Ben Schachter is the author of Image, Action, and Idea in Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Art, pub­lished in Novem­ber by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Ear­li­er this week, he shared his five favorite Jew­ish art­works. He has been blog­ging here as part of JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

About twen­ty years ago the Jew­ish Muse­um in New York pro­posed the fol­low­ing thought exper­i­ment: Can Jew­ish art be too Jew­ish for the Jew­ish Muse­um? Well, that depends on who you ask. And it was the Jew­ish Muse­um that was ask­ing in 1996. The idea for the show arose when then head cura­tor Nor­man Klee­blatt vis­it­ed artist Archie Rand’s stu­dio. Rand had been work­ing on a series of paint­ings that he hoped would be embar­rass­ing­ly Jew­ish. Each one illu­mi­nat­ed a por­tion from the Torah. Accord­ing to accounts in the exhi­bi­tion cat­a­log for the show, Too Jew­ish?” Rand suc­ceed­ed. With­out stat­ing it direct­ly, yes, there is art that is too Jew­ish. But when I saw the show, I saw noth­ing of the sort. I saw some­thing entire­ly different.

In 1996 I was a fresh­ly mint­ed Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty alum­nus. I had grown up as an active and engaged reform Jew. I sang in the choir with my father and broth­er and went to high hol­i­day ser­vices. It was impor­tant to me to be with fam­i­ly dur­ing those cel­e­bra­tions. I nev­er even con­sid­ered reli­gious ambi­gu­i­ty (and real­ly I still don’t).

Yet, walk­ing into the Jew­ish Muse­um was like walk­ing into a tem­ple that I had nev­er vis­it­ed. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what was expect­ed of me. Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t think of art as a reli­gious expe­ri­ence, and I cer­tain­ly knew how to car­ry myself in a muse­um. But for some rea­son, the Jew­ish Muse­um was dif­fer­ent. I felt out of place. Was the Jew­ish Muse­um too Jew­ish” for me?

That feel­ing quick­ly dis­si­pat­ed when I entered Too Jew­ish?” I saw art­works tack­ling Jew­ish ideas and tra­di­tions with non-tra­di­tion­al mate­ri­als and avant-garde tech­niques. At every turn, I was sur­prised: by casts of noses, erased text, monot­o­nous count­ing of grains of rice. It felt more like a down­town gallery than the Jew­ish Muse­um. I wasn’t sur­prised to see Jews ask­ing ques­tions of their reli­gion; what was sur­pris­ing was how they formed the ques­tion — through con­tem­po­rary art.

Much has changed in twen­ty years. The Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Muse­um in Cal­i­for­nia has expand­ed and the Jew­ish Muse­um pro­gram­ming has grown. The Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty Muse­um mounts impor­tant exhi­bi­tions on the eruv, books, and now has a show fea­tur­ing a full-scale recre­ation of the relief from the Arch of Titus depict­ing the meno­rah being parad­ed by Roman legions. The relief in the exhi­bi­tion was cre­at­ed using the lat­est cut­ting edge tech­nol­o­gy. And the most recent expres­sion of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish art is shown every two years at the Jerusalem Bien­nale. I was for­tu­nate enough to be part of the most recent exhi­bi­tion. And even more, I’m glad to count myself as part of a grow­ing and dynam­ic quest to dis­cov­er what Jew­ish art will look like tomorrow.

Can Jew­ish art be too Jew­ish for a Jew­ish Muse­um? If so, then what­ev­er that art might be isn’t real­ly too Jew­ish at all; its avant-garde.

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.