Picture ‘American Gothic.’ Now Picture it Jewish.

The mysterious woman called Mona Lisa by Da Vinci is now Minna Leah, who wears a sheitel, a Star of David necklace over a modest neckline and an engagement ring.

There are some works of art that are so iconic — so emblazoned on the cultural consciousness — that we can call them to mind with a simple title. Water Lilies. American Gothic. Mona Lisa. 
But imagine what might happen if these works of art were suddenly infused with Jewish history and culture; they’d change quite a bit. That is the whimsical project of Esty Frankel, who recently published Converted Masters: World Famous Masterpieces with a Jewish Twist.
In the book, the Philadelphia social worker, who divides her time between Bala Cynwyd and West Orange, N.J., has transformed familiar characters and landscapes and turned them into vehicles for Jewish storytelling.
The mysterious woman called Mona Lisa by da Vinci is now Minna Leah, who wears a sheitel, a Star of David necklace over a modest neckline and an engagement ring.
The American-as-apple-pie couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic get a head covering and beard, and stand in front of a sukkah rather than a clapboard house.
The two hands that reach toward each other in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam are now both wrapped in tefillin.
Each one of Frankel’s versions is printed alongside the original version of the painting, for reference, and accompanied by explanatory text.
Take, for example, her reinvention of The Kiss, which now portrays the biblical figure of Joseph enveloped in Gustav Klimt’s famously bejeweled fabric.
A description next to the new version reads, “Joseph was the favorite of his father Yaakov (Jacob), who singled him out to receive a ‘coat of many colors.’ The jealousy it provoked among his brothers led to them selling him to some passive slave traders, thereby paving the way for Joseph to become the viceroy of Egypt. While we don’t know what the coat of many colors looked like, Gustav Klimt’s world-famous, much admired pattern is so beautiful, it would make anybody jealous!”
Frankel, who was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, nurtured a love of art as a child, when her supportive parents indulged her “sometimes-messy, sometimes-costly, space-consuming and time-consuming ‘inventions’ and ‘masterpieces.’” In addition to her studies at Bais Yaakov, she took 15 years of instructional classes at a local art school and attended a year of seminary in Israel. She minored in art in college, got an MSW and became a social worker. But she continued to pursue art as a creative outlet.
The idea for Converted Masters came about seven years ago, when Frankel transformed two classics. She painted Monet’s Water Lily Pond, Harmonie Rose with a family observing tashlich for Rosh Hashanah, and did a version of van Gogh’s Starry Night with a group of Chasidim making a blessing on the new moon. At first, she shared the spinoffs with friends and family.
“I thought they’d get a kick out of it,” she said. “I just thought it was funny.”
The enthusiastic response to the work surprised her. “Someone said, ‘Keep going,’ ” she said. “I thought, ‘Keep going’?”
But go she did, poring over online databases and art books for more inspiration.
“It became a hobby. I do clinical therapy working with a diverse population with a lot of heavy issues, and this was a needed light outlet.”
Once she had 50 or 60 versions — some painted from scratch, some half-painted on a reprinted original, some Photoshopped — it seemed like enough for a book.
The range of artwork in Frankel’s resulting coffeetable tome, published by Menorah Books, is broad — everything from Vermeer to Barnett Newman, and Caravaggio to Kandinsky. A comic-strip-style woman à la Roy Lichtenstein talks on the phone about matchmaking. Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans turn into Manischewitz’s chicken soup with matzo balls. Renoir’s boating party turns into a Purim party complete with costumes.
Time periods collide even within the paintings. For a Yiddishkeit take on Whistler’s Mother, for instance, Frankel has painted two contemporary figures sitting across from the white-bonneted old lady and renamed the work Whistler’s Mother Sits Shiva.
It allows her to elaborate, in educational fashion, on Jewish mourning customs: “Whistler’s mother looks so sad and alone you can’t help but wonder if she hasn’t lost someone close to her. If that’s the case, it’s even sadder to think she has to bear her grief alone. Such is never the case when it comes to Jewish mourning. Jewish tradition recognizes that a mourner needs the support of family, friends and community when he or she loses a close family member. We ‘sit shiva’ after the loss of, God forbid, a parent, child or sibling, which means we stay home while others visit and take care of our needs. Shiva, from the Hebrew word for seven, indicates that we devote seven days to intense mourning.”
The book, which is priced at $45 and is available at amazon.com, is divided into thematic sections: Torah, Shabbat, Yom Tov/Jewish Holidays, Purim, Shidduchim/ Matches and Marriages, Mitvahs/Commandments, Learning & Prayers, Kabbalah, The Messianic Period and Yiddish Expressions.
“It’s education and it’s entertaining,” said Frankel, whose 15-year-old son grew up watching her work on the paintings, and thinks his mom’s book is pretty cool. “I’m hoping the public will find it inspiring, but mostly, hopefully, what it was for me: a fun diversion, a fun outlet.”
Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747
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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.


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