Parshat Shemot by Judith Margolis

Fine art Archival Print on 256 gsm Paper, museum quality.
Limited Edition of 250 (נר) each. Size - 70X50 cm
Price includes international shipping

I have often appropriated images from popular culture and news media, as a source for my art. For this complexly plotted Parasha, I managed to integrate images and themes that have interested me and appeared in my work over many years.

For example, in the past I used triangles as a powerful central image for focus and meditation. Here a Triangle represents both the dark mysteries of Egyptian culture, and Har Sinai, the place of Holy revelation.

I understand Pharoah to be a descendant of Amalek, who rises up, it is said, in every generation to destroy the Jews. This image shows Pharoah as a bound Mummy, expressing notions of evil as depicted in "horror movies" of my mid-20th century childhood. He floats transparently across an image of a global world, which references the many places throughout time that evil tyranny oppressed and continues to threaten the vulnerable.

I painted Moses swaddled in Pharoah's arms, as if cradled in his foundling's basket. He is observed by and will be rescued by Pharoah's daughter who is sometimes referred to as Batya. Her fortuitous presence in the water at dawn, is explained by midrash, not as random chance but because she was engaged in doing a mikveh, the ritual immersion associated with conversion. Presumably knowing that Moses was Jewish and willfully flouting her father's decree that Jewish male infants be murdered, she proves herself to be an appropriate surrogate mother/guardian for him, by rescuing him to be raised in Pharoah's household.

Batya is deliberately, even provocatively painted in an explicitly sensual form. This refers not only to Jewish artistic tradition — Pharoah’s daughter was depicted as early as 244 CE in the Dura Europos synagogue as bathing nude — but also brings her together in visual dialogue with the Triangle, a graphic visual symbol of Har Sinai. This reminds us of the dearly held belief that all the Jewish souls, the men and the women and children, were assembled for the revelation of God.

The Burning Bush has long appeared to me to be a powerful metaphor for the way artists relentlessly seek images to encourage them on their path and transform their lives, as it did Moshe's. In this painting, it serves as a prophetic foretelling of Moshe's encounter with God, as well as an icon of never ending, enduring creative energy that inspires faith and life, with out ever being consumed.

Life as a Jewish feminist artist 

Most relevant to curating and participating in Women of the Book, is my life-long engagement with and ambivalence about religious tradition, especially, but not exclusively, Judaism.

Bred in the cobblestones of the Bronx at the end of World War II, raised amidst Yiddish endearments, I was Jewish. Family moving to suburban NJ provided a childhood resembling illustrations from Dick and Jane, laden with guilty Jewish mishagas.

And contradictions!

My family was NOT religious. “Religion is a bunch of mumbo jumbo!” said Dad. But I loved going to synagogue and reading the stories in Chumash (five books of Moses), and my mother lit shabbat candles and joyously hosted family gatherings. For Purim, amongst all the Queen Esthers, I was Vashti! When I asked about Bat Mitzvah, I was told “girls don’t have to learn Hebrew.” Instead, I befriended girls from religious families and accompanied them to shul, where women were not “counted.”

Desire for spiritual knowledge blossomed alongside my burgeoning consciousness as an artist. Girls it seemed were getting short shrift in both worlds.

This was the 50’s and early 60’s, with few female professional/artistic role models. I remember seeing a sculpture by Louise Nevelson at MOMA, so astonished I said out loud, “A woman did this!!!” At 15, while friends were lying about their age to drink beer, I lied to be able to take lessons and draw from (nude) models at The Art Students League.

Attending religious services on Shabbat and drawing nudes during the week, these aspects of my personality and soul have manifest in a complex duality, wound around each other like the “rose around the briar.”

At Cooper Union, I came of age amidst all the spiritual implications of Abstract Expressionist rhetoric. My allegiance to figurative drawings and my enthrallment with abstraction integrated the closely described with the abstract— one could say, the physical with the spiritual — and still does.

Fast forward through marriage, three babies, a stint at a west coast hippie commune, from which my first published drawings were published (Country Commune Cooking, Coward McCann and Geoghegan 1972). The crucial serendipity of a move to San Francisco with my kids and second husband, writer, David Margolis z”l, bought us into the sphere of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z”l. For 25 years religious observance and Torah learning became central in my life. At the same time the Feminist take on things continued to inform my life and art, and, let’s face it, cause Trouble. Tension between feminist consciousness and Talmudic misogyny is central to my art. I no longer want the restrictive Orthodoxy that attracted my husband z”l, but I did wholeheartedly try to make sense of it. I find a more authentic spiritual practice in making art.

Recognized within Feminist art circles, and included in the Syracuse Cultural Workers, Women’s Art Calendar (2003), imagine my delight to be October along side Louise Nevelson’s February in Hadassah - Brandeis Institute’s 2008 Art Calendar, “Jewish Women Creating Art, Promoting Change.”

Artist/essayist Judith Margolis, is Art Editor of Nashim, Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues. Her work appears in ARTweek, Parabola, Sh’ma, Tikkun, Architectural Worlds, and CROSSCurrents, and resides in rare book collections including Yale, and the New York Public Library. 

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Category: Print

Type: Women of the Book

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