Shabbat Gallery Hop

14 Mar

Old City Jewish Art Center (Philadelphia, PA)

By An Art Museum a Week |

On the first Friday of every month, the epicenter of the Philadelphia art scene in Old City plays host to “First Friday”. Many of the superb little galleries in Old City (Philadelphia’s historic section) keep their doors open until 9 PM, welcoming crowds inside for special art exhibits (and maybe even some wine and snacks!).

During the event, the neighborhood abounds with visitors of all ages and types, particularly during the summer months. First Friday is a year-round event, rain or shine, and even though the First Friday in March was a little chilly this year, the crowds came out in full force to experience all kinds of world-class, contemporary art.

Old City, with its stone streets, brick houses, and plentiful historic sites, is unique in its own right. It manages to fuse the old and the new with a dash of swanky nightlife, making the neighborhood quintessentially hip. It’s the perfect place to explore art, and the perfect setting for Old City Jewish Art Center.

This blog entry will be a little unique, because, unlike my previous entries, I have no photographs of the gallery. In the Jewish religion, Friday night starts Shabbat, a day of rest. During Shabbat, cameras (and other technolgy) are forbidden. But that’s alright; you can use your imagination! The gallery was so unique and afforded such an incredible experience that it deserves an entry. Also, it is in dire need of funds to stay open; any publicity it can get, the better. This gallery needs to remain open. Although this entry will be devoid of pictures, please take my word that this gallery is so full of energy, light, and life that a still photograph could never do it justice.

OCJAC is a stop on the grand Philadelphia First Friday gallery tour, on 3rd Street just beyond Arch. The space is typical of a classic Philadelphia row home: a little on the narrow side, but vertically long. The building appears physically old, with wooden floors and exposed brick walls, but these attributes only emphasize the gallery’s pure charm. It fits in perfectly with the ambiance of the elegantly historical Old City neighborhood.

The gallery features art by Jewish artists expressing Judaism-related themes. The current exhibit, and the one on display at First Friday, is the Purim Art Exhibition; it features about two dozen diverse works by Jewish artists inspired by the Purim holiday. Purim, celebrated in March this year, is a joyous holiday celebrated in remembrance of deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to destroy them (Thanks Wikipedia!). It is a festive celebration, and the art on display and the mood in the gallery reflects the joy appropriately.

Some of the artwork had a more overt religious theme, while some pieces were subtle; it was a nice mix. Adam Levin’s paintings showcased bold, bright colors and shapes. In his modern, expressionist paintings, energy pulses through the swirling lines in the art. Michael Neff’s fabulous drawings featured clear Jewish subject matter. Lynnrae Fenimore’s gorgeous black-and-white photographs of children were just breathtaking. You can see a slideshow of much of the artwork on the website. The exhibition was expertly organized, featuring a dynamic mix of techniques all with staying true to the underlying them of Judaism and Purim. The Purim exhibit runs through March 24, with a special Meet the Artists reception on Sunday, March 13 from 2 PM-4PM.

A visit to the Old City Jewish Art Center on First Friday isn’t really just a visit; it is an experience in every sense of the world. Jewish tradition is infused throughout the gallery, in an electric and inviting way—it is impossible to feel unwelcome! Every 20 minutes or so during the event, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, charged with overseeing the exhibition gave a little speech welcoming visitors while pint-sized helpers passed out small cups of sweet wine to gallery visitors. Together, after the Rabbi or another man said a prayer, we all participated in Kiddush together, saying “Amen” and drinking down a little cup of delicious sweet liquid. We were all united in tradition.

I often write on this blog that the gallery I’ve visited is “unique,” and that is true. I have been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to visit some amazing galleries. But on Friday night, Old City Jewish Art Center took “unique” to another level. First Friday at OCJAC is deemed their “Shabbos Gallery”, and according to the website, over 1000 visitors stream through the gallery each time it occurs. Visitors may come for the famous kosher brownies (they appear to be a delectable mix of marshmallow and Coco Puffs), but they stay for the tradition and for the art.

And if you have some time, make it a priority to stay for the traditional Shabbat dinner, “A Taste of Shabbos”, after First Friday winds down at 9 PM. It is free and open to anyone. Dozens of visitors, young and old, stay to participate in the celebratory meal, hear stories from the Rabbi, and learn about Judaism. In a fantastic display of community, guests sit together at long tables smack dab in the center of the gallery. A fun and educational event with free dinner—Is there really anything else to ask for?

Those that work in the gallery are incredibly warm, and the gallery itself is incredibly generous to its visitors. It welcomes guests with open arms, sharing Jewish tradition with all who enter through its doors. Unfortunately, this little gallery is struggling, so if you feel inclined, you can make a donation here through Jewish Heritage Program.

The first Friday in April 2011 is April 1; plan to be in Old City right between Arch and Cherry Street about 5 PM, and look for the narrow little gallery with old wooden floors and exposed brick. Be sure to get to OCJAC before the brownies run out, and then stop back at 9 to partake in “A Taste of Shabbos”. However, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the community, tradition, art, and electric joy continually pulsing through Old City Jewish Art Center, that you just may stay the whole time.

**Fun Fact**
In 2011, Purim begins next week, on March 19. The holiday recognizes events recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther in the 4th century BCE. The four primary tasks of the day are listening to the public reading of the Book of Esther, sending food gifts to friends, giving charity to the poor, and eating a festive meal. It’s a joyful holiday!

Time Spent: Since I was helping the staff, I stayed for the entirety of First Friday— about 4 hours. But, visitors could probably spend about 45 minutes in the gallery on First Friday. Make sure to participate in Kiddush, and if you can, stay for the post-First Friday traditional Shabbos dinner!
On the web: Lots of information here:
Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays 1-6 PM, and by appointment. First Friday occurs the first Friday of every month from 5-9 PM.
Admission: Free! Also free: First Friday events, traditional Shabbos dinner, and numerous special events. Amazing!
Contact: Email or call (215) 923-1222.
Address: 19 N. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106 (Old City)

Be sure to “like” Old City Jewish Art Center on Facebook.
And follow OCJAC on Twitter!

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