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A Picture Perfect Friday Night

By , Philadelphia, PA

Art aficionados look forward to First Fridays, when they can browse everything from contemporary to classical paintings at open house galleries. At one Philadelphia gallery, visitors are also experiencing Shabbat as it morphs from the abstract to the impressionistic with the help of the local Chabad-Lubavitch representatives.

On the first Friday of the month, hundreds of culture hounds out to sniff and sneer at contemporary paintings and sculptures catch a whiff of Shabbat at Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia. 

Slashes of black seize the mid-ground of ‘Conversations,’ a work by Philadelphia artist Rhea Dennis now on view at the 3rd Street Gallery. Down the street, a conversation of how Shabbat can fit into an art lover’s life takes place over kosher Merlot. Every 20 minutes, Rabbi Zev Baram, Chabad’s rabbi in Old City, recites the traditional Sabbath blessing over wine.

“Amens” number in the hundreds by the time the evening is done. There’s no shortage of foot traffic in the brick-walled space. The center, opened as a joint venture between the Jewish Heritage Program and Lubavitch House of Philadelphia, times its Shabbat hours to coincide with “First Friday,” a giant open house thrown by Old City’s arts community from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. 

“We see this as a way to fuse Judaism and the arts together,” Chani Baram, representative of Chabad of Old City told  “People who would not feel comfortable in a synagogue setting may be open to incorporating Judaism through art.”

Local artists submit pieces that fit the gallery’s theme. Explanatory notes posted in the art-scape emphasize Judaism’s more universal messages that may be drawn from the works. A favorite exhibit with gallery goers was a pre-Passover presentation of culturally Jewish breads from around the world and across the ages alongside hand-painted, beaded, mosaic and other modern interpretations of the challah cover that traditionally adorns Shabbat table.

“Transformation through paint is a pretty wild thing,” said artist Paul Santoleri, whose murals grace once decrepit buildings in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

Inspiration for Old City Jewish Arts Center struck when Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, director of Chabad of Center City, saw thousands gathered on a Friday night with an array of cultural options to enjoy – everything from vinyl sculptures to avant-garde theater – but no mention of Shabbat.

“We wanted to create a Jewish outpost for them,” said Rabbi Schmidt in an interview with “The potential is really amazing.”

The center saw nearly 1,000 visitors the first First Friday it opened in February 2006. That night, and all First Fridays since, Chani Baram and a minivan full of volunteers served up a buffet full of Shabbat food for the lookie loos. Just as the gallery aims to dispel the stereotype that Jewish art is the domain of kitsch, the fare served during the event is light and fresh, leaning toward salads and lean dishes and away from heavy kugels and kishke.

When the evening winds down and other galleries lock their doors, the Barams break out long tables and chairs. They serve a full Shabbat meal to 60 to 100 gallery viewers who’ve lingered for a fuller taste of Shabbat. Surrounded by art, the conversations swerve from Rothko to the magic of challah to Jasper Johns to the Torah portion of the week.

“It’s a real Chabad house experience," says Chani Baram.


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