To evaluate “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities” as just another art exhibition is to miss part of the story. The show of works by 23 Jewish artists, which opened last week at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, is as much an exercise in cultural anthropology as it is an art exhibition and hence invites a different kind of scrutiny.
At a glance, of course, the show looks like your basic Postmodern grab bag of drawing and painting, installation art, video and unclassifiable oddities. It’s quite a raucous potpourri, and it includes everything from silk-screened portraits of Barbra Streisand made in the manner of portraiture by Andy Warhol, video clips from “The Jack Benny Show,” a menorah fashioned from fake Chanel handbags and lipsticks, Barbie dolls representing the ultimate in Gentile perfection and an installation that includes dozens of glittering tiaras made from matzo meal.
The show, curated by Norman L. Kleeblatt for the Jewish Museum in New York, attempts to have fun as it dismantles obsolete Jewish stereotypes (many of which were created and popularized by Jews), examines what many perceive as the patriarchal bias of Judaism and illustrates how the consumerism that blossomed in America in the postwar 1950s led some Jews to compromise their ethnic identity in a drive toward assimilation (the caricature of the Jewish American princess would be an extreme manifestation of this).
The scholarly nature of “Too Jewish?” calls for a response from L.A.'s Jewish community, so The Times invited Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man to tour the show and share his thoughts.
President of Metivta: A Center for Jewish Wisdom, a West L.A. center for contemplative Judaism that he founded in 1986, Omer-Man is open to the task but confesses as he approaches the museum galleries that “my friends have warned me I’m going to hate this.”
Perusing the works in the museum’s entrance gallery--where, among other things, one finds a mannequin sporting selections from Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1993 “Hasidic Collection,” which transformed traditional male Jewish garb into haute couture for women--the rabbi does indeed look appalled to an interviewer accompanying him.
“Startled and surprised perhaps but not appalled,” Omer-Man says, adding that he would like to see the entire exhibition before commenting on it.
Forty-five minutes later in a nearby conference room, Omer-Man opens the discussion by observing: “In this show I’m confronted by people whose experience of Judaism is completely different from mine, people who haven’t spent 50 years studying it, yet they’re speaking with as much authority as a rabbi. These artists have authority not because they present their thoughts in the context of the museum; they have authority because they’re creative.
“A wonderful democratization of Judaism has taken place in the Americanized world. Nobody owns it anymore, the authority has been decentralized, and you no longer have to read 14 tons of books in order to make a statement on Judaism. I read the 14 tons of books, and they served me well in that they brought me to the place where I could discard them. I never could’ve gotten to where I am without them, so it’s a paradox that I try to teach my students how to get to the point I’ve reached, without reading the 14 tons of books. Because nobody’s going to read those books anymore, at least not the old way.
“I have no quarrel with that either. All spiritual traditions must evolve to survive, and the challenge for Judaism is to survive as a living culture capable of moving into the future, as opposed to preserving itself as an ethnic relic.”
Clearly a progressive, Omer-Man nonetheless adds: “There’s nothing here I could imagine living with, however. The art in my house tends to reflect a vision of stillness, and the art here is issue-based and intensely dynamic.”
Omer-Man points out that much of the art on view treads a very delicate line--he refers to such works as Adam Rolston’s graphic drawings depicting the surgical procedure of a nose job, conceptual assemblages by Cary Leibowitz and Rhonda Lieberman that transform designer accessories into Jewish ritual objects (yarmulkes and candelabra, for instance) and Dennis Kardon’s “Jewish Noses,” a wall hung with sculptural casts of the noses of Jewish artists, dealers, curators and collectors.
“Many of these artists use parody in their work, and the problem with that is that if the viewer doesn’t understand what’s being parodied, it degenerates into mockery,” Omer-Man says. “It’s like listening to Mozart; his music includes musical jokes, but if you don’t know the material you won’t get the jokes, and something is profoundly missing.”
Asked if he found any of the work offensive, he replies: “Many pieces that initially appear offensive are actually quite reverential--take Helene Aylon’s ‘The Liberation of G-d,’ for instance.”
Aylon spent six years going through the Hebrew Bible and marking in pink each passage that speaks to and for patriarchy; the result of her efforts, “The Liberation of G-d,” is an installation piece comprising dozens of Hebrew Bibles elegantly displayed in an alcove hung with crimson velvet curtains.
“The reverence at the heart of this piece is apparent in the fact that it requires a great deal of energy to go through the entire Bible,” Omer-Man says. “Moreover, that Aylon doesn’t actually mark the Bible and makes her deletions on a plastic sheet laid onto each page is deeply reverential in that she honors the belief that the Bible is not to be touched.
“Nothing offended me, but some of the pieces puzzled me--for instance, I had no idea how to relate to Elaine Reichek’s ‘A Postcolonial Kinderhood,’ ” he says of the artist’s re-creation of her childhood bedroom in the home of her parents, whose wholesale purchase of the American dream can be seen in the Colonial-style decor they favored. Also included in the installation are samplers embroidered with cliche expressions about Jews that Reichek collected from friends and relatives.
“I could see what was going on,” Omer-Man says of the samplers, “but my basic response was ‘So what?’ I don’t know if that reflects my lack of education in this area or the fact that the piece doesn’t work.
“I was quite moved by Helene Aylon’s piece and by Hannah Wilke’s ‘Venus Pareve,’ but both those works seem grounded more in feminism than in Jewish issues. Wilke’s piece in particular struck me as a feminist statement--it sort of stares back at you and snarls, ‘Hey, man, stop leering at me,’ ” he says of “Venus Pareve,” which comprises 25 identical nude sculptural self-portraits, some of which are cast in chocolate.
Both of those works allude to a perceived misogyny in traditional Judaism, and Omer-Man concedes that “the voice of authority in Judaism is inarguably male.”
“However, more and more women are becoming rabbis and are bringing the feminine into the rabbinate,” he says. “Hence, it’s becoming more relational and less didactic.”
At various points in the exhibition catalog it is suggested that Jews have no artistic tradition of their own. The reasons cited for this include Orthodox Judaism’s strict observance of the Second Commandment (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . . "); the Diaspora (the scattering of Jewish culture that occurred after the Jews were driven into exile 2,000 years ago); and the fact that the many Jews who played important roles in Modernism--Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, to name a few--suppressed their ethnicity.
“It’s more complex than that list suggests,” Omer-Man says of Judaism’s relationship with visual art. “It’s a culture that rejects the concept of ‘art for art’s sake,’ and that’s why [Marc] Chagall seemed to appear out of nowhere. Judaism has always aspired to make the religious life more beautiful and has produced an abundance of exquisite ritual objects, but these things were conceived as an enhancement of the religious life. For the most part, mainstream Jewish creativity has always been much more connected to the written word.”
Among several surprising aspects of “Too Jewish?” is the fact that there is a complete absence of anything relating to nature. Of this, Omer-Man says: “Much of the old Rabbinic tradition ignored nature, and not, as you might think, because of an aversion to pleasure. I think it has more to do with the fact that European Jewry often lived in small villages where there was always a field 100 yards away. We idealize what we don’t have access to, and perhaps people who live in nature don’t extol it the way people who are removed from it do.”
Omer-Man’s background places him among the nature-extolling group. Born in England in 1934, he recalls that “my parents’ generation all longed to join the English middle class--which is a desire that always baffled me. It’s hard to imagine a less desirable identity, grounded as it is in a relentless striving to be exactly like everyone else.”
Omer-Man, a medical student at the University of London from 1952 to 1955, abandoned his studies and emigrated to Israel. There, he says, “I occupied myself as a cowboy and an agricultural person for several years. Then I contracted polio in the late ‘50s, after which I became a teacher, then worked in publishing in Jerusalem from 1963 to 1981.
“My involvement with the rabbinate grew slowly over many years,” says Omer-Man, who was ordained in 1989. “I first visited America in 1978 as a guest lecturer and fell in love with the open-minded challenging of tradition I saw taking place here, so I settled here in 1981, in part because I found it easier to be a Jew here than in Israel. There are so many creative niches here, and in Israel the categories are very narrow.”
America may afford greater diversity in the forms spiritual practice is allowed to take, but “Too Jewish?” suggests that there is a downside to American Judaism; the exhibition posits the theory that the affluence of America’s suburbs played a central role in the postwar dilution of Jewish ethnicity (for a concise study of this, read Philip Roth’s 1959 novella “Good-bye, Columbus”).
Of that, Omer-Man says that “consumerism is the engine of the American economy, and though I don’t think Jews are more involved in consumerism than non-Jews, it has nonetheless been the main vehicle for Jewish assimilation.
“The problems this show explores are completely different from the ones I encounter as a rabbi,” he says of the popular culture issues central to “Too Jewish?”
“For me, a major problem is that so much wisdom is mixed up with so much that’s questionable. This show, on the other hand, pivots on the problem of existing in a world where you haven’t been given a vocabulary for understanding who you are.
“Jews lost that vocabulary for understanding themselves not because of the Holocaust but because of the painful love affair of becoming American. The Holocaust isn’t an issue in this context, because it had little bearing on the drive to assimilate--that was firmly in place long before the war. Most Jews wanted to become American Jews because that represented an uncomplicated life of safety and security. What that belief fails to acknowledge, of course, is that American popular culture is devastatingly complex and is fraught with collisions between the inner sense of self and social assumptions about who one is meant to be.
“Central to Judaism’s new Ultra-Orthodox movement, by the way, is a move away from assimilation,” he adds. “What they’re saying is, ‘We don’t want to be American Jews--we want to be Jews who live in America.’
“We live in a time when challenges are emerging so rapidly--in ancient Egypt you could go for a thousand years and move an inch, but today you must move an inch a second, so different skills are required.
“I don’t see filling Jewish schools with Jewish students as a guarantee of survival, because survival is essentially an act of courage and creativity. And regardless of whether or not you like the art in this show, those two qualities are present in most of it.”
* “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through March 23. (310) 443-7000.