Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
For several years I was the director of a synagogue in Los Angeles. It was near the beach in Venice, a section of the city populated especially by writers, artists, musicians, and yoga teachers. (I fall into one of those categories but it’s not the reason that I was hired.) When I started there, a writer married to an artist – who was also a yoga teacher – was heading a committee to redecorate the library, and the original proposal called for painting the walls purple.
The synagogue was a casually-run place, and it seemed to have been common for members to bring in works of art that they wanted to donate, and to hang them anywhere. (In contrast, a congregation at which I worked in another state had a “fine arts” committee that reviewed proposed donations and rejected most of them.) It was a mess.
That began to change with the library redecoration, when a member who was an accomplished photographer donated a work that filled the only open wall space. Subsequently, another artist member offered the gift, for another room, of a work based on a prayer theme, and the offer was accepted.
I also started changing willy-nilly installations: replacing some works and rehanging others. In choosing what to keep and what to replace, the principle I followed was that great art always has a place anywhere, and that Jewish art always has a place in Jewish institutions. This meant that other art (neither great nor Jewish) would have no place in the building.
A question I might have asked, but didn’t, was what is Jewish art? For the moment I’ll stick with religious art, although we don’t have a strong tradition of it. at least with respect to representational art and art for its own sake. There is more history of artists’ making religious artifacts – going back to Bezalel and Oholiav in the book of Exodus – and, in synagogue design, of decorative arts. The Central Synagogue in Manhattan is an example of the latter: built in 1872 in a Moorish style, it had very extensive interior mosaic and tile work, all of which was recreated when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1998.
Despite our ingrained habit of questioning everything, that particular question was never raised. We had an attic full of art that we all agreed was Jewish. Some of it represented scenes from the Hebrew Bible, or images of religious life; some of it interpreted religious texts; some of it represented Israel. But no one complained – which makes me wonder whether anyone else noticed. (We are trained to be people of the book, not people of the canvas.)
In upstate New York, one of the finest examples of Jewish art in an architectural setting is the 1966 sanctuary of Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, for which two large stained-glass windows were commissioned from designs by Ben Shahn:
Back to the photographer whose work was the only one to hang in the library. Later he had a large exhibition of his work in Los Angeles, to much acclaim (and a certain amount of scandal, because some of the photographs had been taken in the synagogue during religious services, which is contrary to traditional Jewish observance). I have one of the works, three small photographs grouped in one frame, and last week I hung it in my office here in Elmira.