Truth in Advertising for This Art History Discussion Group


Israeli artist Sharon Gershoni will discuss how art has portrayed history and Israeli identity over the 19th and 20th centuries.

The formation of Israel and its history is something easily accessible through all manner of media: television, films, Internet and, of course, books — even the Bible. But there is another way to look at this subject in a more personal manner: art.
Sharon Gershoni will lead a discussion, “The Story of Israel Through the Eyes of its Artists,” on Jan. 31 at Congregation Or Hadash. Gershoni, who was born in Israel and is an artist in her own right, working in photography and Japanese ink, will look back through the 19th and 20th centuries to see how art has portrayed history and Israeli identity.
This was something the Mount Airy resident started doing when she taught at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 2011 to 2013.
“The idea was that a lot of people have less and less access to the texts in their original language and, sometimes, to the ideas behind those texts,” Gershoni said. “[The texts are] not related to their everyday life or they just cannot access the text because it’s in Hebrew. I developed courses that looked at text — even the biblical stories we know — but from the point of view of artists from the three traditions — Christianity, where you have the mass of art and mass of Western Civilization, and then Jewish art from the 19th and 20th centuries, and some Muslim art.”
The point of view of the stories or the background of the artists themselves can change the way the story is perceived, she said. For example, in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, while all the basics of the story are widely known, an artist’s perception of Isaac’s age can vary and alter the story, she explained.
When it comes to looking at Israel and its formation, it can be a difficult subject to explore, Gershoni said, because it can be quite politically charged.
Depending on the person’s background, even among her students at RRC, Gershoni said that the conversations could become divided and pull the focus more on politics. She wanted to change that.
“Perhaps it’s intergenerational, perhaps it’s the stream of Judaism you come from,” Gershoni said. “I thought, whatever the feelings are, why not have a discussion and why not learn about this place and learn about how identity and how the state was formed.”
She taught about how artists both shaped Zionism and criticized and went against it, and “everything in between.” Through the different periods of history, there were artists who were shaping and struggling with identity as Israel began to form.
“What art allows us is a very complex feel,” Gershoni said, “and it allows you to look at it from a complex but aesthetic view. It removes the discussion a little bit from a heated, emotional place to a place where it is possible to learn, to absorb the criticism and understand a lot and have a discussion.”
The class was successful enough that she began taking these ideas to lectures and congregations, similar to what she will be talking about Or Hadash.
During the program, she will start by looking at 19th-century art — predominantly caricatures — that depicted Jews as stereotypes, with long noses and monkey-like features, and how artists responded to them.
As the Zionist movement began in the latter half of the 19th century, she said, art became very much connected to those traditions. Artists like Samuel Hirszenberg began expressing their feelings through their work about living in a state and their own connections to and ideas about the Zionist movement.
“I wanted to show the whole spectrum,” Gershoni said. “And sometimes, through art, you can understand why the Zionist idea was so appealing, why did it happen, why maybe it is relevant for people today or not relevant. But to have the discussion and come from a place of more understanding and not throwing slogans at each other would be a good place to be.
“Art is very different than the way politicians write history for us,” she added. “It can change the end of the story, it can look at reality in ways that don’t have to account for the financial results of this or that.”
She hopes that the audience will see that identity for Israelis throughout time was very “fluid,” and how “stimulations from the outside affect a society or group of people, and not only oppressed groups but any group, but I think it is much stronger for oppressed groups.”
While she has been part of conversations that either reflect Israel as a “dream world” or a “totally rotten” place, she wants people to see how it became this way.
Israel is a place like other places, she said, and she hopes the program will help people also “think about different identities within the U.S. and how they formed and how they are changing.”
Not to mention she also hopes they just enjoy the “wonderful art,” which will also include works by Boris Schatz, Reuven Rubin and Menashe Kadishman.
Dan Weisman is looking forward to being able to bring in Gershoni and give the audience an opportunity to learn about Israel in ways they might not today.
Weisman, chair of the Israel Committee at Or Hadash that is putting on the program, hopes that people who come gain a deeper understanding of Israeli culture in a way that “we don’t really hear about so much in the U.S.”
“We hear much more about the political issues and sometimes literature,” Weisman said, “but very little about Israeli visual art gets here. This is something people will really enjoy, and gain a deeper appreciation of Israeli society and culture.”
This program will help people see part of Israel that is not reflected in the news. “We’re trying to bring in Israeli cultural programming with an emphasis on more cultural rather than political,” he explained, adding that so many programs focus more on current events and issues.
Art is a unique way to explore Israel and its history and cultural identity.
“Art in general often is a reflection of society as a whole in the time and place that it’s made,” Weisman said. Featuring Israeli art, he continued, will “give a perspective on Israeli society as a whole and what it’s like to be an Israeli, to see what the creative people create about the country.”
Shalom Sabar, an art history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said art can give a sense of authenticity to complement written text.
“Art is as important as any other ‘document’ to learn about the past,” Sabar wrote in an email, “sometimes more authentic than other extant materials. In the case of Judaism and Jewish history, art  provides a new look and evidence about the past.”
Rituals and life cycle events in the Jewish tradition, he added, can “hardly be understood without examining the relevant artistic objects from these lands (and if you rely only on the texts you will get either a distorted or biased or partial image of life in this bygone world).”
Gershoni echoed the idea that art becomes an image of its society, and that can make it more accessible than perhaps reading a text.
“It is true that when you read a sentence in the Bible,” Gershoni said, “you do see that people kept interpreting it. There’s something about art — because it does not have words in it, it allows people to put their own feelings and their own thoughts onto it.
“It leaves a lot of room for talking and thinking and generating ideas and thoughts, and it’s very accessible because you don’t have to be fluent in history necessarily or fluent in a foreign language to do so.”
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