Not All Who Wander Israel for Art are Lost

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Robert Weisman’s come to love Chris Riggs’ “Ahava” (love) so much he’s given it prime real estate above his mantle. (Courtesy of Robert Weisman)

“Oh my God,” Judith Weisman said, partly with mild irritation but mostly good-humored resignation. “There is no more room in this house for any more art.”

She knows her husband of 50 years well enough to know that any moratorium on art acquisitions won’t last long. And as an amateur artist herself — specializing in mosaics — she doesn’t really mind. But in quarantine, one tends to notice the walls getting closer.

“She’d be fine if I were to sell some … and not overwhelm the house,” said Robert Weisman, a former Macy’s executive who hasn’t hung any paintings on the ceiling … yet. “I literally have paintings in closets right now.”

Weisman has experience selling valuable inventory in bulk.

“At one point, I was in charge of (Macy’s) fur division — you know, the one the animal rights people don’t like,” he joked. “When (the division) filed for bankruptcy, I was in charge of taking it out of business and selling off the entire fur inventory.”

Though he loved the 25 years he spent working for Macy’s, those furs were just merchandise. There is much more meaning to be derived from his collection of Jewish art, which comprises some 60-or-so paintings by Jewish artists both well-known and not and several hundred objets d’art, including a vast collection of Judaica paperweights that Weisman suspects to be among the largest anywhere.

Not conventionally observant, Weisman doesn’t daven often; over the past 50 years, he’s been to Israel on art-hunting expeditions more regularly than he’s been to his neighborhood shul — though both his daughters became b’not mitzvah at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, and one was confirmed there.

“The last time I walked into the synagogue, our friend, the assistant rabbi, was standing there,” Weisman said of the rabbi at KI who’d officiated his daughters’ baby namings and bat mitzvahs. “He was so shocked to see me there, he looked around and said ‘the pillars are going to come crumbling down.’”

Weisman’s connection to Judaism manifests itself differently; it’s a connection he feels most acutely when he’s wandering. In Israel. By himself.

“I always go myself,” he said; his wife’s joined him just once in 50 years. “I love to wander, and I’ve wandered in and out of art galleries all my life over there.”

He’s visited around two dozen times since volunteering as a teenager to work on a kibbutz shortly after the Six-Day War. Weisman’s sister Helen has lived in Israel for the past 40 years, so he’ll routinely spend a couple days with her, too.

But Weisman’s version of Shabbat — where he rejuvenates and communes with something greater — is spent (mostly) alone, connecting and reconnecting to Israel. He particularly likes desultory strolls through Mea Shearim, the old Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, or simply observing religious pilgrims, both Jewish and not, in Jerusalem’s Old City, looking for the stories he wants his collection to reflect.

“I’m fascinated, for instance, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To me, that’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ll sit there and watch for hours the people coming in who kiss the slab of granite where supposedly Jesus was taken down off the cross. I’m fascinated by it. And then I’ll wander the Old City looking for artwork.”

Weisman’s been buying Jewish art in Israel for so long, many of the gallery owners have come to know who he is and what he likes.

“They tip me off when something they think I’ll like is coming up,” said Weisman, who’s built relationships with art dealers both in Israel and in the United States. “They’ve come to understand my tastes. I like brightness, pieces that tell stories.”

He also likes pieces that hit on more than one note but don’t play out of key. He’s excited by Jewish artists who subvert the expectation that Jewish art must be solemn and earnest all the time. And he’s attracted to the experimental and avant-garde insofar as it’s tethered to the traditions that make Jewish art Jewish — a nod to the biblical, a reverence for the sanctity of Jewish ritual.

“As a collector, his taste is very eclectic,” said Rita Poley, director and curator of the Temple Judea Museum at KI. “It runs the gamut from the formalism of (Israeli artist) Menashe Kadishman to the outsider art of the late Nathan Hilu, and from fine art to craft and kitsch.”

Nathan Hilu is among Weisman’s favorite artists because his work is whimsical and humorous but also deferential to tradition and ritual.
Nathan Hilu is among Weisman’s favorite artists because his work is whimsical and humorous but also deferential to tradition and ritual. (Courtesy of Robert Weisman)

Temple Judea’s most recent exhibition — it ran through the beginning of March — was dedicated to the work of Hilu, but it couldn’t have come off if not for Weisman, who sold, donated or loaned 25 pieces by Hilu that became part of that exhibition. Many, Poley said, have become part of the museum’s permanent collection, so it was only appropriate that the exhibition would be named, in part, for Weisman: “Hilu Through the Eyes of a Collector.

Largely self-taught, a so-called outsider to the art establishment, Hilu’s cartoonish and whimsical depictions of Jewish ritual life on New York’s Lower East Side have drawn the attention of collectors in recent years. And his sketches of notorious Nazi war criminals like Rudolf Hess and Hermann Goering, made while serving as an Army guard at the Nuremberg trials, reside in repose at the Library of Congress.

“You can’t always get his stuff because some people are actually grabbing it up right now,” Weisman said, acknowledging
that over the last few years, and after his death, Hilu’s work has risen in value.

Meanwhile, Weisman’s proud to have patronized Hilu early, while he was still alive, and he’s similarly proud to have played such a prominent role in the first museum-caliber exhibition of his work.

“I was thrilled to get exposure for Mr. Hilu,” Weisman told the Exponent earlier this year, adding that he hoped the exhibition would show people that a robust world of Judaica exists beyond the big-name artists.

Weisman doesn’t swim with the big fish of the collecting world. There’s a thrill, he concedes, in appraising lesser-known talent correctly, but mostly he just likes what he likes, notwithstanding the signature in the bottom corner of the frame. You could say he has inexpensive taste, or you could say he’s got an eye for value.

His track record suggests it’s more of the latter.

Weisman said he paid about $500 for a painting by Ben Avram, a Jewish artist from India, whose work was relatively unknown when Weisman first encountered it in Israel.

“I found this guy before he really busted out; then he moved to Israel and his stuff really took off,” he said. “That was one of the first large purchases I ever made. I bought it at a gallery right next door to the King David Hotel (in Jerusalem).”

Weisman estimated the Avram piece is worth close to $3,000 now.

“I don’t go in for the paintings that are up in the stratosphere. I let my work go up in value. Once, I overpaid by a mile for something I really wanted, and I should’ve listened to my conscience, which told me, ‘Wait a while.’”

Not many know Weisman collects to this extent — or is even a collector at all. It’s not something he’s kept secret; people just don’t seem to catch the vibe of a Jewish art collector coming off a man who rarely attends shul and was so devoted to his professional life.

“They always tell me I’m the last person in the world they thought would be collecting art — it’s not me, they say. But, then, they come over here, and they’re fascinated — they only want to know what I’ve gotten recently. And I take them in the den and make sure the den door’s closed so my wife doesn’t see anything new.”

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