do we come across Jewish artists in the modern sense of the word, creating art for art's sake. Moritz Oppenheim is traditionally considered to be the first Jewish painter. His well-known series of "Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life" is represented here by an oil painting depicting a Jewish wedding. Other examples of works from the modern era include, among others, one from El Lissitzky, a collage for an illustration; and another from Marc Chagall - one of the world's most famous painters and perhaps the most important Jewish painter of our time - a synagogue painting made on his trip to Eretz Israel in 1931.

Contemporary Judaica

The tradition of ordering ritual art from artists continues today. In recent years we have witnessed an increased interest and activity among designers in Israel and abroad who seek to find new ways of creating contemporary Judaica. They attempt to design ritual objects that reflect contemporary art, using innovative forms, materials, and technigues. Judaica designed by artists such as David Gumbel, Menahem Berman, Arieh Ofir, Zelig Segal, and the younger Amit Shor are exhibited at the museum, linking the present with the past. Zelig Segal's candlesticks "In Memory of the Destruction of the Temple," are an example of this prevailing movement in contemporary Judaica design.

Jewish Art - Status, State of Research, Iconography and Style

The existence of visual Jewish art raises the issue of the attitude towards art in Jewish thought. It is commonly believed that the Jewish religion prohibits
any visual artistic expression. But the biblical prohibition against creating any graven image, stated in the Second Commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image ... " (Exodus 20:4), appears to have been interpreted as a prohibition against idol worship in the following verse, "You shall not bow down to them nor serve them .... " (Exodus 20:5).

From rabbinical literature dealing with the issue, it appears that the main aversion has always been against three-dimensional art, which might simulate the implements of the Temple. Indeed, there has been hardly any Jewish sculpture prior to the modern era. Two-dimensional figure painting has been accepted in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts since the 13th century. The phenomenon of distorting the human figures in certain European Hebrew manuscripts, however, as in the 'Birds Head Haggadah', may indicate an attempt to avoid drawing complete human figures. In Islamic countries, on the other hand, Jews were often influenced by local trends; because Islamic art prohibits the making of statues or any image in a religious context, they refrain from depicting human figures. This tendency to adopt local styles and traditions is characteristic of Jewish art. Indeed there is no typical Jewish style: wherever Jews lived they adopted the style or their host culture. Among other items which exemplify this trend, is the museum's Italian baroque synagogue, a set of Torah ornaments created in a Neo-Gothic style, and the Rothschild Miscellany created in an Italian Renaissance fashion.

On the other hand, recurrent symbolic and narrative motifs attest to the existence of a rich Jewish iconography. Various themes prevail throughout the ages and can be traced in numerous cultures, sometimes revealing complex interrelations with similar non-Jewish themes.

The iconography of many biblical scenes is not specifically Jewish, as is the case with the narrative scenes depicting David and Goliath, here represented on a glass painting, or the story of Judith and Holothernes shown on a Hanukkah lamp. Some of the ritual scenes, however, such as the baking of the matzot in the Birds Head Haggadah, do have a specifically Jewish iconography, which continued to influence later manuscripts and printed editions. Certain Jewish symbols, such as the candelabrum (menorah) and the ram's horn (shofar) have prevailed from antiquity. In the archeological collection, for example, the menorah is found on the oil lamp, the synagogue mosaic, and the Roman gold glass. This motif continues to appear in more "modern" objects, such as the Krakow Torah ark doors and the Torah ornaments from Italy.

Jewish art is a relatively young discipline. While ancient Jewish art as well as modern Jewish art have been studied within the framework of archeology and art history, the field of Jewish ceremonial art has been systematically studied only within the last two or three decades. While some aspects of Jewish art, such as illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, have been studied in depth, others are still waiting for the opportunity to be investigated in detail.

Exhibits in Permanent Collection

Due to the vast nature of the collections of the Jewish Museum, we only have space to present a small fraction of the museum's treasures. However, we hope they stimulate your interest in the historical significance and aesthetic beauty of Jewish art.

Birds' Head Haggadah, Southern Germany (c.1300)
Parchment, pen and ink, tempera; handwritten
(The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The so-called Birds' Head Haggadah derives its name from the images featured in the manuscript. Most of the human figures are depicted as having birds' heads with pronounced beaks. Some figures also have short pointed animal ears. All male adults in the manuscript wear the conical "Jew's hat," which was compulsory for Jews in Germany from the time of the Lateran Council in 1215. In addition to the birds' heads, other methods of distorting human faces such as blank faces, heads covered by helmets, and a bulbous nose are employed in the manuscript.

The Birds' Head Haggadah is the earliest illuminated Ashkenazi haggadah to have survived as a separate book. It is richly illustrated in the margins with biblical, ritual, and eschatological scenes. The scribe's name appears to have been Menahem, as he marked the letters of his name in the text. He was the same scribe who copied the Leipzig Mahzor (festival prayer book) around the year 1300. The Leipzig Mahzor is somewhar similar to the Birds' Head Haggadah and also features figures with heads of birds. The haggadah was in the possession of Ludwig and Johanna Marum of Karlsruhe, Germany, until the Nazi epoch.

Sassoon Spanish Haggadah, Spain (c.1320)
Parchment, pen and ink, tempera, gold-leaf; handwritten
(Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The Sassoon Spanish Haggadah as it is known, is one of some twenty Spanish illuminated haggadahs which survived the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The
provenance of the haggadah can be traced to Solomon ben Joseph Carmi; later, it was owned by David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942) of London and Letchworth. In 1975 the haggadah was auctioned at Sotheby's on behalf of the Sassoon family and acquired by the State of Israel to be deposited in The Israel Museum.

The colourful and rich decorative style of this manuscript points to a Catalan origin towards the first half of the fourteenth century, and it has tentatively been dated to 1320. Written on parchment in square Sephardi script, the haggadah displays a blend of local and foreign stylistic influences such as the Spanish Gothic grotesques framing the margins, the elongated figures betraying a French influence, and the colouring and design of the floral scrolls, recalling Italian manuscripts of that period. Richly illuminated haggadahs of this type belonged to wealthy members of the Jewish community who had close connections with the court.

The Rothschild Miscellany, Northern Italy (c.1450-1480)
Vellum, pen and ink, tempera, gold-leaf; handwritten
(The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The Rothschild Miscellany is one of the most magnificent Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in existence. Almost everyone of its very thin, refined parchment
leaves is richly decorated with colourful miniatures and marginal paintings in tempera colours and in gold leaf. The book assembles thirty-seven literary units, meticulously copied both in the main body and in the margins of the page. In terms of subject matter as well as other aspects, the text in the margins generally follows the main text. The composition includes biblical books, a prayer book for the entire year, books on halakha (Jewish law), ethics and philosophy, midrash (a genre of rabbinic literature) including historical legend, and even light, entertaining literature, mostly of a secular nature. It is obvious that the miscellany was carefully planned with regard to the selection of works and its layout.

The manuscript appears to have been written by one main scribe, except for the first part, comprising three biblical books (Psalms, Job, and Proverbs), which were apparently written separately by another scribe and added to the main book at a later stage before its decoration. The text was written in sguare and semicursive script and contains no scribal colophon to identify the scribe. The name of the patron who commissioned this sumptuous codex, however, is found in the book. His name was Moses ben Yekutiel ha-Kohen, and it is incorporated within the prayer 'mi she-berakh' (invocation of God's blessing on those called upon to take part in the reading of the weekly portion of the Torah). He may have been a wealthy Jewish banker of Ashkenazi origin, who settled in northern Italy not long before commissioning this magnificent work.

The profusely illuminated volume was decorated by Christian artists, apparently in the workshops of Bonifacio Bembo and Cristoforo de Predis. As there is no uniformity of style in the manuscript, it is clear that several artists were engaged in the illumination. The manuscript, which belonged to the Rothschild family library in Paris, disappeared during the Second World War, reappearing after the war when it was offered for sale in New York.

The Five Scrolls in Micrography, Austria 1748
Vellum, pen and ink, and gold-leaf; handwritten
(The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The master Jewish scribe, Aaron Wolf Herlingen, is known to have been employed as a calligrapher and a scribe at the Imperial and Royal Library in Vienna. In producing this single sheet, which is a masterpiece of calligraphy and scribal art, he proficiently displayed his professional talent. This type of sheet must have become popular, as he produced at least four similar sheets, two of which are preserved at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, dated 1733 and 1748; another one, dated 1755, formerly of the Sassoon Collection, was recently auctioned; and yet one more sheet is housed in the collection of the Royal Library of Stockholm.

All of these sheets are basically similar and differ only slightly from one to another. They all contain the five shorter books (hamesh megillot) of the
Hagiographa or Ketuvim, which is the last division of the Hebrew Bible. The sheets are written on vellum in microscopic writing in different languages and scripts and are illustrated with minute vignettes. The Book of Ruth is written in German in Gothic script; the Song of Songs in Latin; Ecclesiastes and Esther in Hebrew square and cursive scripts; and Lamentations in French. Within the vignettes four minute scenes are meticulously drawn: on top is the Judgement of Solomon illustrating Ecclesiastes; to the right Solomon enthroned illustrates the Song of Songs; Mordecai before Ahasuerus adorns the Book of Esther in the middle; and Ruth and Boaz in the field illustrate the Book of Ruth to the left.

Aaron Wolf Herlingen of Gewitsch was one of the most renowned scribes of the 18th-century manuscript revival. Born around 1700 in Gewitsch, Moravia, he established a school of Hebrew illumination in Vienna, a city of wealthy and prominent Court Jews such as Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer. Herlingen, who was active until around 1760, was a most prolific scribe and produced numerous painted manuscripts as well as haggadahs and smaller books of blessings. Although he did produce a few coloured manuscripts, most of his works were illustrated with monochrome pen and ink drawings which imitated the art of engraving in printed books.

The Fall of Goliath, by Moses Shah (20th century)
Oils on glass (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The biblical story of the young David triumphing over the Philistine warrior Goliath in battle in the Valley of Elah (I Samuel 17), which inspired this glass painting, has been a popular subject among artists (eg. Donatello and Michelangelo) for centuries.

Although the painting is not signed, it has been attributed to Moses Shah, who produced similar folk paintings using the same technique. Another smaller, but almost identical version of the same theme, is known to exist in a private collection in Israel. Moses, son of Isaac Shah Mizrahi, was born around 1870 in Teheran, Iran. Before immigrating to Israel around 1890, he seems to have learned the technique of painting on glass by covering the entire surface from the back and then forming the images by scratching or peeling off the paint and affixing coloured foil. In Iran he worked as a scribe (sofer setem) of Torah scrolls, phylacteries, and mezuzahs, and after his arrival in Israel opened a shop for picture frames and mirrors in the Old City of Jerusalem. In his shop he created folk paintings, usually painted on glass. His paintings, and in particular his depictions of the sacrifice of Isaac, reflect the style of similar scenes found on Iranian carpets. Moses Shah was active in Jerusalem at least until the late 1920S, and he is also known to have produced some lithographs.

The Wedding, by Moritz Oppenheim (1861)
Oil on canvas (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) was rightly called the first Jewish painter. When he was in his fifties, Oppenheim began work on a series of Jewish genre paintings: Bilder aus der altjudische Familienleben (Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life). A complete edition of twenty paintings was first published in Frankfurt am Main in 1882 with an introduction and commentary by Rabbi Dr. Leopold Stein. The Bilder series aroused much interest throughout the Jewish world and was published in a variety of formats and editions.

The figures in the series wear late rococo-style clothing and arc placed in the pre- emancipation Frankfurt ghetto. By choosing this archaic mode, the artist could show the love and faith which imbued the way of life in bygone days, and could thus preach for their continuance and fight the trend towards assimilation. In this painting he portrays the Jewish wedding with great accuracy.

Illustration For "Boat Ticket", by El Lissitzky (1922)
Oil on canvas (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

El Lissitzky (1890-1941), best known as one of the leading Russian avant-garde artists, came to maturity towards the end of the Czarist era. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the Jews were finally granted much-craved freedom, which in turn resulted in a Jewish cultural renaissance. This freedom was also expressed in art, and Lissitzky appeared as one of the leading figures in the field. However, Lissitzky soon found the Jewish world too confining, and in early 1919 opted for an abstract, universal art form. In doing so, he also wished to serve the cause of the Bolshevik Revolution, of which by now he and most of the Russian avant-garde artists were fervent supporters. In 1921 Lissitzky temporarily left Russia, arriving in Berlin in 1922. Although his main output during this period consisted of abstract art (Constructivist), among other things he also illustrated a few Yiddish books and produced an illustration for each of Ilya Ehrenburg's short stories in Six Stories with Easy Endings. This work illustrates one of the stories in this publication entitled "Shift Kana" (Boat Ticket). Also known as "A Journey to America," it was probably conceived around April 20, 1922, as one of the other six illustrations in the book carries a clip from a newspaper bearing this date. The importance of this work reaches far beyond that of a simple drawing for a book illustration. Its renown rests on the combination of dramatic visual quality, enigmatic content, and usage of Jewish symbols.

This many-layered work defies a single interpretation. It has commonly been suggested that Lissitzky is burying the old Jewish world in favor of the new world of the Revolution; or that he is bidding farewell to Europe and Russia (the Old World), seeing the future in America. However, the collage should also be seen in the context of Ehrenburg's story: the main character, an old man, is waiting for a boat ticket from his son in America, hence the title. The story also contains kabbalistic elements, as well as a description of a pogrom, which may explain the Hebrew letters hinting at burial. While "Shifs Karta" constitutes Lissitzky's strongest Jewish work visually, it is also the last example in which he employs Jewish symbols.

Interior of a Synagogue in Safed, by Marc Chagall (1931)
Oil on canvas (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the Russian-born artist, noted for his singularly dreamlike fine art painting, visited Eretz Israel in 1931 for the first time. On that occasion he painted several works in Jerusalem, and three oil paintings of synagogues in Safed. The painting recently acquired by The Israel Museum represents the Ha-Ari Sephardi Synagogue, which today remains virtually unchanged since Chagall documented it more then sixty years ago. Perhaps the best known of Safed's many houses of prayer, is believed to date back to at least the early 16th century.

Strong sunlight enters through the deepest windows of the old synagogue, permeating the vaulted, whitewashed interior with the bluish midday haze of a warm spring day. The saturated red-brown hues of the ark curtains and the sketchily brushed flower motifs illuminating the rose window above it and the right-hand window lunette invest the space with an air of festivity. The large central bimah, extending upward in a dramatic thrust that brings to mind the Tower of Babel, forms the focus of the composition. Its lower part is fenced in by closely spaced wooden bars, whereas the upper section opens out like a flower to the sky, giving it near-mystic dimensions. A bearded man with a hat, perched on the railing of the staircase leading up to the bimah, looks oddly suspended in mid-air, recalling the gallery of hovering figures in Chagall's style of modern art. This work, while conveying the artist's whimsical yet reverent rendering of Jewish life and tradition, also records Chagall's intense first encounter with Eretz Israel. His later works, replete with Jewish symbolism, are far removed in spirit from the paintings Chagall composed in Safed. Greatly affected by the traumatic events of the Holocaust, Chagall would never recover the childlike, dreamy mood that had filled him in the old Safed synagogue.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Menashe Kadishman (1884)
Acrylic on canvas (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The painter and sculptor Menashe Kadishman (b.1932), is an Israeli-born former kibbutz member. In this 1984 version of the biblical theme of the sacrifice of Isaac three figures are depicted: Abraham and Sarah portrayed on the right, and Isaac in the middle. The mountain of Moriah separates the parents from their son, while a donkey enters the scene from the left. In the right corner a vase of flowers stands on a rectangular shape that resembles a sacrificial altar. The modernist "naif" style of the painting is true to the artist's style and colourful palette during the early 1980s. Kadishman treated this familiar theme dramatically different, in many ways, from the traditional depictions of the scene in European and Israeli art. The artist deliberately ignores the biblical "happy ending," in which the ram is sacrificed instead of the boy. Instead, he chooses to show Isaac clad in black, with a skeletal face, already dead and buried inside the burial mound that takes the place of the holy mountain. Another deviation from the usual iconographic tradition of this scene is the appearance of Sarah at Abraham's side. According to the Genesis story, Sarah stayed behind when her husband took their son on the ominous journey. By adding Sarah into the composition, Kadishman emphasized the horrible difference of his version of the story. For many Israelis 1984 was a traumatic year. Many young soldiers were killed on Israel's northern front, sacrifices of the military campaign in Lebanon which had begun two years earlier. People of Kadishman's generation felt that parents were sending the children to Lebanon like sacrificial lambs, while they were staying safely behind, protected from danger by their age. Although the donkey is mentioned in the biblical text (Genesis 22:3-5), here it appears to be an eschatological symbol, suggesting the possible coming of the Messiah and with it the resurrection of the dead, thus bestowing a little hope in this otherwise morbid painting.

Still Life With Jewish Objects, by Issachar Ryback (1925)
Oil and collage on canvas (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Issachar Ryback (1897-1935) was born in Yelizavetgrad in 1897 to a family with a Hasidic background. He studied at the Art Academy in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. In the second decade of the 20th century, the Jewish community in Kiev and other Russian centers flourished artistically in a relatively liberal atmosphere. Rvback's art at this time reflects a synthesis between the Jewish folk art tradition and the contemporary Russian avant-garde streams including Cubism, Constructivism, and Suprematism. Ryback painted Still Life with Jewish Objects in 1925, after returning from a 4-year stay in Berlin. In this work he uses Cubist division and a Suprematist form in the centre of the still life as a modern setting for the presentation of the Sukkot festival.

Ryback portrays three important customs of the holiday. The viewer is invited to stand in front of a table and to participate in the celebration. The first custom of the four species (arba'ah minim) of Sukkot is to hold a palm branch (lulav), myrtle twigs (hadasim), and willow branches (aravot) in the right hand and the citron (etrog) in the left hand and to wave them while the Hallel prayer (Praise to God) is recited. The second custom relates to the open holiday prayer book on the table showing the prayer for rain, recited after the Halle. The third custom is pictured in the yellow Suprematist square in the frame of the window. We perceive a popular print showing Hasidim dancing with the Torah scrolls around the pulpit, as is customary on the ninth day of Sukkot as part of the Simhat Torah festival. It seems as if the excitement of the celebration has caused the first dancer to reach out of the frame of the print and touch the lulav.

The table "falling" toward the right corner of the painting rests on a candlestick. The black box on the left corner of the table reminds us of a candle, while the image of the flame is hinted at in the colour and shape of the etrog wrapped with flax. The texture of flax is conveyed by an expressive white impasto, thick layers of paint. While the table seems to be falling down, the lulav forces our eyes to climb up to the arch of the window. Through the arch we can see a view of a remote village. The village is drawn in a naturalistic style, with soft colour tones which fade into light gray. A wood plank is placed diagonally across this scene, emphasizing the idea that this personal memory is beyond the reach of the viewer.

Ryback went to Paris in 1926, where he began painting in the School of Paris style. He died in Paris in 1935.

Sources: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the outstanding publication Jewish Art Masterpieces (1994), edited by Iris Fishof.

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