A new art gallery opened in New York City last week in an uncommon location — the deep bowels of the Jewish Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 15, Shtetl Gallery became Williamsburg’s first-ever Hasidic fine art gallery. It opened its doors for the first time with a group exhibition of seven Hasidic artists from New York and beyond. The opening was attended by a jubilant crowd of artists and art lovers from the community, local dignitaries, and surprise guests like NYC mayoral candidate Eric Adams and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Founded by artist Zalmen Glauber, the space operates with a mission to challenge common perceptions of his community as an insular, ultra-conservative collective frozen in time.
Shtetl Gallery is housed inside the Condor Hotel on Franklin Avenue, right in the middle of the Satmar enclave of South Williamsburg. (Glauber, who used to work as a real estate developer before becoming an artist about nine years ago, has a stake in the hotel.) A dimly lit ballroom on the lower ground floor was transformed into a gallery showing paintings, sculptures, and installations, including a group of works by Glauber himself and his mother, artist Miriam Lefkovitz.
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Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, chair of the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute, was invited to conduct the ribbon cutting. A natural entertainer, he delivered an exuberant speech peppered with some jokes and Yiddish puns that drew laughs from the guests.
“Nine years ago Mr. Glauber told his wife: I’m leaving real-estate and going to an art school; She said you’re Meshuga [crazy],” Weinstein quipped.
“He’s still Meshuga, but look what you have achieved,” the giddy Rabbi told Glauber. “You may dress in black and white, but you have brought the color to Williamsburg!”
Most of the works on display relate to Hasidic life or make reference to Biblical themes. That includes Glauber’s series of Fiddler on the Roof bronzes, which adapt the titular character from the famous Yiddish musical for more modern times. A luminous triptych by Rosa Katzenelson, a pioneering Hasidic woman artist, features an interpretation of the Biblical crossing of the Red Sea.
“Van Gogh painted flowers, Chagall painted ghosts, but tonight’s artists painted spirituality,” Rabbi Weinstein waxed poetic. “Every artist is influenced by their surroundings, and tonight’s artists are not different, interoperating and portraying Torah through the arts.”
Glauber’s wife Leah, who works as the gallery’s communication director, confirmed Rabbi Weinstein’s story about her being less than happy when her husband started taking a night class at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 2012.” It had to grow on me,” she said.
“Sculpting is still so new in the Hasidic community,” Mrs. Glauber added, explaining that her husband’s practice ran the risk of clashing with the laws of the Torah.
In Judaism, any representational art that renders a figure of god or his creation is cast out as idol-making. But artists like Glauber, backed by some rabbis, found a creative solution: if the sculpture doesn’t depict a full body, it’s cannot be considered an idol. That’s why many of Galubour’s sculptures are either busts or incomplete bodies. One sculpture depicting a full figure of a man seemed to defy that rule, but closer inspection revealed that the figure is missing eyeballs. Another figure had only one ear.
This openness to visual arts in the Hasidic community was not there when Katzenelson started making art more than 20 years ago.
“I was attacked in the beginning for being a woman artist,” she told Hyperallergic. “It was painful at times but now, thank god, people are changing and they’re more open to art.”
Amidst the galleries, there were also a few rare works that did not touch on Jewish spirituality directly. Among those was series of surreal and somewhat irreverent paintings by visual artist and Hasidic rockstar Lipa Schmeltzer (nicknamed “the Lady Gaga of Hasidic music”) and nature-based conceptual works by emerging artist Jay Wald made of found eggshells, porcupine spines, and even fossils of whale ears.
Other participating artists included Pinny Landau, who showed masterful portraits of Hasidic leaders and other community members, and 22-year-old Hillel Weiser, the youngest artist in the show, whose flexuous, narrative-based watercolors include a recent piece commemorating the victims of a stampede in April that killed 45 ultra-orthodox Jews during a religious festival in Israel. Nearly half of the participating artists maintain day jobs outside of the arts; Weiser, for example, works at a store, and Wald is a stone fabricator.
Throughout the event, Glauber was beaming with happiness. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, he explained that though the gallery takes its name from the secluded Jewish hamlets of Eastern Europe (Shtetls), its outlook is to the wider world.
“The idea behind the gallery is to create a platform for Hasidic artists to show their work but also to get our messages, emotions, and stories to the greater public,” Glauber said. “I would love this to create some kind of a dialogue with other communities.”
Everyone is invited to visit the gallery as long as they respect the community’s social customs, particularly modest clothing. Glauber added that non-Hasidic artists, “even non-Jews,” would also be invited to exhibit their work at the gallery as long as it is “linked to Hassidism in any way.”
This message of outreach manifests itself best in Glauber’s large-scale installation “Difference in Harmony,” which carries the motif of the fiddler with 18 violins displayed along with a collection of hats representing various Jewish religious movements, including one New York Yankees baseball cap. In Jewish mysticism, the number 18 represents the word “Life” (Chai in Hebrew).
Yitzchok Moully, who is known in New York as the “Pop Art Rabbi“, called the opening of the new gallery a “groundswell.”
“What’s more exciting than the art is people’s reactions,” Moully said. “The community is hungry for a space like this”.
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“But you know what blows my mind more than beautiful Hasidic art?” Moully asked and answered: “It’s that Hyperallergic is covering this event … We finally broke out.”