Jewish Folk Art Traditions: Cultural Identity and Personal Expression

Starting with the symbolic motifs worked into Torah arks, gravestones, and elaborate papercuts, the exhibition illuminated the inspiration many carousel carvers drew from traditional sacred carvings for the animated carousel figures they created. We positioned the themes of symbolism and immigration as the central thrust behind our tours for elementary, middle, and high school tours in “Gilded Lions.” Our goals for all groups visiting the exhibition were to develop observation and communication skills; reveal Jewish immigrant artists’ contributions to American folk art; develop critical thinking skills through comparisons of objects; and understand the concept of symbolism, especially as a means to trace the adaptation of visual culture.

All tours began with a discussion of students’ cultural histories. Because many students who visited the exhibition had personal or familial histories of immigration, they identified with a desire to retain a sense of cultural identity. These preliminary discussions set the stage for an exploration of Jewish immigration to the United States and the ways in which communities have continued traditions while simultaneously adapting to a new lifestyle in America.

Students of all ages examined these shifting identities through symbolism. For example, many tours started at a lavish papercut from Europe, which allowed students to consider symbols such as the lion and the double-headed eagle that represented Prussia. By examining more sacred and secular objects that Jewish immigrant artisans created, students began to trace a translation of visual culture: While the hands of the kohanim and lions often persisted throughout various forms, the Prussian double-headed eagle shifted into a single-headed, unquestionably American one draped in red, white, and blue in American papercuts, and the features of the mythical creatures of European papercuts morphed into lively carousel figures. Viewing the Decalogues, flanked by lions, and carousel figures side by side, students saw how woodcarvers transferred their skills from one form to another by adapting their visual language, including expressive lions’ manes and tails.

Though the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum has closed, the surprising connection that “Gilded Lions” revealed between Jewish immigrant woodcarvers and the American carousel industry offers opportunities for classroom discussion about major Jewish contributions to American history and culture. Educators can explore these contributions with their students in the classroom through the exhibition website, www.gildedlions.org. In addition to an overview of the exhibition, the site highlights synagogues, Torah arks, gravestones, papercuts, and carousels through enlargeable images and background information about each form. After a few moments of quiet looking, teachers can engage students in discussion by asking them what they see happening in each image and encouraging students to back up interpretations with visual evidence. In small groups, students can compare and contrast the exhibition objects with those that they see in their daily lives, such as Decalogues or Torah arks. In addition, students can compare arks, papercuts, and carousel horses to discern which elements of visual language artists have carried from one art form to another.

Even without exhibition images, “Gilded Lions” uncovered important aspects of Jewish life in the United States that are relevant for classroom discussion. Some conversation topics the exhibition has sparked for us include:

History of Jewish immigration to the United States: Starting with the reception by Peter Stuyvesant of Brazilian Jews transported to New Amsterdam in the 1650s, immigrant Jews have had a substantial presence in the American cultural landscape. Students can discuss where Jews have emigrated from, their reasons for emigration, and their major cultural contributions.

Rise of Coney Island: Coney Island, initially conceived as a seaside haven for the wealthy, eventually declined into what some called “Sodom by the Sea” before revitalization brought amusement parks and carousels to attract families. Students can explore this cultural history, approaching it as a microcosm of larger forces at play in American culture.

The development of leisure time industries: For many European immigrants in the early twentieth century, leisure time was a new experience; not only did American life include this phenomenon, entire industries were dedicated to it in the form of amusement parks. Students can compare the life of a first-generation child born in the United States to that of their parents in Eastern Europe. The skills that carvers transferred from sacred carvings to secular ones such as carousels serve to illustrate this comparison.

Teaching from “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses” with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences has been an incredibly rewarding experience for us. Our hope is that the important contributions that immigrant Jewish artisans have made to American folk art will continue to inspire students and educators for years after the exhibition’s conclusion. ♦

Jennifer Kalter is the manager of school and family programs, and Sara Lasser is the associate director of education at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. They can be reached at jkalter@folkartmuseum.org and slasser@folkartmuseum.org.
Author
Jennifer Kalter
Issue
The Arts in Jewish Education
Published: Summer 2008