Visu­al Arts

Rein­vent­ing Rit­u­al: Con­tem­po­rary Art and Design for Jew­ish Life

Daniel Belas­co
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

To judge this book by its illus­trat­ed cov­er and con­tents page is a chal­lenge: wit­ty or provoca­tive? The Jew­ish Muse­um exhi­bi­tion orga­niz­ers prob­a­bly aimed for ambiva­lence and they suc­ceed­ed, in dis­play and in this cat­a­log, which accom­pa­nies an exhi­bi­tion trav­el­ing from New York to San Francisco’s Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Muse­um. This book is in the tra­di­tion of Too Jew­ish?” — an ear­li­er, con­tro­ver­sial exhi­bi­tion at the Museum.

Inter­pre­ta­tion of Jew­ish rit­u­al objects, espe­cial­ly those focused on home-based rit­u­al, is risky when done by prac­ti­tion­ers of out­ra­geous art, be they Jew­ish or non-Jew­ish, female or male. The curators/​writers/​artists don’t deny them­selves lofty ref­er­ences — among oth­ers, Abra­ham Joshua Heschel’s com­ment that Gd’s rev­e­la­tion of the Torah is always ongo­ing. So empow­ered, artists con­ceive of lim­it­less Bible por­tions rolled into gel cap­sules, per­haps to be ingest­ed, on a reg­u­lar basis. An aus­tere­ly designed yad (point­er) incor­po­rates a com­pass, ver­i­fy­ing East; anoth­er includes a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, reas­sur­ing impec­ca­ble Torah read­ing. Com­bin­ing a kitchen apron and a tal­lit may be anoth­er mat­ter for reader/​viewer.

Cer­tain­ly some objects are refresh­ing, oth­ers vex­ing to con­sid­er, nev­er­the­less the book is tied to a seri­ous, near­ly pon­der­ous lev­el by its top­ic, rit­u­al — always ongo­ing. Acknowl­edge­ments, bib­li­og­ra­phy, con­trib­u­tors, exhi­bi­tion check­list, index, notes.

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

Discussion Questions