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  • Portrait of the Artist as a Hebrew Writer
  • Barbara Mann
Avner Holtzman . Melekhet maḥashevet: teḥiyat haʿumah—hasifrut haʾivrit lenokhaḥ haʿomanut haplastit [Aesthetics and National Revival: Hebrew Literature against the Visual Arts]. Tel Aviv: Zmora bitan / Haifa University Press, 1999, 352 pp.

In a small north Tel Aviv neighborhood, there is a group of connecting streets named after Jewish artists: Bezalel, Lilien, Struk, Antokolsky, Soutine, Modigliani, Lesser Ury, Glicenstein. To the extent that street names reflect a city's sense of self, the naming of these particular streets was an ingenious gesture—a collective homage from "the first Hebrew city," suggesting a sweeping connection between the biblical figure of Bezalel, designer and architect of covenantal art, and a group of disparate modernist and Symbolist artists. The relative Jewishness of these artists and their work was beside the point. As a group, their presence "proved" the degree to which modern Hebrew culture and its direct heir, Israeli culture, had "overcome" Jewish culture's ambivalent relation to the fine arts, deriving from the Second Commandment prohibition on certain aspects of visual representation. The nexus of Jews and pictures has proved fruitful ground for a number of recent critical and historical studies. Whether debunking notions of Jewish iconoclasm,1 offering ample evidence of how the fine arts and museum collections have influenced the construction of modern Jewish identity,2 or turning a "Jewish eye" upon the writing of art history,3 these volumes have made the old claim that Jews are an auditory, not a visual, nation virtually irrelevant. Virtually, but not actually. The question that now motivates contemporary scholars and students of Jewish culture is no longer "is there" or "what is" Jewish art, the details of an enormous corpus of Jewish art having been copiously cataloged by the Hebrew University's Index of Jewish Art. Rather, scholars from a variety of disciplines, working in a broad range of theoretical and hermeneutical approaches, are investigating the degree to which normative Jewish notions about visual forms have permeated and informed larger arguments about culture and identity. Avner Holtzman's new study of the relation of Hebrew literature and the fine arts is a welcome contribution to this burgeoning and [End Page 248] interdisciplinary field and will certainly be the starting point for any future investigations.

These reevaluations of the relationship between Jews and art should be understood within the wider context of evolving notions of Jewish identity and acculturation. Historians have often viewed the Jews as a "people of time," whose belief system derived from a God that could be heard but not seen. This assumption undergirds an entire constellation of attitudes toward textual production, attitudes that have evolved and been shaped by contact between Jewish culture and the societies within which it existed. The fundamental belief in a God who reveals Himself primarily in time or history, and rarely in space, has also influenced ideas regarding the physical locus of collective identity—a homeland—which, until modern times, had existed primarily within textual discourse. Modern Jewish culture has largely attempted to reconceptualize these normative notions of space and the relative location of the sacred and the profane. This sea change in spatial configurations was accompanied by a wide range of new ideas regarding the natural world, the body, and visual representation.4

Whether suspicious or laudatory, claims about the relation between Jews and art are necessarily intimately tied to larger arguments about the relation of Jewish culture to many of Western culture's central, Christian-deriving leitmotifs. The Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jewish-artist street names is also bisected by Rembrandt Street, either a mistake on the part of an ill-informed city planner or, more likely, an ironic nod to the enormous presence of Jewish motifs in the Dutch artist's work and the place of the artist himself and his work in modern Hebrew writing. Indeed, the story of Jews and art cannot be told without the central presence of a non-Jewish artist; that is, it should not be told in isolation. Neither, according to Holtzman's study, should the story of Hebrew literature and the fine arts be told in isolation from other mutations...


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