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October 21, 2010 By:
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The "Rite" Stuff
Are they artworks or ritual objects? This was the question at the heart of a slim, lovely book that Yale University Press issued just about a year ago, titled Reinventing Ritual. In the minds of all those involved, the answer was clear and was expressed by the work's subtitle: "Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life." And yet, though the powers behind the project seemed certain of their mission, some of the featured pieces defied the stated format. The majority of the objects, whose variety was striking, had the qualities necessary to be judged as good art, while also encompassing identifiable religious aspects: These items could be appreciated for their shape, color and the dexterity of their making, but they also had a definable utility, a practicality that tied them to the religious rituals in which they were meant to be used. But there did come times when a certain object seemed more art -- more ironic statement -- than an actual piece that might be utilized. Take Rachel Kanter's "Fringed Garment," for example. It showed a long, highly pragmatic, colorful apron, rounded off with tzitzit, or fringes, as on a tallit, at the four corners of the garment's bottom edge. Of course, the apron could be used in the kitchen -- to any cook's benefit -- but the point of the piece seemed more the ironic, knowing wink the artist was making at certain male traditions and just what Judaism asks or expects of women. Though a new book, titled 500 Judaica, shares several items with Reinventing Ritual, it has none of the earlier work's academic apparatus (there were four substantial essay included in the earlier work). This thick new volume's point is basically celebratory. It's filled with just what the title says -- 500 intriguing items reproduced in sharp, splendid colors. As Varied as History The pieces were chosen by Daniel Belasco, the Henry J. Leir Assistant Curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City. In his introduction, he writes: "The Jewish people have always been international and multicultural. Their art, specifically the design of the ritual objects known as Judaica, reflects a dynamic interchange between local cultures and Jewish symbolism, narrative, and law. The expression is as varied as art history itself, encompassing everything from stone antiquities to Baroque metalwork to Indian textiles. Judaica's diversity and hybridity have prevented it from being easily assimilated into standard critical models. Yet this feature is what also makes Judaica exciting and relevant in today's global market." Aimee Golant's menorah Belasco points out that much has been written about the history and meaning of Jewish ritual objects, while little has been done on the question of style when it comes to these pieces. He discusses three broad areas -- craft, modernist and postmodernist -- and how certain of his choices fit into these categories. Contemporary Judaica, he notes, "consists of both one-of-a-find pieces that sell in the four or five figures and affordable products created for an active marketplace, primarily in the United States and Israel." My favorites among his choices would have to include Yossie Matityahu's bold, masculine-looking washing cup from 2003; Hannah Behar-Paneth's swirling spice box from 2000; Adi Fainer's delicate and delicately colored series of mezuzot from 2008; and Anika Smulovitz's unorthodox -- with a lowercase "o" -- mind-bending Torah pointers from 2001. <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">Are they artworks or ritual objects? This was the question at the heart of a slim, lovely book that Yale University Press issued just about a year ago, titled <i>Reinventing Ritual</i>. In the minds of all those involved, the answer was clear and was expressed by the work&#39;s subtitle: &quot;Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life.&quot; And yet, though the powers behind the project seemed certain of their mission, some of the featured pieces defied the stated format. </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">The majority of the objects, whose variety was striking, had the qualities necessary to be judged as good art, while also encompassing identifiable religious aspects: These items could be appreciated for their shape, color and the dexterity of their making, but they also had a definable utility, a practicality that tied them to the religious rituals in which they were meant to be used. </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">But there did come times when a certain object seemed more art -- more ironic statement -- than an actual piece that might be utilized. Take Rachel Kanter&#39;s &quot;Fringed Garment,&quot; for example. It showed a long, highly pragmatic, colorful apron, rounded off with tzitzit, or fringes, as on a tallit, at the four corners of the garment&#39;s bottom edge. Of course, the apron could be used in the kitchen -- to any cook&#39;s benefit -- but the point of the piece seemed more the ironic, knowing wink the artist was making at certain male traditions and just what Judaism asks or expects of women. </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">Though a new book, titled <i>500 Judaica,</i> shares several items with <i>Reinventing Ritual,</i> it has none of the earlier work&#39;s academic apparatus (there were four substantial essay included in the earlier work). This thick new volume&#39;s point is basically celebratory. It&#39;s filled with just what the title says -- 500 intriguing items reproduced in sharp, splendid colors. </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml"><b>As Varied as History</b><br /> The pieces were chosen by Daniel Belasco, the Henry J. Leir Assistant Curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City. In his introduction, he writes: &quot;The Jewish people have always been international and multicultural. Their art, specifically the design of the ritual objects known as Judaica, reflects a dynamic interchange between local cultures and Jewish symbolism, narrative, and law. The expression is as varied as art history itself, encompassing everything from stone antiquities to Baroque metalwork to Indian textiles. Judaica&#39;s diversity and hybridity have prevented it from being easily assimilated into standard critical models. Yet this feature is what also makes Judaica exciting and relevant in today&#39;s global market.&quot; </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">Belasco points out that much has been written about the history and meaning of Jewish ritual objects, while little has been done on the question of style when it comes to these pieces. He discusses three broad areas -- craft, modernist and postmodernist -- and how certain of his choices fit into these categories. Contemporary Judaica, he notes, &quot;consists of both one-of-a-find pieces that sell in the four or five figures and affordable products created for an active marketplace, primarily in the United States and Israel.&quot; </span></p> <p><span id="mainContent_lblArticleHtml">My favorites among his choices would have to include Yossie Matityahu&#39;s bold, masculine-looking washing cup from 2003; Hannah Behar-Paneth&#39;s swirling spice box from 2000; Adi Fainer&#39;s delicate and delicately colored series of mezuzot from 2008; and Anika Smulovitz&#39;s unorthodox -- with a lowercase &quot;o&quot; -- mind-bending Torah pointers from 2001.&nbsp;</span></p>

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