Tradition and Transformation by Ori Z Soltes
A Comprehensive Exploration of Three Millenia of Jewish Art and Architecture
This highly ambitious volume addresses the idea of “Jewish art and architecture” by posing and responding to a series of questions. First is the unresolved conceptual definition of “Jewish,” not just as applied to art, but to literature, music, dance, or thought as well. Then there is the complex matter of historical designation : Abraham was called a Hebrew; Moses and David were Israelites; Ezra was a Judaean. How are these terms related to and different from the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” and where, accordingly, must one place Israelite and Judaean art and architecture within the understanding of Jewish art and architecture? Soltes’ narrative further asks: when one uses the phrase “Jewish art and architecture,” is it a description of the work of art or the identity of the artist? If the former, is the criterion the subject, style, symbol, or purpose? If the latter, is it the artist’s convictions that are being labeled “Jewish”—does he or she need to be consciously trying to make “Jewish” art? Is the artist-based definition affected by birth or conversion: does an artist who converts into or out of Judaism suddenly begin to make Jewish art or cease to make Jewish art?
Against the background of these questions, Tradition and Transformation follows a long and wide trajectory that moves from the Israelite period to the present day, and carries us from the Middle East to Europe, Asia, North Africa, South and North America and back to the Middle East, as it searches for answers. But it is the journey, not the arrival that is important. Through the presentation and analysis of over a thousand works of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, collage, architecture, and mixed media—more than 700 of which are depicted—the author continuously addresses the ways in which various works and their makers do and/or do not fit comfortably into the rubric “Jewish art” or “Jewish architecture.” We arrive at a necessarily aporetic conclusion: the very criteria of definition continue to shift across time and space, and we embrace the idea that there is no absolute set of terms that will apply comfortably across a vast and lush realm of artistic creativity. Perhaps this is the point. For asking questions without easy answers or without answers at all, in the end, proves to be the consummate Jewish art.
Year first published: 2023