At what time do you become a poet? This is a question I’ve been pondering?
Can you call yourself a poet, just because you can write some fancy lines?
Or is that a title bestowed upon someone, when his poetry is finally published in a respectable journal?
Who finally says,”that person, he’s a poet” and others follow suit and agree?
I’m perplexed by this question? I know clearly its not a full time occupation.
One can’t just be a poet without a real job.
I’ve read of famous poets who were school teachers, bankers, furniture makers and even politicians!
It’s not like it used to be in al-Andalus. Where there were patrons supporting one’s poetic life.
Where you were paid to write beautiful muwaššaḥs, Arabic lyrical elegies about wine, beauty and love.
Those days are over. Our society demands that we make a living, and frowns upon artistic endeavors.
The usual quip is stated, “he writes poetry but during the day, he has a real job.” Or “that’s just a hobby”
Ive even read books that qualifies the act of writing poetry as a profession that doesn’t pay, so don’t get any bright ideas.
Oh my, poetry is so elusive, how do I contribute a verse? And, to call oneself a poet is presumptuous, unless others of stature agree.
Though I come from a lenient position, as long as you write poetry, you are one.
I don’t want to cause riffs with the establishment, who am I to give out poetic titles, willy nilly?
I guess I’ll just keep on writing poetry, regardless of what others say.
And, leave the bestowing of titles to those more qualified.
I want to write something witty and
Contribute to the plethora of ideas.
That sea filled with endless thought.
However, here I am now scratching my head.
Lost in my own lack of words.
Trying to dig deep and noticing,
That my head is starting to hurt.
Sidetracked by my mental anguish,
Right when my faculties are starting to feel overextended,
I turn to Scotch and ice, my trusted elixir for help!
Suddenly, I don’t feel the burden of creating
Something out of nothing. I can sit here and
Admire my own observations,
As if they were the utterance of a great writer,
It’s either that or my pillow instead.
Inspired by George Burns who quipped:
“I love to sing and I love to drink scotch, most people would rather hear me drink scotch.”
Dialog with my undergrad adviser at the Art Institute a few years ago:
Me: I’m thinking of applying to graduate school.
Prof: Save your money and buy a lot of art supplies.
Me: Actually, I’m thinking about getting my graduate degree in philosophy. Shocked, and after a few seconds of silence.
Prof: Isn’t there enough philosophy in painting?
Me: Yes, but I’m really intrigued by the deeper meaning of art, life and words. When I open up an art book or magazine, the images come alive with the words. I ultimately feel that art is naked without words…
Prof: Art speaks for itself, at least good art does. Good art doesn’t need words.
Me: Not according to Oscar Wilde. When speaking to someone who casually observed how lovely a certain English sunset was. Remarked, that it was only, “a second rate Turner.” With one stroke of his pen, his wit superseded Turner’s famous sunset and his friend’s casual remark.
Salient peaceful pictures
are resting on my whitewashed walls.
Reminders of memories that I adore.
Reflected light, creates sacred shadows
penetrating through semi-open
with the sun’s bright rays.
Do we understand impartiality, by
black versus white, or light versus dark?
Like a lonely scribe sitting by a worn
day after day and night after night.
The poet writes his poesy
on a plain white page.
Selecting meaningful black inked words
and delicately placing them
where they belong.
The contrast is eternally there—
dressing the white luminous spaces
recollections and verbs.
Peaceful memories are
conversations found within
Review Essay: Seventeenth Century Depiction of Sephardic Jews in Art
By: Samuel de Lemos
Steven Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews, University of Chicago Press, 2003
Maria: Cada criatura tiene su razon.
[Maria: Each creature has his or her (own) logic.]
Federico García Lorca
The artistic depiction of Jews by non-Jews throughout history can stand on two thresholds: either patronizing or downright antagonistic. One can also argue that all art – whether figurative or not – indeed patronizes something. Art has been recognized on that basis in many instances and in retrospect can always be seen as somewhat political in nature. It can be seen also as being either manipulative or propagandistic or both. Of course, this is dependent on what side of the socio-perceptual divide you stand on. It is no mystery that art, historically speaking, has been used to cleverly sway people towards what the author likes; in other words, a consciousness of cause, i.e., a cognitive effect or result the author wants from the observer. This is especially true of Christian art. When the Church fathers carefully selected both the artist and the themes to be painted, sculpted, etched, or drawn – the depiction of Jews suffered as a consequence.
However, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) would change that lamentable trend for centuries to come.
David E. Cooper, in his Companion to Aesthetics explains that the carvings of the Royal portal at Chartres (with its depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mother and other prophets and saints), which was built around 1150 and the text which is inscribed on the original gilded doors of St-Denis abbot, lays claim to the aesthetic grounds on which that period’s art was based on:
True light where Christ is the true door…The dull mind raises to truth, through that which is material and in seeing this light, is resurrected form its former submersion.
This text reveals the influence of two ideas. According to the first, which has its philosophical origins in Plato and which was associated with Neo-Platonism, sensible forms and images are symbols of an invisible transcendent reality and channels of communication with it. The Judeo-Christian counterpart of this notion is found in scripture: ‘from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their creator’ (Wisdom 13: 5); and ‘Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature…has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ (Romans I: 20) These scriptural passages also provide a source for the second idea, which is that, in creating forms embodying a transcendent meaning, the artist is showing one way in which he is himself an image of God (imago dei)..The design of St-Denis and the narrative scheme of the Chartres royal portal embody important aspects of the medieval world view at a critical stage of its development; thus they are apt and useful focal points for the studying it’s ideas about art and beauty…Here, then, the notion that the sensible symbolizes the transcendent becomes the thought that making things according to due proportion, as in the work of the arts, one creates beauty and ipso facto, establishes a link with the Divine … it was the innovations made at Chartres, St-Denis and elsewhere which made possible the profound representational realism achieved in the Renaissance. But to this it must be added that the latter period (Renaissance) was more concerned with developing techniques of art than it was questioning the nature of reality (medieval period) it sought to represent. There would not be another period of innovative thought on these matters until the raise of rationalism in the seventeenth century. [Cooper 1995: 280]
The paradigm of art during this period was one of calculated visual effect that would both mesmerize and inspire the populace to accept the primacy of Church doctrine. The themes are usually idealized through Christ’s Passion and/or Christian Messianic narratives taken from the New Testament. The aesthetics of this period are without a doubt grand visions into a new world order led by the Catholic Church. Of all the iconography used to sway the audience, the pinnacle was reached in the ideal human form, personified by Christ himself. The contrast between Christ and the rest of humanity can be seen in the order of those closest to him, to those furthest from him. From disciples to prostitutes, there was a socio-political stratification represented in the period paintings of the day. Of all the actors in the socio-political arena, the most benighted and irredeemable was the place held by Jews.
Outside of the Jewish consciousness, the stereotype of a Jew has often been a point of contention within the confines of art during this period (medieval to Renaissance). Ignorance and the constant reminders of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus most often fueled the agitation towards the Jew; thus justifying the moral depravity often associated towards the Jew in art.
In other words, how do you depict the “killers of Christ” in a positive way?
The irony in all of this is that for the non-Jew, Christ is intentionally perceived somehow as a non-Jew. According to the New Testament narrative, Christ himself was brought up as a circumcised Jew in Roman Judea. For Christians this has historically been beside the point, and better left as a side note in the sea of absurd human recollections.
We must recall however, that prior to Rembrandt’s epoch, and throughout Christian Europe, Jews were most often and purposefully portrayed as inferior, base subjects, often marked by distinct clothing, badges or hats. Artistic depictions of that time show Jews often having bent backs and repulsive facial features; demonic caricatures of the human form which inspired antagonistic feelings, always carrying the stigma of divine rejection.
In retrospect, we should note that the pictorial representations of the Counter-Reformation period were loaded with signs and symbols, which lead to purposeful meanings. These meanings in retrospect mark the veritas associated with that cause.
Julian Bell, in his book, What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art, in a thoroughly Platonic sense, describes it thus:
As such, a mark is a sign you can see. A sign, in logic, is something which points beyond itself; something which means…If paintings are a type of mark, representing in either of these senses, then as part of the whole category of signs they are comparable to words. But – and this is one concern of the semiotician – they seem able to attach themselves more strongly to what they represent than words. [Bell 1999: 26]
The transcendental Platonic message was clear; the Jews betrayed and rejected their Messiah, and are represented in art as the consummate fiends of humanity, and killers of God. We have to ask a question here, prior to Rembrandt’s encounter with the Sephardim in Amsterdam: How did the general European Jewish populace engage with outsiders? In other words, did the interaction of European Jews or lack of interaction, with their non-Jewish neighbors help to stymie this artistic antagonism? We will come back to this later.
Within the context of Jewish history, the re-integration of the conversos into Judaism brought diverse difficulties as was experienced in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam. Nadler recounts how these difficulties often arose within the ranks of returning Sephardim and their co-religionist brethren of Ashkenazi stock, and the Sephardim’s skewed views of Judaism in general. Yet for the Gentile, a Jew, whether of Sephardi or Ashkenazi stock, brought forth no questions of Jewish authenticity.
For a non-Jew, a Jew was simply a Jew: no more, no less. Differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim were better left to the general Jewish community and had absolutely nothing to do with the sentiments of the Gentiles whatsoever. The sentiments of the non-Jewish populace were often redirected and more concerned with public displays of religion, outside of the Calvinist mainstream, or with illicit sexual misconduct of Jewish men with Christian women, than the details of Jewish tribal issues.
What was so different then, between the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish merchant families who upheld the highest mores of Jewish thought and religion, and the rest of European Jewry?
Why did this period bring forth a pictorial emancipation from the typical grotesque portrayals of Jews in art towards a more refined, and at times elevated, conscious perception of Jews towards society in general?
And why was the leading visual artist of the time redefining the perceptual paradigm of Jews in a non-Jewish society?
Stephen Nadler in his book Rembrandt’s Jews argues that perhaps it was the social sophistication of the Sephardim, who occupied the higher echelons of Amsterdam society, both on an intellectual and material level, which might have something to do with this new perspective. In addition to the presence of Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam, there is also a new course of philosophical thought directed towards rationalism and the need to represent that in art too. We see that these two developments changed Dutch culture at the time of Rembrandt.
There is no doubt that the members of the Portuguese Nation, as these Sephardim were known, brought financial benefit to the Netherlands and its overseas colonies. The economical benefits were a cause célèbre within the nobility and governmental establishments of the day, and acted as a strong reason for them to provide a haven for these Spanish and Portuguese merchants.
Nadler points out that the immigrant Sephardim adapted well to the fashions of the day; from hairstyles to home décor. This marked them with an air of sophistication that the society at large was not to forget. All this was done while maintaining an impeccable sense of being Jewish i.e., observant of the precepts of the Torah. This is not to say there were not some members of the Nation who did not behave in questionable manners. It was well known, with publicly documented proof, that there were some married men of the Nation who had illicit sexual affairs with Dutch Christian women. This was both frowned upon and prohibited by law in both Jewish as well as Christian circles.
However, it was common knowledge that the members of the Nation lived in relative peace and behaved in an orderly and discreet way with their Christian neighbors. Interacting in compatible ways with the host society was a Sephardic mark of distinction that brought a tendency towards harmonious relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. The beauty of this was that compatibility does not equal assimilation, i.e., losing one’s Jewish identity. In the Sephardic consciousness, they were bona fide Jews; sons and daughters of the covenant and inheritors of all the privileges and troubles offered by their adherence to their ancient religion.
Their Iberian surnames did not fool the resident citizens of the Netherlands into believing otherwise: to them the Spanish and Portuguese merchants were Jews, even though the members of the Nation were different on theological and ethnic grounds. This could be dangerous, as David Ramirez has pointed out in his recent essay on Aaron Katchen’s Christian Hebraists and Dutch Rabbis. Nevertheless, Amsterdam’s society accepted and accommodated them, and in essence helped to facilitate their return back to Judaism – at times begrudgingly, but nevertheless, a remarkable feat for any European Christian nation at the time.
Rembrandt in the Judería
Rembrandt lived only a few houses from the Espinosas and the Spanish and Portuguese Esnoga, on No. 4 Breestraat in the Vlooienburg quarter of Amsterdam. As Nadler recounts:
Had Rembrandt moved into any other neighborhood of the City, he would have been surrounded by neighbors with such names as de Witt, Graaf, Van den Berg, and Janszoon. As it was, the occupants of the houses around No. 4 Breestraat had name that were to the Dutch ear, of a somewhat more exotic timbre: Rodrigues, da Costa, Bueno, Nunes, Osario. Rembrandt’s block was the home of Manuel lopes de Leon, Henrico d Ázevedo, and David Abendana… All these people, with the exception of Rabbi Mortera, were Sephardim: Jews of Iberian extraction…Vlooienburg was, then, not only the center of Amsterdam’s art market and lumber trade. It was also the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish world. And Rembrandt settled right at its center. Every house immediately contiguous with or facing his own was owned or occupied by a Jew. And an overwhelming majority of the households on his block, on both sides of the street, were Jewish. From his front stoop he could see into Rabbi Mortera’s windows; from his top floor he had a view of the community’s Synagogue. He could not help but hear the sons of Jewish families chattering in Portuguese on their way to school in the morning. On Friday afternoon, he could smell the slow-cooking Iberian foods they prepared for Sabbath.
Before the Lower East Side of New York, before the Marais district in Paris, even before London’s Park Lane, there was the Vlooienburg. And much of what we think about Rembrandt and his art stems, ultimately, from his decision to live there. [Nadler 2003: 15]
With or without the help of Nadler or other historians, one can safely speculate that Rembrandt’s proximity to the Sephardim helped to fuel the artist’s imagination for exotic human specimens as represented in his Biblical paintings, portraits, and drawings for which he is so famous.
Of the many Jewish dandies that sat for Rembrandt, the most important was the venerable Hakham Menasseh ben Israel. We see Menasseh in paintings by Rembrandt and other notable artists of the time. Again, one can safely speculate that Rembrandt’s contact with the venerable Hakham Menasseh, would occasion interesting, if not daring conversations, ranging from theology to speculative philosophy, all within easy grasp of Hakham Menasseh’s subtle mind. Hakham Menasseh ben Israel was known as one of the leading intellectuals of his day.
The whole of chapter three in Nadler’s book is dedicated to Menasseh Ben Israel;
Poor Menasseh ben Israel. He was one of the most accomplished and cosmopolitan rabbis of his time. A true renaissance man, whose erudition and achievements were renowned, nobody did more in the seventeenth Century to advance the Jewish cause, whether in learning or in politics. Scholar, philosopher, diplomat, teacher, editor, translator, printer – no activity seems to have been outside his considerable talents… And yet he felt, somehow, that he did not get from his own community the respect he deserved.
He was right. [Nadler 2003: 104]
Even the celebrated luminary Hugo Grotius was smitten by Hakham Menasseh’s immense erudition and wisdom. In Grotius own words:
I have the utmost respect for Menasseh’s learning and for his intellect. He follows with conspicuous success the path of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Abarbanel. His books, with which I am acquainted, are much read and highly appreciated here in Paris. [Nadler 2003: 109]
It was known that Hakham Menasseh filled the Esnoga, on occasions, with visiting Gentiles, wanting to catch some interesting theological perspectives from his Devar Torah. Hakham Menasseh’s immense encyclopedic mind was obviously sought after; if not by his own community, then by the Gentiles that surrounded him. His sermons were filled with the intricacies of the Millenialist ideas which were so prevalent in the Sephardic theological landscape of Amsterdam during the Seventeenth Century.
One of the understated marks in art that Nadler alludes to is the transformation of the Hebrew language in pictorial representation at that time. Prior to Rembrandt’s Biblical paintings, the Hebrew language was most often represented in caricature form, much like a child’s scribbling. Yet the conjecture is made clear by Nadler, and I agree, that with the help of Hakham Menasseh’s association with Rembrandt, and perhaps the clarity in which Rembrandt represented his many subjects, that the Hebrew language in pictorial form also had its own form of emancipation.
This can be seen more clearly in Rembrandt’s painting titled Belshazzar’s Feast. Although the story is taken from the Biblical book of Daniel the writing employed in the original context is Aramaic. Even so, there is an authenticity to the form given to the letters as depicted by Rembrandt. In this story we find that the Jews have been exiled to Babylon, and King Belshazzar orders a great feast, where the vessels of the Bet HaMiqdash – the Temple at Jerusalem – are being employed to serve the many guests present. Little does Belshazzar know that these vessels are qadosh, holy, unto God, and are not to be used so frivolously and without consequence.
This writing thus appears on the wall to all present at this great feast; written words in the Hebrew/Aramaic language. Rembrandt uses for the first time in the history of Art the correct Hebrew lettering which was done with, something unheard of at that time, subtle Talmudic innuendos.
If one tries to read the Aramaic in Rembrandt’s painting the way Aramaic and Hebrew are usually read, horizontally across from right to left, the writing makes no sense whatsoever; they are not even real words. Only when the letters are read vertically down each row, starting at the right and moving leftward column by column, does the message from Daniel 5:25 appear.
The form in which the message was written for Belshazzar was a subject of some debate among the ancient rabbis. The biblical text gives no indication of the format of the words; it just says that the king could not read them. In the Talmud, when the question is raised as to why Belshazzar and his retinue could not understand the writing, a number of possibilities are proposed. According to Rabbi Jochanan, it was because the message proceeded horizontally but with each word written backward, from left to right. Rabbi Ashi agreed that the words were to be read horizontally, but insisted that the difficulty stemmed from the fact that the first and second letters of each word were transposed. Finally, Rabbi Samuel suggested that the writing had to be read vertically, not horizontally-just as we find in Rembrandt’s painting…Why did Rembrandt adopt in his painting the same interpretation of the story given by Rabbi Samuel? Almost certainly because of Rabbi Menasseh. [Nadler 2003: 125]
With European society coming to the fore of Modernity during this rich epoch, so too does art follow in the same direction. Rembrandt, with the help of his Sephardic friends, is in the vanguard of this new movement. Could it be that the Sephardim played a determinant role in this subtle paradigm shift from social marginalization of the Jew to one of acceptance within normative society? According to Nadler they do, the pictorial marks are there, as clear as the writing on the wall.
Enter the Ashkenazim
Within the confines of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Nadler describes the relationship between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim as being troubled and distant. The reason being was that the Ashkenazim brought with them what has been coined within our circles as “the ghetto mentality”. As pejorative as this coinage may sound, the fact was that the Ashkenazim reflected this by their crude demeanor. The Ashkenazim had fewer financial resources, dressed in the garb of their former shtetls, and spoke Yiddish, a rough old Germanic dialect that was distasteful to refined Sephardic ears.
The bottom line is that they stood out, and that was bothersome to the cosmopolitan Sephardim who had integrated so well into Dutch society, and who also feared being categorized with such an unpleasant lot. On the other hand, according to Nadler, the Ashkenazim found the Spanish and Portuguese Jews not living as strict Jews.
Nadler narrates this mutual antipathy in the following passage:
The Jews who founded Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Hebrew congregations required a good deal of reeducation before they could constitute a proper Jewish community.
In this respect, the Ashkenazim held the clear advantage. The German, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews who settled in Amsterdam had not been disengaged as a group from traditional Judaism and forced to assimilate into local Gentile society. On the contrary, for centuries they and their ancestors had been living the traditional life of the Jew. They knew the language of the Torah and the Talmud and the demands of halachah, or Jewish law…Not a few of them carried an attitude of open disdain toward their materially more prosperous but Judaically impoverished Portuguese neighbors.
The condescension of the Ashkenazim was nothing, however, compared to the antipathy felt toward them in return by the Portuguese. The Sephardim were contemptuous of the central and eastern European Jews in their midst. They were embarrassed by them in front of their Dutch host. They resented their archaic habits and practices, their debased, unintelligible language, and, not least, their shabby dress. The Portuguese wore fashionable, well tailored clothes, usually indistinguishable from the Dutch styles. From their hats and capes down to their stockings and boots, they affected the manner of Amsterdam’s upper-bourgeois class. The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, stood out in their long, dark coats, untrimmed beards, and misshapen caps. Worst of all was the poverty. [Nadler 2003: 31]
Yet when reading the wonderful research by Professor Miriam Bodian in her Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation we find quite the contrary in regards to the Judaism of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews, and thus we find Nadler’s assertions become just flights of his own misguided conjectures. Much of what he states about the Ashkenazim in Holland is refuted by other scholars.
Through the wealth of first source material available on Dutch Jewries, we find that Ashkenazim fleeing the 30-year war in Germany and Eastern Europe – besides being poor – some were very uneducated and unobservant in Jewish law. Bodian brings examples that some of them even begged for money on the steps of the Esnoga! [Bodian: 126, 127, 129, 133]
[Ashkenazim] were not only culturally foreign to the “Portuguese,” but tended to be poor and uneducated as well. Most were of the lowest social strata – butchers, peddlars, beggars, and the like. Often they became menial employees of Portuguese Jews. They did not conform to the self-image of the Portuguese Jews in any way, and were regarded by the latter with distaste . . . [The “Portuguese”] showed regard for [later Polish and Lithuanian] emigres than for the earlier refugees from German lands: the polacos were better educated and among them were respected scholars. Indeed, the Lithuanian scholar Moses Rivkes, who arrived as a refugee in the Netherlands in 1655, was given the unusual honor of being admitted to the yeshiva of De Pinto family in Rotterdam.
The Ashkenazi migrants heavily depended on the Spanish & Portuguese Jews for Jewish learning and their Esnogas for worship. Only later in the second half of the 17th c., the Ashkenazim became independent thanks to the finances provided by Sephardim.
Nevertheless, Rembrandt also painted the Ashkenazim, and they too are forever memorialized in seventeenth century art, albeit this time in a more uplifting manner. One particular Rembrandt portrait stands out as exemplifying our central premise; that during Rembrandt’s time the way Jews are depicted in art changed from what was the antagonistic or anti-Semitic to an acceptance of them by non-Jews.
While visiting the Kimball Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the Rembrandt painting titled, Portrait of a Young Jew. This painting is rich in hue and texture as befitting the great Dutch master. Immediately one can tell that the face is that of an Ashkenazi youth. The face carries a pensive and distant look, giving an air of both tranquility, and yet also of scorn.
Looking at it in depth, one can see that Rembrandt captures the feeling of uncertainty and apprehension of a Jew in a foreign nation. Rembrandt’s juxtaposition of peace and subtle apprehension is so powerfully existent in this youth face, that you can say this face reflects every Jews apprehension of being in the galut, the Jew’s tragic lot in life, and every Jew’s yearning for a better tomorrow. This is a universalistic view, and a true masterpiece.
I found myself coming back to that painting over and over again. I reflected on the depth of the chiaroscuro and richness of pigment that was used to deliver such a charming portraiture. I thought to myself, how I wish there could have been a complimentary portraiture of the Sephardic Jew, Ephraim Bueno next to it (whom Rembrandt painted as well) so that I could see the differences of Rembrandt’s interpretation.
What separated Rembrandt from the rest of his contemporaries, great artists in their own right, was his ability to transcend general Christian perceptions; in other words, to deliver a consciousness of cause, i.e., to deflect meaning in his art by going to what is visually existent. He was a master of realist meaning; providing visual information and perception by the themes he chose and the people he portrayed. His art emancipated Jews and elevated them to a position of higher esteem within normative societal views, gone was anti-Semitism in art, which had been the standard prior to his arrival in history
Nadler ends his book with a reference to the death and burial of the distinguished Hakham Menasseh ben Israel. Was Rembrandt at the funeral? Nobody knows for sure. As it has been widely chronicled, Rembrandt suffered from financial duress throughout his distinguished artistic career and died a broken and impoverished man, a sad testament to such a genius. Nadler believes that he was there and paid his last respect to his friend.
Although Rembrandt could have had many reasons not attend his friend’s funeral, his financial situation being one, nevertheless, according to Nadler, he attended anyway. One can surmise that with the death of Hakham Menasseh ben Israel, so too died the golden age of Sephardic grandeur in the Dutch Republic. It is also argued that the golden age of Dutch painting died when Rembrandt did.
Going back to the questions I posed at the introduction of this essay, the rest of European Jewry outside of the Sephardim were classified by non-Jews as outsiders. We can correlate their identification as being obtuse, unfriendly, and unwilling to incorporate the ideas of their surrounding neighbors. This has always been a dangerous gambit to play for any foreigners living outside of their domain. The end result almost always leads to trouble whether it was expulsion or, far worse, extermination.
I had first hand experience of this when I visited England a few years ago.
On my visit I was approached with the local bias that Jews were for the most part rude, ethnocentric and backwards. Of course as a Jew I tried to dispel these stereotypes, by claiming that not all Jews were that way. I was taken to the Jewish quarter were the Hassidim lived. They were, sure enough, rude, and their fashion was awkward and blatantly “Jewish”. I then took these friends of mine to visit the Bevis-Marks Esnoga, the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish congregation of London, and was warmly greeted by a Sephardi and member of the existing Ma‘amad who was personable and gentle, and who dressed regularly or in today’s fashion. Any questions of stereotypical rudeness were immediately dismissed and recognized as being delineated by the Hassidim alone.
Needless to say, our behavior with our Gentile neighbors can make a tremendous difference in perceptions of us. And I am sad to say that our coreligionists, not all of course, are making it difficult to be identified with being Jewish today.
The Sephardim, on the other hand, having had decades of practice in the arts of merging with Gentile societies, without losing their identity, have been better-suited in the eyes and minds of their Gentile neighbors.
They were a bridge to wider acceptance of Judaism in foreign circles. They were in the vanguard of Judaism in the Americas, way before the Ashkenazim arrived on these shores.
The Sephardim are reluctant to live within the margins of ghettoization as is the practice of the Ashkenazim today and as I have witnessed in Europe and America. Therefore, we must come to accept that in many ways the Ashkenazim helped to perpetrate their own stereotypes in the arts, and reinforce Anti-Semitism from Gentiles.
Hitler, who understood the power of art as a vehicle for communication, capitalized on the weakness of the stereotypical Jew and the allure of the Aryan ideal. What Rembrandt tried to defuse in art with the help of the Sepharadim, Hitler reinstated as soon as he came into power, by murdering Jews, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim alike. He knew that in order for the masses to side with his grandiose schemes of world dominance, he needed to shift the paradigm of art once again to the idea of a new world order. In essence Nazism served to reinstate the medieval theory of Jew as traitor, reject and fiend; which prevented the world from advancing.
Wherever his armies went; he made sure that his henchmen stole art, artifacts, anything of value, especially from Jews. During his reign of terror Hitler reversed the ways in which Jews had been emancipation in art such as that of Rembrandt, and stole from them their physical freedom.
The point is that art does manipulate; it carries ideas, and transports the human consciousness to different levels, whether for good or for evil. The subtleties of art as a transporter of human consciousness in pictorial representation are powerful tools of psychological control.
With the advent of moving pictures and modern media, the need to view two-dimensional visual art has steadily decreased. Much of what we see as visual information that communicates to us is clinical in its aesthetic appeal.
Hegel surmised close to two centuries ago that the end of art as he knew it would some day end. I am not saying that art today does not communicate – what I am saying is that the artistic mode of communication as it was once known and the power that paintings had on the psyche of the general populace, is not nearly as important as it once was. There are some valiant artists who keep reinventing painting, yet the museum or gallery in which art is shown has also lost its luster and place, the movie theater being its replacement.
The Venice biennale and other places where art is exhibited today have become commercialized events that showcase artists more like thoroughbreds in a horse race representing their perspective countries than as individual masters of thought, meaning and purpose that an artist like Rembrandt was known to be.
The art world today is one of vain speculation as to who could best shock the audience; so as to guarantee their place in art history. Although this could be seen as cynical and pessimistic, the fact is that museum attendance is declining and art is heard of only when it shocks a group or a religion; a sad testament to this noble tradition. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy viewing art and I hope that an artist will come along someday to resurrect pictorial art from its slumber and provide humanity with a renovated positive vision of itself.