What do bagels, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Marc Chagall have in common? They are icons of Jewish culture. The problem, according to Judaic artist Avrum Ashery, is that when the general public is asked about Jewish food, Jewish music, and Jewish art, that’s about all they know.
Ashery works to build bridges and educate others about the Jewish experience through bold illustrations, which are currently on display at the Kensington Public Library in Kensington, Maryland. With a background in media and visual communication, Ashery combines typography and ground images, playing with positive and negative space to illustrate everlasting Jewish messages of liberty, family, love, and learning.
As an artist and a member of the American Guild of Judaic Art, Ashery is frustrated by the current lack of opportunities to showcase Jewish cultural arts. American society is all about cultural diversity; many groups display who they are by showcasing their food, dance, visual art, and clothing. Judaism has thrived for centuries; customs, celebrations, and lifestyle passed from generation to generation through the arts. Jews commemorate and celebrate Jewish life through mediums like food, song, dance, and dress. Ashery noted that while the DC Metro area alone is home to 105 congregations, five Jewish day schools, three JCCs, and several national Jewish organizations, there are almost no established gallery spaces designated for the Judaic artist.
Some locations display artwork by Jewish artists, but there is no priority for pieces that are Jewish-themed; instead, secular art, which can be displayed in multiple other general community spaces, takes over. Ashery’s lectures and workshops stress the need for designated exhibit space for Judaic art as a powerful educational tool.
Judaism stresses learning and teaching from generation to generation. This theme runs through many of Ashery’s exhibited pieces. In “Generation to Generation #2,” a grandfather plays a violin while a silhouetted child with a soccer ball listens. As Ashery illustrates and describes, the future generation will only continue to share in the experience if they are included.
How can educators help young students connect to theological concepts one can’t taste, feel, or see, such as tefillah (prayer)? Using art integration to excite Jewish students and adults in personal identity exploration is the answer.
Ashery feels strongly about informing educators in this manner. Some Jewish leaders he has spoken to responded by saying, “We have artwork on the walls, we don’t need a gallery.” They just don’t get it, Ashery said. The same old picture on the wall turns into white noise. A dedicated gallery space with constantly new art creates a dialogue, an educational component.
For example, a bar mitzvah boy wears a tallit. Why do traditional tallitot have vertical stripes? Sharing the evolution of this essential accessory elevates its importance. Ashery has helped organize workshops on this topic with fiber artist Shirley Waxman.
The library exhibit displays Ashery’s iconic image of a man deep in prayer surrounded by his tallit. During the 1980s, American Jews sent this illustration as a New Year’s card to refuseniks in the USSR. This seemingly-innocuous image passed through the sensors.
At the library, next to this controversial illustration, Ashery displays his “Shalom Bayit” image: three figures — a mother, a father, and a child — embracing each other. Ashery masterfully engaged the negative space between the parents to form the child. This use of a ground image fully pulls one into the hug, making the family a unit. The concept of shalom bayit, peace in the home, is a fundamental idea in Judaism.
Just as shalom bayit here involves everyone, we can take it a step further and extend the concept out into the community. Following Ashery’s aspirations, it is imperative that the Jewish community at large embraces and elevates the role of the Judaic artist in order to nurture and encourage Jewish identity.
Visit Avrum Ashery’s current exhibit at the Kensington Library now through the end of June. The Kensington Library is located at 4201 Knowles Ave., Kensington, Maryland. Continue the dialogue with Ashery on Thursday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the library. He will give a lecture about his work, “Banned in the USSR: A Tale of Judaic Art.” Explore more of Ashery’s artwork at archeryartprograms.com.
By Sara Levi
Sara Levi is an elementary school art teacher and mother of four young children.