Boris Schatz should have been a Yeshiva student. His father was a teacher in a cheder in Lithuania and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Schatz had a talent for art and an affinity for Zionism, so he left the world of academia for that of economically driven creativity in what was then Palestine.
In 1904, Schatz pitched Theodor Herzl his grand idea: to create an academy of arts and crafts in Palestine that would brand a new Jewish national identity while providing locals with an independent economic infrastructure. In Schatz’s vision, the artisans trained by the school would create both Judaica and practical items for domestic and international sale, quickly becoming the driving force of the Israeli economy. He believed that the work completed there would simultaneously cure poverty and ignorance. The Bezalel art school would be the prime mover behind a Jewish, utopian society.
Of course, Herzl died later that year, and Schatz had to once more convince the Zionist Congress to fund his venture. But in 1906, he finally landed in Palestine with two teachers and two students in tow, eager to begin his school.
Temple Emanu-El’s exhibit “Bezalel: Art, Craft and Jewish National Identity,” showing at the New York synagogue through August 31, examines the earliest incarnation of what has become an Israeli institution. Between 1906, when the academy was founded, and 1929, when it closed temporarily due to financial difficulties, Schatz trained a cadre of artists and craftsmen to enact his particular brand of creative theology.
Named for biblical artisan that crafted the tabernacle, the Bezalel style combined religious references with images of physical, strong Jews successfully building a nation in the desert. Schatz wanted his students’ artwork to provide a pictorial roadmap to the new society they would create together. Like the tiles and graphic designs produced in the school, these secular pioneers would respect the continuum and tradition of biblical history.
Though “rooted in the idea of divine inspiration,” co-curator Elka Deitsh said, Bezalel products were also practical, and their creators sometimes less than scholarly. “Song of Songs 1,” a carpet quoting the titular scripture, misspells two words, mangling the original meaning. Yemenite silversmiths recruited to teach students their craft combined delicate filigree work, batik (acid etching), Hebrew words and Islamic design. Popular song lyrics and English text also made their way into the Bezalel style, the former for a domestic market hungry for pop culture, and the latter for Zionist Jews from abroad.
The propaganda efforts on behalf of Zionism were not always subtle. Biblical images were appropriated if they furthered the Zionist cause. Artillery shells were transformed into decorative vases, literalizing the Isaiah verse: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
“Bezalel was the most successful failure I have ever researched,” Deitsh reflected. “[But] the dream was so all encompassing … that something strong and enduring came out of it.” Schatz’s school never became all that he envisioned, but in his efforts, he created a remarkable and enduring legacy.
Now the most elite art school in Israel, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem educates thousands of students in fine arts, photography, visual communication, industrial design, jewelry and fashion, architecture, ceramics and glass, and screen base arts.
While the emphasis on Judaica has waned over the years, Rebecca Tobin, the executive director of the Friends of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, assures Jspace that Schatz’s vision is still very much alive.
“A hundred years later,” Tobin said, “[Bezalel] is an Israeli institution that is so cutting edge that is leading the world in all of these disciplines.”
.ORG-Connection: The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem is synonymous with over 100 years of Israeli art and over 100 years of innovation and quality. Friends of Bezalel support the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design by contributing much-needed funds.