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“Funny, You Do Look Jewish”

Renowned art journalist explains what it means to look at art “Jewishly” in Chester, Nov. 4

By Cindy Mindell

Robin Cembalast

What does it mean to look “Jewishly” at art? Robin Cembalest, the longtime executive editor of ARTnews, is one of the foremost journalists writing on Jewish art today. She will explore the question on Sunday, Nov. 4 at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester.
The former arts editor of the Forward and current galleries columnist for the online Jewish magazine, Tablet, Cembalest has spent her career covering the ways that Jewish art is made, interpreted, and exhibited – from the ancient to the contemporary; from studio to gallery to mainstream museum. In a quirky, informative, and wide-ranging lecture, Cembalest looks back at some of her most fascinating — and challenging — stories, explaining what “looking Jewishly” means to her.
Cembalest says that she was inspired to explore the topic while reviewing her stories in Tablet, and was struck by how often she writes about Jesus. “Not exactly the subject you’d expect to read about in a column about Jewish art,” she writes. “Yet Jesus, in particular the Crucifixion, was a recurrent theme for perhaps the most famous ‘Jewish artist’ of all – Marc Chagall. “The concept of ‘Jewish crucifixions’ is hardly a contradiction. So many Jewish painters and sculptors have depicted Christ on the cross that the Jewish Museum in New York is considering a show on the theme.”
Several of Cembalest’s Tablet columns discuss Jewish crucifixions. Others have explored the “Jewish DNA,” of disparate themes like Spanish altarpieces, Rembrandt’s paintings, and Coney Island carousel horses.
“The process of defining Jewish art, or what is Jewish in art, is both parlor game and intellectual exercise,” she wrote in Tablet in 2006. She addresses both aspects in her writing. A Long Island native who majored in art history and English at Yale, Cembalest began her magazine career as the editorial assistant at Artforum. She continued at ARTnews, winning several awards for investigative journalism before she moved to the Forward. As arts editor of the Jewish weekly, she covered not only the fine arts but also television, music, books, and film. She returned to ARTnews to run its editorial team in 1998 and became a columnist for Tablet following its inception (as Nextbook) soon after its founding in 2003.

“Jewish Jackies” by the Jewish artist Deborah Kass

“You don’t have to be a Jew to look Jewishly [at art],” Cembalest says. “A lot of the Jewish museums in Europe aren’t run by Jews, but by those who have studied Jewish culture very carefully. Rather than focusing on traditional, better-known Jewish iconography people are familiar with, looking Jewishly is about looking more creatively at different ways of considering what’s Jewish about art. It’s a way of looking at things in general. I’m not defining ‘Jewish art,’ but as a Jewish art journalist, I’m giving a lighter-hearted talk recounting some of my experiences and rabbit holes I went down while writing these stories.”
Cembalest points to a 1997 assignment in Morocco as a good example, when she was in Melilla to cover a reunion of Sephardic Jews.
“I was wearing black jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket and they said to me, ‘You don’t look Jewish,” she recalls. “In this country, you hear my voice, you look at me, you know I’m Jewish, but it’s not the same for them. So, what’s ‘Jewish’ is in the eye of the beholder.”
In her Nov. 4 lecture, Cembalest will discuss artists ranging from Man Ray, who was born Jewish but preferred to hide his Jewish roots, to Frida Kahlo, who was not Jewish, but apparently liked people to think she was, to Deborah Kass, who created the Warholesque “Jewish Jackies,” to even Damien Hirst. “I like to describe the talk as a chronicle of illuminators, storytellers, provocateurs, diasporists, conceptualists, crypto-Jews, and more,” Cembalest says.
Also included, of course, is Sol LeWitt, the conceptual artist and CBSRZ member who co-designed the temple’s new sanctuary with architect Stephen Lloyd in 2001. Last February, Cembalest wrote in Tablet about the resulting and now-famous kippah the congregation produced, bearing the vibrant geometric design LeWitt created for the Ark doors. She described it as “a wearable work of art, a bargain, and a mitzvah.”

“Funny, You Do Look Jewish: Reflections on a Career Covering Jewish Art” with Robin Cembalest: Sunday, Nov. 4, 3 p.m. Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, 55 East Kings Highway, Chester, RSVP required: (860) 526-8920 / info@cbsrz.org.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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