Some of the students are in their 20s, and others are just shy of 80. They’re men, women, Jews and non-Jews. Some are art aficionados and others have never picked up a paintbrush. But one night each week, when the students gather at the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center on the Upper East Side for Artists’ Beit Midrash, they’re all speaking the same language.
At Artists’ Beit Midrash, Torah study group meets art school. When the 19-or-so students roll up to the synagogue at 7 o’clock, they spend an hour discussing Jewish texts – stories of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, tales of love, protection, competition, leadership and betrayal. They then spend a second hour sharing artistic depictions of those stories, in the form of painting, sculpture, and photography to name a few, and critiquing each other’s work. Next week, their art will be featured at a pop-up exhibition at Davis Mansion, an art gallery on East 65th Street.
“We have ceramics, we have glass, we have weaving, we have collage, we have painting, we have watercolor, we have photography,” says Tobi Kahn, the artist and educator who co-founded the program with Rabbi Leon Morris 14 years ago. 4 of the students who began in Kahn’s first class 14 years ago are still there today. “The program was founded to give artists a chance to study texts – most of them have not studied a lot of text – and there are some who just came out of art school and others who have never been in art school.”
Kahn, a professor of painting and visual thinking at the School of Visual Arts, leads the art class portion of Beit Midrash, while his counterpart, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, leads the biblical portion. “I like that she thinks out of the box as a Jewish educator,” Kahn says of his colleague. “We always try to find a rabbi who is open to understanding that artists think differently than most other people – they’re visual thinkers.”
What’s unique about this group, according to Kahn, is that each of the students interprets and represents the same biblical texts in such distinct ways. One woman weaves baskets as part of her story, while another uses felt. One former ceramicist now does fiber art instead. Students make visual representations of mikvahs and bar mitzvahs, life celebrations and death.
“We had a priest once, and his work was the most literal,” Kahn remembers. “When we learned about something, the work looked exactly like what that was. If we talked about Abraham in a tent, the picture had to be Abraham in a tent. But what I like about the class is that most of the participants use the text as a starting point, not as an ending point, so that it’s much more about analogy and metaphor than what is literal.”
It’s clear that since the program’s inception, it’s become less of a class and more of a community. One former student, a psychoanalyst who suffered from cancer and recently passed away in hospice at her home, held a number of sessions at her loft downtown. “She knew very little about Judaism but she was always an artist,” Kahn says of the student, who joined Artists’ Beit Midrash 9 years ago. “She really considered us a big part of her life.”
Alexandra Levine is the Forward’s culture intern.
The Artists’ Beit Midrash pop-up exhibit opens at 6 PM on Monday, June 15 at a pop-up gallery at 135 E. 65th Street.