A 94-Foot Retelling of Jewish History

Throughout her career, artist Ruth Weisberg has preferred to make art in series, wrestling with subjects and producing multiple works that are thematically, formally and sometimes physically connected. A frequent theme is redemption — especially how a moral or physical danger or horror can transform into a redemptive act for those involved, and for those who witness. “I feel very strongly that memory is redemptive,” Weisberg recently told me, “and an artist’s making art is a redemptive act.”

Now, Weisberg’s most ambitious work, “The Scroll,” created in the late 1980s following the first triumphs of Jewish feminism, is on view again through the end the month, at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center. The concept of the exhibition was to take this 94-foot drawing and surround it with work that led up to it, and work that it led to. Thirty Weisberg works, most of which address personal and collective levels of memory, are juxtaposed and surround the beautifully installed masterpiece.

“The Scroll” is an ambitious retelling of Jewish history. It is not a chronological narrative, but it incorporates major biblical themes and relates them to subsequent events (that is, Creation/birth, Exodus/Diaspora). Jewish “history” doubles as allegory. “The Scroll” depicts Jewish festivals as history, as historical markers and as contemporary events. Weisberg also brings to the visual arts an ahistoric or atemporal reading that is part of Jewish tradition and identity. So Miriam does not just dance on the shores of the Red Sea, she is also the dancer in all of us at every simcha. There is the suggestion that the scenes are recurring but timeless.

Read from right to left, “The Scroll” is divided into three main parts — Creation, Revelation and Redemption. Within these parts are subdivisions and meanderings, with an overlapping, or interconnectedness between scenes, created through the use of repeated motifs, formal echoes and subtle allusions. Weisberg then takes traditional genres and stretches, mixes and organizes them, and interweaves strands of personal narrative. As with medieval texts or picture cycles, the narrative is best understood when read on several levels: literal, historical, allegorical, symbolic and even eschatological.

The scenes of “The Scroll” remain active and contemporary, but they are reiterations of things past, like old newsreels or family films that are both fresh and real, and old and somehow hidden. Biblical and historical themes are the most powerful and vigorous. The more contemporary the scene, the more tentative is the representation. Weisberg recognizes that the traditional and mythic images of Judaism — like God’s outstretched hand — are strong and almost immutable, while the newer traditions and associations that Weisberg’s generation has helped forge are vital but still in flux. A generation after the piece’s debut, this is even more the case. Judaism — as religion and culture — has never been more varied than it is today.

The work’s beginning and end — Creation and Redemption — are directly related, and make of the long scroll something like a circle, or a wrap-around belt. This is not accidental, since inspiration for both form and subject is the traditional Central European Torah wimple, the long strip of cloth used to tie the Torah. These wimples were frequently embroidered, usually by women. Their substance (often the cloth used to wrap a circumcised child) and inscriptions and pictures figuratively tie together life’s strands, just as they literally tie the Torah — where explanation and guidance of a life are found. There are other sources, such as the ancient commemorative columns in Rome, where emperors’ exploits unfurl in sculptural relief, mixing imperial majesty with the quotidian minutiae of a military campaign. Weisberg applied this tradition of the classical pictorial scroll to the Jewish context, where traditionally the scroll is equated with the Torah, adorned only with the words of God.

Like the Torah, Weisberg’s “The Scroll” begins with a Creation — the birth of Eastern European Jewish America — and continues with a modern exodus and arrival, setting the stage for scenes that reiterate the action of creation and renewal throughout Jewish history. Narrative has not been common in Jewish art. Jewish art is traditionally symbolic or iconic, and more recently abstract. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, representational Jewish art was genre based, revolving around a limited number of basic themes that remain popular with Jewish artists and audiences. So Weisberg links with only a few key Jewish artworks. These include the first known Jewish pictorial narrative, the great third-century fresco cycle of Dura-Europos (Syria), whose dozens of scenes are not arranged in a continuous narrative but instead are interconnected. These scenes were selected from various sources — including midrash — probably to represent divine intervention to ensure Jewish survival and salvation.

“The Scroll” begins in the middle of things with an image of a multitude of people in 19th-century dress. Rushing into the scroll, in the midst of their journey, we get a bird’s-eye (or angel-eye) view of these huddled masses that recalls photos of immigrants on ship decks arriving in America. I particularly think of Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “Steerage,” where we see in the lower part of the image a man wearing his tallit. “The Scroll” itself is fashioned as a giant prayer shawl, and the image of the tallit, on its own, and across the shoulders of Ruth Weisberg and a variety of Jews, is a constant theme in the work.

The second scene is a Jewish Creation midrash. An angel touches the lip of an unborn baby to gently push the infant out of the birth canal. This compassionate gesture, a type of blessing, is the creative act of a teacher or artist. But the story says the angel also induces forgetfulness, even ignorance, of all the knowledge in the world that the baby knew but must unlearn. Weisberg’s image recalls famous creation scenes, but here an androgynous (humanly shaped) angel replaces the powerful, elderly male Creator from Michelangelo’s heroic Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Naked, muscle-bound Adam is replaced by a naked baby.

“The Scroll” ends in what Weisberg terms Revelation. It follows a scene where pious Eastern European rabbis are invoked, linked to the depiction of empty prisoner uniforms that hang like wash on a line, surrogates for hosts of Holocaust victims and their immeasurable, unknowable loss. The striped uniform recalls, again, the holy tallit. This scene bleeds into a grand finale, a giant wing and a pair of comforting hands. Weisberg likens this to God’s sheltering wing mentioned in funeral services.

In his otherwise perceptive catalog essay, Matthew Baigell writes that “The Scroll” is “one of the most important Jewish works of art made at the end of the 20th century.” He is certainly right, but when he also claims that “no painting by a major artist concerned with a narrative sequence based on Tanach or on aspects of Jewish secular history appeared until Weisberg’s ‘The Scroll,’” he forgets Larry Rivers’s “History of Matzah” triptych of just a few years before. And when Baigell says that “[‘The Scroll’] is in effect the first Jewish American mural cycle based on Jewish subject matter,” he neglects the extensive and exuberant murals of painter and silent film maker Hugo Ballin in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple — a local work well known to Weisberg. Still, Baigell is correct that in its Jewish component, and in the depth of its thought, “The Scroll” far surpasses those other works and most other contemporary American narrative art (outside, I would argue, of film).

In Baigell’s essay, titled “The Scroll in Context,” he discusses where “The Scroll” fits in the 1980s, in Weisberg’s emerging career and in the Jewish feminist movement. But the autobiographical elements of “The Scroll” so apparent 20 years ago now recede. Weisberg as woman and artist slip into the flow of an evolved Jewish narrative. Her reading Torah on the bimah with her sister and daughter and Rabbi Laura Geller — four modern women standing in for traditional matriarchs — is now, for most American Jews, almost commonplace. I doubt that my 13-year-old daughter would even know that their representation here was once seen as Judaism askew.

Weisberg’s goal in the “The Scroll” is most apparent as it ends. She wants to literally wrap up her subject, to embrace her viewer in the physical form of the scroll and the all-encompassing story that will continue. “The Scroll” can be read again. Creation and life and the journey of the Jewish people and the seasonal celebration of the holidays all continue. The processes of birth and maturation and death continue. They have almost broken down at times in the Jewish narrative, but because Judaism is supple, they remain unbroken. Jews confront the same ideas, the same dilemmas, again and again, but we bring new sensibilities, and each time, we take back something new. This pleases Weisberg, and it is why “The Scroll” is on view again. Weisberg says she is “in favor of slow art [where the viewer] will get some immediately, and some later.” After spending time with “The Scroll,” you will want to get some more, and very soon.

Samuel D. Gruber is the Rothman family lecturer in Judaic studies at Syracuse University and president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

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