Yael Avi-Yonah creates a new work in her home studio in Jerusalem. Husband and wife artists Dov Lederberg and Yael Avi-Yonah are exporting something novel from Israel to the United States – peace of mind.
With their unorthodox art inspired by Jewish mystical teachings called the Kabbalah, the couple feel they have tapped a vein that is feeding into peoples’ need to make sense of the world.
“We’re opening up to people an alternative universe,” the 60-year-old Lederberg explained on an Indian summer afternoon in his stone Jerusalem home/studio.
“I think in these tumultuous times, people are looking to find a meaning to the chaos. And the Zohar (the classic text of Jewish mysticism) suggests there is such a design to life – there is an order in the chaos. People looking for something modern and stimulating, but in an abstract form that has meaning.”
Spurred by two previous successful tour/exhibits in the U.S., the couple are gearing up for their debut on the West Coast, where they’ll be displaying their art and holding discussions. They’ll be appearing in California and Arizona between April 27 and June 22, including being a major exhibitor in gala Israel Independence Day events sponsored by the Jewish Federations in Sacramento May 2-5 and Phoenix Arizona May 9-14. They’ll also be part of the Jewish Arts Festival in San Diego June 2-17, as well as appearing in various synagogue events in California.
But don’t think that Lederberg and Avi-Yonah are just riding the wave of popularity that Jewish mysticism has been floating on thanks to high-profile disciples like Madonna and other American entertainment figures. They’re the real deal – spiritual, observant, and immersed in other-worldly ideas.
“You know the saying ‘You are what you eat’? I take that and say ‘you are what you hang up on your walls,” said Lederberg. “You usually hang things that have positive energies coming out – it affects your mood.”
Avi-Yonah interjects, “Kabbalah comes from the Hebrew root makbil – meaning parallel – we’re making parallels between world, time and soul.”
The couple are not only interested in raising the spiritual level of people who view their art, but they say they’re offering a different view of Israel than the one most Americans see.
“Look, we’re coming from Israel, a country that’s embattled, but most of our paintings are positive. Our work gives comfort and ultimately, this is what Israel should be – a light unto the nations,” Lederberg said. “Instead of coming to ask Americans for financial aid, we’re saying, ‘no we’re showing you something which is going to improve your quality of life.’ I think our work has that aspect, something new that creates joy and is uplifting.”
“We’ve been finding a receptive audience in America. Generally, the people we make the greatest contact with are successful professionals like doctors and lawyers, people who are searching for identity besides their work,” said Lederberg. “Whether they’ve been studying kabbalah or just have an interest in mystical ideas and philosophy, they’ve seen in our work a reverberation – it speaks to them.”
Avi-Yona, sitting next to her husband, chips in, “We brought joy – so they called us and asked up to come back.”
Lederberg and Avi-Yona, much like their eclectic, art-filled home, are a throwback to an era that intersects the free expression of the 1960s and the Jewish spiritual awakening inspired by people like the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
They animatedly take a visitor around their house, pointing out various works of art, which includes Lederberg’s original paintings and prints inspired by the Hebrew letters in the scribal style, as well as fractal visions of angelic beings, and a mirror-image series called ‘Dynamics of Marriage.’
Avi-Yona’s passion is anaglyfic art, which relies on a special device for viewing the picture with multi-colored 3-D lenses in order to diminish secondary details and emphasize essential forms. Many of her paintings are mounted on an axis and she exults in spinning the works around to let the viewer see the different effects the movement inspires. Dressed entirely in black, with long flowing black hair, Avi-Yona is herself a striking figure. And her biggest fan is her husband.
“With Yael’s picture when you look at them closely, you see the yin and the yang – the masculine and the feminine of them. And people respond to it,” said Lederberg.
The daughter of distinguished archaeologist and Second temple era historian, Michael Avi-Yonah, Yael received a rich background in art, archeology and Bible which emanates from her many works on Jerusalem landscapes and biblical themes.
“My father’s period was the second temple. Mine is the third,” the native Israeli said with pride, as she displays work with themes of the ‘Angels of the Divine Chariot’, the ‘Four Supernal Worlds’, ‘Jerusalem in the Messianic Age’ and other prophetic visions.
Lederberg, too, brings his rich past to his work. Emerging from the same New York underground scene that spawned Andy Warhol, he concentrated on experimental film in the 1960s, and became an active film-maker within The New American Underground.
“That whole era provided the basis of a new visual lexicon, and it’s where the whole concept of today’s music videos came from – non-linear poetic demonstrations. The weirder it is the better it is.”
After moving to Israel, Lederberg worked between 1970 and 1994 as an independent film director, mainly for Israel Television, making documentary and educational films. It was there he jumped into the art world.
“About 15 years ago, I was working on a form called video art, and I made some stills from it, which people seemed to liked it. Yael gave me a big push. She gave me a lot of the technical background and I moved on from there.”
The couple established the Visionary Art Gallery in Jerusalem, which provided a showcase for their work. Then the violence of the last two years slowed tourism, it forced the couple to close down and change directions.
“We’ve been forced to ‘go west young man’,” quipped Lederberg, explaining how they’ve learned to take their work to the public instead of vice versa.
“What seemed to be a destruction – the gallery closing – turned out to be something constructive. Despite of all the constraints, creatively speaking both of us feel like we’re in a renaissance.”
Lederberg and Avi-Yonah find positive aspects of the Hollywood-led resurgent interest in Jewish mysticism.
“We’re seeing a repetition of the ’60s – people searching for something then it was Zen, and now there’s something positive in the fact that it’s become a buzzword. Of course like anything else, it can be misused by charlatans, but the fact that people are thinking about it is an important development,” said Lederberg.