Jewish art Hebrew calligarphy Gabriel Wolff

about the art

My art is a direct expression of my own personal journey to understand my Jewish identity. As a secular Jew, I’ve rejected the solid foundation of the religious laws of Judaism. This elaborate and ever evolving system has been responsible for the continuity of Jews over thousands of years. Yet, I feel that Jewishness has always been more than Judaism. Though religion served as a strong social and cultural structure throughout the generations, I believe that one could never reduce the Jewish essence just to the religious rules. My art is an attempt to approach this elusive quality. To explore this evasive space with the help of the Hebrew letters. 

Since the birth of Jewish secularism at the second half of the 19th century, the essence of what it means to be a Jew has been increasingly debated. On the one hand, religious orthodoxy claimed that there could be no Jewish identity independent from religious observance. On the other hand, a growing movement of secular Jews sought to establish alternative Jewish sources of meaning, the main ones being Zionism and Jewish socialism.

And then suddenly, in the middle of the 20th century, the holocaust has forced all of those debates to confront one terrible truth: no matter how Jews define their identity, their destinies are interlocked together. This understanding has led many Jews to define themselves primarily as an object of prosecution. Four generations after the holocaust, this grave perception is finally being challenged. 

And this is where I see the role of my art. If I don’t define my Jewishness through religion or nationalism, political ideology or collective trauma - what am I left with? After realising I was being offered only those existing options, I decided to create my own Jewish path. This seemingly lack of options is the driving force of my creativity. Fortunately, the Jewish being cannot be reduced to any of the above mentioned fields. It is carrying a meaning that transcends each one of them.

My tools in this quest are perhaps the oldest tools that exist in the Jewish toolbox: The Hebrew letters. According to the Kabbalah, these tools even preceded the creation of the world. This myth is essential to my art: it establishes the creative force of the Hebrew letters. In the place where I find a wasteland, I desire to sow meaning

The letters are both signifiers and signified. This double function is crucial for the act of invention. Appraising the common heritage maintained by Jews throughout endless generations - beginning with the prophets, through the Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, continuing with the Jewish leftist revolutionaries and partisans and ending with the Zionist pioneers - they all used the Hebrew letters to express themselves and create new Jewish meaning. Though their values and ideas were as varied as their historical and cultural contexts, they all used the same symbols to interact. And in doing so, they became a part of the unbreakable chain of jewish existence.

I feel that together with other Jewish thinkers and artists, I am a part of this ancient chain of Jewish renewal. I use the Hebrew letters to point out that which is relevant in my eyes to contemporary Jewish life. Through my art, and with the help of the Hebrew letters I seek to address the urgent dilemmas shared by many Jews in my generations. What is the future of Jewish continuity? In which ways can individualistic Jews still take part in a Jewish community? How can a diasporic Jew position oneself in regard to the highly charged debate around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the new kinds of antisemitism that it generates? 

Unfortunately, I often find the answers offered by cultural Jews to questions of Jewish identity and meaning unsatisfying. To me, Jewish food and Jewish humor are not quite enough to fill my growing need to understand myself within the Jewish context. Through my art, I insist on engaging with the topics that are often left aside - too controversial or complex to tackle with a recipe for a potato Latkes or a joke about a passive-agressive Jewish mother. 

In my eyes, artists have a social-political role, whether they acknowledge it or not. Looking at contemporary Jewish art, I’m observing two dominant trends. The first one is of a reactionary kind: reproducing the same chewed up symbols of Jewish life like has been done for generations. Whether it’s golden Judaica Jewlery or Chagall-influenced nostalgic pictures of a peaceful Shtetl life, this art clearly refers to an imagined golden past that is irrelevant to most Jews today.

The second trend of contemporary Jewish art goes to another extreme - the deconstruction of Jewish signifiers at best, or a complete avoidance of dealing with Jewishness altogether. Though this trend could potentially move Jewishness forwards, it rarely does. As often is the case with deconstructionists, the significance of their art is placed on the dissection of discourses and themes. In the meanwhile, no viable alternative is being developed. At its extremity, any positive constructive Jewish statement or suggestion is treated with suspicion, as it has the potential of making some Jewish individuals feel left out. In my eyes, the intrinsic danger of such a ‘deconstructionist renewal’ lies in a childlike refusal to move from an idealistic free exchange of ideas to an actual laying down of concrete suggestions and plans for actions.

Judaism is fuelled by the free exchange of positions and ideas. It means a constant development of new thoughts, modes of identity and social structures. It entails a regular streching of old borders and sketching new ones. What can be more Jewish then debating, offering new interpretations of ancient messages? In that sense, I see myself as a proud successor of this old tradition. My artworks represent new ideas of leading Jewish intellectuals, debates I participated in, doubts and fears that I shared with friends, as well as a simple pride in being a part of such a rich heritage.