January 12th, 2009 by Menachem Wecker
Orit Arfa (website) is a painter and a writer on Israeli culture and society and the American Jewish community for The Jerusalem Post and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Arfa is also an actress and a creative writer.
She grew up in Los Angeles, earned a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies and a journalism minor from the American Jewish University and a master’s in Bible and Jewish thought from JTS. Based in LA, Orit has covered arts and entertainment, travel, lifestyle, and nightlife.
Orit spoke with Iconia over email about her work, about the term “Jewish artist” (about which she gave me a lot of trouble!), and about biblical subjects in her work.
MW: Many critics are uncomfortable with terms like “Jewish art” and “Israeli art,” and many artists avoid them for fear of being pigeonholed. As an arts writer and a painter, to what extent do you identify as a Jewish or Israeli artist? What do the terms mean to you?
OA: The terms “Jewish” and “art” are loaded and subjective terms, so unless an objective definition is offered for each term, and their composite, it’s difficult to answer such a question. But I’ll try to!
I think all artists shy from categorization. I seek a universal appeal to my art, ultimately, so the term “Jewish art” almost becomes an oxymoron.
If I had to choose, I’d probably identify more as an Israeli artist, or maybe even an Israeli-American artist, rather than a “Jewish artist.” My work was very much inspired by living in Israel, the landscapes, and the exploration of Jewish identity in the Jewish State. I don’t think the term “Jewish” in many contexts has a real distinct meaning. Judaism relates to so many aspects of life: race, ethnicity, ritual, religion, ethical principles. Is an artist a “Jewish artist” simply because s/he is Jewish? Is an artist a Jewish artist because s/he creates art directed to Jews? Is an artist a Jewish artist because he renders objects/characters identifiable with Judaism? Likewise, what makes art “Israeli”? Because the artist is Israeli? The scenes take place in Israel?
The differences between Jewish art and Israeli art raise a whole slew of questions relating to Jewish identity in the Diaspora versus the Land of Israel. Can portraits of secular Zionist pioneers be classified as Jewish art? These pioneers tried to break from the Jewish shtetl, and any portraits of them would probably idealize this break from Jewish norms and ways of life. Since these pioneers called themselves “Hebrews,” maybe such art should be called “Hebrew” art?
Then how do we define the term “art.” Would beautifully crafted menorahs fall into that category? Or is “art” restricted to painting and sculpture? What about installation works, television, film?
I perceive (but do not define) “Jewish art” as artwork of images or iconography that can be explicitly associated with the religious/ritualistic/cultural aspects of Judaism, often to inspire religious feeling or connection to Jewish identity: images of Jewish landmarks, religious scenes, Shabbat candles, and the like. In that case, could Rembrandt’s portraits of rabbis or Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Binding of Isaac” be classified as Jewish art? Maybe.
I can’t say my paintings inspire classically religious Jewish feeling (although if they inspire people to question religious norms, I would consider that “religious”)! I think the best classification of my Biblical series is Biblical art, and they appeal to people of all religions. I have quite a few Christian fans, for example. I would still prefer the plain old term, “artist,” without any qualifiers.
MW: How well do you think Jewish publications cover Jewish art, as opposed to Jewish literature, music, theater, and movies? How interested do you think the Jewish public is in Jewish art?
OA: I see very little coverage of Jewish art (again, what is Jewish art?). Pop culture, music, literature, and theater have definitely dominated discourse in Jewish publications. Then again, I wonder how much coverage of fine art you’d find in any general publication on culture. I’m not sure the reason: is there not enough Jewish art out there to interest audiences? Is fine art too specialized a genre to warrant feature reporting in mainstream publications?
The media seems to be more interested in personalities and entertainment than ideas. Paintings are often the result of a singular vision of one person, whereas music, theater and movies are much more interactive, collaborative and political and ultimately involve many more creative mediums merging into one: poetry, music, design, acting. There is little “star quality” in the fine arts; although this may have been different decades ago. An artist would have to execute something really spectacular and provocative or hold an exhibition at a very prestigious venue to get serious coverage in mainstream publications.
But probably one of the main reasons: artists can’t really afford publicists! So here’s my shameless pitch: my paintings are living alone with my relatives in Israel, and I would love a safe exhibition hall or gallery to display them.
OA: I’m not really sure what you mean by this question. Do you mean that people might consider cultural reporting superfluous in a region constantly torn by war? Anyone who lives in Israel knows that the country is replete with cultural events and institutions that are worthy coverage: television and film, concerts, art exhibitions. Actually, I think some of the most interesting culture is made in a region in conflict. Good art is often borne of struggle, and artists should have a lot to say in a historic country that is constantly fighting for survival, with so many disparate solutions offered for staying alive, while attempting through it all to enjoy life.
MW: In your painting of Rebecca (above), you show the matriarch with bare elbows. Aren’t you worried about being criticized for not portraying her more modestly?
OA: I’d be worried if I’m not criticized for not portraying her modestly. That is the point. I painted Rebecca at a time when I was seriously questions Jewish modesty norms, having worn only skirts for several years. In religious schools the foremothers are portrayed as virtuous, modest women, however powerful in their own way. The plain meaning of the texts, however, suggest Biblical heroines who were highly comfortable in their own skin and sexuality. Sarah was given to two kings by her husband, Abraham. Rebecca and Isaac are described as “making-out.” Batsheva bathes in plain sight of King David, clearly evoking in him great sexual desire. Orthodox rabbis or teachers may offer their apologetics to explain this seeming impropriety. But Orthodoxy didn’t exist in Biblical times. I wanted to create a new image of the Biblical woman to justify my own rebellion and to also offer an alternative for women who feel stifled or limited by Orthodox modes of dress. At the same time, I don’t want my art to be a form of polemics, but to realize a vision–a visual reminder, encapsulation of my values and the struggles that took me there.
MW: Is the setting for the Rebecca work from your head, or did you have a particular place in mind? Were you aiming at a more feminist approach to the biblical episode when you left the other characters out of the scene? Rebecca also seems to be smiling or laughing at something, or is that just my imagination?
OA: I collected photographs of all the foliage from my excursions in Israel as part of a class I took at Bar Ilan University on the foliage of the Bible. The plants at the bottom left are mandrakes, for example, which are mentioned in Genesis and which are associated with love and child-bearing. I then placed the trees, plants, mountains where I saw fit for the composition.
For those who aren’t familiar with the narrative, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, was sent to find a wife for Isaac. He came up with a test: whatever woman would draw water to drink for both him and his camels would be the ideal candidate since she would demonstrate the quality of hesed, kindness.
I don’t necessarily aim for any “approach,” feminist or otherwise (I shy from any “–ism,” really), only to realize my vision and ideas. I really wanted the focus on Rebecca—like a snapshot, a moment that communicates the qualities I read in her: intelligence, sexiness, purpose, grace. Here we have a beautiful woman living with a sleazy, idol-worshiping brother, Laban. Along comes her chance at a new life with the illustrious, more enlightened tribe of Abraham. Yes, perhaps she wanted to fetch the camels water because she was being kind: but maybe she also sensed opportunity to leave for a better life with an illustrious tribe known for their God. She picks up the water, almost knowing she is watched, with a hint of seduction. She wants to be the chosen one. And later in the narrative, when she coaxes Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob, we see she has a calculating quality to her, all for an ultimately idealistic purpose: ensuring the more worthy son is rewarded.
But I invite my audience to interpret the works the way they like.
OA: I’m not familiar with Irving Norman’s work. I didn’t really refer to other artworks in painting Queen Esther, unless you count pictures of the Persepolis ruins or other iconography from ancient Persian art that I researched to get ideas for the décor.
MW: How would you respond to a charge that a nightclub queen Esther is sacrilegious? To what extent does your artistic approach relate to the new trend for biblical memoir, like Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded Chamber?
OA: I would respond by saying thank you for the compliment. The entire story of Esther is very racy, when you think about it from an Orthodox perspective. Beautiful-Jewish-virgin-passes-sex-contest-to- become-Queen-of-Persia. While she was required to enter the contest, she still had what it took to charm this gentile king. Ultimately her grace and feminine charm, coupled with her intelligence, were used to avert a great Jewish tragedy. Ahasuerus was a party-producer extraordinaire, so in some ways Esther IS a nightclub queen. The first chapter of the Scroll of Esther defines in great detail the lavish parties and the drinks served—right down the goblets used. She knew how to throw a good party herself, as we read towards the end.
Going back to my Rebecca painting, we see that sexual awareness and physical beauty could be just as much a virtue as modesty. When the two are mixed in a delicate, intelligent, and purposeful way, they create a fantastic eroticism and “girl-power” that can be used for good and for fighting evil.
I really enjoyed Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded Chamber. I don’t consciously paint with trends in mind, but this general “trend” could be the result of the development of inter-disciplinary approaches to Jewish Studies in universities. More opportunities are given to women, and the public in general, to see and interpret Biblical texts in new lights.
MW: In the Pinchas painting (above) you fill Zimri’s tent with idolatry. Why?
OA: For those not familiar with the story, Zimri is the Israelite who flaunts his intention to have ritual sex with an idolatrous Midyanite woman. The phenomenon of Israelites “harloting” with the idolaters led to a great plague in the land. Pinchas goes in their tent and kills both of them in the act, thus ending the plague and getting the covenant of peace from God.
Pinchas was painted at the heart of the second intifada in Israel when buses and shops in my Jerusalem neighborhood would get blown up by a suicide bomber almost every other week. There are many allusions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; I’ll let my audience scavenge for the imagery, but here are a few hints.
I translate idolatry as the worship of false, destructive, and/or empty principles and it comes in many forms in modern society. The term “idolatry” probably comes from ancient practice of worshiping physical idols—granting them and the gods they represent with worldly power. I painted female idols guarding the tents; couples riding bulls (a bull being a common object of worship in pagan societies); incense holders placed as the heads of mothers holding babies.
Today’s modern-day idolaters include Palestinian society. Any society that willingly sacrifices its children for a “higher cause” is worshiping idols, i.e. false, empty principles. You can’t fight for “freedom” and then enslave your children. Mothers who send their children to kill people by blowing themselves up have lost their mind; a mother’s instinct is to protect her child. They are not fighting for a positive, civil society if they allow their children such an ill, murderous fate. To fornicate to bear and raise children to fight for the abolition and hatred of another country, especially in the name of God, is a form of ritual, idolatrous sex.
Israelis who think they can reason or compromise with a society that condones child-sacrifice are abetting idolatry. The peace-process has Israel trade a value (land and recognition) for a non-value—the cessation of brutal violence. The only result is a great plague—terror attacks and rocket bombs–which continues to infest Israel. If the only thing Palestinians have to give up is violence, they why should they stop murdering until they get all they want? Pinchas completely ERADICATED the source of the plague–not only the idolaters, but those who gave them prestige and moral cover by “sleeping with the enemy”. Of course this is a metaphor, and I don’t advocate killing extreme Israeli leftists! But standing up for positive principles and fighting for them without compromising with bona-fide evil are what will lead to a true “covenant of peace.”
MW: On your website you cover part of the painting. Have you shown it uncovered? Given your attire, do you identify with Pinchas?
OA: The painting is rated R; maybe rated X. I wouldn’t want children to see the painting entire without a warning. I’ve shown it uncovered at one exhibition at a wine bar in Jerusalem. It was hanging in my living room for quite some time too—can you imagine? But aside from that one exhibition, I haven’t shown it in public.
I identify with all my heroes in some way. I designed and had tailored the outfits for all of them.
MW: Do you think the Second Commandment restricts art-making in a Jewish context? Are there any subjects you would not paint for fear of idolatry?
OA: Of course to me it doesn’t restrict art-making, but that’s how it’s been interpreted throughout the ages. The plain meaning of the text seems to refer to physical idols, God’s competitors in Biblical times. Going back to my modern definition of idolatry, I read the Ten Commandments entirely differently. The commandment against not having other gods refers to a philosophical principle: there is only one truth—yours—and you must follow it (within the parameters of civil law described in the second half of the Ten Commandments). Do not sacrifice your body or mind to others. Do not live a life dictated by the will of others or live a life with absolutely no purpose, or worse, destructive, criminal principles. The restriction against making art, to me, can thus be a violation of the Second Commandment! Staying true to yourself and living an honest, purposeful, and happy life are, to me, the ways in which to serve “God” (what is God or if there is one is another discussion).
As for not painting “idolatry,” I probably wouldn’t paint photographs idealizing or fostering strict religion, dictatorship, criminality, a purposeless existence, or nihilism. Some “Jewish” art I consider (mild) idolatry as much as canvases with nothing but blobs of paint. Sometimes Jewish ritual objects become sources of worship, rather than the ethical principles and behaviors they’re meant to foster.
MW: Who do you think the most exciting Jewish artists are today? Would your answers be the same if you responded separately as a culture writer and as a painter?
OA: I can’t answer that question because we still haven’t defined what is a Jewish artist. I wouldn’t bifurcate myself into a culture writer and painter—my opinion is my opinion no matter what “hat” I wear. Honestly, though, I’m not so familiar with many contemporary Jewish artists out there, despite having worked in the PR department of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem from 2001-2003. I guess the artists weren’t too memorable to me (or memorable but not in a good way).
Are television shows considered art? I love some television shows. I think a television program like “24” about an anti-terrorist agent is a work of “Jewish” art (at least according to what Judaism means to me): showing heroes do what it takes to fight evil and pursue justice. I love film and television because they combine many art forms; musicals especially. Their influence is probably greater than paintings or sculpture as well.
One of my favorite painters is Bentley Richards, one of my first art teachers. I don’t know where he is today—I think he’s somewhat unknown–but he is brilliant and taught me so much.