Israeli Artist Paints a Path to Healing


There is something raw about the rough brush strokes in the work of native Israeli artist Rhea Carmi, and about her textured materials, such as sand and stone. But then, there also was a rawness to the tragedy that originally informed and inspired her work.

Carmi lost her brother in the Yom Kippur War and needed a way to cope. When she turned to painting, friends and family told her that she had talent.

The result of this new life path will be on display this summer at the Lawrence Asher Gallery in the museum district of Wilshire Boulevard. Most of the exhibited works will be from Carmi’s “Humanity’s Struggle” series, but there also will be selected works from her “Humanity’s Resilience and Everlasting Spirit” series. The exhibition explores themes the 53-year-old artist has wrestled with throughout her life; the paintings themselves represent her work over the past 12 years.

Carmi’s artistic evolution quickly became about more than confronting the grief of her brother’s death: She’s also had to process warring sides of her personality — the scientist vs. the artist. Carmi studied physiology at Tel Aviv Open University before switching her major to art at Ramat-Gan Institute for the Arts, where she studied under artist Moti Mizrahi, an artist recognized for his conceptual art and use of space, and mixed-media artist Arie Aroch.

“In my work you can see a war between certain characteristics of mine,” Carmi said. “One side of me that wants everything to be in order [with a] vertical flow … like in science. The other is my wild side.”

The paintings in her “Humanity’s Resilience” series utilize Carmi’s chemistry background, tapping into her inner scientist. Jerusalem stone and other raw materials such as sand and rocks recreate the look of antiquity in this series. Through carving into the paint, painting on stone and using ancient Hebrew letters, Carmi creates a cave-painting look that symbolizes the resilience of the Jewish people throughout history. This series is as much about touch as sight; the textures Carmi uses let the viewer feel the layers of history.

Some of the paintings in “Humanity’s Struggle” deal with the universal emotions people experience after trauma or tragedy. Her mixed-media pieces with cookie-cutter figures illustrate the loss of identity that can occur after a tragedy.

One example is “Survivor’s Dance,” a red painting in which various uniform figures dance in a circle, like they are jumping on a trampoline. Carmi described it as a dance of life. The various figures illustrate diverse and individual reactions to tragedy.

An example of her wild side taking over is “Suspended: Humanity Struggles VIII,” with its vibrant primary colors and strong masculine lines, depicting the senseless violence and loss of life in the Middle East. The painting shows several figures being hung. The shock of the subject matter and the rough nature of her brush strokes had museum visitors mesmerized at her last exhibit.

In “Humanity Struggles XXIV,” there are Hebrew letters and a red tzitzit that Carmi said is supposed to look as though it has been soaked in blood. It juxtaposes the struggles occurring in Israel with the calmer constant of Judaism.

“Even though the struggles are very hard, most of the time we fix it. You become stronger and better if there is another disaster because of those struggles,” Carmi said.

Her works, with their vast range of styles, materials and symbols reflect her conflicting sensibilities: “Sometimes one side takes over the other. It depends on the mood…. I could separate my work into the one that comes from my guts and the one that comes from my head. I convey my feeling via the material and the colors and the texture.”

She expects and welcomes a broad swath of reactions to her work.

“People can relate their personal experience to my paintings,” she said, “even though I experience something different than them.”

Rhea Carmi discusses “Humanity Struggles” at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. The Humanity Struggles Series (1991-2003), will be on display through July 9 at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, 5820 Wilshire Blvd. Parking available behind 5858 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (323) 935-9100.

High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’


Â

After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.

The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.

By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize “leaping converts” — so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad — as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.

Thursday’s ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.

But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul.

“There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country — where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union — the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.

“We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized,” said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. “It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn’t issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday’s ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.

“We have no coalition agreement regarding this,” UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. “I’m sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I’m not especially hopeful.”

The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That’s a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.

“We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. “I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope.”

In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.

“As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Law Committee.

“I’m very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court’s decision will create problems in those communities,” he said. “I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept.”

The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is “deeply concerned” by the ruling.

“The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court,” the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “The consequences of this ruling will be tragic.”

For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.

“I always dreamed of really belonging to the country,” said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. “Now perhaps it can really happen.”

But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.

That’s the way the UTJ’s Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if “leaping converts” apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, “I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.

“The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel,” he said.

JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.

Â

Abel Salgado Keeps the Challah Coming


Forty years after he first put on a white apron, Abel Salgado remains an anomaly in the Jewish bakery world, but not for reasons one might expect. Sure, when he joined Local 453 of the Hebrew Master Bakers and Confectioners Union in 1963, the Chihuahua native was maybe the second or third Latino ever to join the union, then 2,000 strong. And even today, Salgado is one of the few non-Jews involved in the Jewish bakery business, a profession that occupies a particularly sacred — not to mention delicious — place in the religion. But, Salgado noted, ethnicity and theology were the least controversial issues when he originally applied to join the union.

"Most of the other members couldn’t stand that I was so young," reminisces the Mexican Mormon, with a cement-mixer laugh that jiggles his friendly jowls. "Most of the bakers in the union were older men from the mother countries — Germany, Russia, Poland — and would give me the cold treatment at meetings, since you had to be 18 at the time to join the union, and I joined at 17."

He quickly won over skeptics the same way he persuaded the union president to let a young Latino join the big-fisted union — baking the best damn challah bread in the Southland, loaves so wondrously plump no one could deny him acceptance.

"After a couple of years," Salgado boasted, "I was considered one of the tribe."

But the baker nevertheless remains a curiosity in his job, now for more disturbing reasons. Salgado is one of the Southland’s last makers of Jewish pastries, a quickly disappearing craft that Salgado freely admits will probably perish within the next generation or two. The AFL-CIO swallowed HMBC No. 453 years ago, and union bakers are as rare as communists.

Salgado is a large, tubby gentleman who keeps his ink-black mustache impeccably groomed and possesses gnarled hands marked with ancient burns — the man looks as if he emerged from the womb wearing a flour-dusted apron. He moved to Irvine in 1987, retiring after two decades of owning and operating Jewish bakeries around Los Angeles’ Fairfax district. But the allure of dough — and a community of 60,000 Orange County Jews forced to visit Los Angeles for their weekly bread needs — convinced Salgado to come out of retirement and open Abel’s Bakery in 1997.

Although he hadn’t baked anything in almost a decade, Salgado began preparing the meticulously presented Jewish baked goods again as if he’d been away for the weekend.

"If you’re a master baker, it’s not something you forget," said Salgado, who pronounces words like mandelbrot and challah with the Yiddish comfort of a rabbi. "You just pick up where you started. And I know everything there is to know about Jewish pastries."

He’s not kidding — in addition to loyal and walk-in customers, Salgado maintains lucrative ties with local synagogues and Jewish organizations for their unleavened needs.

The doors of Abel’s Bakery are always swung open, the better to allow the shop’s sweet scents to entice gourmands. A large tray holds made-every-morning plain, pumpernickel and seeded rye bread, their slightly dull crusts encasing soft but firm loaves. Trays buckle with rugala, small cookies moist with chocolate chips and the holy hamantashen, a fruity triangle-shaped turnover sold by the thousands during the festival of Purim and by the hundreds the rest of the year. Abel’s even sells pan dulces the size of footballs — Salgado originally hired other Mexican bakers to bake them since he didn’t know how.

But the biggest seller — and Salgado’s finest creation — remains that beautiful challah, prominently displayed behind the main counter and as imposing as a toolbox. Jewish families line up en masse outside Abel’s every Friday to order their challah loaves in preparation for Shabbat dinner, in which challah plays the lead role. The challah possesses a full, thick body and the slightest hint of egg. It’s best for French toast, but it’s good for sandwiches, too.

Salgado is so proud of his challah that he frequently puts on the following show: he’ll get a slice of challah, suddenly crush it as if it were worthless paper and place it on the counter. Rather than remain a crumbled bread ball, the challah slowly springs back to life like a flower blooming on high speed, with nary a crumb to suggest any abuse.

"See that?" Salgado said. "Let’s see Weber’s do that."

Abel’s Bakery, located at 24601 Raymond Way, No. 7, Lake Forest, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (949) 699-0930.