The Jewish Folk Gallery is a modest space that can barely contain the artistic output of the emigre artists and artisans who rely on it as a showplace for their work.
The walls and the shelves of the 300-square-foot gallery – formerly the first-floor library at Bnai Zion House – overflow with scenes of shtetl life and people at prayer, landscapes of Russia and Israel, engraved copper plaques and carved wooden ritual objects. There is just enough room for a tea-service cart to fit behind the door.
The gallery’s cramped condition attests to the energy of artists who find themselves liberated for the first time. "They have years of accumulated ideas and only now they’re coming up," Ilya Nathanson told The Jewish Week.
The Ukraine native is president of the two-year-old Jewish Folk Crafts Guild, which runs the gallery in Manhattan’s Murray Hill.
In the Soviet Union, Jewish-themed artwork was considered propaganda; Jewish artists who engaged in such expressions could reasonably fear public censure, loss of employment and even a term in the Gulag. Having arrived here among nearly 500,000 Soviet Jews since 1967, these artists are finally free to unleash creativity suppressed for most of their lives.
Isaac Rozenblyum, a realist painter, retired lawyer and a prolific writer on Russian art, moved to New York from Odessa eight years ago and immediately started painting Jewish scenes, often with Holocaust imagery – a wedding, a soldier returning from war to find his family gone, a graveside prayer with a rooster symbolizing a new dawn.
"The main point in his work is the small villages," Nathanson translates for the artist, 80, himself a war veteran with the wounds to prove it. "The people are gone," the two men explain. "Seventy percent, 80 percent gone."
The guild’s chairman, Rudolf Rozenblyum, 69, spent most of his life in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, where he studied both sports and art. Today, he decorates hand-hammered copper plaques in typically Georgian arabesques and pimply relief. But Rozenblyum also adorns his works with Jewish symbols or expressive portraits of pious and famous Jews, including Rabbi Menachem Schneerson and Albert Einstein.
After losing a Brooklyn studio space, guild members have been forced to create whenever and wherever they can. For Grigoriy Foygelman, 69, that means his apartment in Queens. Foygelman met The Jewish Week equipped with a sturdy briefcase loaded with photographs of woodcarvings and wire sculptures on Jewish, Soviet and Israeli themes.
If much of the art shown in the Jewish Folk Gallery strikes viewers as somewhat old fashioned, it’s meant to. The gallery originally was founded to preserve and display "Mestechovy Art," or art rooted in the traditional crafts and sensibilities of the mestechko (Russian for shtetl).
"The branch of folk creativity is practically unknown and needs to be restored, because it is part of our Jewish heritage," said Nathanson, who hopes to elevate other regional styles as well. He’s putting a call out to all American artists, craftsmen, musicians and writers working in the field of Jewish folk art.
The Jewish Folk Gallery is located at Bnai Zion House, 136 E. 39th St., Manhattan (212) 725-1211, Ext. 259. Tues.-Thurs., 5-8 p.m. The Guild presents two benefit exhibitions "In Support of Israeli Artists": a show featuring works by Boris Lekar through Feb. 18 at Bnai Zion House; works by Rudolf Rozenblyum on display through Feb. 20 at the Kings Bay Y, 3495 Nostrand Ave., Brooklyn. (718) 648-7703. Sun. and Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-10 p.m.