Jewish artists and the Bible in America

[Extracts of a review recently published in Reviews in History.]

Samantha Baskind, Jewish artists and the Bible in twentieth-century America
(Pennsylvania State UP, 2014: 978-0-271-05983-9)

Scholars of contemporary religious history, of art history, and of the immigrant experience will find much to interest them in this fine volume from Samantha Baskind of Cleveland State University, Ohio. Specialists in British art of the 20th century have long needed to reckon with the work of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein or Hans Feibusch. The England in which these immigrants arrived had an established tradition of religious painting and sculpture. Not so in the United States. Within American art, such a tradition of historical and religious painting and sculpture was almost non-existent; landscape, domestic scenes and portraiture were dominant. The question arises, then (which Baskind answers definitively), of why Jewish artists – recent arrivals and unsure of their place and status in a new society – should wish to adopt artistic subject matter that was not part of the common stock of that society.

There is a striking but convincing paradox in Baskind’s answer to the question as to why these images were adopted, which offers a suggestive angle from which to view the immigrant experience more generally. Young immigrant Jews to America and the first generation born there soon found themselves without any connection to the lived experience of a homeland. ‘For these younger American Jews, their native land, their homeland, was the Hebrew Bible. Their sense of locale was not the towns around them but biblical geography – the only Jewish soil they knew’. (p. 3) This tended, however, to produce art that was certainly not for use in public worship (a Christian idea), or for private devotion, and only very loosely intended for use in the religious education of the devout. Instead, it functioned as a means of reflecting on and making sense of contemporary events and of recent history at large, and of personal circumstance: a secularised form of the ancient exegetical technique of midrash.

Some of the biblical subjects under discussion are those that might be expected from a Jewish artist: those from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Of particular interest to this reviewer were the examples where these Jewish artists addressed themes from the Christian New Testament: appropriations of Christian themes, refracted through a Jewish lens and presented back to Christian America.

All this is fine work in its own disciplinary terms, but readers who are first and foremost historians may have wished for more on the critical and public reception that these works received, precisely to illuminate some of the questions Baskind raises. How did Jewish observers understand these works as midrashic reflections on the lot of American Jewry? How did Christian commentators receive these ‘foreign’ appropriations of New Testament themes? None of this is to criticise this volume for not achieving that which it does not set out to achieve (a besetting sin of reviewers); but Baskind has opened up several fresh and important lines of enquiry for others to pursue.

The press, Pennsylvania State University Press, are to be congratulated for a lavishly produced volume which is a pleasure to hold, with copious reproductions of works of art, and at an improbably low price of $40. The writing is clear and concise, and often elegant, and the work as a whole is admirably brief. It should find an appreciative readership amongst art historians, but also amongst scholars of identity and the immigrant experience, and of the religious history of modern America.

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