The Picture at Menorah Journal: Making "Jewish Art". (Essay)

Article excerpt

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. …