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Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid

Sixteen contemporary artists interpret traditional Jewish stories in new, commissioned works

September 28, 2017–January 28, 2018

(San Francisco, CA, July 24, 2017) Sixteen diverse contemporary artists act as modern maggids—interpreting traditional Jewish folktales and characters in new, commissioned works inspired by the rich Jewish tradition of stories that incorporate cautionary tales, traditional wisdom, and the supernatural.

The Hebrew concept of maggid has multiple meanings and layers. The most basic definition is that of a religious teacher and teller of stories. Contrasted with the more formally trained rabbis, the lay maggids acted as repositories and transmitters of cultural knowledge, folklore, and social norms and mores. 

The exhibition, co-curated by former CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin and CJM Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, explores concepts such as transformation and metamorphosis, good and evil, moral education, political and class metaphors, the role of women, and storytelling in contemporary art. It features new commissioned works including sculpture by Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor and Julia Goodman; installations by Michael Arcega, Tracey Snelling, David Kasprzak, Mads Lynnerup, Mike Rothfeld, and the team of Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth Hope; photography by Dina Goldstein and Young Suh with Katie Peterson; paintings by Vera Iliatova, M. Louise Stanley, and Inez Storer; and video by Chris Sollars.

Each artist was asked to find the inspiration for their work within the pages of Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales (2009), an anthology by Howard Schwartz, a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, of one hundred essential Jewish tales that span 1500 years and come from across the Jewish diaspora, from Poland to Yemen, as both oral and written traditions.

Young Suh’s photographic project, realized in collaboration with poet Katie Peterson, for example, is inspired by the tale The Souls of Trees in which Reb Nachman advises a couple who can’t have children to plant twice as many trees as they cut down, because these trees are the souls of people. Suh and Peterson, based in Davis, CA, created a series of portraits of families in forested landscapes, and provide a contemporary, environmentalist reading of the tale, where trees equate to human lives.

San Francisco-based Chris Sollars, an artist known for using everyday city streets as the sets for his performative actions, selected a story called Milk and Honey, in which a shepherd follows one of his goats into an adventure that magically and instantly carries him thousands of miles from home. Consistent with his ongoing practice, Sollars’ video follows a goat through San Francisco streets to see where it will lead him.

Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, based in Sacramento, makes large-scale, site-specific creatures out of detritus, like discarded furniture parts, wire, and paper. She took her inspiration from The Golem, a story of a supernatural being of great power, made of mud and stone, created to protect Jews from their persecutors.

Emeryville-based M. Louise Stanley makes highly skilled and often hilarious paintings that savage the ironies of contemporary society. Stanley culled the anthology’s recurring characters and plot devices—the princess, or prince, a wrecked ship, a giant bird—and imagined them auditioning for parts in the stories, playing with our understanding of assigned cultural roles.

Each work is accompanied by a listening station where visitors can hear Bay Area storytellers reading the folktales that served as the artist’s primary inspiration.

“This exhibition epitomizes The CJM’s unique approach of engaging both Jewish and non-Jewish artists to dive deeply into a Jewish theme,” says Lori Starr. “It is absolutely fascinating to see how this group of distinguished local and national contemporary artists responded to the invitation to interpret a traditional folktale. The commissioned works both pay homage to these magical and mystical pieces of Jewish cultural heritage and, at the same time, examine and question the values implicit in them.”

The CJM will publish an online catalog which will include video documentation of the exhibition, interviews with the artists, performances by storytellers, and essays by the curators and guest writers Howard Schwartz and Gabriella Safran.

Organization and Funding

Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Lead sponsorship is provided by the Koret Foundation. This exhibition is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum thanks the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for its major support of the Museum's exhibition program.

About The Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by an Anonymous donor; Alyse and Nathan Mason Brill; Carbon Five; the Helen Diller Family Foundation; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Gaia Fund; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; Wendy Kesser ; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; Millennium Partners, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund; RayKo; Dorothy R. Saxe; Seiger Family Foundation; Taube Philanthropies for Jewish Life and Culture; and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

For more information about The Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit The Museum’s website at

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