Divine understanding

Learning about God or art is nothing unusual for Brandeis Hillel Day School students. But for one group of sixth-graders, a recent trip to the art museum had them pondering the ultimate queries: who is God, what is art and what does it all mean?

The kids came to tour the “100 Artists See God” exhibit, now on display at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. The diverse works represent a serious yet quirky exploration of the divine.

Emily Scheinberg, education and public programs coordinator for the Jewish museum, had her hands full running half a dozen groups of Brandeis Hillel students through the gallery all day. Her job: helping the kids make sense of a very sophisticated collection.

“This is an extension of the classroom,” she said, as the next crop of budding art lovers arrived. “It’s a very provocative show that has a lot to teach them.”

She was right: The students from the San Francisco campus were duly impressed.

Elana Cohn, 12, was struck by Andreas Gursky’s “Love Parade,” a large aerial photo of a Woodstock-style outdoor rock festival. “God made us free,” she said, contemplating the piece. “So this is what God meant by that.”

Ida Cutler and Brittany Blum both loved Damien Hirst’s “god,” a huge wood and glass open medicine chest fully stocked with various and sundry pharmaceutical packages.

Cutler’s interpretation leaned toward the bright side. “I think it’s so cool,” she said. “It shows God as miracle worker, how He can help people.”

“But medicine can ruin miracles,” countered Blum. “People can take too much, or combine different medicines to hurt themselves.”

A few feet away, Ariel Spear gazed admiringly at Leonard Nimoy’s “Shekhina,” a photo portrait of a semi-nude woman draped in a white shroud, tefillin wrapped on her arm.

“It looks like she’s really close to God,” she commented.

Over by Gary Simmons’ “Black Star Shower,” a large charcoal drawing on vellum canvas, Ophek Efraty and her friend Zoe Littman wondered what it all means.

“It makes me feel sad,” said Efraty, her head tilted to the side. “Like the world is falling down. But God also makes it go back up. God makes it new.”

Added Littman, “It makes me feel as if things have gone wrong.”

Off to the side, browsing the collection, Jacob Canto wasn’t too sure about any of the pieces on display. “I like them,” he offered, “but they don’t say anything to me about God.”

After a while, Scheinberg gathered the group for a discussion. The piece that seemed to stir the most controversy among the children was Martin Kippenberger’s “Fred the Frog Rings the Bell,” a large wood carving of a frog hung Christ-like on a cross.

“I was unhappy,” said one kippah-topped boy of the sculpture. “I’m half Catholic.”

Said Connie Wolf, the museum’s director and CEO, “To be contributing members of society, you want kids to be equipped with critical thinking skills to make informed opinions. What better way to help young minds develop and grow than by exposing them to art?”

The exhibit “100 Artists See God” runs through June 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 121 Steuart St., S.F. Admission: $5 adults, $4 students and seniors, free to members and children under 12. Free exhibition tours Wednesdays and Sundays, 12:30 p.m. Information: (415) 591-8800, or www.thecjm.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.