About the Author
If you want to get through to somebody you better be funny.
Comedy is what yeshiva is all about. You cannot survive there without a sense of humor.
Judaism and art don’t mix well.
There is a 1933 Max Beckmann painting, Brother and Sister,3 of a couple in bed with a sword between them.
Beckmann had just been listed as a “degenerate artist” and was dismissed from teaching at Städelsches Kunstinstitut. As the coupling of Sigmund and Sieglinde, a major theme of Wagnerian opera, would have been distasteful to Beckmann, and the placement of the sword Gram in their bed is not consistent with the Norse myth, it is likely that this painting may have another narrative more sympathetic to Beckmann’s viewpoint, despite its titling. In Berlin, Beckmann had already (temporarily) renamed his hidden masterpiece Departure as Scenes from Shakespeare’s Tempest to deflect suspicions about his portrayal of Nazi madness and his hopes of flight.
Brother and Sister is more clearly a faithful representation of the biblical Paltiel and his wife, Michal, who, according to the Talmud, never consummated their marriage—they were separated in bed with a sword between them. According to rabbinic commentary, Michal was given in marriage to Paltiel, who was either homosexual or transgendered, by King David because David had married too many women, among whom was Michal, and he had to stash some of his excess wives elsewhere. The commentary then records Paltiel saying, “Whoever initiates physical contact will be killed by this sword.”
Members of Die Brücke had frequently used biblical subject matter. Art historians haven’t recognized the source of Beckmann’s image because etiquette tends to exclude Jewish scholarship from the discourse. The sketch for this painting is part of a series depicting myths of sexual frustration that includes Ulysses and Siren and The Rape of Europa. Academia has decided that sibling incest is a perfectly acceptable explanation for this image because its pedigree derives from the approved Freudian canon. So in spite of the incongruity of the image versus the ascribed myth, it retains the title Brother and Sister. Go figure.
The painter R. B. Kitaj, with whom I had a fruitful correspondence, was outspoken in his enthusiasm for the construction of a contemporary Jewish art, and he was excited by my doing The 613. I was grateful for his encouragement. In 2007 Kitaj published his Second Diasporist Manifesto,4 in which his 615 verses relate to the 613 Jewish commandments (+2). He was fulfilling the commandment that every Jew should write a Torah. Several of Kitaj’s Manifesto verses echo notes he shared in his letters to me, one of which is:
GEMATRIA (Biblical numerology) is numerical interpretative freedom gone mad in which any text can be made to mean anything through numbers, even the 613 Commandments, which fascinate me. . . . I often dream of doing these 613 Mitzvot into art, but it’s too late for me.
Postwar Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where I grew up, is bookended in popular culture between Ralph Kramden’s rants and John Travolta’s dance. It was actually home to an enormous group of working musicians, athletes, comedians, actors, mobsters, and their jazz-loving, hipster sidekicks. Anything was possible. We all felt it. Ambition and nerve were thick in the air. It was a hotbed of wise guys.
Having attended after-school Hebrew instruction and Saturday-morning synagogue service, I had some dormant Jewish grounding. An obligatory but unimpressed chunk of my youth was spent identifying with Jewish Scripture and liturgy.
By 1974 I had been a working artist for eight years, toying with abstraction, conceptualism, and Jewish themes. That same year Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles, where Yiddishisms were dropped throughout the film. In the movie poster, Brooks dons a feathered war bonnet inscribed with the words “Kosher l’Pesach” (Kosher for Passover) written in Hebrew. Blond people in the Midwest thought this film was terrific. There was a freedom to openly express Jewishness.
Concurrently in 1974, I received a commission to paint the 9,000-square-foot interior of an entire synagogue, Congregation B’nai Yosef in Brooklyn. There were no precedents. I had to invent a Jewish iconography.
The mural work was stopped by the congregation and the paintings were put on trial for heresy. The case was presided over by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was considered to be the world’s greatest Talmudic scholar. He acquitted the paintings and added, surprisingly, that Judaism also accepted the making of art. Rabbi Feinstein’s decision was a generous permission that I thought would presage an outpouring of Jewish painting. It didn’t. With slight ruptures, Judaism remains iconoclastic and B’nai Yosef remains the only completely muraled synagogue in the world.
Throughout my teenage years Lenny Bruce was admired by the hard-bop-savvy crowd. We all dug him. He did not ridicule his Jewishness and he was assertive. His performances played against stereotype, confronting the taboo against Jews being “attractive.” In previous Jewish showbiz types, the eroticism of the Jewish intellect was deflected by the performers making themselves unavailable as objects of desire—by being clowns, acting asexual, or by alluding to fidelity, as in George Burns’s act. Bruce’s smart, questioning, Jewishly flavored logic was hip and appealing. It invaded the restricted avenue of American sexuality, which made some Jews uncomfortable, as it was feared that the ire focused at Bruce would extend to the larger community. Bruce’s contributions were invigorating. While working on B’nai Yosef, I bought Frank Kofsky’s book about him. It had a great effect on me.
Lenny, on the other hand, took a diametrically opposite tack. . . . His assumption was not that he, as a Jew, should learn to conform to the expectations and mores of the gentiles, but rather that the gentiles should be exposed to some of the time-honored ethical values of Jewish life and thought.5
In 1978 Arts magazine published an appreciation of the B’nai Yosef murals in which Ross Feld’s analysis evaluated the Jewish iconography as being worthy of inclusion in the secular aesthetics. I liked the idea of riffing on religious themes and, having made an educated guess as to how art was going to proceed for a while, I was no longer interested in strategy. In 1978, on the recommendation of the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, the Jargon Society published a book of wry drawings by William Anthony called Bible Stories, with back-cover blurbs by Tom Hess, Andy Warhol, R. B. Kitaj, Roy Lichtenstein, and George Plimpton, imparting an unprecedented coolness to religious tales.
I had been thinking about how it would look if there were no stigma attached to doing Jewish work—as if Jews were viewed nonjudgmentally and were presented with a limited focus on persecution. What would that be like? I had previous conversations on this topic with Philip Guston, and later with Will Eisner and R. B. Kitaj.
For decades I made a lot of paintings that looked Jewish. I was fully aware that these paintings were not a marketable product. I just wanted to do them. Barnett Newman had quipped that painters paint so they can have something to look at.
When I asked him [Robert Mapplethorpe] what drove him to take such pictures, he said that someone had to do it, and it might as well be him. . . . What excited Robert the most as an artist was to produce something that no one else had done.
—PATTI SMITH, Just Kids6
At the time of his death, Jackson Pollock was working on murals for a Catholic church and considered converting to Catholicism while revisiting Krishnamurti’s teachings. Kiki Smith said that she likes making prints because their repetition recalls counting the rosary—and Warhol’s regular church attendance has been well documented. Duke Ellington performed his Sacred Concerts, which he called “the most important thing I have ever done,” and John Coltrane’s liner notes to A Love Supreme began: “All Praise be to God to whom all praise is due.” Late in life Philip Guston confided that he wanted to change his name back to Goldstein and began including Torah scrolls and Jewish headstones in his drawings.
But belief remains suspect:
Dylan sang . . . about how, at the end of the day, these big cheeses all had to serve somebody. I was twelve, and even then I could tell that he was setting up straw men as some ridiculous proof that religious faith was universally necessary. This was the revolutionary guy that people droned on about?