Author Archives: Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft

About Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.

Creating the Jewish Pregnancy

When my husband and I first learned that we were expecting a baby, we spontaneously decided to say the sheheheyanu blessing over the pregnancy test. Awkwardly holding the purple plastic wand in front of us, we struggled against giggling and crying as we gave thanks to God for sustaining us and bringing us to that day.  It seemed right to celebrate the moment with prayer–even over such an unlikely “ritual object”–and this marked the beginning of nine months of figuring out how to make my pregnancy more Jewishly meaningful.
Pregnant woman with kids and husband
First I set out to find Jewish sources about how to have a traditional pregnancy and birth experience. This seemed appropriate, since I had a fairly traditional Jewish wedding, and as an adult I have enjoyed discovering Jewish prayers, blessings, and rituals that can punctuate my daily life.

So I felt rather disappointed–well, actually, kind of cheated–when I found almost nothing in our tradition to guide an expecting mother. I discovered that those talmudic rabbis who discussed, debated, and opined about what part of the field to harvest first, and when a woman was ritually pure enough to have sex with her husband, had very little to say about how to carry a child for nine months.

Perhaps this is because the sages were never pregnant. As Sandy Falk and Rabbi Daniel Judson write in The Jewish Pregnancy Book ( 2004): “the Talmudic Rabbis, who formulated the basis of traditional Jewish prayer, ritual and law, were men, so they never experienced pregnancy. As a result, there are a dearth of prayers, rituals and blessings that Judaism has for pregnancy and delivery.” 

The challenge, therefore, was my own. In the ultimate creative time, as I nurtured the growth and completion of another being, I also had the opportunity to be creative with Jewish practice.

Personal Practices

Over the centuries, Jewish women like me have whipped up a wonderful buffet of pregnancy observances, many uniquely created for and by individuals. Going to the mikveh, chanting psalms, reading poems, lighting candles, and gathering friends together to share stories of birth and motherhood are some of the ways that women have sought to amplify the spiritual experience of pregnancy. 

The Eichmann Trial

Adolph Eichmann was born to a middle-class German family in 1906. He rose through the ranks of the Nazi party to become the senior lieutenant colonel responsible for the transportation of an innumerable amount of Jews to the death camps in Poland. Eichmann also facilitated and managed the use of gas chambers in the coordinated Nazi plan to enact the Final Solution, earning him the title “the architect of the Holocaust.”

Eichmann was arrested by the Allies at the end of World War II, but he escaped by assuming a different identity. He managed to spread a rumor of his suicide and was aided by former SS colleagues as he fled to Argentina. He lived there with his family for more than a decade under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement.

Capture and Trial

In 1960, Israeli intelligence was alerted to Eichmann’s identity by the CIA, which had received information from Simon Wiesenthal about Eichmann’s location in Buenos Aires. The capture was carried out non-violently by Mossad agents, who first had to track and positively identify him, all the while concealing their operation from the Argentine authorities.

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, aware that the Argentine government had a history of protecting Nazis and was unlikely to agree to extradition, authorized his security agents to move on their own. The Argentine government knew nothing of the capture at the time. Afterward, when they brought this grievance to the UN, the matter was resolved peacefully.

The agents smuggled Eichmann by plane to Jerusalem, where he faced charges of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and membership in organizations that the 1945-46 Nuremberg Trials had classified as criminal.

Eichmann was tried in 1961 in one of the most notorious trials in history. He sat for eight months in a bulletproof glass box in a Jerusalem courtroom and listened to all of the testimony against him. One hundred and eleven survivors testified with detailed eyewitness accounts of their experiences in the Holocaust, hundreds more attended the trial, and thousands of survivors worldwide followed the radio and television broadcasts.

Judaism and Anthropology

Rooted in the exploration of other cultures made possible by imperial conquest during the 19th century, anthropology has evolved into a qualitatively-based method for interpreting and understanding all aspects of culture–from food and fashion to family structure and sexuality. Whereas once anthropologists had to travel to remote areas of the world to find undiscovered native tribes, nowadays, an ethnography can be written about nearly any cultural phenomenon. 

The Early Years

The story of Jews in anthropology begins in France with the work of Emile Durkheim, who, despite four generations of rabbis in his family, chose to live a secular life. Nevertheless, Durkheim’s Jewish background gave rise to some of his most important investigations into society.

In one of his most notable works, The Division of Labor, his references to the Torah outnumber references to any other text, and it is clear that his early Jewish education, at the behest of his rabbi father, greatly influenced his understanding of social relationships.

Durkheim, along with Herbert Spencer, was one of the first scholars to apply the scientific method and scientific reasoning to social phenomena. In addition to outlining a system of labor under capitalism, Durkheim authored texts on suicide, religion, and the importance of social institutions–like synagogues–in the cohesion of societies.

He also trained a large number of Jewish social scientists, and is now considered to be the founder of Sociology, though his methods and theories also form part of the intellectual inheritance of Anthropology.

One of Durkheim’s more promising students was Marcel Mauss, a Jewish scholar whose most significant work explained the ritual of gift giving, focusing specifically on evidence from “uncivilized peoples.” Mauss’ work with non-Western cultures paved the way for his student Claude Levi-Strauss to embark on several research trips that would profoundly impact the practice of anthropology.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Levi-Strauss also came from a long line of French rabbis, and his family was renowned for their illustrious collection of antique Judaica. Like Durkheim and Mauss before him, Levi-Strauss was much more drawn to questions of culture at large, and not questions of Jewish cultural tradition.

Judaism and Psychology

Jewish psychologists and the influence of Jewish tradition have been instrumental in creating the field of modern psychology. The fundaments of several psychological movements can be traced directly to Jewish values, ideas, and practices, and Jews in the 20th century were at the forefront of research about the psyche and the varieties of human behavior.  

Jewish psychologists founded several branches of psychological inquiry. All of the major theorists of the Gestalt school, except Wolfgang Kohler, were Jews. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Lewin, and Kurt Goldstein posited theories of perception and understanding based on holistic understanding, rather than a previous model based on the computation of parts.

Judaism and psychology

Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud and, with the notable exception of Carl Jung, most of its early proponents were also Jews.

Why the Jews?

Some intellectual historians speculate that it was particular Jewish personality and cultural traits that led Jews to lead the field of psychology in its early days.

In a social psychology study of Jewish families, researchers F.M. Herz and E.J. Rosen found that in contrast to some other ethnic groups, Jews on the whole tend to choose verbal expression as a way of expressing emotions, particularly negative or painful experiences. Historical circumstances of oppression, segregation, and confined living conditions often resulted in close-knit communities of Jews who felt their pain deeply and expressed it to one another plainly.

According to studies conducted by Mark Zborowski, an anthropologist who investigated cultural aspects of pain, Jews respond more quickly to physical discomfort than non-Jews. Jewish families often discuss issues and problems in great detail, and suffering individuals are encouraged to “let out” their feelings and achieve catharsis through communication.

According to Peter Langman, “Jews differ from many cultural groups in that they place less value on self-reliance and are less suspicious of taking their problems to professionals.” Thus, the traditional role of rabbi/rebbe involves extensive counseling or psychotherapy.

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s life and work is difficult to categorize. A Renaissance man of letters, he wrote on topics ranging from art history and aesthetics to linguistics, politics, and psychedelic drugs. An ardent Marxist and critical theorist, Benjamin also fused his understanding of Jewish mysticism with historical materialism, prompting critic Terry Eagleton to call him the “Marxist Rabbi.” His close friends included superstars of the Frankfurt School like Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as political theorist Hannah Arendt and the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem.  

Benjamin’s chief contributions to twentieth century intellectual history are likely his work on the aesthetic significance of image reproduction (like photography) and the character of modern urban spaces, such as the Parisian arcades, though he is also known as a consummate translator of Proust and Baudelaire.

Benjamin’s life has also provided a theoretical model for a distinctly ambivalent stance on Jewish identity. Pushed out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Benjamin became a Jewish expatriate in Paris until he was forced to flee once again. In a tragic series of events, Benjamin narrowly missed escaping to neutral Spain. He died near the Spanish border and became the intellectual martyr of World War II. 

Childhood Environment

Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 to a liberal, educated Jewish family. His father was a businessman who sometimes sold art at auction, and encouraged Benjamin’s intellectual pursuits by helping him collect a vast philosophy library. As a boy, Benjamin watched his stately residential neighborhood undergo rapid changes because of industrialization. Always a keen observer of city life, he often referred to his early childhood memories of Berlin in later writings and theories about the urban proletariat and social injustice.

holocaustBenjamin’s political activity germinated in Gustav Wyneken’s private school, which sought to create a youth movement devoted to the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Goethe, and Nietzsche. In 1912, Benjamin began his undergraduate education, which would take him to the universities of Freiberg, Munich, and Berlin where he studied under the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, and sociologist Georg Simmel.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for coining the commonly misunderstood but oft-repeated phrase “the banality of evil,” which sought to make sense of Nazi Adolph Eichmann’s actions during the Holocaust. But a single catch-phrase cannot represent Arendt’s intellectual impact and influence. Hannah Arendt was the first woman appointed to be a professor at Princeton, the first American to receive Denmark’s Sonning Prize for Contributions to European Civilization, and the first intellectual to write about the ideological link between Russian communism and German fascism (in The Origins of Totalitarianism). 

Hannah Arendt cut a dashing figure in 20th century intellectual history, not only through her groundbreaking political theory, but also through her romantic liaisons with some of the intellectual powerhouses of the day: Martin Heidegger, W.H. Auden, Hans Morgenthau, and Leo Strauss. As an immigrant and refugee from the Nazi regime, her allegiance to Jewish culture and the development of a Jewish state also fueled her passion, although as her scholarship progressed, she disagreed more and more with the mainstream American Jewish community. A fierce advocate for liberty, political action, and the moral power of thought, Arendt is still one of the most celebrated and carefully studied 20th century political theorists.

Early Years

Born to secular Russian Jewish parents in Hannover Germany in 1906, the young Arendt was a voracious reader and precocious intellect, polishing off the major works of Western philosophy before the age of 16. She was particularly fond of Kant, whose writing on judgment was to strongly influence her work later in life. Arendt’s father died when she was 7, a traumatic event which perhaps motivated her search for a collegiate father figure.

hannah arendtAfter completing her BA at Koenigsburg, she enrolled in a doctorate program in philosophy at the University of Marburg. At the time, Martin Heidegger was completing his masterwork, Being and Time, and his lectures captivated the young existentially-minded Arendt. Though he was married, Heidegger and Arendt commenced a tempestuous year-long affair, which might have ended when she discovered his involvement with the National Socialist party. Even after that, the two maintained a life-long correspondence despite their severely paradoxical politics: Arendt later became active in the German youth aliyah movement; after WWII, Heidegger was severely censured for his Nazi involvement.

Chaim Soutine

Buildings sway and undulate, faces appear pensive and distorted, and landscapes express all the angst and psychological tumult of a young emigre’s life. In the paintings of Chaim Soutine (paintred below by Amedeo Modigliani), the classic subjects of art history meet a new, vibrantly charged aesthetic that combined the artist’s Jewish sensibility with the energy of the avant-garde. Compared to artists as different as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollack, Soutine’s work bridged the divide between the Cubism and Fauvism that influenced him and the abstract expressionism that was to come after him.

The Early Years

Born in 1893 outside of Minsk, Belarus as the 10th child in an Orthodox Jewish family, Soutine rebelled against his tradition during adolescence and enrolled in the art school in Vilnius. At the age of 20, after showing much promise in his early work, he moved to Paris with two of his art school friends, Pinchus Kremegne and Michel Kikoine. There he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Fernand Cormon and took a room in the notorious artists flat, La Ruche, in Montparnasse.

In his 20s, Soutine live the life of a Parisian bohemian, spending late nights drinking in bars with other artists and his afternoons recovering and working madly in his studio. Soutine relished the freedom of his new French life and made friends with several of the notable artists of the time. Yet his closest companions were always other Jews. Soutine and Amadeo Modigliani, a Sephardic émigré from Italy, shared not only a flat, but stylistic innovations, models, and the same dealer.

During this early period, Soutine was known for his still lifes. Freed from the restrictions of salon-style classicism, in which artists were expected to paint historical tableaux, Soutine and his peers were experimenting with shape and texture and pursuing new visions of everyday objects. Still Life with Fish  (1921) shows how Soutine was playing with the application of paint, allowing it to thicken into an almost sculptural expression.

Contemporary Art in Israel

From painting to sculpture to video and performance art, contemporary Israeli artists are, increasingly, ambassadors of a national culture and identity. From the bi-annual pavilion at the Venice Bienale to the white-box galleries of London, New York, Paris, and Tel Aviv to the generous circuit of juried international shows and art fairs across the world, contemporary Israeli artists are innovating and building on an artistic legacy rooted in Jewish history and identity, the land of Israel, and the encounter with various modernities.


Mediating the Past

The Holocaust is a powerful inspiration for many artists working today. Many have translated their emotional response to trauma and tragedy into the visual language of abstraction, as both a pure expression of spirit and as an adherence to the biblical prohibition on representative images. As abstract expressionism gained favor in Europe and America, its innovations were harnessed by Israeli artists for cathartic, rather than formalist, purposes.

Moshe Kupferman (1926-2003) employed muted colors and geometric formations in his paintings to conceal and reveal aspects of his experience as a survivor of the Polish camps. Moshe Gershuni (b. 1936) began his career as a conceptual performance artist, singing prayers at galleries and museums, but gained renown as an expressionist painter whose works deal with biblical themes and religious belief. Michael Gross (1920-2004) also took up the task of translating religious pathos in his sculpture and painting, with great sensual effect. Considered one of the greatest painters and sculptors of modern Israeli art, Gross developed a type of minimalism strongly influenced by natural form and the ethos of the Israeli landscape.

Figurative Painting

There is still a strong school of figurative painting in Israel that builds on the rich landscape tradition of early Zionist artists, who linked the beauty of the terrain to their destiny to occupy the land of their ancestors.

Israel Hershberg (b. 1948) is a supreme naturalist, painting highly detailed landscapes infused with Mediterranean light and a patina of desert dust. His close examination of cypress trees creates portraits of iconic green sentinels on the horizon. Menashe Kadishman (b. 1932) has painted a great range of subjects, but his consistent use of images of sheep, often in a colorful, pop style, have become symbolic of the Israeli identity struggle–between a pastoral, nomadic heritage and a sad history of victimhood.

Architecture in Israel

Israeli architecture over the past century has developed in response to centuries of historical building styles and prevailing international design trends. While notably eclectic, modern Israeli buildings can be classified into several distinctive styles that combine traditional materials and motifs with the needs of modern, urban populations.

The Early Years

In the late 19th century, communities immigrating to Israel replicated the building styles of their homelands. In Jerusalem, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore established the first neighborhood outside of the Old City in 1860. The hillside settlement of Mishkenot Sha’ananim (translated as “tranquil dwellings”) is made up of terraced rowhouses with red roof tiles–a style that was influenced by a Mediterranean vernacular and became a prototype for Jewish residences all over Israel.

Nearby, wealthy Arab families began building European-style mansions and villas that integrated Islamic decoration. West Jerusalem is still a reflection of how various groups carved out separate neighborhoods–the Bukharan Quarter, the Russian Compound, and the German colony–each using the city’s signature Jerusalem stone, but adding on distinct architectural elements. Jerusalem stone, a white or cream-colored marble, is found in the hills surrounding the city and became a required building material under the British mandate.

Far less eclectic in its influences, the “white city” of Tel Aviv was built initially as a reproduction of Eastern European cities like Odessa, Moscow, and Warsaw. The architects of the city’s first buildings did not consider the climatic conditions of a warm-weather sea-side town and retained the wide windows, attics, turrets and towers of a more temperate environment. But later, during the early 20th century, Jewish builders and craftsmen of all kinds became influenced by Orientalist style. Local Arabic ornament, desert motifs and images of Bedouins conjured up the ancient Biblical Mediterranean for the immigrant Jews who were trying to re-establish their autonomy in the land of their picturesque past.

Notable buildings from this period paired European monumentality and function with Orientalist motifs in a style occasionally termed “Eclectic Romanticism.” Tel Aviv’s first public building, the Herzliya Gymnasium designed by Yosef Berski, looks like a stately imperial building, but its colorful interior is enhanced with Arabic ornamentation. Haifa’s old Technion building, designed by Alexander Baerwald, along with the Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv and the YMCA in Jerusalem combined eastern elements into western exteriors, creating a new fusion style with Byzantine domes, Moorish arches, Islamic tessellations and art deco elements added to multi-story concrete buildings.