Ein Hod artists


What is Jewish art?
Despite prolonged
disputation among artists,
craftsmen, historians and
philosophers - there is no
simple answer. Designer
Arie Ophir, Professor of
Fine Arts discusses
contemporary Jewish art
and its role in the making
of a local culture.

Written by - Emily Bloch

When people talk about Jewish art
or Judaica they usually refer to
ritual items found in most Jewish
homes and passed from genera-
tion to generation as heirlooms.
The most common among these
are the Chanukiya (Chanukah
lamp), candlesticks, wine goblets,
mezuzahs and the like.
Many of these objects originated in
17th - 19th century Europe and
were mostly crafted by non-Jewish
artists. As Jews in Medieval
Europe were forbidden to work in
most crafts, they commissioned
Christian artists to create and
design ritual articles. These crafts-
men did so according to the style
and fashion of the time. Thus
we can find a Baroque style
Chanukah lamp, a Venetian spice
box resembling a church spire and
a Rococo design on an etrog box.
Later, when restrictions were lifted,
Jewish craftsmen continued to
produce articles in the same style,
which by then had become
Ophir argues that this is not really
Jewish ceremonial art. Many of the
Jewish ritual items so dexterously
made today by skillful Jewish
craftsmen, who still follow old
styles, cannot really be called
Jewish art. This does not mean
that he advocates a break from the
past, or a rejection of influences
which are not Israeli or Jewish.
But, developing a local culture is of
vital importance. "It just doesn't
make sense for Jews not to create
a culture of their own, when after
such a long exile, we are finally
living in a country that is our very
own again".

To Ophir, Jewish ceremonial art is
the most effective medium for
spreading a facet of culture in
Israel. Every home, whether reli-
giously observant or secular, has
Sabbath candlesticks or a Chanu-
kah lamp. Few of the owners of
such items are art collectors or
artists, yet most of them are keen
on their beauty. It is the designer's
role to introduce them to new
attitudes regarding form, propor-
tion, harmony and textures.
The Chanukah lamp, becomes
therefore, more than a device to
commemorate a miracle. It serves
as an object of aesthetic value, an
element of the national culture.
Unlike pure art, it has a functional
aspect - it must be designed to
enable the user to light the
candles in a prescribed manner.
Yet, there is more to it - it needs
hiddur (adornment or glorification),
which becomes a spiritual need.
Thus the mitzvah, incorporating
aesthetic design, becomes an art
form belonging to a culture.
The artist, involved In the process
of design, is influenced by various
elements - his own background,
nature, tradition, other artists' work
etc. If the style of Jewish cere-
monial art remains unchanged, it is
obviously not developing. This is
precisely what was happening for
about 400 years. Not only was the
style non-Jewish, it was later
perpetuated by Jewish craftsmen
and designers.
There are two important factors in
the development of Jewish art -
time and place. "Having gone
through the stage of national
return, statehood, consolidation
and defence, we are now at a
crucial point in time. We can now
relate to the content and quality of
life here, and that includes culture.
Regarding the place - Israel is a
special country and represents
more than a name. It represents an
ideal. We should, therefore, be
more influenced by local develop-
ments in science and culture".

This century is marked by a
change in the concept of design-
ing Jewish ritual objects. The
pioneering spirit which dominated
the early days of the state and the
mass immigration were two im-
portant factors. The newcomers'
crafts, from filigree Yemenite work
to Bedouin jewellery, became part
of the local culture. A period of
ethnographic and folkloristic styles
began. At the same time, the
western style was still taught by the
German born teachers at the
Bezalel Academy for The Arts.
Prominent among them were L.
Wolpert and D. Gumbel, propo-
nents of the clean and functional
Bauhaus style. Consequently, em-
bellishments and ornaments were
reduced and cheaper material
substituted the traditional precious
metals - gold and silver.
Today, one can find ritual items
made of aluminum and titanium,
iron and copper. Some designers
incorporate papier mache, plas-
tics, ceramic and cloth. These
materials are cheaper and make
the products more accessible.
Expensive works are still produced
by hand, but many designers are
searching for assembly-line
methods that will reduce prices
and appeal to the younger

Professor Arie Ophir, former head
of the Gold and Silver Smithing
Department at the Bezalel
Academy, is a designer of Jewish
ceremonial art whose work has
been exhibited in museums
throughout the world. Ophir was
awarded the Jessefson Prize by
the Israel Museum for Judaic art
design and for his life work of
"creating innovative objects using
unusual materials, daring and
complex shapes and colours;
for breaking new grounds and
conquering new territories in the
world of Jewish art". In Israel his
work is exhibited at the Israel
Museum in Jerusalem.