June 24, 2005

Lost and profound

Jerusalem artists seek inspiration in the kabbalah

by Gil Zohar

Jewish mysticism has turned into big business since Rabbi Yehuda Berg founded his Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre in the 1970s. Today there are some 50 centers worldwide. Berg's brand of co-ed esoterica has won celebrity devotees including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore - who view the rabbi's populist interpretation of the Zohar and other mystical texts as the path to spiritual fulfilment. But to his many detractors, Berg is a charlatan running an intellectually disreputable, money-grabbing cult.

It is against this background that viewers must cautiously approach the exhibit of kabbalah-inspired paintings by Jerusalem artists Dov Lederberg and Yael Avi-Yonah currently on display at the Park Avenue Gallery in Hazelton Lanes. (Ironically The Kabbala Centre has a branch in tony Yorkville jut around the corner from the gallery.)

For those who appreciate the abstruse symbolism of the divine sefirot, the holy sparks and the broken vessels, Lederberg and Avi-Yonah - a husband and wife team who live in Jerusalem's Orthodox bohemian Nahlaot quarter - have cut through the kitsch to create a provocative body of work which attempts to portray the infinite reality of the universe as expounded upon in the teachings of the kabbala.

The result?

Profound, technically polished paintings, serigraphs and prints that radiate colour and evoke the epiphany of a LSD trip in their attempt to capture the modalities of supernal states.

Lederberg, 64, acknowledges the impact of the '60s psychedelic zeitgeist on his work; at the time the Bronx-born, Philadelphia-raised artist was an underground filmmaker. Swept up in the apocalyptic turmoil of the 1967 Six-Day War, he immigrated to Israel, where he worked on the country's single nascent TV station. He slowly changed his focus to graphic arts, before finally becoming a full-time artist three years ago.

Jerusalem-born Yael Avi-Yonah, who Lederberg married in 1994, shares an equal interest in kabbalistic lore. Since 1988 the graduate of Bezalel -Jerusalem's equivalent of the Ontario College of Academy of Art and Design - has devoted herself to what she describes as "anaglyfic art" - the attempt to achieve the illusion of 3-D using only two dimensions. Her themes, less abstract than Lederberg's, include the Angels of the Divine Chariot, the Four Supernal Worlds, Jerusalem in the Messianic Age and other prophetic visions.

"There's a hunger for works that emanate positive spiritual energy," says Lederberg. "My wife and I call ourselves painters of the Third Temple."

"The vision was most profoundly affected [by the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.], and the fact that it's returning now at such an explosive rate among Hareidi people is a harbinger of the messianic times. We'll no longer be iconoclastic, anti-image."

Lederberg, who has studied for years in the yeshiva world but never received rabbinic ordination, hastens to distance himself from the artists who churn out schlock portraits of bearded rabbis. "I don't call myself a Judaica artist because it has a bad name."

"I believe in the art of being Jewish. Leading a Jewish life should be beautiful. It should imbue our lives with beauty, particularly in Eretz Israel."

Avi-Yonah, 64, the daughter of archaeologist Michael Avi-Yonah - who created the model of 2nd Temple era Jerusalem which once was displayed at the Holy Land Hotel and is now being re-installed at the Israel Museum, shares her husband's passion for expressing beauty as an indication of the divine.

Her work endeavours "to bring the essence visually of the existence of God's forces that are the foundation of the moral code. Enough artists are dealing with the ugly, broken and wounded. Art should evoke happiness, not gloom."

For information call 416.923.6200 or visit www.parkavenuegallery.ca.