How Jewish was Jew York?

28 Jul

by Leah Caroline

Libi bamizrach vaanochi bsof maarav.
“My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.” Yehuda Halevi (c. 1141)

We are a people of memories; standing in one place and time, remembering another. We walk, we move- without and within ourselves. Jew York, showing at Untitled and Zach Feuer galleries in New York, is an experience of distances; from the Lower East Side to Chelsea on the Western border of Manhattan. It is an experience of past, present and future.

Jew York includes an impressive list of artists; Hannah Wilke, Leon Golub, Marc Chagall, Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, Sol Lewitt and 81 others. They are all Jews who have lived at some point in New York. Select works have overtly Jewish content, but the vast majority does not. Is the identity of the artist and the name of the exhibit enough to define it as “Jewish”?

01Untitled_BH Vests

The gallery Untitled proudly advertises Jewish-ness. Located on Orchard Street in The Lower East side, it is a memory of the past within the present. There are old tenement buildings, trendy modern restaurants, and stores operated by immigrants; some new to this country, others who have been in the same location for over a hundred years. The gallery has a mezuzah on the doorpost and one of the most recognizable signs of contemporary Jewish New York prominently visible through the tall front window: Casual Friday, by Isaac Brest and Louis Eisner. Casual Friday is an installation of six archival B&H Photo employee vests hanging high up on a clothesline. B&H is the iconic New York photography store owned and operated by Hasidic Jews. This piece is funny and ironic, and more importantly uses text and language. The B&H logo is like the Bet-Hei (acronym for baruch Hashem, bless G-d) we put on top of our written papers; effectively making this piece the Bet-Hei of the gallery.


Aleph by Asher Penn more than references Hebrew letters. It is a yellow painted shirt with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, spelled out. Is it an ironic commentary on the repetition of screen-printing, or the work of a man who continues to explore Hebrew words, simply presented? Like much of the Lower East Side, and New York Judaism itself, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern Jewish culture from “kosher style” culture. Some works are more subtly Jewish in their use of irony, like Jennifer Rubell’s My Shrink’s Couch; which is exactly that, except that it’s on a pedestal with a “do not sit” sign. Jew York continually brings up questions of what Judaism is without offering any direct answers. Which is in itself very Jewish.


Quite a few works in both galleries are subtly Jewish in their use of text and language; in their need to tell. Language is an important part of David Levine’s Anthropologist. It is a collection of photographs Levine’s father took of Marc Rothko’s studio. Next to the photographs Levine includes text where he tells of his father’s past, of Rothko’s, and of his own. He brings the photographs into the present by dating it 1970-2013. The words he writes today make the photographs more than memories of Rothko’s space. When I visited the gallery on July 11, Ketubah for Joel and Sarah by Alex Israel was “on loan” and not in the gallery. This ketubah, marriage contract, was commissioned for Joel Messler’s (the co-owner of Untitled) wedding and he got married that weekend. Its absence made the exhibit and the works feel real and present, alluding to the Judaism that lives well beyond the walls of a gallery.

At the Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea, a bastion of the contemporary art world, there are no overt signs of Jewishness from the outside. Near the entrance is Joel Mesler’s #samy2013, an installation of new suits on old racks and shelves. The suits are from Global International Menswear on Orchard Street, helping to bridge the works in the two galleries. On opening night, Sammy Gluck–the Hasidic owner whose family ran the business for over 50 years–sold his suits. There is a memory of Untitled at Zach Feuer; there is a feeling for the East. There are fewer obviously Jewish works at Zach Feuer (one is Michael Portnoy’s Rabbi Israel Sarug, a triptych painting of a Hasidic Rabbi looking through doorways), but there is a self-conscious recognition of the “Jewish label” in some of the works. For this exhibit, Rochelle Feinstein renamed her painting Geography to (Jewish) Geography (2013), 1994. In Cary Leibowitz‘s Hi Jewboy, Hi, two canvases converse; the blue-green square on the left says “hi Jewboy”, while the yellow star of David responds “hi”. For better or worse, the Jewish label–or more importantly the Jewish identity and name–is immediately recognizable to others.


It is said that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because they maintained their unique names, language, and clothing. They had very few other merits and these three things defined them as Jews. In Jew York, there are literal representations of Jewish clothing, Jewish names, and Jewish language. Although most of the work only has a tenuous connection with Judaism, all of these artists came together in a show where the artists “named” themselves as Jews. Perhaps that is enough to make the show itself very Jewish.

Roy Ascott said*, “Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences”. For me, Jew York is more than the individual works; it is the experience of walking, remembering, and identifying. It is an experience of Jewishness, which continues to be ever present.

*As quoted by Brian Eno, “Miraculous Cures And The Canonization Of Basquiat.”

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