Saturday, January 23, 2010

Intersection of Art and Judaism

(originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Jan. 22, 2010)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan with other members of the Temple Israel Ritual Committee to view an exhibit of modern, artistic takes on Jewish ritual objects. Titled "Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life," it was interesting and occasionally provocative, yielding several good conversations (and one subsequent seudah shelishit discussion) about our relationship to ritual.

After seeing the ritual exhibit, however, most of us wandered down a flight to an exhibit of the work of the 20th-century American Jewish artist Emmanuel Radnitzky, much better known by his alias, Man Ray. He was a modernist who worked in several different media, and although I had been familiar with Man Ray's photography, prior to seeing this exhibit I was unfamiliar with his paintings and sculpture. The collection, cleverly titled "Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention," is broad and eclectic, with enough nudes to make this rabbi blush, or at least pretend not to notice. As one would expect at the Jewish Museum, the exhibit opens with the question of whether Man Ray's Jewish roots are evident in his work; the answer eludes curator and patron alike. In Talmudic language, teiku - the question stands.

The artist was born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish immigrants, although he rejected his background, even going so far as to change his name to the indeterminate Man Ray. He led the avant-garde in New York and thereafter in Paris, where he chose to live from 1921. And yet his having discarded his roots and his name were not sufficient to stave off the Nazi threat; in 1940 he fled Paris, just a few days prior to Hitler's arrival. Although he had reinvented himself through artistic expression, "Man Ray" was to the Germans merely Emmanuel Radnitzky.

Such presentations often make me reflect on the unique relationship between Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture. Surely "Judaism," that is the practice of Jewish religious tradition, is a part of Jewish civilization. But as a tribe, our ranks include many who fashioned their lives outside of the framework of Jewish traditions. Marx and Freud, Schoenberg and Spinoza, Einstein and yes, Man Ray, are all Jews who distanced themselves from the religious and cultural aspects of Judaism. And yet they are all unquestionably part of the fabric of modern Jewish life, no less than Maimonides and Martin Buber.

There were no works by Man Ray in the ritual exhibit, but had he been commissioned to create a Jewish ritual item, I'd like to think that he would have crafted a modernist seder plate, perhaps featuring pictures of his lovers under the haroset and horseradish, or a "rayograph" (his self-styled camera-less photography) of the Four Species of Sukkot. But unlike Chagall, Shahn, Bernstein and Brubeck, artists who addressed their Jewishness in their works, Man Ray left us no seder plate. But we should be proud to claim him as one of us.

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