In the last century and a half the Jewish people have had a profound effect on the development of the arts in western culture, including music, literature, dance and the visual arts. But the visual arts tradition of the Jews is elusive, says Susan Morgenstein, director of the Goldman Fine Arts Gallery in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, largely because of the peripatetic nature of the culture.
"In the tradition or history of Jews in art," she says, "it is generally thought that because of the second commandment, which said that one does not make things in the image of God, that Jews do not have a visual arts tradition, as much as they do a tradition in the written word -- law, the development of law and the development of history.
"That is probably true. But I have found that Jews as a cultural group have related to the 'host' country, if you will, in which they lived, and worked in the visual tradition of that 'host' country. So the Jewish art which expresses the Jewish experience is as wide and as varied as the whole experience of people, because they were living in Diaspora."
The Goldman Gallery, concerned with both historical and contemporary Jewish art, has, under Morgenstein's direction, taken that concern a step further. "I had an idea," says Morgenstein, who formerly worked with the Jane Haslem Gallery, "and found a warm home for it. My concept was -- and it began with something Jane and I were working toward -- that exhibitions and other arts and humanities programming could be presented in such a way that one would enhance the other. It became obvious that the only place to do that was a place that had both the facilities and the staff to handle it.
"The first program we did like that was a program called 'Jewish Women in the Arts: Voices of Her Past.' It was a multi-arts program, from dance to hands-on art-making. That was in 1978. That led in the end to oral histories, and was very successful. It was funded in part by the Maryland Arts Council.
"In a show of the work of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, we had a local contemporary artist, Terry Braunstein, in a conversation with a dead artist through pictures, performance and various mediums -- which sounds silly, but through contemporary art we bridged a gap of 40 years of lost time."
The programs about Salomon attracted more than 12,000 people, and the show is now traveling around the United States. The gallery and the community center encourage lectures by people in the arts from around the world, as well as performances by dance companies and recitals by musicians ranging from classical violinists to drum ensembles. The gallery also employs docents to lead tours of the gallery and the historical exhibits displayed throughout the center.
This past year's shows, concentrating on Jewish women artists, and previous shows, among them "The Jews in the Age of Rembrandt," "First Generation: Jewish Immigrant Artists in America" and "Non-Conformists" -- an exhibit of the work of contemporary dissident artists from the Soviet Union -- have received considerable critical acclaim, and have inspired some informative and stimulating publications.
Currently on display are drawings by Israeli artist Anna Ticho, whose works depict the starkly beautiful countryside of that land. "Expressions from the Art of Judaic Manuscripts," beginning Jan. 6, will feature the work of Maryland artist Karen Hirsch-Harari.
Morgenstein takes her job as an educator as seriously as she does her position as a curator. Since she took over the direction of the gallery in 1977, she has gone out of her way to encourage participation by the local community in every facet of the center's productions.
"Every nonprofit institution should be interested in teaching," she says, "or their doors shouldn't be open."