“The physical act of ‘conception’ in holiness is a very high spiritual dimension and ultimately beyond what we can possibly conceive” – David Baruch Wolk

Jerusalem, the most revered and contested real estate on earth, which the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed “the navel of the world,” has never been the center of the art world. Routinely eclipsed by London, Hong Kong and New York, the lands of sophisticated art buyers and Biennales, Jerusalem was never even invited to the dance – until now.

Israel presents her first Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art September 15- October 31 this fall. A few days from now galleries, public spaces, auditoriums and museums will be all dressed up and anticipating public and media response.

“We are thrilled that so many artists from Israel and overseas will be participating in the first Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art,” says initiator Rami Ozeri.

Does the world need another Biennale? Perhaps it does. This is the first ever to specifically address Jewish culture and religion in depth. Over 150 artworks will be showcased as a stage for contemporary creative energy related to “the world of Jewish content.” Pieces and performances by over 50 emerging and established artists hope to drive that creative force into public spaces of Jerusalem. Different religious worlds, from the orthodox to the secular, work out their own visions of contemporary Jewish art, life and spirituality.

Biennale curators and artists organized their shows around separate themes, such as the largest one – “My Soul Thirsts” (from Psalms 63:2) – at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art. Curated by Nurit Sirkis-Bank and assistant Noa Lea Cohenm 60 works from 30 artists include abstract, figurative, textile and multi-dimensional in varied styles. The focus of the show is yearning, “the desire for holiness” as seen with a contemporary perspective.

"My Soul Thirsts," by Yosi Arish, photo Miriam's Studio

Designer/sculptor Avi Biran contributes some of his award winning, yet whimsical Jewish ritual articles. Biran’s pieces are exquisitely crafted, such as this sterling and gold plate “Cup of Miriam,” a timbrel/goblet with Hebraic inscriptions.

"Cup of Miriam," Avi Biran

He explains, “The cup passes through the timbrel like a well that goes into ground. Miriam … knew where to locate underground water during their travel in the desert. When shaking the cup, sounds of the joy are heard.”

I found the religious musing of David Baruch Wolk (who will exhibit at the Wolfson) at least as fascinating as his paintings. In one of earlier his works, “Start with Aleph,” the canvas is dense, frantic but visually engaging. It appears to be collaged miniatures of smaller pieces of his art with the Hebrew aleph-bet as a major theme. Dark blocks make a grid encapsulating what looks like circuitry at first glance. Wolk will contribute two new paintings for Biennale.

Speaking of his spiritual journey Wolk confesses: “For what purpose (is) all of this life? But I didn’t know His name, as Pharaoh didn’t know His name, that is how deep is the Galus, the massive stone weight of complete death I was born in … until I found His name, His books, His letters, His words. Then I find my purpose.”

The term “Galus” is the Hebrew version of Diaspora or Jews forced out of Israel in the past.

While the contents of this show are markedly non-political, there is no way of avoiding the mention of the land and city itself. It is a major theme of the Jerusalem Biennale and the Jewish Bible, which is the literary, historic and spiritual source for many of its artists.

Pride of place is evident in other works such as Ziv Koren’s “Jerusalem Day.” Neta Elkayam, a Jewish singer and installation artist, will present “The Thread of Gold” along with her father, Judaica artist Michael Elkayam.

Neta claims, “I spent time in the United States, France, and I’ve visited Morocco. Today I feel like a Jerusalemite. I feel like this place suites me, and I have no desire to go elsewhere.”

Dov Lederberg, an “Abstract Illusionist” contributing to “My Soul Thirsts,” creates airbrushed acrylics on canvas which are elegant, colorful and balanced with potent symbolism.

An example of his work is “Face of the Generation,” to which he attaches a description from the Talmud: “The period preceding the Advent of Moshiach (the Messiah) and the leaders who will have the ‘face of a dog’ with all the dissonant connotations this implies.”

"Mystery of Conception" by Dov Lederburg

Music and dance are featured as part of the “Now Now” exhibition, which explores tensions between progress and tradition and its present manifestations. “Between Heaven and Earth” dance troop, composed of Orthodox men, perform modern dance (if you can imagine). The “Gaga” is a popular style of modern dance developed in Israel and has absolutely no relation to a purported “lady” or her attire.

The “Here and Now” exhibit displays artworks that examine the connection between Jewish ideals and daily life. Artists include award-winning Tobi Kahn and American-Israelis Andi Arnovitz, Ken Goldman, Jessica Deutsch and Ruth Schreiber, among others.

The Jerusalem Biennale, however, missed being the inaugural event of this type in Israel by a few years. A “Mediterranean Biennale,” which skips around the area, landed in 2010 in Haifa and is currently residing in the small northern city of Sakhnin. Why have another in such close proximity? Originally the Mediterranean show was scheduled to close in early September but was extended at the last minute to the end of the month. Perhaps a little competition.

Although close geographically, the Biennales are dissimilar in spirit and thematically. Sakhnin is an Arab/Israeli city with a Muslim and Christian population. Mirroring some of the 100 other Biennales in the world, “Re-Orientation” is quite secular, but it appears to distill down to identity also: “Orient vs. the West” and discovering a “local Mediterranean culture.”

The tradition of art referred to by the Jerusalem Biennale harks back to the Bible story of Bezalel sent to help Moses with the Tabernacle as master artist/designer, as described in the book of Exodus: “And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs.”

His namesake “Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design” graduated several Biennale artists including a few Haredi (ultra-orthodox) women from the Oman art school, a satellite of Bezalel.

Rami Ozeri asked that artists submit works with a desire for connection between heaven and earth as the unifying theme: “The breadth and scope of the Biennale can best be appreciated by visiting each exhibition and engaging in the debate – what is contemporary Jewish art?”

Visitors to Israel and especially Jerusalem this month would have to work devotedly to avoid encountering art – but for art lovers, it’s a great place to be.

First Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, Sept. 15-Oct.31, 2013, at Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art, Hechal Shlomo, 58 King George Street, Jerusalem: Achim Chasid complex at 45 -47 Emek Refaim Street, the First Station Beit Avi-Chai and the Musrara neighborhood.

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