Brilliant disguise: Mask exhibit explores hidden Jewish identity

From Yentl hiding in a man’s vestments to Conversos of Spain hiding their faith behind Catholicism, Jews through the ages have mastered the art of concealment.

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A new exhibit, “Who’s Who: The Jew and the Mask,” explores that theme from an artistic perspective. On display now through the end of July at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, the exhibit reveals more than it conceals.

At least that’s the hope of curator Elayne Grossbard, who invited 28 Bay Area artists to interpret the mask from a Jewish perspective.

“Masks, shape shifting and metamorphosis are universal themes in myth, folklore and religion,” Grossbard says. “What does it mean not to have a recognizable identity? Do you become something else?”

Artists in the exhibit delved into the concept in diverse ways. Using paint, collage, textile, photography, ceramic or sculpture, some created actual masks. Others incorporated Jewish religious texts. One artist turned the concept on its head, employing a mirror to make viewers question their own masks.

Pondering the theme, Grossbard cites multiple examples of masking in Jewish history and lore: Elijah disguised as a town beggar. Twentieth-century Jews changing their surnames or getting nose jobs. Comic book superheroes (created by Jewish graphic artists) with “secret identities.”

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“The things the artists explored are fascinating,” Grossbard adds. “Their own personal histories, their encounters with anti-Semitism and how they dealt with it. They approached masks as a form of mystery. Some of them approached the mask as a beautiful or whimsical object.”

One work fitting that description is “Diving Deep,” by Susan Felix, one of two pieces she had in the exhibition. Made of ceramic, wood and an actual diving mask and snorkel, the piece plays with theme in a more nautical manner.

“I love the idea of diving, and the idea of philosophically spiritually diving deep,” Felix, 72, says from her Berkeley home. “Our Jewishness is always a bit concealed. We don’t always have it out there. Unless you’re really observant, for those of us who function in a more integrated society, part of our Jewishness is masked.”

This is not the first time Grossbard has asked Felix to contribute to a Jewish Community Library exhibition. Felix says her art is an expression of her Judaism.

“I would say all of my work is in a spiritual context,” Felix says.  “I’ve been a spiritual seeker my whole life, but I’ve mainly explored Judaism through my art.”

A native of Queens, N.Y., Felix moved to the Bay Area in 1967 (for the Summer of Love, she says). While simultaneously launching a career in the nonprofit world, she developed her art as well, mostly working with pit-fired ceramics. Often her pieces were Jewish religious ritual objects, such as blessing bowls or Kiddush cups.

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Her work has been shown in exhibits at Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Community Library.  She serves as art ambassador for the city of Berkeley, and is a member of its arts commission.

As for Grossbard, she’s a longtime fixture in the Bay Area arts scene, especially Jewish art. From 2004 to 2009, she served as Judaica curator at the Magnes, and has been putting together exhibits at the Jewish Community Library for years.

She thinks audiences will be drawn to the pieces in “The Jew and the Mask.”

“All art is interactive,” she says. “Once art is on the wall, it exists only in interaction, like any form of artistic expression. It’s out of the hands of the artist.”

That’s fine with artist Felix, who admits she’s not normally one to hide her true self.

“I’ve never really liked masking myself,” she says. “I can act pretty uninhibited without a mask.”


“Who’s Who: The Jew and the Mask”
runs through July 31 at the Community Jewish Library, housed at the Jewish Community High School, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Admission is free. An artists’ reception takes place 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. March 14, and will include a curator’s talk and mask-making workshop. Information: (415) 567-3327 or online at bjesf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.