Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, by Richard I. Cohen

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Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, by Richard I. Cohen

"Paganism sees its god, Judaism hears Him" (p. 6). As Richard I. Cohen stresses in the introduction to Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, the one hundred and fifty years since Heinrich Graetz made that comment have seen not only the expansion of "art history" beyond the boundaries of (male) Christian Europe, but also the growing recognition that images have played an important role in many of the Jewish communities of the last two millennia.

Through his analysis of a series of images almost as unfamiliar to historians of the Jewish experience as to historians of art, Cohen seeks a new approach, an "alternative entrée into the social landscape of European Jewish society" between the medieval era and World War I (p. 9). Although earlier versions of four of the essays have already appeared in print, readers will find much here that is new, much to challenge and stimulate further research.

Students of European (or, better, "European Christian") art are familiar with one sort of Jewish "icon" -- the stereotypical "Jews" depicted as surrounding Jesus in scenes of trial and crucifixion. Much of Cohen's study concerns efforts (of sympathetic Christians as well as Jews) to redraw this icon, to display and thus demystify the ceremonies and family life of Jews to their Christian neighbors. That this is one of the important roles played by images is undeniable and undeniably poignant; nevertheless, as Cohen reminds us in his epilogue, the story he tells is more complex than this, involving as it does the role of images as signifiers in communities poised on the knife's edge between persecution and acculturation, the challenges of modernity, and the movement from displays of Judaica to displays of art by Jewish artists.

Whether couched as attempts to erase the medieval icon of the Jew as "Christkiller" or as attempts to preserve a Jewishness threatened by the acculturation that accompanied emancipation, the common thread in Cohen's account remains his reading of images of Jews as signifiers of "Jewishness." Cohen's readings see images primarily as responses to pressures external to the Jewish communities for which the images were produced. Inherent in this focus is the blurring of the differences among the communities that produced the images; seen solely through this lens, the paintings of Oppenheim and Kaufmann at the end of the nineteenth century differ surprisingly little from the depictions of Jewish ceremony and custom (usually drawn and published by sympathetic Christians) from almost three centuries before.

Ironically, in this reading, the most evident difference between the images of the seventeenth century and those of the nineteenth is the medium. The oil paintings by Jewish artists of the nineteenth century contrast with the prints of Jewish ceremonies executed by Christian artists in the seventeenth century. The nineteenth-century paintings were unique, displayed in museums and special exhibits that were the hallmark of their era. The older images were "mechanical reproductions," a category of objects whose implications have been analyzed by Walter Benjamin in a still more widely disseminated essay. The irony of Cohen's book title was surely intentional; the irony here is surely not. …