Art Exhibition in celebration of Jewish Heritage Month 2022 at the 81 Leonard Gallery in NYC, in collaboration with the Jewish Art Salon.

Featuring the work of six NYC Jewish artists, PAUSE: Jewish Heritage Month/Ways of Being pays homage to the multi-dimensional nature of Jewish identity and the varying, and often unexpected, ways in which Jewishness manifests in visual art.

Artists: Tobi Kahn Orli Swergold, Yona Verwer, Ali-Shrago-Spechler, Joel Silverstein and Richard McBee

This exhibition was curated by Hannah Eve Rothbard and Goldie Gross, and is supported by a grant from CANVAS.

Video shot by Jon Schatzberg and edited by Bluma Gross.

In one word, “Jewish” can describe many aspects of a person’s identity. However, very few assumptions can be made about someone with this identifier. While sharing the label proudly, the artists in PAUSE: Jewish Heritage Month/Ways of Being vary in their levels of religious observance, languages spoken, and traditions practiced. Just as there are many ways to be Jewish, so too there are many ways for Jewishness to present itself in art, ranging from representational biblical imagery to pure abstraction. The artists featured in this exhibition illustrate this phenomena with visually diverse work that emerges from each artist’s distinctly Jewish approach to artmaking and to life.

On view in the windows for the first two weeks of the exhibition and inside for the remaining duration, artworks by Orli Swergold and Tobi Kahn present art as an act of compassion. For both artists, Jewish values play a central role in the creative process, and abstraction is the result. Swergold’s work makes use of organic and industrial materials, fusing them into hybrid objects that reflect an inseparable and codependent relationship with nature. Her practice of recycling and renewing materials becomes both a ritual and responsibility, drawing on ideas from the biblical narrative of creation and Tikkun Olam, the Jewish idea of healing the world. Kahn’s work similarly explores our spiritual connection with nature and reflects a concern for the uncertain state of the world. With biomorphic forms and elemental landscapes, Kahn achieves equilibrium between abstraction and observance, capturing the essence of the natural world in all its beauty, power, and mysticism.

The work of Yona Verwer and Ali Shrago-Spechler, on display for the second two weeks of the exhibition, both probe their respective personal and cultural histories in attempts to reconcile questions of belonging. Verwer’s paintings Hebban Olla Vogala 1 and Hebban Olla Vogala 2 reference the first three words of one of the earliest texts in Old Dutch, which translates, according to the artist, as “all the birds have made their nest except for you and me.” A Dutch expatriate and Jewish convert, Verwer crafts a language of recurrent symbols, including submarines representative of Jonah’s whale, to tell an ongoing story of spatial, spiritual, and cultural transition. Shrago-Spechler’s work considers transition through the use of cardboard, a material which embodies impermanence and exchange. Using cardboard to construct various tchotchkes, photographs, ritual objects, and books pulled from her family oral history and archives pertaining to Ashkenazi Jewry, Shrago-Spechler highlights the displacement of European Jewish cultural heritage during the Holocaust on a large-scale and individual level.

Joel Silverstein and Richard McBee’s works, on view in the windows for the final two weeks of the exhibition, filter biblical perspectives through a modern imagination. Drawing on his background as a Brooklyn-born Jew with a strong interest in classic movies and comic books, Silverstein fuses pop culture, art history, and biblical references to create fantastical paintings that refer as much to modern Jewish life as they do to the Torah. Illustrating content from early Jewish mystical thought and incorporating collaged paper, Merkabah Misadventure presents materialism as modern-day mysticism. McBee’s paintings also re-envision biblical scenes with a contemporary sensibility. In McBee’s painting Moses I, Moses stands atop Mount Sinai and looks hesitatingly back from where he came in light of the idol worship occurring below. McBee’s work offers new perspectives on the inevitability of the tablets’ destruction; clutching them to his chest, Moses seems to be exploring other options besides for descending the mountain.