By SARA TRAPPLER-SPIELMAN – Wall Street Journal
On a recent Thursday evening, a group of Hasidic women gathered for an unusual celebration.
They sang traditional melodies and talked about attaining freedom through mystical teachings, all to the beat of African drums inside a gallery located in Crown Heights—far from New York’s usual art neighborhoods like Chelsea, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. A curtain drawn across the doorway blocked the views of male passersby.
The event was organized by the Creative Soul, a group of Orthodox Jewish artists founded by Yitzchok Moully, a Hasidic rabbi and artist who wears a pink yarmulke and creates photo silkscreen works depicting dreidels, Hassidim dancing and rabbis praying.
“I feel it’s my calling to share Judaism through the arts,” said Mr. Moully, a 35-year-old father of five who is curating monthly art exhibitions and hosting weekly open mics at the Mayan Center, a newly renovated community space that the Creative Soul began renting last month.
More than 100 creative types participate in Mr. Moully’s arts scene, and the works are for sale—ranging from $300 to $3,000—yet, he said, they can’t expect to survive on sales alone. The nonprofit group is planning fundraising events and looking to work with Jewish organizations around the country to showcase contemporary Hasidic art.
Located on Crown Heights’ main thoroughfare, the gallery’s neighboring storefronts include a men’s ritual bath, synagogue, head rabbinical offices, kosher pizza shop, bakery and children’s toy shops—a fusion of old world meets new world.
“Local artists finally have a venue for exhibiting their work, which is a huge step for this community, which we never had before,” said Chaya Pellin, 60, an artist and art teacher. “It validates the expression of the creative spirit. You’re not going to be judged by whether you sell or not. This space is an oasis for people from all backgrounds to channel their gifts.”
According to her, art is a welcome presence in the neighborhood. “In such a traditional community it wasn’t part of the everyday experience for most people. Neither was music,” she said. “But now there’s been a huge renewal of interest in art. It’s bursting at the seams.”
Alona Jasik, who used to live in the area and was visiting from California, also attended the drum circle. “I’m envious of what’s flourishing here,” she said.
These projects haven’t been welcomed by everyone in the community, though Mr. Moully said the events are all consistent with Jewish law.
“Many do not understand what we are trying to achieve and do not invest the time to understand,” he said. “That is part of the mission, to bring the value of creativity to mainstream Hassidic life.”
The inaugural show, “Personal Freedoms,” is on view through May 11, and coincided with the Passover holiday, which celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery. Three contemporary Hasidic artists, Daniel Wolfe, Jodi Reznik and Natalia Kadish —selected by Mr. Moully as “talented but still emerging”—embraced the theme.
Mr. Wolfe, a 40-year-old father of four and abstract artist from the neighborhood, said his acrylics and puzzle series on display are “inspired by the interplay of color and light and the redemptive quality of Jewish holidays.” He recently showed his work at Pratt Institute’s Hadas Gallery in Clinton Hill in addition to a pop-up show that the Creative Soul organized before it found its permanent space.
“It’s the only Hasidic community that has this kind of a movement to bring artists together and encourage artistic expression,” he said. “It positions Crown Heights as a place to merge spirituality and creativity.”
“It makes our work available to those uncomfortable in a secular or out-of-town gallery,” said Ms. Reznik, 55. The owner of a gallery in Flatbush, she is now working on a project for artists to swap Jewish artwork from each other.
Ms. Kadish, a 29-year-old surrealist artist from Teaneck, N.J., won a grant to travel to Israel in May to paint murals. Her colored-pencil drawings and oil paintings are “jam-packed with meaning,” she said, such as sketches with a fruit-bearing apple tree in an hourglass, lions in cloud formations and a Shabbat candle above spiraling steps.
Rivka Nehorai and Sprintza Blumenthal, local artists in their late 20s, planned the drum circle and other women-only events at the gallery, including a dance party a few weeks ago.
Such gatherings have never happened in their neighborhood, “where people are so in touch with the arts,” said Ms. Blumenthal. “Freedom is to fulfill your purpose and to light up the world with everyone’s individual light. With art and music you’re able to do that and spread happiness, joy and connection.”
Ms. Nehorai, who runs a monthly visual art group for local moms, said the space helps to direct creative energy that otherwise might get lost. “This can be the heartbeat, the home of where Jewish art is spreading from,” she said. “Every place needs an address, a safe space.”