As explosions rocked Gaza and Israelis hid in bomb shelters, 15 artists came together in a group art show called “Spiritual Defense,” featuring a range of styles from abstract Hebrew lettering to photography. A response to the summer’s episode of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the show aims to explore the power of good deeds, or mitzvot, in a defense of Israel.
“We’re trying to show the community that every Jew has the power of supporting the safety of Israel through mitzvot,”said Sara Meira Gootblatt, who works at the Creative Soul Gallery, where the show was on display until Oct. 5. Gootblatt said the creation of art itself is a mitzvah.
Rabbi Yitzchock Moully, co-curator and founder of the Creative Soul, explained the idea behind the art show: “Good begets good. From a Judaic perspective, the best thing you can do for the world is a mitzvah.” Through the mitzvot of art, Moully said, “we are spiritually arming ourselves.”
“It sounds a little kumbaya,” he admitted, “but we can really achieve a lot on a physical level through spiritual actions.” Elyssa Wortzman, co-curator, described the show as a “blessing for peace.”
In his call for submissions, Moully sought to cast a wide net, soliciting artists outside his immediate community. The artists, mainly from New York or Israel, observe Judaism in varying degrees: Some are Hasidic, while others are not even Orthodox. Their art also varies in levels of religious relevance or connection to Israel. Natalia Kadish’s “Growth” is a colorful illustration of a tree framed by waves — her interpretation of what learning Torah, the Jewish Bible, looks like. On the other hand, “Kipat Barzel” by Leah Raab is an abstract depiction of the Iron Dome at work. She said that she focused on the Iron Dome’s “miraculous interception” of the rockets being launched from Gaza.
Raab is one of the few artists whose paintings were a direct response to the conflict over there summer. “I’m not making a statement; I’m worried,” said Raab, whose children and grandchildren live in Israel. “I focused on the innocence of the children,” she said, pointing to her other painting of children hiding in a playground bomb shelter during a siren. But she added, “maybe some people would think my art is political when I show kids huddled in a tunnel like that.”
Although “Spiritual Defense” was a response to political conflict, Wortzman said it “wasn’t a political statement on the war or what’s going on in Israel.” Moully emphasized that, instead, the show went “to a deeper matter” than politics.
According to artist Dovid Orlansky, “you’ll find that most of the artistry displayed in the show does not depict views of Israel and such, but rather focuses on spiritual connection through activities such as prayer.” He interprets the show as “an expression of the desire for protection and peace.” Israeli artist David Baruch Wolk, who painted colorful renditions of religious Hebrew text, said his art is “spiritual in nature and not at all political.” To Wolk, who does not believe in the Jewish state, the spiritual defense of Israel means “the defense of the Jewish people.” His views align with a branch of Hasidim who believe the State of Israel cannot legitimately exist until the Messiah comes.
Though all the contributing artists were Jewish, Wortzman said her goal “was to allow all the work to express a universal spiritual wisdom.”
Bonnie Kozek’s art reflects Wortzman’s goal. Her paintings, “Know Before Who You Stand,” are a series of geometric, patterned circles centered around a psalm in Hebrew. “When I started making them,” she said, “I didn’t really think of them as Jewish.” In fact, when she took her work to get framed, Kozek said “the framer was a Muslim and he looked at it and started crying. He broke down in tears — an Egyptian man. He bought one.”
To Wortzman, spiritual defense means “an energetic force of good, a canopy of peace for neshama,” the soul of Israel’s land and people. Jew and non-Jew, alike. But Moully said the show “doesn’t really address” non-Jews in the region of Israel — namely Palestinians, who comprise almost a quarter of the population. “We have been persecuted as Jews, and mitzvah is something we can do to defend ourselves in a spiritual way,” said Moully.
On the Creative Soul’s website, the show’s description mandates that all work “reflect the concept of spiritual defense.” However, Nathan Berookhim, a Jewish Crown Heights local, found that in the artworks’ abstract aesthetics and varied subject matter, “the theme of the show doesn’t come off right away.” From Moully’s pop-style “Morning Prayer” painting to Raab’s Iron Dome piece, the viewer subjectively interprets whether the art depicts mitzvot. It need not illustrate tangible defense in order to defend Israel on a spiritual plane; creativity itself is a mitzvah that spiritually defends Israel, explained Gootblatt.
“If that’s the idea,” said Berookhim, after learning more about the show, “then more people should be seeing it. It provides a sense of comfort.”
Moully wants to take the show from Crown Heights to other locations. “The gallery isn’t about showing pretty pictures or selling pretty pictures,” said Moully. “It’s about trying to evoke and explore issues within the community and beyond the community.”