The Unorthodox Art of an Ultra-Orthodox Community
When Shoshana Golin-Cahn set her sights on attending fine-arts school almost 30 years ago, she did what many Orthodox Jews do when faced with a big decision: She called her rabbi. He told her the one limitation she would face was that she was not to draw live male nude models, because the rabbi felt that doing so would be immodest for a single woman.
Growing up in a large Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, Golin-Cahn, who’s 53, felt like an anomaly when she decided to pursue fine arts professionally; community members looked at her askance. “It was like art was too materialistic, like I was too concerned with portraying the world around me, what it felt like, the colors and the textures,” she told me over Zoom. “People felt like it wasn’t frum [religious], like it was too world-based.”
The Orthodox Jewish community adheres to the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah and its commandments, with a strong emphasis on mesorah, or the passing down of tradition, and in many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities, on daas Torah, the unquestionable authority of the rabbinic establishment. Thus, Orthodox art is in some ways a paradox. Art can require a certain level of transgression, and in conservative cultures where social conformity is de rigueur and probing questions are rarely tolerated, art is typically a form of decor, not a form of commentary.
In the Judaica shops of Monsey and Brooklyn, for instance, you’ll find that classic Orthodox art is uniform—rabbis, Hasidim dancing, Jerusalem landscapes, Western Walls, Torah scrolls, violins. Women are rarely portrayed. This art seeks to fulfill a dictum from the prophet Isaiah: “And your eyes shall see your teachers.” Orthodox culture does not generally view artists as thinkers—ideas tend to be communicated through Torah classes, through intensive study for men, through WhatsApp messages and audio lectures about religious law and spiritual self-improvement. Most people who try to create freethinking art end up leaving the Orthodox community, seeking spaces outside—the sort of struggle epitomized by Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, My Name Is Asher Lev. An Orthodox Jew delivering a nonconformist message by way of a paintbrush, or a sculptor’s chisel, is unusual.
In recent years, though, there’s been an uptick in artists who, like Golin-Cahn, are trying to make nonconformist artwork while remaining observant and staying within the folds of their community. A new generation of American Orthodox Jews that has been exposed to the wider world through the internet is finding ways to create, ask questions, and tell its truths while firmly rooting itself in religious practice. “There is a big online community support group [of frum artists],” Shifra Scheinman-Crawford, a Monsey-based Hasidic artist, told me over the phone. Scheinman-Crawford paints classical portraits, but some of them are self-portraits, striking images of herself in a traditional headscarf, eyes wide and piercing—rare in a conservative community that is still uncomfortable with women’s visibility. “Instagram is the place where we share our work.”
Carefully, these artists are finding ways to deliver their messages despite the obstacles placed before them by both their own communities and the arts industry. Golin-Cahn recalled one of her interviews for the New York Academy of Art, during which a professor told her that she must choose between being religious and becoming an artist. “He was saying that art has to be your religion basically,” she said. Tobi Kahn, an artist who grew up in the German Orthodox community in Washington Heights, in New York, also attested to the tension between art and religion. “People in the art world have an issue with people being religious, because they have preconceived notions,” he told me. “Both communities are nervous about the other; it’s a two-way street. But I think you can think about religion and art in the same breath and not have an argument.” These creatives are hoping that if they can expand the norms of their milieu, of what is socially acceptable, their work won’t be viewed as transgressive and they can broaden the limits of discourse in their community.
Wearing a snood that fully covered her hair, as is traditional for married Orthodox women, Golin-Cahn showed me her series of drypoint etches on the biblical story of Esther, inspired by Rembrandt. “I learn [Torah] daily,” she explained. The story of Esther, she said, is the story “of what it’s like to be an Orthodox woman.” In one drawing, Esther is portrayed approaching King Ahasuerus to invite him to her feast, at which she will eventually reveal her true Jewish identity and beg for the salvation of her people. Behind the king are floating heads and ghostly courtiers.
“All the heads, those are the people who talk about you,” Golin-Cahn told me matter-of-factly. “Those are the people watching, saying, ‘Oh, what is she doing?’” She went on, “My experience of the religious community, growing up, was that people talk about you and people judge you. I spent a lot of wasted energy on that. Every now and then I try to convince myself that it doesn’t really happen, but then I realize it does.” She pointed to Esther, a figure with outstretched hands, her face covered with a mask. “The mask doesn’t have a mouth. Masks are all about keeping quiet.”
When these images appeared in a Pittsburgh Jewish community center in 2001, Golin-Cahn was interviewed by a Jewish male journalist about them. She told him that the series emerged from her experience of growing up in the Orthodox world. “He felt my take was completely wrong, as a frum female.” Golin-Cahn told me that her art is less about projecting radical messages and more about infusing scriptural stories or classical still lifes with subtle commentary on her own experiences as a religious woman. Since that 2001 exhibition, she has moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she said she has more space to create without the “people who talk about you.”
But in certain insular communities, such as Hasidic Williamsburg, aspiring artists have to reckon with more social pressure in their shtetls, or enclaves. Zalmen Glauber, a Hasidic businessman turned sculptor, is one such artist. He was 20 when he married his wife, Leah; the couple had five children in quick succession, leaving no time for creative pursuits, only for the family real-estate business. “We marry young, have big families; we need to make money fast,” Leah told me. But her husband, who’s now 46, had a secret passion for art that kept calling him. In 2011, Glauber decided to register for art school, where he studied both form and art history. “When I first saw a Möbius strip, someone explained to me what it was, and in it, I saw the splitting [Red] Sea,” Glauber told me. “It’s history repeating itself.”
Glauber was drawn to sculpture—a medium that, in the Orthodox community, is traditionally viewed as idolatrous. Orthodox children are raised on the stories of the young patriarch Abraham smashing his father’s idols, the matriarch Rachel stealing her father’s idols in order to encourage monotheism, and Roman soldiers desecrating the Jerusalem Temple with statues of Jupiter. So Glauber went to his rabbi, asking for permission to sculpt. The rabbi allowed it, on one condition: The sculptures could not be complete depictions of human beings; they must be missing parts.
The resulting art is striking—a man kissing his phylacteries, a look of ecstasy on his face, with his upper arms missing. Another piece depicts a veker, the traditional town crier who wakes the devoted at dawn for morning penance, holding a lantern at a window, also with no arms. Sculpture, Glauber said, is “just not something that you’re brought up with” in the Hasidic community. “The creative class in the community is exploding [over] the past 20 years, as far as singing and music. The past 10 years, it bled into fine art,” he later wrote to me. “So I saw the need to create a platform for these new artists to showcase their talent.”
This summer, Glauber opened Shtetl, a gallery in Brooklyn that collects Orthodox Jewish art. The space, nestled in the basement of the Condor Hotel in Williamsburg, is a converted ballroom with Jerusalem-style stones in the walls. Most of the works there engage with traditional themes—Pinny Segal Landau’s portrait Jew in Diaspora shows a melancholy young Hasidic man looking straight at the viewer. Hillel Weiser’s impressionistic painting of a bonfire is a mournful tribute to the victims of the recent stampede in Meron, Israel, during which 45 worshippers were killed. Only one traditional piece, by the Argentinian-born painter Rosa Katzenelson, clearly depicts women, showing a mother teaching her daughters to read Hebrew.
Even so, some of the work is rather radical for this community. A few canvases away from Segel Landau’s rabbinic portraits, Yanky Waldman’s modern work combines elements of nature: a landscape of eggshells glued together in an ombre progression of color, a sprinkle of porcupine quills emerging from the canvas—a departure from the usual Judaica art, which is generally realist and overtly Jewish. And three oversize paintings, from Lipa Schmeltzer, enter the absurd. Schmeltzer, a Hasidic pop star, recently turned to visual art, studying technique with a newfound fervor. “The craziness of [an artist] I already have,” he told me. “It’s the basics—the skills—I need to learn.” He paints both beloved childhood rituals (such as the monthly blessing of the moon, recited outside a synagogue) and renderings of his deeply buried childhood pain. One painting features a large head of a religious man, baring violent teeth; Schmeltzer told me later that it reflects his experience of going through a divorce in the community. “Lipa went through a lot of trauma,” Leah Glauber told me. “He’s still working through it.” Unlike Shtetl’s other informational plaques, which are in English, the plaques next to Schmeltzer’s paintings are in Yiddish only, as if to suggest that his secrets should be kept inside the community.
More than just an art space, Shtetl is evolving into a social center for creative Hasidic minds—a collective of the Hasidic avant garde. For months, Zalmen Glauber has run a WhatsApp group in which Hasidic male artists can connect, and now they’re starting to gather regularly in person to discuss ideas. Last month, I observed a convening of these men—Zalmen and three other artists, as well as a poet, a filmmaker, and an editor of a new Yiddish journal. In a mix of Yiddish and English over glasses of vodka, they debated Maimonides and community politics (“How bad do you think this past year was for the Hasidic community, in terms of media exposure?”), and then switched to analyzing the lyrics of Leonard Cohen and Queen, all with the animated hand gestures of yeshiva students, as if in the midst of Talmudic debate, punctuated by a puff of an electronic cigarette or a shot of liquor. Waldman told me that he entertained the idea of using a pen name when he first started. “It’s a critical community,” he said. He was nervous when his friends came to see his work, but the feedback so far has been surprisingly positive. “My friends never went to museums, really. They appreciated the art, the color, the texture. They weren’t coming with expectations. People come [to Shtetl] who have never heard of Picasso.”
The artists I spoke with attributed the community’s acceptance of their art to the fact that the Glaubers have been sensitive to certain customs. Events for men and women are planned separately. The portraits in prime real estate, at the entrance to the gallery, are of rabbis and Hasidic celebrities. “The setting matters. This gallery is heimish,” said the 22-year old Weiser, using the Yiddish word that means “homey” but also “culturally and religiously familiar” and, thus, “safe.” “If it was elsewhere, I’m not sure how people would react.” Schmeltzer agreed with this sentiment. “Fifteen years ago, this gallery would have been closed down after one day,” he said.
The gallery’s director, Mayer Kohn, who is known among the men simply as the Menahel (Hebrew for “school principal”), is a sort of motivational coach for the young artists. He walks around the table patting them on the back, smiling softly, reminding them of their worth. With a boom of Hasidic entrepreneurs succeeding in real estate, health care, and e-commerce in the past decade, a new business class in the community has the capital to invest generously in art, and many prefer to buy from local Hasidic artists. “Art is now where wine was 20 years ago,” Kohn told me. “We as a community have to learn to appreciate art. We have to educate people. We are starting to realize that art is a language. Artists are more connected to God.”
The gallery and its tilt toward modernism are indications of change in a community that, no matter how insular, is inevitably affected by external secular culture and the internet, as well as its own growing wealth and aspirations. But religious artists continue to face the challenges of finding free expression in a culture that is conservative by design. In my conversations with them, some of the artists told me of secret works kept tucked away in home studios—women’s portraits, portrayals of rabbis as human beings who struggle rather than hagiographies, as well as the art that lingers in their minds, the work they wish they could create but wouldn’t dare to. For now, a basement gallery hums with the activity of a new generation—artists telling stories, pushing boundaries, yearning for more, one brushstroke at a time.