The ProsenPeople

Overcoming Jewish Stereotypes—One Image At a Time

Thursday, June 08, 2017 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell has been blogging for us all week about his newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, as part of our Visiting Scribes series. His final post compares The Implacable Urge with his previous book, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940, in a discussion on how one can overcome Jewish stereotypes not only through the written word, but also by analyzing Jewish images from the past.

My last two books, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940 (2015) and The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, just published (both by Syracuse University Press) include cartoon images of Jews during the same period. But the similarity stops right there. Social Concern is about left wing Jewish artists who were often tagged as trouble-makers, socialists, and communists. My idea was to show that the artists were Jews first. Most were born in eastern Europe and lived on the Lower East Side in New York. They absorbed through their Jewish heritage the desire to help other people. Left wing politics gave them a secular way to do so. For them, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. The book presents them in a favorable light. The cartoons were taken from Yiddish and English-language Jewish magazines.

For The Implacable Urge, I looked at cartoons in the mainstream press. These were uniformly anti-Semitic and presented Jews stereotypically as big nosed, fat slobs wanting to game the system, cheat people, and steal whenever possible. Two totally different interpretations of the same people. Social Concern was reassuring. Jews gave to charity, a people concerned with healthy working and living conditions. The Implacable Urge made me aware, as Saul Bellow said in his novel, Ravelstein, “As a Jew you are also an American, but you are also not.”

You see the “not” part in the mainstream magazines and you become aware that you are identified as a Jew regardless of how you conduct yourself on a daily basis—whether you pay your taxes on time, serve in the military, vote in every election. Ivanka, for example, is always the Jewish daughter and her husband is the Jewish son-in-law. They are not fully American, perhaps not even hyphenated Americans, but Jews who are also Americans.

I married into a family of Holocaust survivors. So I know stories. Most of us, I am sure, can tell stories but nothing like those I have heard, stories of dangerous and scary situations. Nevertheless many of us have experienced situations in which we were reminded that we were Jewish, or an incident that might include the words, “You Jews,” as if each of us represented and stood for the entire community rather than being considered as an individual. One way to deal with those moments is to make certain that you are known as a Jew, a ploy adopted by several comedians (and others) as a way to diffuse potentially hostile remarks. I once knew a lady from India who taught for forty years in a university in Texas and still wore a sari each day so that she would not be confused with anybody else of her skin color. Today, of course, being Indian, she might be victimized for not being a white American. Another way is to confront the person or issue directly, but that could be dangerous.

My way, since I am in my eighties, is not to look for trouble. Many people know Jews primarily through Jewish jokes or what they hear or read, rather than from direct experiences with Jews. They think in stereotypes. What I do is to write about achievements of Jewish artists and the ways Jews are depicted in art works in order to counter such political, social, and cultural stereotypes. Granted, the art world is quite small, but I have been told several times by people that they might have been influenced by inflammatory cartoons without realizing it, and that they had no idea that left wing Jews were so concerned with social issues rather than just being political lefties.

Here is an observation that will indicate how far reaching and destructive stereotypical thinking can be. (It is not related to the discussion above, but I hope its point is understood.) All of us have heard jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law. In the past, these tended to be about women of the immigrant generations, but we are still close enough to those times so that the jokes still have resonance today. I think each joke describes a tragedy. Each is a tragedy because it obscures the important family and financial roles assumed by Jewish mothers in the small towns and cities of eastern Europe. After immigration, many suffered from dislocation from friends, from family members, and from their spoken languages as well as from the desires of their children to Americanize themselves and thus ignore family traditions. In such situations, mothers would of course cling to their children. What else did they have? They had lost their place in their society, their familiar surroundings that were left behind as well as their way of life and in exchange they were confronted with the strangeness of their new country. And then we make fun of them in jokes. That is what happens with stereotypical thinking and that is what, in my own sphere, I try to counter by writing about Jewish artists and about Jews as the subjects of artists. If you want to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture should be a positive one.

Matthew Baigell is the author of numerous books including The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, American Artists, Jewish Images, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, and Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880–1940. He is professor emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University.

Header image credited to Alfred Rosenberg.

The Mainstream Press and Contemporary Jewish Art

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell is professor emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. His newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, was published by Syracuse University Press in April. He will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As an art historian specializing in American art, I had wondered why contemporary Jewish art had been neglected in the mainstream press. True, there are famous artists who are Jewish but they do not explore Jewish subject matter. True, one can find demeaning, cheap-shot humor directed at Jewish subjects. But by Jewish art, I mean subject matter based on religious, historical, and positive cultural sources. By comparison, several Latino/a and African American artists, among other minorities, have, over the last few decades, explored their heritages and have exhibited their works.

What is one to say? An excuse I have heard many times is that too few people are interested in such works. But this is Catch-22 logic. People are not interested because such art is not shown and such art is not shown because people are not interested. I wonder, then, if Jewish art historians, critics, and gallerists must still be embarrassed by their religion, shy away from it, do not want to be identified with it, and want to be identified as mainstream in their tastes. What ever the reasons, artists who explore Jewish subject matter exhibit less and are not as well known as artists belonging to other minority groups. This is not just a question of talent. In my own experience, although the situation is improving, I have been directed to Jewish and Jewish-friendly rather than mainstream publications when submitting or suggesting articles or books on contemporary Jewish subjects or artists. We are still in a ghetto.

I decided at some point in my career (I am now a professor emeritus, having retired about fifteen years ago) to help bring Jewish content to public attention and to make a contribution, however small, to the history of Jewish art in America. My moment came when Norman Kleeblatt, the recently retired curator at the Jewish Museum, asked me to contribute an essay on artists who studied at the Educational Alliance in New York’s Lower East Side for the catalogue of his exhibition in 1991, Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900-1945. Several artists were well known—Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Marlk Rothko, Louise Nevelson—but I soon realized that very little had been written about the artists from a Jewish, rather than mainstream American point of view. I turned in a sixty-page essay that I had to cut in half. But I found my subject, and not just because it is always a great pleasure for a person engaged in research to come on material where there are very few thumb prints of other scholars. . The artists had a Jewish life and several of their works could be more fully understood only in a religious, historical, or culturally Jewish context. To be sure, I had a lot to learn about life in eastern Europe and in the Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century as well as about traditional Orthodox practices, but gaining such knowledge became a way to learn more about who my forebears were and something of their world view as well as my own connections to Judaism which over the years have grown increasingly deeper and profoundly satisfying.

After submitting my article for the exhibition, my future scholarly course was set. I began to teach a course in Jewish art and began to write articles and books mostly about religious content in Jewish American art. (I was not am still not interested in artists who are Jewish and paint, say, only landscapes or geranium plants.) So far, that includes six books, two co-edited anthologies and many articles. One is on Holocaust subject matter by Jewish American artists who were quite shy of confronting the material until the 1960s. Another is about Holocaust imagery by European Jewish artists who passed the war years in this country.

When researching material for a survey of Jewish art in America (Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, 2007), another one of those ‘a-ha’ moments occurred. I realized that toward the end of the 1970s and ever since, we have been living in a golden age of Jewish American art. Artists all over the country had begun to turn to biblical themes, especially Jewish feminist artists, who challenged traditional interpretations through their art. Perhaps more artists than in any previous American generation were creating Jewish-themed works and therefore adding lively and important chapters to the history of Jewish art in this country. Interviewing dozens and befriending several of these artists has been one of the great joys in my professional and personal life, and bringing their work to public attention remains an abiding concern. I don’t want to say an abiding mission because that sounds too inflated, but I feel that it gives my work some purpose.

Check back on Thursday to read more from Matthew Baigell. 

Cover image for Jewish Art in America designed by Archie Rand

We're Living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art & Don’t Really Know It

Wednesday, July 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Baigell wrote about anti-Semitic images of Jews in American humor magazines and social concern and left politics in Jewish American art. He is the author of the recently published book Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940 and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribeseries.

These are great times for those of us who support, encourage, and enjoy looking at art with Jewish themes. Perhaps never before are so many artists all over America finding inspiration in the basic texts of the religion—the Torah, the Talmud, kabbalah, and the daily and high holiday prayer books. The artists do not just illustrate these texts in traditional ways but challenge them, especially feminist artists opposed to male patriarchy, and find personal themes and subject matter that allow for personal flights of fancy.

Based on several factors including Israeli military victories in 1967 and 1973, the liberation movements of the 1960s (civil and gay rights, the women’s movement), and the spiritualism within the Jewish Renewal movement, Jewish artists began to explore openly and aggressively their religious and cultural heritage. The results have been astonishing. These artists, who have matured in an environment largely free from overt anti-Semitism, belong to the generations born in the 1930s and after, the first generations of artists to feel comfortable as Jews and as assimilated Americans.

No longer worrying about coming out of the closet, as it were, as Jewish artists, they have revolutionized Jewish American art. Their styles range from realistic to abstract. Some employ commix imagery. Many would like their art to contribute to a sense of “tikkun olam,” or repair of the world, not a bad idea wanting to contribute to world betterment in the market-driven art world.

Some artists have created narrative series, a new development in Jewish American art. Examples abound. California-based Ruth Weisberg created a fourteen-panel series titled “Sisters and Brothers” in 1994 in which she explored disruptive family relationships between Leah and Rachel and Isaac and Esau in order to stress the relevance of the Bible as a contemporary source of moral values. In one scene, we see Jacob asking for is father Isaac’s blessing by taking the place of Esau, his older brother.

For the last ten-plus years, David Wander has created his versions of the Five Scrolls—Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. Esther, in the most commix version of all, is a combination of biblical text and midrashic legend ending in the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem. 

Siona Benjamin, born into the Bene Israel community in India and now a New Jersey resident, portrayed the story of Queen Esther in the ancient Persian-Indian style of miniatures. Shown here is one of her portraits of Lilith, in legend a woman of independent mind who was Adam’s first wife.

Michigan-based Lynn Avadenka added short poems to her presentation of the matriarchs. New York-based Tobi Kahn created individual abstract images of the matriarchs on the backs of four chairs used for baby-naming rituals. Jill Nathanson created four abstract paintings expressionist in mood in which she tried to suggest what Moses might have felt when he went up Sinai a second time to receive the Tablets and what Nathanson herself might have felt had she also gone up Sinai to talk directly to God.

Whatever their degrees of religiosity, the artists want to share their very personal feelings with their viewers and the different ways in which they relate to the ancient texts. In effect, they are exploring Judaism in non-traditional, sometimes even idiosyncratic, but very committed, individualized ways. Each is a party of one engaged in his or her own personal quest. The ancient texts, therefore, are basically launching pads for their own unique visions located firmly within a Jewish context.

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940.

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Prejudice Porn: Images of Jews in American Art, 1880-1940

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Baigell wrote about social concern and left politics in Jewish American art. He is the author of a recently published book on the topic and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

American Jews or Jewish Americans have had great success in this country. So it is extremely difficult to believe that in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, they were the subjects of hundreds of truly vicious cartoons in American humor magazines. These were the decades of the Great Migration from Eastern Europe that began around 1800. Historians have suggested that of all immigrant groups, Jews were the most intensely caricatured and vilified and the cartoons bear out this judgement. Some images are as anti-Semitic as those in old Nazi as well as in contemporary Arab publications.

The cartoonists, rather than portraying immigrants in a welcoming manner or at least show them integrating into American society instead invariably showed them as Shylocks, Fagins, social climbers, criminals, scheming parvenus who would take advantage of any situation in which they found themselves. Tailors gulled clients by selling damaged and ill-fitting clothing, Parents taught children that making money by whatever means was the primary goal in life. Adults sought bargains wherever these could be found. Arson was encouraged in order to collect insurance. The list goes on. Captions, written in broken English as a way to distance the immigrants from native speakers, imitated the speech patterns of those who had not yet mastered the English language.

Judged not as individuals but as an undifferentiated group, Jewish people were considered as the quintessential Other in American culture, the community that might be impossible to fully assimilate, its Zionist impulses and loyalties to a mysterious community of international Jewry being not fully compatible with patriotism or 100 percent Americanism. On the other hand, there was also great jealousy, fear, and hatred all at once because of how quickly Jews had accumulated wealth, had advanced socially, and had developed a professional class of lawyers and doctors.

Instead of positive recognition for their accomplishments, Jews were depicted instead as having huge noses, big bellies, and bowed legs engaged in non-stop heinous activities. Protests over such demeaning caricatures were ineffectual as well as few and far between. Still not certain of their place in America and exhibiting an eastern European reticence to stand up to public abuse, authors apologized and made excuses for Jewish social and commercial misbehaviors, and hoped that in the near future, after learning American ways, they might be accepted somewhat more graciously by the public. The attitude was more hat-in-hand than one of pride in a religion that had given so much to the world.

Even the great novelist Henry James, whose book The American Scene (1906) was a record of his visit to America after living for years abroad, found Jews to be a virtually unstoppable force. In response, on a visit to the Lower East Side of New York, he likened Jews on their fire escapes and in open city squares to squirrels, monkeys, and ants constantly on the move. In establishing a distance between himself and the new Americans, Jews were not only the Other, they were not even considered fully human.

A few cartoons can suggest the attitudes of the cartoonists. “The ‘New Trans-Atlantic Hebrew Line’ ” published in the January 19, 1881 issue of the magazine, Puck, is a comment on the great number of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Even illiterates who could not read the sarcastic caption, “For the Exclusive Use of ‘The Persecuted’,” would know who the persecuted were—the people on the ship, the sailors, the ship itself, the fish in the water, and the bird in the sky by their very hooked noses.

And in a cartoon for the May 11, 1881, of Puck, the cartoonist captured a Coney Island-like scene including hotels, boardwalk promenaders, a sandy beach, bathers, those lying in the sun, and banners on the hotel. The hotel is clearly overloaded with big-nosed Jewish guests. All of those on the boardwalk also have huge noses and some have pot bellies. The women are ostentatiously overdressed for a promenade, a hostile observation that regularly appeared in news stories about Jews at resorts. Those in the water and on the beach are Christians fleeing from the Jews. A couple in the foreground, thumbing their noses, wag their fingers at the departing Christians. The banners on the Hotel de Jerusalem contain two advertisements that in the mind of the cartoonist were placed there by vacationers: “Buy your clothing of Cohen,” and “On his return from Florida, this floor will be occupied by the ISAACS HATTER.” Other banners state: “Look out for the JEW,” “Hebrews not WANTED,” and “No Jews TAKEN.”

Happily, such cartoons largely disappeared by 1930. What had been red meat for cartoonists back then, is no longer acceptable today. That is progress of a sort.

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940.

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Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art

Monday, June 29, 2015 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous books, including American Artists, Jewish Images, and Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. His most recent book is Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish America Art, 1880-1940. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Before anything else, I want to say that I never use the phrase “Jewish artist” but rather artists who are Jewish, because placing the word “Jewish” before “artist” implies that an artist’s entire identity is tied up with being Jewish. It is the same thing as saying “an obese person” rather than “a person who is obese.” And I also believe that there is no such thing as Jewish art, but rather art with Jewish content. Unless somebody can find the biological and cultural roots connecting centuries’ of divergent Jewish cultures (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African, Middle Eastern, Indian) as well as between male and female, rich and poor, religious and non-religious, and rural and urban artists who were/are Jews. Most people think of “Jewish art” as something by artists like Marc Chagall, but he and others like him came from a particular area (Eastern Europe) at a particular time in history (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries).

Having said that, I was always interested in Jewish-themed art based on ancient and modern texts (Torah, Talmud, kabbalah, daily and high holiday prayer books). My interest took a very serious turn when invited in the early 1990s to write an essay for an exhibition, “Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900-1945,” for New York’s Jewish Museum. I realized that although many were known as mainstream American artists, the importance of their Jewish backgrounds had been neglected. Most came from Eastern Europe where their religious and cultural heritage as well as their sense of community responsibility played a significant role in their Jewish identity. What was the impact of that identity on their art? Here was an area sorely in need of further research. And since the 1990s, exploring the relevance of that background has been the driving force of my work.

Most recently, I wrote Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940, to make two key points. First, many, if not all, artists who were Jewish turned to political themes not because they were innocents seduced by figures such as Marx or Lenin, but because their Jewish heritage, prompted by notions of taking care of the poor, the needy, the hungry, and so on, blended well with left-wing ideals of providing those in need with better living and working conditions. For these artists, as had been articulated by many historians and sociologists, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. At the grassroots level today, there must be hundreds of American synagogues supporting programs that provide food, clothing, and financial support for those in need. The idea is the same even if the politics have changed.

The second point of the book was to show that the political concerns of the artists did not emerge during the Depression or the growing Communist presence in America during the 1930s, but had appeared as early as the 1880s at the start of the Great Migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. Concern and agitation for raising standards of living existed decades before the 1930s.

Two examples, the first from 1912 and the other from 1935 will illustrate these points. The earlier one, a cartoon, published in the December 12, 1912 issue of The Groyser Kundes (The Big Stick), shows how a political statement was presented within a Jewish cultural framework of social responsibility and human betterment. A tailor lights a menorah, each candle stem labeled with a political activity. The caption at the top is the beginning of the prayer said on Hanukkah on each of the eight days when candles are lit. “These are the candles that we light.” The tailor, his tape measure around his neck and the words for “tailor” written on his shoulder, holds the candle that lights all of the others. On it, the cartoonist, wrote “Enlightened.” Reading from right to left, the following words appear on each candle holder: “agitation,” “organization,” “strong union,” “ general strike,” “higher wages,” “shorter works hours,” and “better life.” The caption at the bottom states: “When the tailor lights the menorah, then all will be illuminated. Then there will be more joy and happiness in New York.”

The second work, a painting by Selma Freeman, titled “Strike Talk,” painted twenty-odd years later, shows women garment workers taking control of their future by calling for a strike as a means to improve degrading sweatshop conditions. The piece of paper in the foreground states: “All out by noon,” indicates the nature of the conversation among the women. The men in the background seem clueless.

It is works such as these that are an important part of American and Jewish-American cultural history as well as American and Jewish-American art history and need to be remembered for what they tell us of the Jewish concern for social betterment.

Check back later this week for more posts for Matthew Baigell.

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