By Joshua Needelman
Barbara Hines never misses her weekly Torah portion, immersing herself in the stories, values and lessons like many Jewish people around the world.
But Hines, who was born in Germany and now lives in Texas, often takes her study a step further: She whips out her paintbrush and gets to work, turning the text into art.
That’s how inspiration struck for Hines’ work on the biblical figure Joseph. Starting May 3 and running through May 30, the Old City Jewish Arts Center will host Hines and Spotlight on Joseph, an exhibit dedicated to exploring Joseph and imagining his presence in the current day.
Hines wants “to get people to reread the Joseph story and relate to it,” she said. “A lot of people get lost today. We live in confusing times with a lot of choices people didn’t have 50 years ago. A lot of young people have lost their way, their moral compass.”
She aims to help provide guidance through the exhibit, which includes several works on paper — using silk-screen technique — larger paintings on canvas and a performance piece that will open festivities daily.
Hines, 67, is perhaps most excited by the performance, which will feature a rotating pair of rabbis standing in as Joseph and getting interviewed by Hines. The rabbis will be wearing light-sensitive coats that show screenings of Hines’ paintings of Joseph though liquid light. Hines will ask the rabbis a series of prewritten questions, aimed at offering a glimpse into how Joseph’s story can inform modern problems.
“She’s pushing the envelope for any artist, but definitely for an artist of her age,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, who will stand in as Joseph. Rabbi Zalman Wircberg will do so, too.
Part of Joseph’s story is reminiscent of the #MeToo movement, Hines believes. Joseph spurned the advances of Zuleika, the wife of his boss, Potiphar. Zuleika then assaulted Joseph and accused him of rape. Joseph was thrown in jail.
Hines also listed sibling rivalry — a core tenet of Joseph’s story — as still pervasive in modern society.
“I wanted to make Joseph a contemporary figure because his problems are the same as what’s going on today,” Hines said.
To that end, she has commissioned some unique depictions of Joseph. One such painting portrays Joseph raising a cellphone in the air, presumably to snap a photo with his brothers behind him: a biblical selfie.
Both Hines’ connection to her Jewish roots and her art career developed later in life. She didn’t begin painting seriously until her sons were in college, starting with mostly landscapes.
About 10 years ago, Hines was on the patio of her Aspen, Colo., apartment — her family’s winter home — painting the river, when Cornelia Cullen, the wife of prominent art dealer Meredith Long, walked by. Cullen was impressed and recommended Hines to her husband. Soon Hines was hosting her very first art show, during which she estimates she sold 30 of 36 paintings.
Her work started to intersect with her Jewish faith, eventually landing her an invitation to the Jerusalem Biennale this past October, where she met Moully.
It was a remarkable honor, one hardly fathomable considering Hines’ religious upbringing. Her parents fled East Germany for West Germany before she was born, fearing persecution from Hitler and the Nazi Party during the Holocaust. When Hines was 5, the family moved to Australia, but kept their Jewish heritage secret from Hines and her sister to protect them from future religious discrimination.
Such began a decades-long journey of spiritual experimentation, during which Hines alternately identified with Christianity, Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism. It was only when her son started studying his roots in college that the family realized the truth. Hines’ son called his mother’s grandmother, who revealed that both her mother and grandmother were Jewish.
“I also felt that the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism is what broke the chain throughout the generations, and I was determined to not have some anti-Semitic politician determine what my religion would be,” Hines said.
Emboldened by the discovery, Hines dedicated herself to Judaism and is now an active member of her local Jewish community. A big part of that is creating and sharing her art, which will bring her to Philadelphia for much of May. Guests can RSVP for the opening reception on May 3 at 5:30 p.m., by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hines always donates the entirety of her earnings from galleries to Jewish organizations, including the local Chabad of the city she’s in.
It’s a practice she aims to continue in Philadelphia. But first she wants to inspire — to use Joseph’s story to reach the masses.
“There’s that connection all of us are born with. A lot of us lose it,” Hines said. “That divine voice of consciousness gets weaker and weaker if you don’t listen to it, until you don’t hear it anymore.”
Joshua Needelman is a freelance writer.