Frame of Reference: The Art of Israel


About 10 times per year, Menachem Safrai helps pack over 120 crates with watercolors, serigraphs, woodcuts, oils, prints, tapestry, sculpture and other art forms, as well as many large white pegboard display stands.

He then hops on a plane in order to arrive at an overseas synagogue, community center or organization in time to hang each piece himself and design a particular presentation for each exhibition. The exclusive artists of his Safrai Gallery in Jerusalem ( create most of the 1,500 works in his show, “Young and Old Masters of Israeli Art,” but he often purchases additional items he feels might appeal to a specific community.

Safrai is always on hand to answer queries about art in Israel, and also gives lectures at the exhibits. The over 100 contributors to his exhibits include established names like Marc Chagall, Shraga Weil, Abraham Binder, Amram Ebgi, Shemuel Katz, Reuven Rubin, Raphael Abecassis, Slava Ilyayev, David Sharir and Tarkai, or lesser-known Israeli artists such as Michael Kerman and Alexander Klevan.

Safrai aims to give his overseas viewers a comprehensive, illustrative look at the Holy Land, through the perspectives of some of its most creative citizenry.

In Detroit, Sacramento, Houston, Virginia, Massachusetts and other points across the United States, he does it all with vigor — and it’s not hard to see why. Safrai is a third-generation gallery owner, a man driven to introduce and expose Americans to Israeli art, as well as an art enthusiast himself.

The shows offer art pieces for sale and viewing, and Safrai also helps synagogues produce fundraiser events.

“The exhibits provide a unique opportunity for Americans to get a glimpse of the exciting and expanding world of Israeli art, which can only be otherwise seen by traveling to Israel,” said Safrai.

According to wall texts at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, old and new themes covering the last 100 years of Israeli art reflect a sweeping and diverse range of both style and worldview. The Israel Ministry of Tourism website says, “The art scene in Israel had its beginnings in the early part of the 20th century, when the rebirth of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was beginning to take shape.”

Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, named for Bezalel Ben Uri, the first artist mentioned in the Bible, and founded by sculptor Boris Schatz in 1906, originally produced Jewish and biblical-themed art works.

But as secular trends manifested, a “Rebels of Bezalel” movement began to focus on the landscape and residents of the area, with its members identifying themselves as “Hebrew” rather than “Jewish” artists.

Their influence continues to this day, and Bezalel, now located on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, is currently the leading academy for art and design in Israel.
Safrai attributes the founding of Bezalel as a “rebirth of Jewish art in what would become Israel.” He looks further back, to periods of creative repression.

“After the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Judea, Jews were forbidden to decorate homes with art as an expression of grief, and in the Diaspora, Jews were discouraged by foreign rulers from expressing themselves through art,” Safrai said.
During exile, Judaica and ritual objects were hidden within art works, and books such as Haggadot and Megillot were made small, so that they could be hidden.
“This created a gap in Jewish art history,” Safrai said.

Following World War II, the abstract style became popular and was carried on in the 1970s and 1980s by Russian immigrant artists. Safrai said that archaeological findings depict human figures, animals and the Zodiac, and these early renderings continue to influence modern artists.

Although the Bible and all of its tales, characters and meanings have had a profound effect on Jewish art as a whole, Safrai noted that current events have shaped the genre over the last century.

“The uniqueness of Israeli art comes from the intermingling of the rich variety of cultures and styles of the artists who immigrated to Israel,” he said, explaining that there is no certain style attributable to Israeli art.

“This is due to the influence of a number of different waves of artists who came to Israel over the past century, each with their own artistic backgrounds.”

In 1888, Safrai’s maternal grandfather, Mendel Harrison, moved to Israel from Weshbelov, Lithuania, where he was a rabbi. He manufactured mirrors in the Old City of Jerusalem and then moved his family to New York, where he established a small art gallery that he operated for 37 years.

Following his retirement, the family returned to Israel, where Harrison’s son-in-law, Julius Bookbinder, became Asher Safrai and opened a gallery in the Nachlat Shiva quarter of Jerusalem. The gallery became popular with immigrants from Western Europe who had fled the Nazi threat, but retained an appreciation for the arts they had formerly enjoyed.

After performing nightly guard duty in the Haganah, Safrai would open the gallery, which also held illegal weapons for the defense unit in its basement.

British Army officers and government officials oversaw the area before the War of Liberation, and frequented the fledgling gallery. In 1949, Asher’s son Dov, who had also served in the Haganah as well as the Israel Defense Forces as a lieutenant, inherited the management of the gallery, and brought in his wife, Shoshana. He began bringing exhibitions of Israeli art to the Unites States and Canada in 1958.

Their son, Menachem, who was born in Jerusalem in 1963, went on to study art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and continues the legacy.

In recent years, the gallery moved to its current location at 19 King David St. in Jerusalem.
Safrai draws a distinction between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, one that eases his efforts.

“In America, the synagogue is a place for prayer and community action, and the congregation can organize this type of activity very well,” he said.
“It’s hard to find that kind of organization in Israel.”


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