The Opportunity of Art

What is the Jewish theology of art? It is a fusion of Judaism, art and spirituality, and New Mexico artist Lia Lynn Rosen thinks that its time is long overdue.

For Rosen, art is a form of prayer. “The rabbinic/biblical interpretation of art as related to idolatry is really off the mark in our day.” she says. “We honor God with the work of our hands—just like the creative expression of writing, but using a different medium.'”

Judaism, she explains, has not traditionally made a place for artwork that is more spiritual than decorative. Because there’s a vacuum here, Rosen believes, the visual arts are an ideal mechanism for women who want to explore—and comment on—Judaism. Making Judaism hospitable to women, she says, “requires developing forms and venues that have not existed before.” Unlike what she calls the canon’s “very male texts,” Jewish art is untainted by the bias of gender.

Rosen, whose Jewish ceremonial pottery with a feminist flavor can be found in past issues of LILITH, has put her own work on the back burner in order to educate the Jewish and arts communities on the richness that the artistic conjunction of Judaism and feminism offers. She recently left Albuquerque to enroll in an M.A. Program in Art and Art Education at Columbia Teachers College, where she creates workshops on “Jewish visual literacy” using examples of the flourishing of Jewish arts in her native New Mexico. Education, explains Rosen, is key: “You can make the most beautiful thing in the world, but if people don’t have a context, or a way to understand it. …”

Rosen has exhibited in New Mexico and across the country, and fuses traditional Jewish elements with a modern and feminist sensibility, creating pieces that are intended to be used in home ritual. “I see my work as tikkun [repair] on Judaism,” she explains. “It’s an attempt to make Judaism more whole.” In one of Rosen’s “Blessing Shields,” created to honor women who have survived breast cancer, is found the Hebrew word “Shaddai,” one of the names of God that may also mean “my breasts.” From the rim of the shields hang four tzitzit, fringes, intended to remind women of the Covenant that they may reclaim in many different ways.

Rosen’s educational focus received national attention recently when she became the first Jewish folk artist to receive a National Endowment for the Arts-funded grant from New Mexico Arts, a state arts agency. In an unusual move, the funding was given to Rosen to support her mentoring of a 13-year old apprentice, Rachel Dorin. For six months, Rosen passed down to Dorin, whose mother is Japanese and father is Jewish, the female tradition of making pottery by helping Dorin create Jewish ceremonial objects. “Being exposed to Judaism through another woman.” Rosen believes, “made it more accessible and less strange to her.”