Artists find inspiration in religious and secular worlds

Artists participating in the East Bay's Jewish open-studio event have arrived at their crafts from different planes — both geographically and spiritually.

They have heard the calling in ancient European shtetls, in cramped office cubicles in Haifa, and in the incense-laden air of Woodstock.

They have been inspired by social justice, by a sense of community, by the death of loved ones. And by perfect latkes.

The event, called "Jewish Arts Renaissance," is an exhibit that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21 at various locations throughout the East Bay. It's organized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, as well as the Jewish Arts Community of the Bay (JACOB).

Valerie Jonas, the federation's marketing director, said the project grew out of a need to have greater connection between Jewish artists and the larger community.

"Art is really a gateway to understanding Jewish life," Jonas said. "A lot of people connect with their Judaism through paintings, music, and other forms of artistic expression."

Berkeley mixed-media artist Sharon Siskin considers her work to be secular, but rooted in Jewish principles.

"Art comes from somewhere," Siskin said. "It has a history that allows it to create a language." In Siskin's case, that language was formed early on by concepts of grief and justice.

"I was born in the 1950s to Eastern European Jewish parents," Siskin said. "So the shadow of the Holocaust always loomed over my childhood."

According to Siskin, her grandparents had a cigar box that contained pictures of friends left behind in Europe.

"I asked about the pictures one day," Siskin recalled. "I was told that Hitler finished them off and that there was nothing left to talk about."

The theme of loss is also present in another facet of Siskin's work. Her art is heavily influenced by the toll AIDS has wreaked on the artistic community.

"The most inspiring artwork I've ever seen is the AIDS quilt," Siskin said. "It really brought home the idea that art is about effecting change, and not just about creating an 'object.'"

Siskin, who volunteers at several AIDS organizations, used the Jewish mourning ritual of shivah in one of her most recent works. Siskin took clothing items from friends who died of AIDS, and hung them over mirrors, along with several phrases and images associated with each person.

"The concept was to be alone with grief, to embrace it, and see it reflected." Siskin said. She used a storefront window for one of the projects, and was amazed to see people leaving all kinds of memorabilia next to the window.

"I think it really tapped into something for people. And I think it's another example of not drawing a big line between life and art."

One person who does draw a line between life and art is Marin artist Ellen Tobe.

Tobe specializes in computer-generated artwork and greeting cards.

"I've been designing greeting cards since I was 6. But I've made designing Jewish greeting cards my profession for the past two years," said Tobe, who previously worked as a mechanical engineer in Haifa.

"I got tired of the cubicles and layers of mid-level management," she said. "I was essentially a female Dilbert."

Tobe said she switched gears two years ago because designing Jewish greeting cards allowed her an opportunity to nourish her creativity within a Jewish framework.

"I lived in Israel for 10 years. So my Jewish identity is extremely important to me. But artistically, the corporate culture felt stifling.

"So this is a happy medium. Not only do I design Jewish-themed work, but I'd like to think my work really fosters a sense of community and continuity."

Another open-studio artist with strong Jewish content is San Franciscan Jackie Berg.

Berg, who designs everything from aprons with latke recipes to tote bags — she calls them "shlepper specials" — calls Judaica "her passion."

She has specialized for the past 11 years in designing tallitot, and considers the tallit the most important symbol of Judaism after the Torah. Berg has experienced a "spiritual renewal," she said.

"How could I not, really? I'm crafting the intricacies of a faith with thousands of years of history behind it."

Berg, who grew up in North Dakota as a member of the "elite frozen chosen," uses silk for her tallitot and velvet for the bags that hold them.

She also pointed out that her fascination with religion doesn't end with Judaism. "Jesus was a Jew, after all," Berg said.

"I think all religions have a bedrock set of values that make them fascinating studies for artists. Some of the most inspiring art in the world has religious origins. Faith as a bridge-builder still holds meaning for me," Berg said. "You know, the whole concept of love, peace and Woodstock."

Berkeley photographer Jason Francisco chose the suburbs of Paris as a forum for the exploration of Jewish roots.

"Jewish life in contemporary Paris can be viewed as a template for the future, as well as a window on the past," Francisco said.

"In Paris today, you have a very diverse Jewish community that includes African Jews, European Jewry from the diaspora, as well as French Jews with roots going back to the war. In essence, they are re-shaping the concepts of a Jewish community against the backdrop of the French republic itself."

Despite the ultra-nationalist policies of politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Francisco believes that the Jewish community in Paris is representative of a new French paradigm in which communities define themselves separate from the nation as a whole.

One of Francisco's photographs shows a group of Orthodox Jews clustered by the banks of the Seine, partially obscured by shadows. The arrangement was not happenstance.

"It was Rosh Hashanah of last year. There was a group of Orthodox Jews engaged in the act of prayer. But what stuck me as being so powerful was that the act was so ordinary — and yet it had enormous consequences," he said.

"The simple concept of Jews going about their business next to the most powerful symbol in French history, the Seine River, shows how much progress has been made."

But Francisco's photographs also show how little distance one has to travel to see the recent past. Many of Francisco's pictures capture buildings with crumbling exteriors.

Concrete edifices with jagged lines etched on its face, stand next to dilapidated storefronts with fresh coats of paint slapped on them — polished surfaces not quite able to contain the secrets within.

Much like the French government, Francisco asserts.

"No other European nation has as much internal conflict regarding the Holocaust as France," Francisco said. "Everyone knows about Germany's history. But France's collaborationist past is the great national secret no one talks about."

Francisco said he recently visited the largest Parisian memorial to the victims of deportation, located in an underground crypt near the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

"First of all, it's underground," Francisco said. "Secondly, nowhere does it mention that the victims of the deportation were Jewish. All it mentions is that there were thousands of French victims of the deportations. A huge exhibit with absolutely no reference to the word 'Jewish.'"

Francisco's most recent project took him through the streets of Jewish enclaves in Paris, looking up the addresses of people deported to death camps. What he found is captured on grainy, sepia-toned montages that contain suggestions of empty spaces, abandoned artifacts and lingering questions.

"I think the photographs take a little time to digest. None of them really jump up and slap you in the face," he said. "But I think they all show the trauma that lies just beneath the surface."