Esther Zibell’s colorful and imaginative holiday paintings have left synagogue-goers inspired by Judaism, art and a rather ambitious theme—Jewish unity.
Her exhibit, “Jewnity”—currently showing at the Hadas Gallery at the RohrChabad Jewish Center serving the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, a neighborhood in the north-central borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., that borders Crown Heights—has been met with enthusiasm by a cross-section of visitors since it went on display in mid-September.
Built five years ago across the street from the Pratt campus, the gallery is run by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, co-director of Chabad at Pratt. It also functions as a synagogue for the downtown Brooklyn collegiate community and the surrounding area, which is known for its affinity towards the arts.
Indeed, the walls have seen a lot. Ongoing changing exhibits of all kinds—paintings, photography, mixed media and sculpture by local professional Jewish artists, students and professors—and congregants as diverse as the surrounding artwork bring a real mix of creativity and spirituality to the place. OnShabbat, the Torah scrolls are brought out, and Jewish prayerful songs and melodies can be heard; students also attend holiday meals and late-night schmooze sessions there.
Weinstein led 70 cross-cultural Jewish worshippers on Rosh Hashanah andYom Kippur, surrounded by artwork. “There’s a minyan every Shabbat with Chassidic Jews, black Jews, Hipsters, … ” he says. “It’s the most diverse synagogue anywhere.”
He also notes that the center has managed to integrate the emerging art scene with Judaism; he chose the name “Hadas,” which means “myrtle” in Hebrew, for the street on which the gallery resides: Myrtle Avenue.
The chair of the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt, Weinstein is sometimes referred to as the “comic-book rabbi” after the success of his first book in 2006, titled Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. He’s currently working on a graphic novel resurrecting an old graphic strip called “Art School Rabbi,” based on his interactions with students on campus.
Suzi Glass, a Texas native at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she is studying cartooning, has lived on the same block as the shul for four years. She joins in every Shabbat and Jewish holiday, and helps the rabbi run events. The 25-year-old says it’s Divine providence that she landed an apartment so close to the center.
“The shul has such a diverse range of people going there; there’s something for everyone, exemplified by different conversations about the artwork,” says Glass. “Someone will find one aspect familiar and start asking questions; there is bonding over different things just by being there.”
The interior of the 2,000-square-foot storefront gallery was designed by Jewish students at Pratt, when the Weinstein family and the growing community outgrew the one-bedroom Brooklyn Heights apartment that had been operating as their Chabad House—a 45-minute walk from the campus—until 2009.
Eric Moed, who studied architecture at Pratt, worked at the time on his first commission by helping to design the space from scratch. “I saw it grow from a handful [of students] to over a hundred,” he says. “There was an explosion of Jewish life on campus.”
Moed, who works for his grandfather’s architecture firm on Wall Street, explains that his great-grandfather—an architect from Antwerp, Belgium—had his first commission designing shuls in New York after escaping World War II. So working on the Hadas Gallery, says Moed, “was extra meaningful because I was continuing the tradition of using architecture to make shuls, and to honor the Jewish communities and make meaningful spaces.”
Glass says she enjoyed the current exhibit at the gallery—a solo show of Zibell’s expressionist pieces from the past 15 years. The artwork reflects Jewish life year-round, including ceremonial and family scenes, still-life paintings and other holiday pieces of museum quality.
Some of her favorite pieces included a work called “Havdalah,” where a woman with a child on her lap serenely watches her husband make the ritual closing prayer for Shabbat over wine and a fire; another one was “Kiddush Levanah,” where moonlight glows over old Jerusalem stone steps as men recite a blessing of the moon.
“The theme was successful because everyone had a favorite painting that was different because our experiences are different,” explains Glass. “It’s interesting how everyone related on different details of the paintings for different reasons, but there was unity—you can see different facets of Judaism.”
‘It Evokes Something’
Melanie Beaudette, originally from Maine, has been helping curate shows at Hadas for the past year-and-half. A public-school history teacher in Crown Heights who lives around corner from the gallery, she was eager to displayZibell’s art—only the second female artist at the gallery.
“One thing I liked about her work was that it’s heimish and homey, using such objects as pomegranates and fish, which are appropriate for the holiday and for a space used as a synagogue,” says Beaudette.
She explains that in the area used to daven and near the wall where the Torah is, there are no portraits of people, consistent with the prohibition to pray in front of images. The mechitzah (partition) used during davening (prayer) not only divides male and female congregants, but serves to separate the artistic atmosphere as well; in the women’s section hang pictures of females, and on the men’s side are portraits of males.
“A lot of her work is moody; it has an affect that evokes something,” continues Beaudette. “For example, there’s a black-and-white piece of people around amenorah from the Holocaust, which has an undertone. It’s not explicit; people aren’t asking why that’s up. It’s also relevant for the holiday [of Chanukah]. The mood and color are so beautiful.”
Zibell—who’s in her early 60s, and is married with three children and six grandchildren—has been painting since childhood. She has shown her art in numerous solo and group exhibitions over the years, including one at the Brooklyn Central Library in 2011 titled “Jewish Life in Crown Heights.”
The self-taught artist, who did not attend art school, traces her professional origins to the Paris art world during the 1970s and ’80s, when she began to exhibit her own surrealist oil paintings. When she became an Orthodox Jew some 30 years ago, she turned to Jewish and Chassidic life as inspiration for her art.
“I am always influenced by where I am living,” says Zibell. That has included Montreal; Safed, Israel; and then Crown Heights, where she moved 16 years ago and began painting Chassidic life as she observed it on the bustling streets.Her artistic fame in the neighborhood came when she had her first show at the local Chassidic Art Institute in 2002.
Avigayil Halberstam, an undergraduate student at Pratt, says that whenever there is an opening for an art show, she makes it a point to attend.
“The art at the Hadas Gallery is inspiring to everyone who enters because when they are joining the minyan on Shabbat, they are moved by the prayers, being completely captivated around them through these inspiring powerful paintings of their heritage,” relates Halberstam. “It is truly a remarkable experience.”
Zibell’s art will be on display until Dec. 8. Hours at the Hadas Gallery are by appointment only; call 718-866-6815. For more information about upcoming shows and events at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center, visit their web site, www.rabbisimcha.com, here.