Christian galleries meshugginah for talmudic art exhibit

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The words “Jews” and “Waco” go together like rye bread and mayonnaise. But there they were, the Jews of Waco, Texas — a town best known as the birthplace of Steve Martin and unfortunate home of the David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult — hosting a reception at the Christian-affiliated Baylor University.

The impetus behind that counter-intuitive gathering was Baylor’s recent hosting of an exhibition of the work of Jewish artists Marc Chagall and Ben Zion — a traveling show that opens at St. Mary’s College in Moraga on Saturday, Nov. 4.

It’d be hard to find two 20th century artists more Jewish than Chagall and Ben Zion — and, to boot, this is an exhibition comprised of art inspired by the Talmud. Yet it is presented by the group Christians in the Visual Arts and has shown exclusively at Christian colleges and churches.

“We do not see the distinction between Jewish and Christian when it come to biblical images,” explained Sandra Bowden, president of Massachusetts-based Christians in the Visual Arts and a collector of religious artwork.

Added Ed Knippers, a CIVA co-founder and the owner of the paintings in the exhibit, “These are the narratives of the wonderful stories of the Old Testament that have laid the foundations for our Christian faith.”

Ben Zion (aka Ben-Zion Weinman) was a Ukranian-born New Yorker who pursued art instead of the rabbinate and died in 1987 at age 90. Chagall, who died at 97 in 1985, was born Moishe Segal in what is now Belarus.

And while the same Talmudic parables often inspired the two artists’ paintings, the results were like black and white (Ben Zion, in fact, only painted in black and white while anyone familiar with Chagall’s floating, green-faced Chassids knows he employed more colors than a box of Crayola crayons).

“Chagall’s style is much more gentle. It’s a world of dreams and his own personal symbols. Ben Zion’s work is much more angular and, of course, black and white,” says Bowden.

“Ben Zion is much more cubist and angular, there’s a real strength and power in his work. Chagall has this gentleness and other-worldliness. But both of them have a sense of whimsy. You’d get the sense that they really are opposites, but in fact they are in dialogue.”

St. Mary’s Hearst Art Gallery (“We have the same accreditation as the De Young — we’re just smaller,” notes educational program coordinator Heidi Ehrman-Donner) often hosts striking, religiously themed exhibitions. Prior to the Chagall and Ben Zion show, it explored Russian Orthodox Christianity with a show on iconography, and held a somewhat risqué installation featuring meditations on the Virgin Mary by a number of contemporary artists. And while many of the pieces were traditional, some “were getting close” to Chris Ofili’s elephant dung garnished work at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibit that inspired Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to threaten nixing the museum’s funding (there’s no fecal art in Moraga, assures Ehrman-Donner).

In addition to the work of Chagall and Ben Zion, the exhibit also features the creations of a pair of local Jewish artists: Beth Grossman of Brisbane and Susan Wallach of Walnut Creek.

The Chagall and Ben Zion installation has traveled to around 20 Christian colleges and churches in the past four years, but that’s only because those are the names and numbers in Bowden’s Rolodex. She’d jump at the chance to exhibit in a Jewish educational institution or synagogue museum.

“One of the reasons we put this show together is we knew it would go to many places in the Christian community and we thought it’d be a wonderful exhibit to build dialogue across denominational lines,” she said.

“Talmud and the Art of Marc Chagall and Ben Zion” shows Saturday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Dec. 17 at the Hearst Art Gallery, 1928 St. Mary’s Road, Moraga. Information: (925) 631-4379. For more information about Christians in the Visual Arts, visit

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.