The Art That Blinds Us

December 7, 2023

R. Silver

Once upon a time, it would have been unheard of.

Not anymore.

In the heart of a busy Lakewood plaza, with customers rushing back and forth, is an oasis of serenity, talent, and beauty.

Passersby pause as they walk by, glance at the window, and then hesitantly open the door and walk into a whole new world.

Welcome to the frum art gallery.

The world of Jewish art

It’s a new concept for Lakewood.

Paintings that were once found exclusively in cramped shops in Eretz Yisrael are now displayed in spacious, modern studios in the US. The market has changed. The customers are becoming more knowledgeable, their tastes more sophisticated.

What does the world of Jewish art look like today?

“We were looking for a niche need in the community,” says Dovid Brejt, owner of Zohara, Lakewood’s premium art gallery. “It’s not something that’s widespread, you won’t find a gallery in every plaza, but there’s clearly a market for it.”

The type of art hanging on the walls of his gallery is the sort that people once brought home from trips to Eretz Yisrael. Ideally, the painting would bring back treasured memories of their trip, but it wasn’t always so easy. It’s hard to make spur of the moment decisions. There’s a benefit to making your choice in peace and tranquility.

Additionally, as our community grows larger and more affluent, customers are looking for the right art to put on their walls.

“I think that what frum people are buying is very indicative of our values,” Dovid says. “What we put on our walls is what’s central to our lives.” (Insert Torah picture here)

What’s being bought

The most obvious pieces people gravitate to are scenes that display Jewish life. The Kosel, Kever Rochel, and Yerushalayim are favorites.

But even within the typical selection, there’s a wide range.

You can find the super realistic and the incredibly abstract, but those are both on the rare end of the spectrum. “I call it the 80/20 rule. 10 percent of customers want a realistic style, 10 percent go for something very abstract, and the rest want something that falls into the middle category.” (insert pictures of kosel, yerushalyim, kever Rochel on all sides of spectrum)

Gedolim pictures are always popular, and while customers usually gravitate to the realistic look, there’s room for creativity there as well. (insert Rav Chaim picture here)

Art as a gift, while expensive, is also very meaningful and beloved. “We have customers who want to buy something incredibly unique and special for someone, so they choose a painting. It’s not just a gift card that disappears a week later. Artwork stays on the walls, becomes a part of the household, and creates a real bond.”

Art is personal, but a portrait of a rebbi or family member that has passed on is gift that could be bought confidently. It’s something that will be treasured forever.

Going out of the box

Zohara sees educating people about art as part of their mission.

“Until recently, the frum world’s ideas of art revolved around Michelangelo. But really, there’s a world of talent and beauty available to elevate our homes.”

The gallery’s presence in the busy strip underscores the presence of art in frum life. Any interested passerby can walk in and take a look, enjoying the paintings and the quiet.

“We also host shows where artists display their paintings and customers can come in, talk to the artist, and hear the inspiration behind the painting. These shows are not limited to potential buyers. They’re for anyone who wants to see some beautiful art.”

At Zohara’s first show, a few years back, the artist was a man who specialized in abstract paintings. Some customers seeing his paintings were puzzled. 

“What am I looking at?” they wondered.

“I think of understanding paintings like understanding wines,” Dovid offers an analogy. “People who know nothing about wine assume that the flavors and nuances written on the bottle are made up by the vintner. But those who know wine and drink it properly, giving time for the flavors to come together, easily observe those subtle flavors.”

Abstract art is the same thing. A first casual look sees a stunning array of colors—and not much else. But a second, longer look reveals the shapes and substance that make up the picture.

In the painting he shows me, entitled “Yonah,” I follow the process. A closer look reveals the ship and passengers, and the swirling feel helps create the emotions engendered by this piece.

“It’s taking the customers some time, but they’re slowly becoming more accustomed to and buying abstract art.” (Insert Yonah picture here)

Statement pieces

Many customers come in looking for something that will fit into an already designed room. They come by several times, look around, and find something whose colors match their living room. Zohara even brings the painting to a customer’s house so they can see what it looks like in the context of their own home.

Others go for statement pieces. They see something striking, different, and unusual and fall in love with it.

They buy something that they feel a connection to. It might be a painting of a hachnasas Sefer Torah, an esrog, or even a menorah. (insert pictures of all of that here) “Krias Yam Suf” is a perennial favorite both for the beauty of the piece and the symbolism. (Insert)

Another unusual piece is a set depicting the chamesh megillos. The beauty of that one is that it goes through the rhyme and rhythm of Jewish life.

“I had one woman who complained about this piece, wondering why we needed Eichah. Why couldn’t there just be happy scenes?”

But the truth is that the sad scenes are also a part of our history and our calendar.

The art created and sold in our community today runs the gamut of our rich mesorah and displays the themes and emotions that bind us as a people.