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Jewish Art

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Judaism has produced an extraordinary intellectual tradition and a deep cultural heritage that spans millennia. Jewish art has an important, but complex place in the wider cultural tradition. The establishment of the State of Israel gave the world of Jewish art a massive boost as new generations of Israeli artists explored their identity and heritage. Today, the Israeli arts scene is thriving, and draws upon artistic influences from around the world.

We’ll take a closer look at the history of Jewish art and how it has influenced the development of Judaica products over the centuries. We’ll also explore the exciting Israeli visual arts scene and see how modern Israeli artists are creating stunning works of art from a range of new materials. There’s a growing enthusiasm for Jewish art in the US both among the country’s Jewish communities who want to display a visual connection to the land of Israel in their homes.

What is Jewish Art?

Jewish art arguably began with the Biblical figure Bezalel of the tribe of Judah. The Bible relates how Bezalel, a contemporary of Moses, was commissioned by God to create the Tabernacle in the wilderness. There’s no doubt that like all ancient peoples, the Israelites and their ancestors already had a vibrant artistic culture, but Bezalel is the first name that history records. He is the symbolic founder and father of today’s Israeli art scene and the famous Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem is named after him.

What is Jewish Art - A Historical Overview

The origin of the Jewish people is in the Middle East and the earliest known forms of artistic expression were typical of the region. People living close to the land, whose lives were defined by the natural environment and changing seasons, drew their primary influence from the natural world. Art – including anthropomorphic art – explored human attitudes to life, forces like childbirth and family, the harvest, human relationships with the animal world, and, of course, metaphysical themes. 

 

With the development of the Jewish religion, artistic endeavor and creativity gained a powerful boost and a new status in society. The receipt of the commandments also created a powerful dichotomy that influences the question of what is Jewish art right up to the present day. 

Jewish Art and the Second Commandment

Exodus 20:4 

“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or in the earth below”

 

As the Israelites fled Egypt and became a true nation, there was a clear struggle to create a common religious identity. The nomadic Israelites had been influenced by the diverse ancient belief systems of the Middle East, as well as by the complex belief systems of ancient Egypt. The Second Commandment stated unambiguously that previous forms of worship were forbidden – as was the creation of idols. This blanket prohibition extended to the artistic reproduction of any aspect of nature. 

 

The Second Commandment set the boundaries – and the direction – for artistic expression during the biblical period. Jewish artists channeled their creative genius into the building and decoration of the Temples of the period. The Bible describes the beauty and splendor of the First Temple, built during the reign of King Solomon. The Second Temple, built under Herod,  rivaled its beauty and glory.

Ancient Biblical Judaica

Ancient Jewish artists created the fine Judaica of the period, designing a wealth of religious and ritual treasures. Famous examples include the tabernacle, Ark, and other religious vessels like gold menorahs and candelabras. The High Priest’s breastplate or Choshen was handcrafted from fabrics and flattened gold, and decorated with 12 precious stones, symbolizing the 12 Tribes of Israel. 

The Jewish Temples were decorated with massive amounts of gold, silver, gemstones, imported cedar wood and other luxurious items. It’s likely that the most talented and creative Jewish artists were employed – and were honored for their work. These expert goldsmiths and silversmiths were the Judaica craftsmen of the Biblical era.

Although their art treasures were plundered and destroyed, and their descendents scattered into the Diaspora by war and ethnic cleansing, their ancient traditions, and creative genius survived. The biblical traditions are continued in the exclusive Judaica workshops of 21st century Jerusalem.

What is the Oldest Jewish Symbol?

There’s some debate about what is actually the oldest Jewish symbol. A strong case can be made for the menorah or temple candelabra. The seven-branch golden menorah was an integral – perhaps central – feature of the original desert Tabernacle thousands of years ago. Handmade gold menorahs were also a vitally important feature of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and are still used in Synagogues and homes throughout the world.

It’s likely that Moses was continuing a far older tradition of ritual lamp lighting when he installed the gold menorah in the Tabernacle. The Israelites (and their ancestors) inhabited a primitive wilderness world with no electricity, where a moonless night meant absolute darkness. Night brought all kinds of physical dangers, as well as fear of the supernatural. Lighting lamps had a ritual and practical importance that modern city dwellers can only guess at. 

Handmade menorahs are one of the best selling items of modern Judaica. There’s still a huge demand for ornate, traditional seven branch menorahs made of high grade 925 sterling silver. Modern Judaica artists are also keen to explore new materials like anodized aluminum, ceramica, and even cast concrete. Ironically, some of the small minimalist menorahs would probably be immediately recognisable to the poorer ancient Israelites and the rural peasant communities during the Temple periods.

What is Judaism Art?

Judaism art is really just another term for Jewish art. Many people use the terms Judaism and Jewish interchangeably when they discuss art, religion, history and culture. Judaism art and Jewish art are essentially the same. 

 

The foundation of Judaism art was the creation of beautiful and luxurious ritual items – ancient Judaica. The early religious prohibition on iconography and the depiction of natural items evolved over time, especially as Jews came into contact with Hellenic and Roman artistic styles. By the 3rd century CE, some Middle Eastern and Mediterranean synagogues were decorated with elaborate mosaics and wall paintings depicting biblical scenes and the signs of the zodiac. 

 

Judaism/Jewish art evolved again during the centuries of the diaspora. Jewish artists in Europe were deeply influenced by the renaissance. Esther Scrolls and scrolls and ketubot were often illustrated with elaborate illuminations. Their counterparts in the Muslim world were influenced by Islamic architechture and local artistic calligraphy and geometric art styles. 

 

The 19th century brought wider Jewish integration – at least in the more enlightened European states. Jewish artists like Chagall and Lipschitz created religious art in modern styles. Jewish artists like Gierymski and Gottlieb gained a wider reputation and some acclaim.

What is Jewish Art Called?

As a new generation in the US develops an interest in Jewish art, we’re often asked “What is Jewish art called?” It can seem like a naive (and slightly irritating) question, but is actually a great starting point for anybody who wants to explore the rich creative world of Jewish art. The main reason why people are asking what Jewish art is called, is that they are partly familiar with the concept of Judaica, but don’t understand its place in Jewish art.

Jewish Art 101

Jewish art is any form of art with a Jewish theme. Arguably, the term can also be applied to work by Jewish artists. Forms of Jewish art include handmade Judaica items, sculpture, painting, music, literature and architecture. Some people will happily include Jewish theater and dance in their definition of Jewish art. Each of these fields includes a multitude of styles, traditions and disciplines. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is in the eye of the artist.

What Kind of Art is Israel Known For?

When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, there was a strong determination to preserve existing Jewish art and culture and to breathe new life into the ancient traditions. There was a powerful move to build a new Israeli national identity, and art was expected to play a key role in developing that identity. 

Modern Israeli art grows out of a loosely shared Jewish cultural heritage, but defies any standard definition. Israel is a melting pot that contains Jews from almost every country in the world, and from every Jewish tradition and background. Israelis also love to travel and are fascinated by new ideas and concepts. 

Israeli culture is also naturally bold and innovative and modern Israeli artists are natural experimenters. The passion for experimentation doesn’t just include new styles, it also embraces new materials. Artists like Shimrit Caspi use ultra-modern concrete casting techniques to create beautiful items of home decor Judaica. Shalom Sofer uses spoil from archaeological digs in Jerusalem to create powerful earth sculptures depicting iconic Jewish themes. 

Israel is a small country that is packed with thousands of years of history and tradition, as well as religious symbolism. Artistic themes are often intertwined, but some key themes stand out. The first is nature, and the stunning Israeli landscapes. Israel sits astride the ancient trading routes between Africa, Europe and Asia. The landscape contains deserts, a coastal plain, rocky hillsides, the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) and forests. There is a wealth of natural beauty to inspire local artists. The best artists are experts at capturing the amazing Middle Eastern light and the magic of the ancient landscapes.

Painting and art photos of Israeli natural scenes are hugely popular. Many Jews in the diaspora who aren’t especially interested in religious themes love to buy paintings or art prints of Israeli landscapes and natural scenes. Jean Pierre Weill paints stunning pictures of Israel on glass. Menucha Yankelevitch has earned a reputation as the Painter of Jerusalem, and Gitty Fuchs sells her beautiful Israeli paintings across the world.

Religious Art in Israel

Religious art in Israel covers a wide range of styles and disciplines. The definition includes abstract paintings of dancing Hassidim, Kabbalistic themes, depictions of the Wailing Wall, or the mystical cities of Jerusalem and Safed, or handwritten Mezuzah parchments and religious scrolls by expert scribes like Gideon Ben Eliyahu, nephew of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Modern religious art in Israel generally doesn’t observe the traditional injunction against iconography. There’s a huge choice of original works and fine art prints that cover every aspect of Judaism, and Jewish heritage and culture. What’s really exciting about modern religious art is the enthusiasm for interpreting ancient themes with modern materials and design techniques.

What are Judaica Items?

Judaica items are the modern descendents of the religious and ritual items of the First and Second Temples. The tradition of Jewish silversmithing and design survived for centuries in the diaspora. Jewish and artisans preserved a link to the past and continued to make traditional Judaica items like seven branch menorahs and candelabras, menorahs for Hanukkah, and traditional Jewish candlesticks. 

Other traditional Judaica items include Kiddush cups, spice boxes for the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabat, etrog boxes for Sukkot, mezuzah cases, megillas, tallit clips, torah pointers and Pesach plates. You can buy handmade Judaica items online for every Jewish holiday, life event or ritual requirement. 

Modern Judaica is also inspired by ancient Jewish cultural and religious themes, but uses contemporary materials and the latest craft techniques to create beautiful Judaica items. A traditional Rosh HaShanah honey dish can be handcrafted from brightly colored anodized aluminum, a mezuzah case from an advanced polymer compound, or a minimalist menorah from cast concrete.

Judaica items also include handmade jewelry from Israel. Diverse Jewish and Middle Eastern traditions provide beautiful and powerful symbols that jewelers love to craft into rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and pendants. The most popular symbol for Judaica jewelry is the Star of David or Magen David. It’s an iconic Jewish symbol that is also the centerpiece of the Israeli national flag. 

The other Jewish symbols and motifs that feature in Judaica jewelry are the Hamsa, Chai or life symbol, Lion of Judah, Eshet Chayil, and Jerusalem motifs. Handmade Judaica jewelry is a wonderful gift that creates a strong personal connection with Israel, Jerusalem and Judaism.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Jewish art is a broad category that encompasses a diverse range of visual arts and crafts produced by Jewish artists around the world. It can include traditional Judaica items such as menorahs, mezuzahs, and Kiddush cups, as well as more contemporary pieces that explore Jewish themes and symbolism.
Jewish art is used in contemporary society in a variety of ways, including in public spaces such as museums and galleries, as well as in private collections and personal homes. It is also commonly used in educational settings to teach about Jewish history and culture, and in religious settings to enhance the spiritual experience.
Jewish art plays a vital role in the synagogue, serving as a way to enhance the spiritual and cultural environment. It can include items such as stained glass windows, decorative textiles, Torah covers, or other visual art pieces that reflect Jewish themes and symbolism.

A Little About The Site's Founder:

Benny Abraham

Benny Abraham

Hello, my name is Benny Abraham and I am the Founder of The Israeli Center of Judaica. I created this boutique marketplace website out of love and a strong desire to help small and medium-sized Israeli artists who don't have much exposure and who mainly want to focus on their art creation.

We offer unique art and Judaica made with passion and love to bring the beauty of Israeli and Jewish art to your homes. We focus on producing various unique products and use and combine materials and designs not seen elsewhere.

In the past, I worked as a silversmith specializing in sterling silver judaica. After many years working as a silversmith, I decided to follow my dream of opening a marketplace for all things Israeli Judaica and founded the Israeli Center of Judaica.

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