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Connecting her own family history with JTS’s history personalizes JTS history for all visitors; the relative unknowns appear as if they could belong to any family. Durchslag’s installation also effectively brings women out of the archives and into the spotlight.
Like Durchslag, artist Rachel Kanter also draws on her own family history. She also feminizes the JTS building, populating the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue, JTS’s sanctuary, with her brightly colored quilted and embroidered prayer shawls. The shawls are based upon vintage apron patterns, and Kanter drapes them onto mannequins that stand in clusters of threes and twos, giving the appearance of a minyan of women waiting in the sanctuary. What look like tzitzit hang from the aprons — a juxtaposition that, as Kanter explains, pushes viewers to question what a ritual garment is and whether a woman’s is different from a man’s.
Many of these pieces are connected to Kanter’s family history; one tallit is made from her father’s own. Kanter pairs these tallitot with a 1909 greeting card, found in the JTS library, which depicts a family of recent immigrants to the United States. The mother in the image, dressed in dark, drab clothes, is welcomed by a tall, regal woman in a bright stars-and-stripes dress in a style similar to the brightly quilted fabrics of Kanter’s tallitot. The pairing reflects Kanter’s larger project of exploring the role of American women in Judaism and in domestic life, and also evokes her family’s own immigration to America in 1900.
In the JTS library, Artist Tobi Kahn displays the abstract paintings he created in response to images in illuminated manuscripts of siddurim and Haggadot from the JTS Rare Book Room collections. Kahn found images that existed as mere visual decoration and gave them new life by making them the subject of his paintings, just as in “Card Catalog” (2010) he took an otherwise obsolete card catalog and repurposed it as a work of art in the JTS library. In both installations Kahn has taken items that might be forgotten or ignored and preserved their beauty by capturing, distilling and honoring their essence.
Jill Nathanson created a series of paintings, “Seeing Sinai: Meditations on Exodus 33-3” (2005) as the product of a close reading of Exodus 33 and 34 in collaboration with Arnold Eisen before he was Chancellor at JTS. Together, Nathanson and Eisen studied the role of vision in the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Eisen’s edited commentary is included here alongside the paintings, which are warm, luminous and glowing as if with God’s “threads of light.” Moses’ insistent questioning of God in the commentary reflects Nathanson’s and Eisen’s own questioning — and indeed the entire exhibit’s questioning of texts and tradition.
This thought-provoking exhibit shows an impressive commitment by JTS to examining Jewish tradition, texts and its own past, and to opening up discussion through the lens of a visual language.
Laura Hodes is a lawyer and writer living in Chicago. She writes frequently about art for the Forward.