Ben Schachter is the author of Image, Action, and Idea in Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Art, pub­lished in Novem­ber by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press. He is blog­ging here all week as part of JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

I am a Jew­ish artist who makes Jew­ish art. Sounds redun­dant, no? It isn’t. Many artists are Jew­ish, but many few­er make art with Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter. That is why I enjoy look­ing at art­works with Jew­ish ideas. Here is a list of my top five Jew­ish art­works. But they are just a start. There is a lot of ter­rif­ic, engag­ing, per­plex­ing and sur­pris­ing Jew­ish art out there.

1. Helene Aylon’s The Lib­er­a­tion of G‑d 1990 – 1996

Aylon read through the Bible and high­light­ed every gen­dered ref­er­ence to God. Her work has gar­nered her atten­tion of fem­i­nist artists. Instead of defac­ing the text, Aylon laid trans­par­ent parch­ment over the text and high­light­ed words through it. Why do I like this work so much? Because it bal­ances con­tem­po­rary art’s use of monot­o­nous activ­i­ties with sen­si­tiv­i­ty to tra­di­tion. Aylon does not destroy, she illuminates.

2. Archie Rand, The 613 2001 – 2006

Archie Rand’s mon­u­men­tal paint­ing, The 613, just fin­ished a run at the Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Muse­um in Los Ange­les. The paint­ing is made up of over six hun­dred pan­els. Each pan­el is num­bered, in Hebrew, with a col­or­ful image inspired by film noir and pulp fic­tion illus­tra­tions. The num­ber on each pan­el cor­re­sponds to each one of the 613 mitzvot, or com­mand­ments out­lined by Moses Mai­monides, the medieval philoso­pher and doc­tor. Rand’s images do not direct­ly illus­trate com­mand­ments, but at times the con­nec­tion is clear as we see an astro­naut float­ing in space as the numer­al reminds us of the first com­mand­ment, I am god.” I imag­ine the astro­naut hav­ing a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence of the divine at that moment. Rand’s mas­sive paint­ing is great because it is unabashed­ly about Jew­ish law. There is no embar­rass­ment over the old ques­tion, Is this too Jewish?”

3. Andi Arnovitz, Coat of the Agunot 2010

Images cour­tesy of Andi Arnovitz

Andi Arnovitz emi­grat­ed to Israel and like Aylon, exam­ines ideas impor­tant to women. One such issue is the plight of the agu­nah, a woman who wish­es to divorce her hus­band but can not because he will not grant per­mis­sion. Tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish law requires that the hus­band offer his wife a get, a legal doc­u­ment agree­ing to divorce. No one enters a mar­riage with hopes of a divorce, a poten­tial­ly bale­ful sit­u­a­tion, but when there is cause and the woman can­not be freed from the mar­riage con­tact, she is thought of as a chained woman.” When a divorce is final­ized it is cus­tom­ary to cut up the mar­riage con­tract. Arnovitz’s work, Coat of the Agunot, is a patch­work quilt of fac­sim­i­les of his­tor­i­cal ketubot (Jew­ish mar­riage cer­tifi­cates). The new gar­ment is beau­ti­ful and also bit­ter­sweet. Arnovitz’s work is very touching.

4. Allan Wexler, Spice Box for the Hav­dalah Ser­vice 2005

Image cour­tesy of Allan Wexler

Allan Wexler is an archi­tect by train­ing but his designs are rarely 100% prac­ti­cal. He designs rooms that are so small that fur­ni­ture must be tucked away into small cab­i­nets, doors are swung open and become walls, and win­dows pull out of their open­ings and become chairs. Spice Box for Havadalah is a sim­i­lar­ly odd con­trap­tion. Dur­ing the hav­dalah ser­vice, a brief rit­u­al held at the end of the Sab­bath, par­tic­i­pants pay atten­tion to the phys­i­cal world around them. They do this in a few ways. First, they look at the light of a can­dle and sec­ond, they smell incense. Typ­i­cal­ly incense is kept in a small house-shaped con­tain­er. Wexler’s spice box is noth­ing like that. His has a face mask, plas­tic hoses and store-bought spice bot­tles. The aro­ma trav­els from the bot­tles, through the hoses, and direct­ly to the per­son wear­ing the mask. I find this work very funny.

5. Ken Gold­man, With With­out 2011

Image cour­tesy of Ken Gold­man

Ken Gold­man describes his work as per­for­mance art. With With­out is a pas­sive per­for­mance where­by he shaved his head except for a cir­cu­lar patch at the top. A casu­al observ­er might think he was wear­ing a kip­pah. And that is exact­ly his point. With With­out is a pho­to­graph of the artist tak­en from just over his left shoul­der. The pho­to­graph shows the hair-kip­pah.”

Ben Schachter is the author of Image, Action, and Idea in Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Art(Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press). He is Pro­fes­sor of Fine Arts at Saint Vin­cent Col­lege. In the past, he received the Hadas­sah Bran­deis research award. His art­work has been exhib­it­ed at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, YU Muse­um, the Jew­ish Muse­um, the West­more­land Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, the Mat­tress Fac­to­ry, and oth­er venues. His writ­ing on art and crit­i­cism has appeared in var­i­ous art jour­nals and books, includ­ingDraw­ing in the 21st Cen­tu­ry, edit­ed by Eliz­a­beth Pergam andIt’s A Thin Line, edit­ed by Rab­bi Adam Mintz. He lives in Pitts­burgh with his wife and four children.