קונגרס העולמי ה-18 למדעי היהדות

The Orientalization of the East European Jewish “Artist of the Ghetto”: The Case of Lazar Krestin (1868-1938)

Jewish artistic creativity emerging in the course of the 19th century has been the focus of recent research that has sought to place it within a broader historical, social and cultural background. It has undergone a critical re-examination that relocated it from a posited pan-Jewish realm of modern art to a complex web of interculturality and hybridity. I seek to follow this path and take a fresh look at a specific topic that runs through these studies: depictions of the supposedly secluded life of religious East European Jews who rejected modernity and outside influences, and the so-called “artists of the Ghetto” who created them. Images depicting prayer and study of religious texts, synagogue interiors, houses of learning, rabbis and Talmudists, Jewish holidays and traditional homes, were (and still are) considered to be the staples of “Jewish art”. However, this attitude, as I argue, grew out of the Western, especially German Jews’ construction of the east European Jew - or Ostjude – as the orientalized “other”. While initially adopting a condescending or paternalistic stance, with the beginning of the 20th century this attitude changed into a romanticized admiration of the “authentic” Jewish life preserved in eastern Europe, especially when compared to the allegedly spiritually-empty life of a secular, bourgeois Jew in the central and western Europe. Following, the proponents of the Zionist movement also initially saw in traditional East European Jewish life an authentic form of Judaism embodying the vitality necessary for rejuvenation; but this attitude later changed as the east European traditional Jew became in their eyes the “other”, the symbol of misery and maladies of Galut – of the Diaspora that needs to be left behind in the process of physically settling in oriental Palestine and acquiring a new “Hebrew” identity. In my paper I plan to follow these processes by examining the life and art of Lazar Krestin (1865-1938), a little known Kovno-born artist primarily residing in Vienna and Palestine, whose works remain hidden in the storages of Israel’s major museums.