Art as an Expression of Sephardic and Crypto-Jewish Identity:
By Abraham D. Lavender, Ph.D. Department of Sociology and Anthropology Florida International University
The Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, like most academic organizations, devotes most of its attention to the written word, either findings from scholarly research or personal stories by descendants of the Jews of Spain and Portugal (Sephardim), many of whom had to keep their heritages and identities secret in order to survive. Poetry and dramatic plays also sometimes help give an understanding of Crypto-Jewish culture. However, at the Society’s Annual Meetings in San Antonio, Texas, August 3-5, 2003, another way of expressing Sephardic or Crypto-Judaic identity–visual arts–was presented in an exhibition of a painting, “Ex Libris,” by Daniel Eleazar Cuellar III of Kingsville, Texas. The painting is an oil on foam board, 38 x 36 inches.
Daniel Cuellar III, who identifies as Hispanic and Sephardic, was born in Cuero, on November 30, 1969, grew up in Victoria, and now, with his wife Michele and 5-year-old daughter Mikayla, lives in Kingsville, all towns in southeastern Texas. In an interview, Daniel said that he knew he was interested in art when he was five years old, that he started painting in his early teens, and has been painting for about thirteen years. He studied art techniques and style at Laredo Junior College and at Texas A & M, and spent time in New York City in 1991 where he met and was inspired by Abe Albers, painter of micro.
Daniel said that he entitled the painting “Ex Libris” because it means “out of the book,” and because for him, being of Sephardic Jewish Lineage, the Book is an important part of recovering one’s spiritual identity. When I asked Daniel what the face meant to him, he said it was a reflection of a Godly image, a transformation of the spiritual presence with the radiance of the eyes reflecting the creator’s glory through the word of God. For Daniel, this represents the message of the painting. Daniel said that “the face also represents a Sephardic face, a face of an obscured people, the crypto-Jew in the southwest. The darkness of the painting expresses the crypto status, the status of secret Jews, but the colors also are diamonds, rubies, and sparkling crystals which represent the throne of God. The seven-pointed menorah was used because it was a sacred symbol in the lives of many crypto-Jews. ‘Ex Libris’ is a tribute to a lost and obscured history that is only recently being taken seriously, a history that involves the recovery of an identity that has for many of crypto-Jewish lineage been fragmented.”
Let’s keep “Ex Libris” in mind and look at the larger question of Jewish art, or more specifically, at the idea of Sephardic and Crypto-Jewish art. We’ll first look at the historical concept of Jews as artists, then look at the question of whether there is “Jewish Art,” and if there is, look at how it is defined.
Historically there was the idea that Jews could not be artists because of the traditional Jewish rule against making graven images (Exodus 20: 4-5; Deuteronomy 5: 8), but there have been conflicting interpretations about the meaning of these verses. Potok notes that all Jewish authorities agreed that art should not be made for the purpose of idolatrous worship, but that beyond that there has been little agreement (p. 10). Schwarz concludes that Jews were not artistically untalented or hostile to art, but that, in addition to religious restrictions, limitations imposed by bigotry and poverty also caused the Jew to use his eyes for reading, not for painting: “He saw the universe in letters–black and white; not in the motley reflection of colors” (p. 8). A major exception to this was during the high level of culture reached by Moslems and Jews in Spain, where there was significant art by Jews. In1992 the journal Jewish Art dedicated an issue to synagogue art and Hebrew illustrated manuscripts from the Jews of Iberia and the countries of the Sephardi dispersion (Cohen-Mushlin, p. 3). But, regardless of how the religious rule was interpreted and applied historically, by the early 18th century, with the Enlightenment and with Jews having more social freedom and less economic limitations, we have the beginnings of large numbers of Jews who were artists.
But, the question remains: is there “Jewish Art”? In 1949, for example, Schwarz in Jewish Artists of the 19th and 20th Centuries concluded that there was negligible Jewish art because Jews were in diaspora (p. 16). By that time, as Olin later wrote, “the visual was thoroughly bound up with the national” ( p. 41). In the last several decades, with a great proliferation of Jewish artists in the United States, the question has been fervently debated. Rosenberg, a major art critic, and an Ashkenazi, says that artists of all backgrounds have begun to “assert their individual relation to art in an independent and personal way,”and that this “has liberated the Jew [and others] as artist by eliminating his need to ask himself whether a Jewish art exists or can exist” (1973, p. 231). He also says that since WWII numerous Jewish artists have produced art with a profound Jewish expression but that there is no Jewish art because there is no Jewish style.
Greenberg, another famous art critic, and also an Ashkenazi, was a universalist who denied differences and emphasized formal analysis over subject matter as the important element in art (Olin, pp. 46). Kugelmass, on the other hand, argues that the impulse of universalism has in fact had a strong effect on Jewish artists who want to reconcile Jewishness with modernity and Judaism with other religions (2003, p. 15). Marc Chagall (born Moyshe Segal in the village of Vitebsk, Belorussia, in 1887, and died in 1985), whom many consider the greatest Jewish painter of modern history, had many paintings with universal themes (Marchesseau, 1998).
For art to be “Jewish,” does the painter have to be Jewish, and is the Jewishness by heritage, birth, experience, or belief? Similar to the use of universalism, Baigell, for example, notes that many artists who reject the religious aspects of Judaism still use the cultural aspects as justification for their social commitment as expressed through their art (p. 48). And what if the painting deals with Jewish subject matter, but is painted by a non-Jewish artist? Mendelsohn, for example, limits his definition to men and women of Jewish origin (p. 164).
And what is Jewish subject matter, and who decides? Should major negative themes be emphasized, such as the destruction of the Temple, the Inquisition, the pogroms, Ha Shoah? Numerous aspects of Jewish life and culture are portrayed in art. Artistic expressions of Ha Shoah generally did not begin on a large scale until the 1980s because of the emotionalism and shock of the annihilation, but now this is by far the most frequent and most emotional subject (Baigell, p. ix). Previously unused or little used themes now are frequently used: for example, railroad tracks, boxcars, burning buildings, and the yellow Star of David. In fact, Ouaknin states that since Ha Shoah the yellow Star of David has acquired a noble title and bearing as a reaction to it being a symbol of Nazi annihilation.
Does “Jewish Art” consist of including things perceived as Jewish such as the Star of David, a menorah, a tallith, tifillim, the Torah, payess, Hebrew lettering, Jerusalem, or even simply the title of the painting? For example, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), an Italian Sephardic artist, entitled a portrait of a woman “La Juive,”meaning simply “The Jewess” (Soltes). And what about objects which are amalgamations of Judaism and other influences, frequently found as art on ceremonial objects? Greenwald, for example, illustrates the amalgamation of the mizrah (object placed on the east wall of the house so one will know when praying which way to face for Jerusalem and the ancient Temple). She illustrates a number of mizrah which have incorporated Masonic emblems, with both Freemasonry and modern Jews emphasizing the unity and the universal brotherhood of humanity (p.94).
The menorah has been a significant Jewish symbol for centuries, and now is regarded as the most significant symbol of Judaism (e.g., Klagsbald, p. 126). The Star of David has become the symbol of Jewish people only in recent history and is now the central emblem of the Israeli flag (Ouaknin). But, in the 1940s and 1950s, as a reaction to Ha Shoah, many American Jewish artists began using Hebrew inscriptions, which generally only Jews would understand, to give messages of their paintings (Amishai-Maisels, 1986/7, p. 304). Other than brief well-known words, however, even most American Jews probably would simply recognize the words as Hebrew and hence know that there was a Jewish theme, but would not know the exact meaning. Does a painting become Jewish art because it has a person who is identified as Jewish? The choices are many–a rabbi, a person with physical features or wearing dress frequently viewed correctly or not as Jewish, a woman blessing candles? There are numerous examples here, most being viewed positively, but a few being viewed negatively.
Is Jewish art a choice or a combination of any of the above? What about Chagall’s famous 1938 painting entitled “White Crucifixion”? Jesus is on the cross, but instead of wearing the loin cloth of Christian depictions, he is wearing the Jewish prayer shawl (tallith), and the traditional lettering about his head has the Aramaic translation (spoken by Jesus and most Jews of his time in Israel). Around Jesus, a Nazi is breaking into a burning Ark, a man is fleeing holding the Torah, people are frantically fleeing in a ship and from soldiers and from burning buildings, lamenting figures viewed as Patriarchs and Matriarchs are floating above Jesus, people wander forlornly, a ladder is leaning against the cross, and at the bottom, below Jesus, is the menorah surrounded by light.
Or, is art “Jewish” if it has a Jewish goal: to celebrate one’s identity, unify one’s group, critique one’s oppressors, enlighten one’s oppressors, preserve one’s history, help purge one’s own demons and reach catharsis, help fill a void or a loss in a past that one did not know but feels a part of, or analyze one’s position in another’s culture? Kleeblatt, for example, notes that until recently, while other minorities such as African-Americans, women, and gays were celebrating their identity and challenging the status-quo, Jewish artists were more likely to be into critical self-examinations. By the beginning of the 1990s, however, a number of American Jewish artists were using strident and provocative subject matter for their paintings to assert their personal identities which sometimes were specific Jewish identities (p. 6).
Is there “Jewish Art”? I believe that this analysis has shown that the answer is yes, that whether or not a painting is “Jewish” can be in the eye of the beholder. When I first viewed “Ex Libris” in San Antonio, the painting immediately reflected Sephardic and Crypto-Jewish identity to me. I saw a depth of feeling and artistry which to me beautifully expresses Jewish identity, and more specifically, the identity of Sephardic Jews who underwent the terror of the Inquisition followed by centuries of hiding as secret Jews in order to survive in hostile environments. In this sense, not only can there be “Jewish Art,” but there can be “Sephardic Art” or “Crypto-Jewish Art.” The study of art can add another dimension to the study of Sephardim and Crypto-Jewishness.
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Baigell, Matthew. Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Cohen-Mushlin, Aliza. “Editor’s Note.” Jewish Art, Volume 18, 1992, p. 3.
Greenwald, Alice M.. “The Masonic Mizrah and Lamp: Jewish Ritual Art as a Reflection of Cultural Assimilation.” Journal of Jewish Art, Volume 10-11, 1984, pp. 87-101.
Klagsbald, Victor A. “The Menorah as Symbol: Its Meaning and Origin in Early Jewish Art.” Jewish Art, Volume 12-13, 1986/87, pp. 126-134.
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