This is the story of the golem, the most famous character in Jewish mythology. A Legend filled with magic, spells & miracles. The photographer Toby Cohen meticulously recreates the mud monster and breathes life into the old tale in a new solo exhibition at the Engel Gallery in Tel-Aviv.
Legend is the where the world of art meets the realm of religion. In Judaism, while making and worshiping “graven images” are forbidden by the Second Commandment, the letter and the word – both written and spoken – are sacred. As we delve deeper into the stories of the bible, the Mishna, and the Talmud, we discover that the story is what renders the visual real. With the inclusion of stories in scholarly research, particularly at the time of the Hasidic Movement that advocated inner-personal purification, the story blazed its way into the Jewish “tribal camp re.” And so in the Modern era, influenced by miracle stories and esoteric traditions, the Hassidic Movement and The Enlightenment opened a window into the Jewish mythological stories and ethos.
This openness to esoteric stories paved a new path in the relationship between modern art and walled Judaism.
Bezalel Son of Uri, the first Jewish artist, is usually seen as the quintessential artist who adheres to precise demands and dictates in each and every detail of his creation. Hence, it is interesting to note that in his commentary to the verse: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship. To devise cunning works” (Exodus 31: 3-4), Ibn Ezra describes Bezalel Son of Uri as a man able: “to elicit new things from his mind by the power of this thought.” The Torah teaches us the tension between the religious instructions to the man who creates, works, and builds, and the dangers inherent to creation –transgressing the spiritual or divine order. The Torah is interested in man, his accomplishments and creation, but warns him of his own tyranny. Meaning, one can create out of a personal place of exploration, not necessarily from the craft; from the personal truth that does not touch on the realm of the idol, just as the ceremonial artefacts in the Jewish cupboard are not an idol in the Temple. These growing influences, which shifted between the two poles of The Enlightenment and the Hassidic Movement, engendered a new type of artist: Jewish visual artists who stepped out of Beit Midrash and opened up to new worlds and their visual and Christian influence, while the language and the research remained Jewish.
Toby Cohen explores the Jewish visual story from the place in which he lives, associating the landscapes of the Jewish story with the landscapes of Israel. His works con ate Jewish mysticism with the Israeli- Jewish people of the present: Hilltop Youth and ravers, Hassidim and ruffians, those born in this land and newcomers – all enter the narrative framework through the camera lens. Born and raised in England, Cohen was deeply influenced by Christian depictions of biblical stories. However, his immigration to Israel and fascinating encounter with the people of this land introduced into his work a layer of anthropological research that unfolds through the Jewish story. This is not a panhuman research, nor is it a sociological research. This is the research of an artist who sees the Jewish story as an Israeli story, who looks at the common place in our past, which strengthens the connection between the past and the future.
The earliest testimonies to closing Jews in ghettos date back 500 years ago in Venice. From that time and throughout European history, Jews were accused of different forms of heresy and betrayal of the “true religion”, namely, Christianity – and later also in financial domination and cosmopolitan manipulation. Jews in the shtetls and the ghettos knew that this is their fate and accepted it as the way of the world. And as always, said “Let us deal wisely with them.” And so, to this day, we open the door of our home during Passover Seder, calmly singing “pour out thy wrath upon the nations” and waiting for Elijah to drink from his cup – a custom commemorating the recurring scene in Passover, in which the village’s thugs (in Galicia, Bohemia, or elsewhere), would throw different objects covered in blood into the courtyards of Jews, whether blood-soaked rags or bread that stands for the desecration and murder of Jesus’s flesh. Their only shield was those with Talmudic cunning and knowledge in the ways of the gentiles – the rabbis, and particularly the most famous among them. The Maharal of Prague, a mythical and mystical gure who was invited to meet with the religious and political leaders of his time, became “the protector of the Jews. He stood up to the wave of blood libels against Jews that put them in danger of expulsion, and argued the falseness of these accusations. It is unclear whether a written debate with 300 priests actually took place, as described in the fictional book Sefer Ni os Maharl, but the echoes of this debate are preserved in the writings of the Maharal himself. Eventually, the emperor accepted his arguments, and rejected the false claims that Jews use human blood to prepare Passover matzo.
Mystical powers were attributed to the Maharal of Prague. Legend has it that he created the Golem, which had superhuman powers, to protect the Jewish community against persecutions. This myth inspired books, films, and a thriving industry in the city of Prague. Some even find support for this story in Hassidic writings. Thus, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov “Bnei Yesoschor” wrote about the Maharl of Prague that he was known to engage in Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”) yet nevertheless zoche to Ruach Hakodesh. And so, creation becomes possible, and in fact creating something out of nothing glorifies God’s name in public. Even though it is an idol created as the protector of Jews, his forehead carrying the Hebrew letter. And when an urban Jewish legend does not engage in gossip, it concerns the fear of the persecuted, and serves as a fount of inspiration in global culture (and sometimes as an anti-Semitic document that shows Jews as the creators of monsters like the Golem).
Toby Cohen’s exploration of the Golem offers a contemporary Israeli perspective on a legend whose roots go back to the darkness of the exile in past centuries – recounted in the 21st century and in the Land of Israel. From the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea, to the slopes of Jerusalem in Beit Zayit to Kadita and Gush Halav in the Galilee. The story covers the land and its inhabitants, like a contemporary storyteller who travels amongst the different circles in the Israeli society, creating an original Israeli image of a Jewish myth in the Hebrew language.
37 years old Toby Cohen, was one of the most known paparazzi photographers in London. Since then he changed his artistic world and began studying and re-imagining the stories of the bible and Jewish folklore through his camera's lenses. Today his photographs are exhibited in a traveling academic exhibition in the United States and in the royal collection of the Buckingham Palace.
As the hero of many movies and art works, the terrifying character intrigued Cohen which decided to create a golem of his own in the Israeli Galilee, Zefat & Dead Sea landscape rather then the usual old world Europe & Prague. "I wanted to express who I experience the story. I decided to intensify the mystery and mysticism of the story by choosing locations with an almost virgin view." According to the tale the Maharal, Prague's Chief Rabbi, who was responsible for the safety of his congregation in the city, created the Golem partly to assist him in dealing with the anti-Semitic Christian blood libel. Cohen's decision to use the golem for a project was partly influenced by his deap connection to the Jewish emotion & Israeli culture.
The photographic series Golem, is described in the foreground of magical Israeli landscapes, which add power to the famous story that was created about two hundred years ago
(The Golem in Modern Visual Culture, Eli Eshed)
At the age of 21, Cohen's paparazzi photographs were already featured on the covers of the "Daily Express", the London celebrity paper "News of the World" & the "Daily Mail". Michael Jackson, Kate Moss and the couple David & Victoria Beckham are only a few from a long list of celebrities he photographed.
After his photos were featured in tabloids on a regular basis, Cohen decided he must delve into the world of artistic photography and started directing scenes around Judaism as he imagines and experience it. "For years I've lived during the nights, looking for celebrities in London. Today I chase another kind of celebrities. The Golem is a recurring character in Judaism and not only there- in many movies and paintings as well." In 2007 he leaves the glamorous life of the celebrity world, settles down in Israel and dedicates his life to art. Today he lives on the Tel-Aviv – London line, married and a father. His previous exhibitions, "The Abraham Project" and "Cherubim & Angels" constituted the basis of Cohen's study of the Jewish narrative.
Cohen is already working on his next project, Moses Ten - the story of Moses, which strikes a lot of interest with many Jewish communities around the world.