Speaking for myself I can say that the Journal, by its presentation of information of Jewish life widely scattered in both time and place, serves to maintain my Jewish self-consciousness as no other publication can.... I am sure that without a Journal my Jewishness would fall off at many points. (1)
As the above excerpt from a letter to the editor in the late 1920s declares, and as scholars have recently demonstrated, Menorah Journal was a significant force for the shaping of a modern American Jewish identity. (2) Scholars have examined the magazine for its role as a crucible of literary modernism as well for its importance in influencing American Jewish identity. (3) For example, Neil Jumonville's study of the group of influential authors known as the New York intellectuals notes the place of Menorah Journal in the early careers of many of these writers. (4) Both Jumonville and Alan M. Wald discuss in particular the early career of Elliot Cohen, the managing editor of Menorah Journal in its early days who would eventually go on to edit Commentary. (5) Lauren B. Strauss and Seth Korelitz have both studied the influence of Menorah Journal on constructions of Jewish identity in the 1920s (Strauss) and in terms of the shift "from race to ethnicity" (Korelitz). (6) Oddly enough, none of these many studies has paid more than passing attention to the art works that appeared in the magazine on a regular basis. Yet the pictures were central to both the impact and purpose of the Menorah Journal; they constituted an important vehicle for the construction of Jewish identity, as American Jews navigated increasingly polarized tensions among race, ethnicity and Americanism, between tradition and modernism, and between religious and secular ways of life in the middle part of the twentieth century.
Menorah Journal, founded in 1915 to foster a "Jewish Renaissance," published essays, poetry, fiction, and political commentary. Along with articles addressing Jewish life and history, it attended to Jewish visual culture, publishing numerous works of art as well as articles by artists and cultural critics. Over the course of the magazine's existence, only art magazines carried more reproductions of artworks in their pages. Yet when discussing Menorah Journal's commitment to art, scholars have invariably dealt with it cursorily and as if it was no more than an attractive embellishment to the magazine. (7) Nonetheless, the illustrations appeared, month after month, year after year, on the covers and within its pages, usually comprising approximately ten percent of the magazine. (8) Indeed, Menorah Journal kept publishing artworks even in times of limited financial resources, particularly in the 1930s. (9) The fact that the magazine kept publishing images which required expensive glossy paper, even when it was in difficult financial straits, underscores the key role played by art in its ongoing construction of a modern Jewish identity.
The large number of art works and their persistent presence in the magazine testifies to the importance of visual culture in shaping Jewishness for the magazine's editor, Henry Hurwitz. So important was this art that, in the Summer 1949 issue, Hurwitz declared,
Some day, let us hope, a complete album of our Menorah treasury of art plates, in the colors of the original works, with the writings of our critics, may be made available, not alone for their intrinsic beauty and delight but for the illumination of a precious segment of the Jewish mind and spirit. (10)
Hurwitz was not an art professional, but his continued engagement with visual art and his desire to produce a treasury of Jewish art reveal his belief that making and appreciating art was a central element of being Jewish in the modern world. The range of pictures appearing in Menorah Journal, whether explicitly Jewish or otherwise, reflected what was available through his personal and professional network. Hurwitz's correspondence reveals that he sought out and relied on a group of other people--artists, art historians, and intellectuals whose writings included art and architecture as subjects--to furnish him with artwork for publication. A partial list of these luminaries includes artists Max Weber and William Meyerowitz, historian Cecil Roth, and man of letters Lewis Mumford. (11) Artists, New York art dealers, and Roth, a prominent Jewish historian in Britain, furnished Hurwitz with transparencies of artwork for reproduction on a number of occasions. In short, year in and year out, Hurwitz consistently expended time and effort to procure and publish examples of, and texts on, Jewish visual production. For Hurwitz, visual culture was important to the "illumination of ... the Jewish mind and spirit" and to the "expression of all that is best in Judaism." (12)
The readership of Menorah Journal found these artworks important. For example, in 1940 a letter to Hurwitz from the Counselor to Jewish Students at Columbia University, Rabbi Isidor B. Hoffman, describes the impact of Menorah Journal's art coverage:
The arrival of the latest number of The Menorah Journal in the homes of over three hundred Columbia students has proved to be an event of major importance. All over the campus, students are discussing among themselves and with members of the faculty, various articles in the Journal. And there has been more than discussion. The article "Our Art Treasures" has influenced students to propose an exhibition of Jewish art at Columbia. (13)
The consumption of visual art played a role in bolstering the Jewish identity of Rabbi Hoffman's students, so much so that they wanted to see more examples of Jewish visual expression on their campus. (14)
Given the primary purpose of Menorah Journal as a vehicle for affirming and developing Jewish identity, it is reasonable to assume that the pictures somehow contributed to the complex processes shaping the formation of modern American Jewish identities. In particular, the images addressed the tensions between Menorah Journal's readers' "old country" heritages and the WASP-dominant culture in which they lived. The artworks also helped to refute antisemitic stereotypes encountered by Jews in America. The visual culture represented in and constructed by the images in the magazine's pages created an arena in which readers could negotiate their place in a society struggling with conflicting models--assimilation, acculturation, and separatism--for incorporating diverse populations into America's mainstream. (15)
The magazine carried art in quantity and from nearly every period of Jewish history, as well as essays on art. Illustrated covers began to appear in 1937 and continued for twenty-five years until the magazine ceased production in 1962. Typically the covers carried pictures of art and artifacts made by Jewish artists from periods ranging from antiquity through the twentieth century. As represented on the covers of the magazine, the art and artifacts of the Jewish people encompassed a "menorah carved on the limestone walls of the catacombs in Beth Shearim, Palestine" in ancient times, fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts, and art by modern artists such as impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (figure 1). In addition to objects from the ancient and recent past, Menorah Journal frequently reproduced the work of contemporary Jewish artists, typically as inserts eight or ten pages long in the interior of the magazine, printed on glossy paper. These inserts began in 1922, seven years after the founding of the magazine, and appeared in almost every issue. In addition, every issue of Menorah Journal included a frontispiece. The frontispiece often carried the work of a living artist, but images from the Jewish past, such as a seventeenth-century portrait of Spinoza, sometimes appeared as well. (16) Frequent articles on art examined work by contemporary artists or reviewed the most recent exhibition season. Usually such articles featured a glossy insert of monochrome illustrations and a short biographical or survey essay.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The very range of this material is significant. Traditional Jewishness (usually male and Orthodox) is represented by artifacts, particularly ritual objects such as Haggada pages, menorahs, and the like, from the ancient and pre-modern eras. (17) However, images of traditional ways of life drawn and painted by contemporary artists also frequently occur. Works by living artists that depict contemporary, often secularized, ways of life represent modernity. The transnationalism produced by the Diaspora registers in the inclusion of artists from Europe, Palestine, and America. All these representations function, in their variety, to construct a framework for Jewish identity that is inclusive and that takes account of the tensions between the traditional and the modern, the religious and the secular, and European and American cultures.
However, this inclusiveness was not entirely even-handed; the magazine favored some kinds of art over others. Notably, modern art and art by living artists received the lion's share of space within the pages of Menorah Journal. Only rarely did art produced prior to the advent of artistic modernism around 1850 appear in the special glossy insert in the center of the magazine. This is consistent with the journal's mission: it was dedicated to the forging of specifically modern Jewish identity. Art was one of the most visible markers of modernism; even the nonprofessional could easily distinguish modern art from its traditional, academic predecessors by its abandonment of long-held conventions for representing space, the human body, and the natural world. Such pictures, without perspectival space, employing distorted forms and non-naturalistic color, did not always result in art that everybody enjoyed, but it was recognizable as modern. Given this prominence of visual art in signaling modernity, it is no surprise that modern art dominated the images displayed in the magazine.
These illustrations most frequently appeared in the company of an essay. Usually this took the form of a short biographical essay about the artist, accompanied by approximately ten illustrations of the artist's work. A typical example of one of these surveys occurs in the series of twelve plates, Hassidic Portraits, by Mane-Katz, accompanied by a short introduction by Lion Feuchtwanger, the celebrated author, which appeared in the 1941 Autumn issue (figure 2). Mane-Katz's portraits are executed with thick, sketchy strokes of the brush. Such marks, evoking contemporary masters such as Soutine, register his modernity as an artist, and suggest, along with the term "portraits," that they were done from life. In fact, Mane-Katz was living in Paris, and the paintings are the product of memory, a look back at the "immensely vivacious world" of the ghettoes of Eastern Europe. (18) The opening painting, Student, shows a young boy with sidelocks lost in thought over an open book, presumably a Talmud. The next two paintings are of rabbis, followed by eight small reproductions of paintings of musicians--including a Tevyastyle fiddler--in traditional, Eastern-European dress. The closing image depicts Two Disciples, one of whom wears a tallit. Images of religious identity thus bracket the images of musicians. This article was followed immediately by a related text, "The Poetry of Hassidism," by Koppel S. Pinson. Two aspects of a certain kind of traditional Jewishness were thus presented for consumption to the presumably somewhat secularized audience of Menorah Journal. This group of text and images worked to foster an aesthetic or nostalgic appreciation for a type of Judaism from which many of the readers of the magazine were probably moving away as a result of either modernization or assimilation. By appreciating these images readers could claim that traditional Jewish life as a heritage without necessarily living it. Likewise, these readers could incorporate Mane-Katz, a visibly Jewish artist, into a constellation of cultural associations making up their own modern Jewishness. Both strategies allow the secularized reader to feel some connection to his past and to the broader spectrum of contemporary Jewish cultures. At the same time, readers who were also practitioners of traditional forms of Judaism would find their lifestyle celebrated by these images. These different forms of identification with Jewishness were thus supported by a single set of images within the pages of the magazine.
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The depiction of obviously Jewish themes, such as rabbis, observant individuals, or images of the Sabbath, shores up Jewish identity by promoting, through depiction, Jewish religious practice. These images characterize Jewishness as a religious identity without reference to, although not necessarily excluding, the modern world. However, the magazine dedicated itself to the pursuit of a modern Jewish identity and consequently went beyond a narrowly religious definition for Jewishness. This was one way for the magazine to respond to the spectrum of observance (or non-observance) among its audience. Similarly, images of Jewish neighborhoods and supposedly …