First Jewish Arts Renaissance gets thumbs up from viewers

Slow to get rolling but lively by mid-afternoon, Jewish Arts Renaissance treated visitors to a full plate of sensibilities Sunday, from the whimsical to the profound, from large oil paintings to chachkas.

The non-juried exhibit, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and its Center for Jewish Living and Learning, featured the work of 117 artists and craftspersons at 21 East Bay venues.

Its very diversity said something significant to many visitors about the Jewish experience and Jewish artistry.

The blend of Judaica and classical art created "a wonderful combination," said Brenda Gates-Monasch of Novato. "It's important to see the integration within the individual and in the community."

Adults gazed in wonderment at exquisite black-and-white photos of the Czech Republic's old city of Olomaus by Michael Starkman of San Francisco. Jason Lipton, 4, of San Rafael, made a beeline for a table of mezuzot by Alan Leon of Oakland.

And Gates-Monasch and her husband, Walter Monasch, were enchanted by the paintings of Daya Norwood, an Oakland Jew-by-choice and former nun.

"They are folklike, primitive but exciting," Monasch said.

"Some of this stuff is really powerful," said Rena, an Oakland resident who demurred to give her last name. "I like seeing work people have produced over 15, 20 years' time."

For many, the open studios afforded a chance to chat at some length with artists. At Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, Ricki Weisbroth explained how she creates her prints using letter-press technology of the Gutenberg era.

"Not a lot of people use it," said the San Francisco artist. "It's very difficult, but it really lends itself to the work."

A visitor stared into the impossibly fine, M.C. Escher-like inkwork and murmured, "You keep looking at it, yet it never crowds together."

In fact, many artists spent the bulk of the afternoon explaining either technique, background or approach to eager listeners.

At the event opening at Anselmo's in Oakland, Mayor Jerry Brown issued a call to the community to cherish and support its artists.

"Art is the only place where we go to tap into a deeper part of ourselves, a part that can lead us to unity, tolerance, understanding," he said. Event chair Seymour Fromer applauded Brown's comments. "Too many politicians are afraid of the arts," he said. "These comments are so welcome. Our artists need nurturing."

Melanie Galvin of Oakland was one of many who applauded the CJLL's decision not to jury the work: "I like to see what people are really doing, the homegrown stuff," she said. What is in galleries does not necessarily represent the best of what is being created, only what is currently marketable, she added.

But, while visitors certainly lavished attention and respect on the participating artists, their interest did not translate into sales. And crowds were difficult to estimate in widely dispersed locations.

"People pick up the stuff they like, then they put it down again," said San Leandro chuppah-maker Carol Attia. As a shmoozefest, however, it suggested rewards to come. Many took Attia's business cards — including some fellow artists.

Many pored over the scrolls of San Francisco artist Malkah Conway, a Hiroshima native and "Jew-by-choice since 5737," but few asked about prices. Conway suggested that the exhibit should have fewer sites next time: "It might have been better with three sites," she said. "It is spread out all over, which can be hard for some people."

But the event's mission, as some saw it, was simply "for a community to come together," said San Francisco computer scientist Cathy Aaron.

"I don't think buying is a part of this," said Regina Elkind of Danville. "It's more to see the variety of artists within the Jewish community." The exhibit also served to inspire Elkind to show her own work in a show with a Jewish theme.

Although Arts Renaissance venues opened their doors at 10 a.m., by 11:30 few artists had hosted any visitors. Many lamented that no listings were placed in the Sunday Chronicle and Examiner's pink section. Nor were there public service announcements on the classical radio stations.

Artists and visitors differed over how many sites might be the magic number. If all the participating artists and craftspersons showed at only one or two sites, a bigger crowd would have access to a greater number of artists, some said.

One Oakland spectator suggested fewer sites with more artists at each: "Ten or 15 [artists] rather than five or six."

Others said they would have had a greater chance to see more work if the event had taken place over two weekends instead of on one day.

"It would be wonderful for all the artists to interact," said Tim Malone of San Francisco.

But the planning and publicizing of the event symbolized the conundrum faced by the East Bay federation. The event was at first planned with great brio for a longer duration. But organizers balked after three Sacramento synagogues were torched June 18 and then a gunman opened fire on a Jewish community center near Los Angeles in August.

The puzzle became how to throw a public event without putting the participants at risk.

"It can be very hard to know which way to go," said Marin painter Daphne Lipton.

Despite traversing a thorny path, the final destination was the "fantastic coming out and coming together for the community," said Valerie Jonas of the East Bay federation.

"I'm already hearing from people all over the country" who would like to do the same thing, she said. "It makes me feel great. This was cool."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.