So much of Jewish expression in the arts has been related to the anguish of the Holocaust that “The Jewish Heritage in American Folk Art” at the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum seems like a bundle of unadulterated joy.
It’s more than that, as any eclectic assembly of 120 objects would have to be, but a tone of agreeable assimilation is what finally rings through the show.
The exhibition, organized by the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Folk Art in New York, and on view at the Skirball through May 11, is billed as “the first systematic examination of Jewish folk art in the United States.” Combining secular and ceremonial objects by unschooled artists, the show covers about 260 years and represents an enormous effort to survey a rich subject that has been overlooked.
High on a list of delights dredged up in attics and collections across the country are works that illustrate a lumpy blend of cultures. If America has been a melting pot, this show offers a taste of the stew before it turned to mush. Bald eagles, American flags and even totem poles float about in products brewed up by Jewish immigrants.
They brought such traditions as paper cutting and wood carving, and adopted the American one of quilting. In both new and old forms, Jewish Americans embraced foreign motifs and incorporated them into more familiar ones. The Stars and Stripes wave atop two columns flanking an arched “gateway to the Lord” in Phillip Cohen’s intricate paper cut plaque. One square of Adolph Schermer’s satin and velvet quilt contains an American flag framed by a Jewish star. An unknown artist from Maryland included a block depicting a Jewish wedding feast in a quilt of traditional floral designs.
Such curiosities as a tin Hanukkah lamp, probably made by an American Indian and fashioned like a curtained theater box, inhabit one display case. Mae Shafter Rockland steals this corner of the show, however, with her lamp made of Statue of Liberty souvenirs. The tacky little figures hold candles high above a flag-wrapped base that’s stamped with the words I lift my lamp beside the golden door. This piece can be variously interpreted, but--with its consciousness of Pop art and its use of found objects--it seems less naive than the general run of work shown.
Rockland’s lamp also points out a level of sophistication that might be overshadowed by sheer charm. Though the artists are not formally trained in their crafts, they are often highly literate people whose visual expressions revolve around written words.
A small gallery is devoted to record books, rubbings of grave stones, memorial plaques, marriage contracts, birth records and Torah binders, all intricately lettered or dramatically inscribed.
Samples of micrography in the main gallery use masses of tiny Hebrew script to form portraits or, in one case, a man’s name. David Davidson, who did his micrography in the 1850s, drew Mrs. S. Brody with the book of Ruth and wrote Leon Sternberger’s name with a line formed of the last two chapters of Deuteronomy. Both are done in ink on embossed lace paper intended for Valentines.
Though the majority of exhibited items have religious significance and demonstrate the continuance of Jewish tradition, others illustrate immigrants smoothly adjusting to a new life. Awkward paintings of family holiday gatherings can be read as islands of traditional solidarity, while portraits of affluent, elegantly dressed citizens are symbols of having arrived and conquered by fitting in.
These two contrary strains--holding out and fitting in--are what give the show its life. You can feel the pulse of a people clutching what’s dear as they move into foreign turf. When you find a silk brocade hallah cover embroidered with an American eagle, you know that amalgamation is in process. And when you learn that this piece of 1850s handiwork was recently rescued from a garage sale, you know it’s time to be aware of this segment of American folk art.