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How ‘Had Gadya’ inspired famed Catholic painter Frank Stella, a leader of the Minimalist art movement

(New York Jewish Week) — “Had Gadya,” the playful song about a destructive chain of events starting with one little goat, may be best-known for rousing sleepy children at the end of a long Passover seder.

But it is also the basis for a series by Frank Stella, the 87-year-old Catholic American artist credited with catalyzing the Minimalist movement of the 1960s. His 12 vibrant, abstract “Had Gadya” prints, completed between 1982 and 1984, are now on display at the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum in New York City.

The works were loaned by collector Elissa Oshinsky for a tour of the Los Angeles, Cincinnati and New York campuses of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). The Heller Museum at HUC-JIR celebrated its exhibition opening on Sept. 7 and will host it until Feb. 29.

“Had Gadya” is one of the earliest children’s songs in recorded history, dating back to a 14th-century prayer book from Provence. It appeared in a manuscript attached to the Prague Haggadah of 1526, then in print for the first time in the Prague Haggadah of 1590.

Each of Stella’s prints follows a stanza of the song, which details series of disasters in the style of a cumulative nursery rhyme. A father buys a little goat, which is eaten by a cat. The cat is bitten by a dog, the dog beaten by a stick, the stick burned by a fire, the fire quenched by water, the water drunk by an ox, the ox slaughtered by a butcher, the butcher killed by the Angel of Death — who is finally slain by “the Holy One, Blessed be He.” 

In Stella’s abstract rendition of “Had Gadya,” this narrative is driven by dynamic, repeated shapes and colors, said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, the director of the Heller Museum. 

“The repetition of different forms, from piece to piece, creates a kind of continuity, telling that lyrical story of successive acts of victimization that are ultimately resolved by God to bring peace and order to the world,” Rosensaft told the New York Jewish Week.

Stella, 87, who was not available for an interview, took inspiration from a 1919 series of “Had Gadya” illustrations by the Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist El Lissitzky. The museum exhibit shows Lissitzky’s lithographs, full of Yiddish typography and shtetl settings, next to Stella’s versions. 

From left: Frank Stella, “Had Gadya: Back Cover,” 1984 and “Had Gadya: Then came a dog and bit the cat,” 1984.  Collection of Elissa Oshinsky. (©2023 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

In Lissitzky’s original works, the story of “Had Gadya” — and God’s intervention in the final act — was a metaphor for Jewish victory after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Then, under the new Soviet regime, Jews briefly found freedom from persecution, a triumphant moment that elevated Jewish artists such as Lissitzky and his contemporary, Marc Chagall. Unfortunately, that window of opportunity had closed by 1932, as Stalin waged war on avant-garde and Jewish art. Lissitzky’s “Had Gadya” was among the first works to be destroyed by Stalin’s government and only a few copies survive.

Stella first saw Lissitzky’s illustrations while visiting the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981. Marc Scheps, then-director of the museum, recalled in a 1986 exhibition catalog that the artist stood in front of Lisskitzky’s pieces and said, “maybe I’ll do something about these.” The famously terse artist was known for heralding Minimalism with his remark,“what you see is what you see.”

Although Stella is a Catholic Italian-American who grew up in Massachusetts, European Jewish themes are prominent in his work. As a breakthrough artist in his early 20s, he gave his 1958-59 black pinstripe paintings the titles “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free,” the slogan on the entrance gate to Auschwitz); “Reichstag” (the German parliament building that burned in 1933 as the Nazis consolidated their dictatorship), and “Die Fahne Hoch” (“The Flag High,” the first words of the Nazi Party anthem).

In 1960, his painting “The Final Solution” depicted an equilateral cruciform — a Catholic symbol of martyrdom, as well as a shape that Stella called a “truncated swastika.” Later, during a lengthy hospitalization in the 1970s, he produced thousands of drawings and 130 mixed-media paintings inspired by photographs of Polish wooden synagogues that were built in the 17th-19th centuries and destroyed in the Holocaust. He titled the paintings after the burned synagogues’ lost communities, saying that he wanted to commemorate “the obliteration of a culture.”

Stella was a child when the United States went to war with the Nazis, an enemy whose visual impact stayed with him. His artistic eye developed during trips to the movies, which frequently showed newsreels of Nazi rallies and marching soldiers. In the 1976 catalog for “Frank Stella: The Black Paintings,” his exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he said that the painting “Die Fahne Hoch” — which comprises black bands of paint crossing narrow, bare spaces of canvas — reminded him of a waving flag. 

“The thing that stuck in my mind was the Nazi newsreels — that big draped swastika — the big hanging flag — has pretty much those dimensions,” he said of the proportions of his canvas, which was 10’1” by 6’1”.

A detail of the “Chad Gadya,” with illustrations by “LOLA” from the 1928 Hebrew Publishing Company “Haggadah.” (Wikipedia)

Another deep influence on the artist was his circle in New York during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, according to art historian Carol Salus. Stella was close to many Jewish friends, art critics, dealers and museum directors. Perhaps most formatively, he was married to the Jewish art critic Barbara Rose between 1961 and 1969. During that time, Rose traveled to Berlin to confront her anxieties tied to the Holocaust. Mark Godfrey, the author of “Abstraction and the Holocaust,” reported her saying, “The thing I was most afraid of was Nazis, so I went to live with them.”

Rosensaft, herself the child of Holocaust survivors, said she believed that Stella absorbed from his surroundings “a kind of Jewish soul.”

The words of “Had Gadya” have prompted various interpretations among rabbis, scholars and ethnomusicologists. Some say the little goat represents the Jewish people and each successive attack represents a world power that exiled the Jews, such as Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and the Crusaders. Others say the song is about God’s triumph over all, even the Angel of Death. 

For Rosensaft, the “Had Gadya” exhibition mirrors a world of proliferating tragedies while offering hope and redemption in God’s final victory over death. Four decades after Stella completed the series, she believes it will resonate with museum visitors who feel caught in a continuous onslaught of suffering — whether their afflictions come from environmental disasters, endemic racism, refugee crises or fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What I am so taken with in Stella’s ‘Had Gadya’ is ultimately his message that hope and goodness prevail — that there is hope, there is the possibility of a brighter, better future,” she said. 

The post How ‘Had Gadya’ inspired famed Catholic painter Frank Stella, a leader of the Minimalist art movement appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Top official says White House antisemitism strategy is ‘under pressure’ due to Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration’s plan to combat antisemitism is “under a lot of pressure” because of the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents since the launch of the war between Israel and Hamas, a top White House official said.

Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, held an online briefing with national Jewish communal leaders on Wednesday, about one month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She said the landmark strategy Biden launched in May to combat antisemitism created what she called a cross-department “architecture” to track and respond to reported incidents of antisemitism, especially on college campuses, but that that system is now being strained, she said.

“Unfortunately, that architecture is under a lot of pressure now with the rise of events” since Oct. 7, Tanden said. “The last several weeks we have seen, on campus and off, a real rise of targeting of Jewish people and antisemitic slurs, actions, threats of violence.”

Jewish watchdogs have recorded a spike of antisemitic incidents worldwide and in the United States since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400, wounding thousands, taking more than 200 captive and sparking an Israeli counterattack in Gaza. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 10,000 have been killed in the fighting.

This week, a Jewish man died after being wounded in an altercation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators this week near Los Angeles. Jews have also been assaulted and faced death threats on college campuses.

“We continue to see an alarming trend of antisemitic threats and attacks targeting Jewish communities across the country,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters just before Tanden’s briefing. “Disturbing acts like ripping down posters of Jewish hostages held by Hamas, vandalizing Jewish institutions, threatening to commit acts of violence against Jewish students, Jewish faith leaders and Jewish communities inflame tensions, stoke fear and are completely completely unacceptable.”

In the webinar, Tanden said the White House was aware of how deep fears are running among American Jews. “We understand that people are scared in this moment, people are scared who have gone their whole loves without being scared,” she said.

Just before the briefing, Jewish organizational leaders met with the top two U.S. law enforcement officials,  Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, to ask for greater protections against antisemitic harassment since the launch of the war, especially on campuses.

“We are comforted by the very active focus of the Department of Justice and the FBI in investigating and prosecuting the tsunami of increased cases since October 7 of hateful crimes against members of the Jewish community,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a text immediately after the meeting ended at noon.

The meetings are among a flurry of efforts by American Jewish organizations to back Israel, fight antisemitism and advocate for the hostages. Jewish organizations are planning a mass rally next week in Washington to galvanize support for those goals.

Tanden said she and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had met with Jewish students on campuses recently. “We spent a significant time hearing from kids, honestly, who are being threatened for who they are, for being Jewish,” she said.

On Oct. 30, Jewish leaders had a meeting with Cardona, days before he warned federally funded colleges that they could lose funding if they failed to address harassment of religious and other minorities. Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish outreach director who was on the webinar, said the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights complaint form now had “antisemitism” designated as an area of harassment.

“There is an actual dropdown, so if you feel like you are being targeted at a university, you can actually click it’s because of antisemitism,” she said. “The department will then investigate.”

Other organizations represented at the Justice Department meeting included the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel International. Julie Fishman Rayman, the AJC’s managing director, said in an email that Wray also addressed FBI involvement in efforts to release the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said Jewish officials who spoke to the Justice Department officials stressed the threat to Jewish students on campus.

“We asked them to surge more resources into law enforcement agencies to protect our communities,” he said in an email. “And we asked for a zero-tolerance policy — especially toward campus incidents. Federal authorities properly charged the student who made death threats at Cornell with a federal crime; that needs to be done across the board with others who act against Jewish students.”

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With the Jerusalem Biennale canceled due to war, participating artists mount 3 exhibits in New York

(New York Jewish Week) – Every two years, hundreds of artists from all over the world flock to Israel for the Jerusalem Biennale, an art festival that celebrates contemporary Jewish and Israeli artists from all over the world. 

Due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, however, the 2023 festival, which was originally supposed to open Thursday, has been tentatively postponed until next spring.

Many of the artists are mounting their shows in their home cities instead. At least five of the Biennale’s exhibits are scheduled to open this week in three continents — North America, South America and Europe — as a satellite version of the festival. 

On Thursday, three of the exhibits — “Activate,” “The Seventeen” and “Hallelujah” — will open in New York City, where more than a dozen artists who are featured in the Biennale call home. 

The Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Salon and the American Sephardi Federation, will host two of the Biennale exhibitions, “Activate” and “The Seventeen.” They will be on view for free at the museum’s East Village location for the next week. 

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side will host a third exhibit, “Hallelujah,” in partnership with the Biennale. The Upper West Side building’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery will show the work beginning Thursday through Dec. 17.

Founded in 2013, the Biennale takes place across the city of Jerusalem and centers contemporary artists whose work references Jewish and Israeli experiences. This year, the Biennale was prepared to bring more than 200 artists to Jerusalem to host 35 exhibitions across the city under the theme of “Iron Flock,” which aims to “identify, through the eyes of curators and artists from all over the world, the movements, ideas, people, and moments that have become our unsaleable cultural assets,” as the Jerusalem Biennale’s website describes it. 

“The Jerusalem Biennale became like a pulse, beating steadily every two years. Since 2013, without exception and despite the many challenges, the Jerusalem Biennale has created a platform for contemporary art at the very center of the Jewish world. Until now. It’s as if the heart skips a beat,” Rami Ozeri, the festival’s founder and creator director, said in a press release. 

“But even now, after the unspeakable pain of October 7, we have witnessed a huge outpouring of solidarity from around the world,” he added. “Within weeks, our friends and partners have succeeded in mounting in their own cities the exhibitions created for the Jerusalem Biennale. We will continue to nurture the ties of art and culture between Jerusalem and the world today more than ever.”

At the Heller Museum, “Activate: A New York Women’s Perspective,” curated by Israeli artist Hadas Glazer, showcases the work of six New York artists — Siona Benjamin, Goldie Gross, Ronit Levin Delgado, Joan Roth, Chelsea Steinberg Gay and Yona Verwer — who explore “the complexities of life as a woman today,” according to a press release.  

Also at the museum, “The Seventeen” spans the 40-year career of Brooklyn-born artist Archie Rand. Curated by Samantha Baskind, the exhibition continues the artist’s explorations of “the Bible and Jewish texts in serialized paintings conceptually informed by twentieth-century culture,” according to the Jewish Art Salon website. 

Meanwhile, at the JCC, “Hallelujah” will showcase Israeli artists currently living in New York who have created art about their experiences as immigrants to the United States. On view will be works by Noa Charuvi, Hirut Yosef , Yehudit Feinstein, Yuli Aloni Primor, Gal Cohen, Ken Goshen, Gabriela Vainsencher and Maya Baran. 

Other exhibitions that were intended for the Biennale will be mounted at the AMIA Art Space in Buenos Aires and the Jewish Museum of Casale Monferrato in Italy. 

Ozeri said in a press release that more of the exhibits will open around the world in the coming months as a plan is made for the Biennale to take place in Jerusalem next year. “This heart will always keep beating,” he said. 

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Brazil police arrest 2 men allegedly plotting terror attacks targeting Jews

(JTA) — Brazilian police have arrested two men and are looking for 11 others reportedly involved in a terror cell plotting attacks aimed at Brazilian Jews.

The group is suspected to have ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist group based in Lebanon that is currently trading fire with Israel at Israel’s northern border. Details on the alleged plot were scarce, but the O Globo newspaper reported that synagogues were among the group’s targets.

One suspect was arrested on Wednesday after flying in from Lebanon to Brazil’s biggest airport, in Guarulhos, near São Paulo. Police are searching São Paulo, the Minas Gerais state and the federal district around the country’s capital Brasília for others.

Police said the charges of “creating or belonging to a terrorist organization and carrying out preparations for acts of terrorism” carry sentences of 15 and a half years in prison.

Over 100,000 Jews live in Brazil, mostly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil, or CONIB, an umbrella group for Brazilian Jewish federations, congratulated police for breaking up the terror cell and expressed “enormous concern” about the situation.

Jewish communities around the world are on high alert in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, and police in several European countries say they have interrupted or tracked plots against Jewish targets over the last month. But even before October, a report published in April found that antisemitism in Brazilian schools had spiked over the past three years. Police are also cracking down on local neo-Nazi groups that have grown in size and influence in recent years.

Hezbollah has been known to have a large presence in Latin America for decades and has been tied to multiple terror attacks in the region, including the bombings of Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 in 1992 and the attack on that city’s AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Brazilian police worked “in collaboration with Mossad and its partners within the Israeli security community, as well as other international security and law enforcement agencies” in making Wednesday’s arrests.

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