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ART Matter

by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (reprinted from the Chicago Jewish News Feb 13-19, 2015 issue) Karen Walanka is not an artist. There wouldn’t be anything extraordinary about that except for the fact that the Deerfield woman is the new president of the American Guild of Judaic Art, a national organization designed to promote contemporary Jewish art and artists. How Walanka came to hold that position is a story that really begins with her wedding, 43 years ago. She and her husband received four Chanukah menorahs as gifts. They didn’t want to return them, so they began a collection. Fast forward to today: the Walankas have more than 40 menorahs, as well as many other Judaic ritual objects. Walanka, in other words, became a collector. She is the first non-artist (“I do needlepoint, but that’s all”) to become president of the guild, which was founded in 1991 and has more than 100 members, including several from Chicago. Its mission, as stated on its website (jewishart.org), is “to celebrate the rich diversity and sacred beauty of Judaic Art around the world, and to establish a community for those who are inspired to fulfill the commandment of hiddur mitzvah by creating, collecting & exhibiting Jewish art.” The guild also sponsors an initiative to promote Judaic art with Jewish Arts Month, which takes place in March, designed to coincide with several Torah portions that describe how Moses appointed an artisan, Bezalel, to oversee and design and creation of the Mishkan, the tabernacle used in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. (Check the website for special online initiatives and educational programs related to Jewish Arts Month.) If Walanka’s name sounds familiar to Chicago-area residents, though, it’s not because of her collecting. She retired last year after nearly 23 years as executive director of Moriah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Deerfield. One of her duties involved putting together the synagogue’s justly famed juried art show, the largest in the area, an event that every two years allows the public to see and purchase (and in many cases meet the creators of) Judaic art in all its forms. Through her involvement with the show, Walanka, along with the congregation, joined the American Guild of Judaic Art and got to know many of its members. “It seemed like the thing to do,” the warmly enthusiastic Walanka said in a recent phone conversation. “The congregation joined both to promote Jewish art and to promote ourselves to the artists in the guild. Over the years we’ve publicized our shows through the guild and many guild artists have applied and been juried into the show.” And here let’s pause a moment to consider just what Judaic art is and is not, a point that Walanka considers very important. She notes that many local galleries hold shows of work by Israeli artists. That’s a worthy project, she says, but “there is a difference between the art (some) Israelis do and the work done by the members of the guild. Guild members do Judaic art, either ritual items” (say a menorah or seder plate or mezuzah) or thematic items (a picture of Moses receiving the tablets, for instance). “It could be Hebrew calligraphy, papercuts, scenes from the Torah – all have Judaic art in them. Being a Jewish artist and doing Judaic art are different things,” she says. In the Moriah show, she notes, except for some jewelry, “the work has to be either ritual or thematic.” Meanwhile, over the years, Walanka’s involvement with Judaic art deepened as she traveled to meetings of various Jewish organizations, which often had art shows attached, and she kept up with the artists and board members of the guild. In 2012, the then-president of the organization called her. “We were kibitzing, and he asked me if I would consider curating their online exhibition for that year” – an exhibition of guild artists that stays up for a full year on the group’s website. She did so. Then, in 2014, she engaged in informal conversations with guild board members about extending the organization’s reach to include collectors. Collecting is a subject that Walanka has strong opinions about. “Lots of people in lots of synagogues, especially in smaller communities, may not know you can have five different Chanukah menorahs, different seder plates. I must have five different papercuts in my house that are renderings of the parsha of the week when my husband and I got married,” she says. “It was the one where Jacob built the ladder, so we’ve collected ladders over the years by Jewish artists. They are all different.” One well-known artist and guild board member, Flora Rosefsky, suggested to Walanka some ways the guild could begin to educate Jews, especially ones in smaller communities, about Judaic art. “If you could get three or four artists to loan to a synagogue three or four of the same artifact – seder plate, dreidel – just to begin to educate Jews that there is such a medium as Jewish art, it could be a ritual object or it could be a modern painting or a thematic piece,” Walanka says. “Some of this work will be purchased, and this is the goal of the guild.” She is surprised, she says, at the number of Jews – many well connected within the Jewish community – who know little or nothing about Judaic art. “We constantly run into people who are very active in the community but have never heard of the Moriah show, even though we advertise and send out postcards. It’s still very insular.” After she retired from Moriah, Walanka says, “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.” But as a member of the congregation, she continued to work on the art show (the next one will be in February 2016). With the guild, “my goal was to get some collectors besides Karen Walanka to join,” she says. “The collectors would support and help these Judaic artists. For most of them it’s hard to make a real living. One conversation led to another and next thing I knew I was president.” Another goal now is to interest smaller synagogues – perhaps in places like Munster, Ind., Milwaukee, Racine, Wis. – in putting together a small exhibit of Judaic art. “That would begin to introduce the subject of Judaic art into the communities that may never have known it,” she says. “You have to have a certain mentality to understand that, for instance, you can have a number of dreidels – dreidels can be metal, glass, wood.” She recalls that when she was first married and received the four menorahs as gifts, “we got that you could like more than one menorah. When my daughter was small, we would have parties every night and people would all have their own menorahs. The last night was like a fire hazard,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s the concept.” The Moriah show, she says, has ingrained in many people’s mind the concept of hiddur mitzvah, or beautifying the mitzvah – making everyday items objects of art. “I get it, my friends get it, but I think the greater community may or may not get it,” Walanka says. Being a collector of Judaic art “is more than going into someplace like Hamakor (Gallery) or Rosenblum’s (World of Judaica) and buying something beautiful. That’s important and we should support those places, but (it’s also important) to support the artist. At the Moriah show, the artists come and you can talk to them. Once you know the artist, it becomes a whole different thing, a thing of ownership.” She recalls that, when she looks at her wedding presents from so long ago, “I can still point to something and say, oh, my mother’s closest friend gave me that, or my friend so-and-so made that. That’s what we want to expose people to. If you look at a piece of art and you know who made it, it brings that extra depth to you. That’s very important.” For people who want to start collecting, Walanka has some advice. “Start with something small,” she says. “Go into any synagogue gift shop or Judaica store and buy a mezuzah, or some other ritual item – it doesn’t matter what it is, a Kiddush cup, menorah, seder plate, dreidel. Start with one, and if you like it get another one. When people know you do this they’ll start giving them to you. But start small.” When she has to give a wedding present, she usually chooses a menorah, mezuzah or seder plate, hoping the gift will be the start of a collection. Another way, she says, is to go to a Judaic art website, either the guild or the site of an individual artist, find something you like and buy it. Many collectors are now active on social media, she notes. Encouraging synagogues to have art shows, even small ones, is another way to help people become interested in collecting Judaic art, she says. “When we started the Moriah show, we bused people in from Northbrook Court,” she says. “I thought, who’s going to take a bus? Now people stand in line for it.” At the guild, meanwhile, she and other members “are thinking outside the box,” she says with satisfaction. “You have a president who is a collector. There’s a new website. They are on Facebook, LinkedIn, doing social media stuff. The more you do, the more likely you are to get people’s attention. People will see something and be like, I want to have that in my home.”

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