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  • Round Table Discussion
  • Mirjam Rajner (bio) and Ilia Rodov (bio)


The round table discussion held at Bar-Ilan University on September 10, 2015 concluded the International Conference and Research Workshop Constructing and Deconstructing Jewish Art, a project of the Department of Jewish Art supported by the Israel Science Foundation and Ars Judaica. Participants from seven countries exchanged ideas and learned about one another's perspectives on and experiences and endeavors in teaching, researching, collecting, and exhibiting Jewish art.

Nearly a quarter of a century earlier, in May 1991, eminent scholars from Israel and abroad, pioneers in the study of Jewish art, then still a relatively young discipline, as well as junior faculty members and students, met at the first workshop on university teaching of Jewish art organized by Prof. Ziva Amishai-Maisels at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.1 The period was a crucial one in European and Jewish history: the Berlin Wall had fallen two years earlier, the Soviet Union was disintegrating, and masses of Russian Jewish immigrants were arriving in Israel. There was a sense of urgency and uncertainty in the air, and custodians of Jewish culture were worried about the fate of the Jewish artistic heritage in eastern Europe. The discussants felt that there was a practical need for extensive preservation and documentation of artwork and monuments. Simultaneously, at the theoretical level, the workshop participants revisited the frameworks and definitions of the discipline, and in terms of academic education, they examined ways of integrating the field's new scholars into Israeli universities.

Several of those who had participated in the Jerusalem workshop also took part in the Bar-Ilan round table, thus facilitating continuity. However, the more recent discussion took place in a very different ideological and political reality, as there have been tremendous changes in the world in general and in culture in particular since the last meetings, which are ongoing, even as these lines are being written. The processes of globalization, free migration, and multiculturalism that developed and gained momentum after the fall of the Iron Curtain are currently being confronted by increasing separatism, segregation, xenophobia, and fundamentalism. Nevertheless, an ever-growing awareness of multiple perspectives in terms of gender, race, and social position has fostered post-modernist approaches to history, art, and art history. Yet even these are being subjected to revision usually defined as post-postmodernism or metamodernism. Moreover, in the past twenty-five years, culture has entered the post-Gutenberg age; the computerized world has increasingly changed our ways of gathering, storing, and exchanging information. Digital technologies have drastically transformed people's private and professional lives, offering a wealth of information and enabling instant, global communication of a kind hitherto unimaginable.

These new developments are having a significant effect on the understanding, research, and teaching of Jewish visual culture and art by stressing their multifaceted nature and calling for an interdisciplinary approach rather [End Page 7] than maintaining uniformity and autonomy. Like many humanities disciplines, the study of Jewish art now crosses the lines between the history of art and cultural and social history, anthropology, gender studies, folklore, psychology, and other related fields. The grand narrative, which is supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of history, concedes to particular case studies. This methodological turn yields a deeper understanding of distinct examples of Jewish artistic creativity, each firmly contextualized in specific times, spaces, and places.

With a sharper sensitivity to the subjectivity of the researcher's stance, visual culture among Jews is increasingly imagined as a continuous dialogue with the non-Jewish surroundings and a product of processes of acculturation. Rather than searching for essentialism–a unique spirit and uniform national character of art–the new approach decentralizes our endeavors, enabling polyphonic discourse. A remapping of the geographic dichotomies of Jewish art and artistic heritage–the center versus the periphery, or the Holy Land versus the Diaspora–is also taking place as scholars from East and West, from religious and secular worlds, claim different and even multiple locations as their omphalos mundi. This phenomenon is even more evident when we compare the many and varied voices of the participants in our round table to the ones at the gathering held a quarter...


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