Let Me Count the Ways: Jewish Art and the Jewish Classroom

by Carol Oseran Starin

This column is not about art projects. It’s about understanding art as a way of expressing Jewish ideas, history, philosophy, text. Art is more than color, line, style, texture, etc. It’s a way into history, science, Torah, It’s a window into an artist’s soul. And helping students open those windows makes it possible for them to learn and to express themselves in new ways.

Last column we generated a list of great Jewish visual artists who create Jewish work. Teachers might use one or more of the following strategies to help students understand the ways in which those (and all) artists tell their stories.

1. Choose an artist to study. Study the artist’s life and the ways in which that life influences the art.

Mark Chagall is a great example. A few of our group said, “Don’t use Chagall — it’s cliché.” It’s not cliché to our students. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we too have a great deal to learn, read, explore and discover about and from his art.

It is the artist’s job to search out and portray things that are hidden from most people. If we let ourselves be enchanted by him [Chagall], we can discover a whole new world! Things can leave their usual places, change colours, stand on their heads and tell stories!

Rabbi Susie Moskowitz wrote that Marc Chagall’s work can lead to the study of bible, shetl life, fantasy, the Knesset, mosiacs, tapestry, stained glass and modern art.

2. Study the different ways artists look at the same subject.

Choose a Subject. A simple example is The Four Children of Haggadah fame. Study the text then invite students to share their own ideas about children who are wise, wicked, simple and ‘don’t know how to ask.” Examine and talk about some of the ways artists have told that story. Noam Zion, in his Haggadah, A Different Night includes more than a dozen artists’ versions of “The 4 Sons.” After studying the text and a number of the artistic representations, invite students to do their own renderings of the 4 Children.

3. Create art, integrating artists and themes.

Rabbi Jerry Kane undertook a project with artist Leigh Rosenberg Ernest focusing on techniques and famous artists. “We put together large works of art by students, using techniques of famous Jewish artists. Then we assembled them as collaborative pieces and framed them in lucite frames. The most notable was a project for Pesah in which we taught about Mark Rothko and Louise Nevelson. We integrated the themes – From Slavery to Freedom (Nevelson’s work was “outside the box”) and From Darkness to Light (Rothko’s work took dark colors and moved them outward to light).

4.Take advantage of what’s going on in your local museums.

Sometimes there are works of significant Jewish artists and or special collections. Closing this weekend at The Jewish Museum in New York is an exhibit of the work of William Steig.

Kids will love Steig’s work (he was the illustrator of Shrek!). Rahel Musleah, in a recent Hadassah magazine article, writes that Steig’s background “permeates his art in ways beyond the obvious.” According to the exhibit curator, Claudia J. Nahson, Stein “represents an important generation of artists, children of immigrants who came to the United States with deep socialist values and acculturated into American society. It is very much a Jewish story.”

The Steig exhibit reopens in San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum on June 8. And, of course, you can see slide shows and exhibit catalogs, good representation of the work online:

5. Even if there is not an exhibit of specific Jewish interest there are lessons to be learned from learning how to read great art.

Peter Stark wrote about lessons in how to observe detail and ways to explore what the detail adds to the story.

For a lesson on recognizing point of view and also internal commentary within text, Peter took his 8th grade students to the Dutch and Flemish collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He asked each student to select a painting in which he/she found a background detail that commented on the foreground subject.

Before and after the trip to the MFA, students we studied passages in the Tanakh where seemingly innocent background detail in the text actually proved to be significant in understanding the text’s point of view or evaluation of characters like Saul or David. The lesson sequence always moved from Tanakh text to observation of detail in art (using paintings such as Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of Napoleon, in which detail is deliberate and easy to recognize), to the visit to the MFA, to application of the ideas raised by the art to the text, culminating in a second reading of the same passage with the benefit of having studied the art actively. This was usually a single week’s lessons, though it sometimes lasted a day or two longer. The objective was always developing student’s eye for textual detail through exposure to parallel phenomena in different media.


Visual Literacy. Learn to See. See to Learn by Lynell Burmark. ASCD. 2002.

Arts With the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen. ASCD. 2001.

Instructor Magazine’s monthly “Masterpieces in Art” Series

“The Man With a Child’s Eye,” by Rahel Musleah. Hadassah Magazine, page 33. February 2008.

Marc Chagall: Life Is A Dream by Brigitta Hopler. From the “Adventures in Art” serices from Prestel Books

Tower of Babel: The Builder with the Red Hat by Pieter Bruegel. Another in the Prestel “Adventures In Art” Series.

A Different Night:The Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon

Website of artist Leigh Rosenberg Earnest: http://www.leighrosenbergearnest.com/index.htm

Also: Many museums have departments of education. The people who work in these departments are a great resource. Museums have gift shops and bookstores which are a great source for art exploration.