Both Sides Now, Sahul Setter, “Haaretz”, August 2017

An exhibition of portraits that features lesser known or errant offspring in Jewish history positions the ‘Arab Jew’ as the necessary extreme of the dynasty

By Shaul Setter Aug 19, 2017

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Something interesting happens to an art gallery when it’s located in a place like the Schechter Gallery in Tel Aviv. Neve Schechter is a center for Jewish contemporary culture and arts that was established by the directors of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. It is situated at the edge of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood, in a gorgeous building. The site, which originally housed the Lorenz Café, was built by the Templers, an evangelical Christian sect founded in Germany in the mid-19th century; it was already a social and cultural center in the early 20th century. At present, various activities are offered: courses, lectures, performances and also worship in a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue, as well as art exhibitions.


The gallery space, then, exists within a particular cultural context, which it did not create, but rather was created within it. Still, it’s an empty space that is constantly being refilled and thereby self-creating its contents and forms. The upshot is that Neve Schechter both maintains something of gallery logic and also infringes on it: It hosts the Schechter Gallery as a declaredly semi-autonomous space.


The gallery has an external commitment: It is part of a center for modern Jewish studies, Judaism with an “open, egalitarian and pluralistic” approach, as the organization’s website puts it. The center of this modernized Judaism lies in the United States, where it has fomented critical social and cultural development. It has never really succeeded in “making aliya” to Israel, where it is perceived as sated and disconnected, has remained ultra-Ashkenazi, and above all has responded to a need that doesn’t quite exist in Israel. In the United States, it allowed Jewish communal existence that is not founded zealously on halakha; in Israel, that role was played by Zionism.


The exhibition of portraits by Shy Abady (Jerusalem-born, 1965) enters the Schechter Gallery and transforms it, precisely because it is not “unorthodox” or progressive in the usual sense. On the contrary, this exhibition, “The Restless,” is fraught with a pungent sense of looking back, reexamination, turbulence and complication. On the face of it, the show follows the regular contour lines of Conservative Judaism. It consists of 10 portraits of Jewish women and men from different eras of Jewish history: from Abinadav, the son of King Saul, to Felix Mendelssohn, Hans Herzl (Theodor’s son) and Hannah Arendt, down to the artist’s mother and grandfather.


Jewish history is thus extensively set forth – Bible, Enlightenment, political resurgence, 20th-century European-American exile. But despite this large canvas, whole sections of that history remain outside, and not by chance. These include the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods and the entire scope of premodern diaspora existence, namely the chapters that don’t intersect well with the story of the Jewish people’s progression from the chosen people to the people that chooses independence.

The two portraits in the exhibition that exist on the threshold of Judaism – Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the fine representation of Judaism, “The Pretty Jewess (after Synagoga)” – link Judaism to Christianity in a virginal coupling of the progressive, enlightened and humane religions – open, egalitarian and pluralistic. In contradistinction to the third Abrahamic religion: regressive, fanatic, murderous. But this is only the exhibition’s point of departure. Thanks to the portrait genre, through stubborn work it bursts open the story of modernized Judaism.


Back to the Levant


The portraits in the exhibition do not illustrate triumphant Jewish history by commemorating some of its heroes. They are a mode of inquiry that departs from the historical positioning of these figures. They draw consciously on the Christian traditions of paintings of saints, which present wounded or stoic heroes, bold or feeble, but in any case dramatic and expressive, such that they not only draw on the chronicle story in which they are set, but extend from it into questions of facial and bodily posturing.


Many of the portraits are made from compressed wood tubers, parts of which are then etched. They bear traces of the immense labor expended on the recalcitrant, ancient, unprogressive material. Their placement in the gallery space creates different cross-connections of gazes between the figures: some direct and trenchant, others angular, some not seen or not seeing. What arises from their assemblage is a tangle of kinship relations at the base of which actually lies the failure of modern, unorthodox Judaism, sometimes even tending to Christianity. It is unable to create an orderly dynastic succession, but only truncations – Herzl’s uncircumcised son, who committed suicide at a young age; the forgotten son of the king, done on the basis of a work by a forgotten Jewish painter; and above all the Synagoga, the image of mortified Judaism, blindfolded, sword snapped, as perceived by medieval Christianity.


In Abady’s work, the figure is observed anew in an exterior gaze that is introverted and becomes the vanishing point of the entire exhibition, from which the portraits of the Jews are not seen. Abady here offers a kinship alignment from the position of the son. He follows a series of sons, unknown or errant; and from them he goes on to observe mothers, until he comes to his own mother. She is “The Syrian Bride,” wrapped in white – in the absence of a father, wholly primed for the son – and from the other side of the family, his Cairene father’s father. But these are not the origins of the dynasty, its natural and biological inception, but annexes to the family that emanate from the creative work itself.

A dual process is thus at work here. In the face of the pluralistic, Euro-American, Ashkenazi Judaism – the Judaism that originated in Ashkenaz (Germany) – of Neve Schechter, Abady posits the Mizrahi Jews (who are also called, in postcolonial discourse, “Arab Jews”) as the necessary extreme of the dynasty. There is a name signed on the painting, the name of the Arab family, written in Arabic. But from the other side, in the face of a return to the nuclear family as a necessary, natural move, bearing a direct, primary and “genuine” connection, Abady displays the long route that must be traveled to get to the name, to get “back to the Levant” (the title of a series of works of which “The Syrian Bride” is one).

A caustic statement is being made here: You can’t get back to the mother and the grandfather easily, as though they were always there, waiting for the return of the lost grandson. On the contrary: Only by creative bypasses – unnatural connections, virginal births and vertical desire, in non-familial fantasizing identifications – will the return be possible. It’s Mary, Hans, Abinadav and Mendelssohn who forge Abady’s family. The stance of the son does not find, but finds out.

Shy Abady, “The Restless”; Curator: Shira Friedman, Schechter Gallery, 42 Chelouche St., Tel Aviv. Sun-Thur 09.00-17.00, Fri 10.00-13.00. Until September 1


Shaul Setter

Haaretz Contributor