Jewish art

Trees of life

An exploration of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new exhibit, ‘Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought’

Tal Shochat, Afarsemon (Persimmon) (from a series along with Afarsek (Peach), Shaked (Almond), Tapuach (Apple), and Rimon (Pomegranate)), 2011. C-prints, 16.5 x 17 in. Collection of Gary B. Sokol. (Photo credit: courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York)
Tal Shochat, Afarsemon (Persimmon) (from a series along with Afarsek (Peach), Shaked (Almond), Tapuach (Apple), and Rimon (Pomegranate)), 2011. C-prints, 16.5 x 17 in. Collection of Gary B. Sokol. (Photo credit: courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York)

It catches your eye the moment you cross the threshold. “Blackfield,” by Zadok Ben David, is a miniature forest set upon a large circle on the floor as you enter “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought,” the newly mounted exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit was launched in conjunction with Tu Bishvat, the holiday in which Jews celebrate trees and the life we get from them.

There are dozens of tiny trees in Ben David’s piece. When you first see them, as you approach Blackfield, they’re bleak and cold-looking, as though they were trapped in the depths of winter. But as you walk around the circle, you gradually notice their colors shifting. It’s the season changing, right before your eyes. By the time you’ve walked completely around the circle, a year has passed in a moment, and the trees have returned to their stark winter tones. It’s a magical effect that the artist created with the differing colors he painstakingly applied on each side of each tree, then setting each tree at an angle that allows the color changes to gradually appear.

The environmentally conscious Do Not Destroy is the latest show to draw large crowds to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s downtown San Francisco location

The environmentally conscious “Do Not Destroy” is the latest show to draw large crowds to the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s downtown San Francisco location. Founded in 1984, CJM operated for many years out of a small gallery near the city’s waterfront. By 1989, the museum began to recognize the need for a larger venue, as attendance had reached, and sometimes surpassed, capacity. It took a while, but in 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum moved into its current home, a historic building once used for industrial purposes. With 63,000 square feet now at its disposal, The CJM has become a Bay Area center for Jewish culture.

As stated in the CJM’s official mission promotional material: “The CJM makes the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a 21st century audience. It accomplishes this through innovative exhibitions and programs that educate, challenge and inspire.” And indeed, many of its exhibitions have honored those who were lost during the Holocaust, as well as Jews who made their mark on popular culture. Recent shows have celebrated the lives and works of magician Harry Houdini and writer Gertrude Stein.

On occasion, the CJM will pull a rabbit out of its hat. One of the current ongoing exhibits is “Black Sabbath.” In a cafe setting, “Sabbath” attendees can sit and choose from hundreds of musical selections in which African American jazz artists put their own unique stamp on Jewish popular music. Standouts include “My Yiddishe Mama” from no less than Lady Day, the great Billie Holiday, and Harry Belafonte’s joyous “Hava Nagila.” One track has been said to induce chills: Johnny Mathis’s stunning, heartfelt rendition of Kol Nidre. Another might inspire a few to make aliya: jazz great Jimmy Scott’s take on the theme from “Exodus.”

But it is “Do Not Destroy” that was drawing in the big crowds of CJM regulars this past week.

There are personal stories to be found in the show’s selections. Beth Grossman’s “Yearnings” (2011) informs us that a tree was planted in Israel in her name the year she was born, 1958. “It came with a promise that I would one day visit the land of milk and honey,” says Grossman. “Then, in nursery school, we loved to collect coins in a blue Jewish National Fund tin box to plant more trees in Israel. We were building a Jewish nation, one tree at a time.”

Fittingly, Grossman’s piece is an image of a tree carved into a block of wood. Under her hand-carved branches, she records her thoughts and events from her life. “Can I talk about my complicated love for Israel?” she muses under one branch.

We learn that in 1976, Grossman sipped sweet tea with Bedouin women, and that two decades later she canceled a planned trip to Israel when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a fellow Jew.

One piece may make viewers shake their heads in wonder: Rona Pondick’s “Head in Tree” (2006-2008). The surreal stainless steel piece is exactly what its title implies, a disembodied head lodged in a leafless tree. The meaning of the artist’s image may be open to debate, but there’s no denying its beauty.

Other pieces are more straightforward. Tel Aviv-based artist Tal Shochat offers “Peach,” “Almond,” “Apple,” “Pomegranate” and “Persimmon,” five simple, peaceful portraits of the fruit trees that bear their names.

Trees need light in order to survive. In Grace Hawthorne’s “Fait du Bois” (2011), light flows from a chandelier carved from a tree. Says the artist: “The glow that emanates from the core of the formation is further evidence that all tree elements house the spark of life.”

“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art and Jewish Thought” will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until May 28. The museum is located at 736 Mission Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets in downtown San Francisco (one half block from the AMC Metreon Cinema). The CJM also operates a cafe and a gift shop. Information on hours and admission prices can be obtained

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