Reinventing Ritual at the Jewish Museum

Provocative Exhibition Through February 7

By: - Jan 04, 2010

Reinventing Ritual
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Avenue at 92nd Street
New York, NY
Through February 7, 2010

Tradition is strong among the Jewish community. Judaism is a religion constructed upon asking questions and exploring  philosophical paradoxes. It is no wonder that modern Jewish religion is among the most progressive of the 21st century faiths. Contemporary Jewish culture largely stays true to its founding roots. While the religion still adheres to many archaic rituals, in an age of new and expanding ideas, Jewish ritual has kept up with progress. This is still not truly the case amongst some of the stricter factions of Judaism. For the majority of Jews, however, keeping up with current ideas, while still maintaining important Jewish tradition, is an important element of their lives.

Reinventing Ritual is a survey of contemporary art and design for Jewish life. The fine artists, designers and architects in the exhibition have re-examined their Jewish faith and literally re-invented ritual. The result is a very progressive and hip cultural identity.  These are 21st century Jews, for lack of an official name.

The important aspect to take away from this show is that these artists and designers are no more or less Jewish than any other Jew.. Ultimately, it is the covenant between god (or that creative force), the universe, and man, which symbolizes the Jewish faith. It is the responsibility of each Jew to find his spiritual connection with God or a higher spiritual connection.

Embracing tradition is important for all Jews because it gives us a sense of community. This has been the sole reason for the Jewish people's survival, especially when survival seemed unlikely and grim. Being able to bring traditional rituals into a new light is something that Jewish faith has done with great strides. Contemporary ideas like feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, and media; are all explored and assimilate with the old ideas and tradition in the works by 56 artists in the exhibition.

 In the most theologically conservative or Haredi Jewish religion, women have often been excluded in many coming of age celebrations. They are unable to interact with the men in celebrating some of the highest and holiest days.

In a daring and stunning fashion, Oreet Ashery infiltrates a traditional orthodox celebration by dressing up as a male and joining the festivities, shown in her video Dancing With Men (2003/ 2008). Hadassa Goldvicht uses a ritual from ultra-orthodox culture as the premise for her video Writing Lesson #1 (2005). When a boy turns three and goes to school for the first day he licks honey off letters to remind him that learning is sweet. Girls are not traditionally participants in this ritual, so Goldvicht invented her own personal version, recording herself licking the Hebrew alphabet written in honey on a translucent screen. These are just two of the important works that bring feminism and the female identity, and ritual together in this exhibition.

Found Mezuzahs, by artists like Norm Paris's Rubble Fragment 1 (2007) and Jonathan Adler's Utopia Menorah  (2006) show ways of incorporating the Jewish laws of bal tashchit, which forbid wanton destruction or wasteful behavior. This respect for "god's handiwork" transfers well into the issue of environmentalism. As does Allan Wexler incorporation of the traditional Sukkah into an everyday structure the remaining 358 days after the 7 days of Sukkot, with his installation Gardening Sukkah (2000). 

All the work in the exhibition leaves you hopeful that contemporary Jews are optimistic about embracing multiculturalism, and working towards peaceful international outcomes. Azra Aksamija's Frontier Vest (2006) is a hybrid ritual object that formulates the utopian dream of a shared act of faith that will offer protection. The piece is a designed Kevlar flak jacket that can be restyled to offer a variety of covers to be used in Jewish and Muslim prayer. Artist Sandi Simcha Dubowski argues that one can be both Orthodox and gay. In Trembling Before G-d (2001), the artist shows both men and women struggling, individually, to juxtapose the two.

Visitors to this exhibition will leave inspired to seek out more modern Jewish culture. Many might recall Matisyahu, a Baal teshuva Hassidic reggae musician who broke into the mainstream when his music video King Without A Crown was played regularly on MTV. John Zorn, an avant-garde musician has been infusing jazz and rock with spiritual Jewish music and exciting the downtown Manhattan community for years. Zorn is one of the most prolific musicians and his Tzadik label features both his own work, and the recordings of many "radical" Jewish musicians.  Magazines like Heeb focus on alternative and often hip aspects of Jewish popular culture. To life! To art! L'chaim!