Home » Blog » Reimagining Jewish Art: An Interview with Hillel Smith

Reimagining Jewish Art: An Interview with Hillel Smith

Deadlines and experimentation keep me going.

1. Al regel akhat, on one foot: Tell us about your latest Jewish art project.

I’ve been concentrating on making what I think of as “cutting edge Judaica”—art that mixes ancient Jewish texts and Jewish ritual practices with modern media and aesthetics. It’s all about reimagining what Judaica and Jewish art can look like in the 21st century. I spent this past year designing a poster a week for the weekly Torah portion using innovative Hebrew typography and an iconic, minimalist design language to tell biblical stories. I study the parashah to find the crux of the episode and then capture that emotional content in the illustration. To compound this exercise in creative Torah learning, I pair the posters with poems and reflections by other Jewish writers, thinkers, and leaders and release them via email subscription. The conversations these “Parsha Posters” start have been fascinating.

On a much bigger scale, I paint murals, most of them also featuring Hebrew typography. I love street art, especially pieces that reflect the identity and culture of a local community. I wanted to create huge pieces in bright colors that loudly proclaim Jewish heritage. I use Hebrew because it’s the glue that binds Jews across history and geography, but I am constantly trying to push the boundaries of how Hebrew can look. Recent murals include a 22-foot-tall “Hamotzi Lechem” mural with the blessing on bread in angular yellow letters on a vibrant orange background, and a piece on the back of a synagogue of people dancing with Torahs, all made out of blue triangles and polygons.

I hope that these projects will inspire people to see Judaism as something that is relevant and fun, and to open their minds to the ways they can bring Jewish content into their daily lives.

2. Is the process of artistic creation one that you would consider to be spiritual? Why or why not?

Being creators is both what defines us as humans anthropologically, and what defines us as being in the image of God. We feel the same sense of awe when witnessing natural wonders as we do great art. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that this awe is a product of an encounter with the divine. Producing beauty from a blank canvas demonstrates unimaginable power. However, art is also work, and work can be tedious and difficult. Even if I struggle while making the art, looking at a finished piece is transcendent. I try to stop to appreciate gifts I’ve been given, and see it as a responsibility to realize that potential.

3. How do you reinvigorate your process if you feel uninspired?

Deadlines and experimentation keep me going. If I don’t have someone waiting for a project or an obligatory stopping point (say, Shabbat for the parsha posters, or the end of my hydraulic lift rental or expiration of funding on a mural), I am unlikely to finish anything, and I have piles of unfinished and barely started projects littering my hard drive. So, I use deadlines to my advantage. Having Shabbat every week kept me on track to finish 54 posters in a year—a feat I seriously doubt I’d have been able to accomplish without both a weekly buzzer and a subscription list full of people counting on me. But sometimes a piece just isn’t coming together. We all have off days. The trick is to work through it, to keep pushing. Flesh out bad ideas to pinpoint the flaws. Step back to think holistically about what’s working and what’s not. Iterate. Try everything. Go for a walk or wash dishes. Cycle to another project. Flip through a design blog. This lets my brain rest and work out difficult issues while otherwise engaged. And then I have to just buckle down and do the work until it’s done.

4. What are your favorite materials to work with and why?

I’ve been working with spray paint and digital rendering for the last few years. Working digitally lets me iterate endlessly so I can fine-tune designs non-destructively until I’ve got it exactly how I want it. It also indulges my love of geometry and precision. I like spray paint for the opposite reason. It’s volatile and impossible to control perfectly. That forces me to embrace unpredictability and let go of dangerous notions of “perfection.” I also enjoy playing with new and unusual materials to stretch my brain. In various workshops I’ve taken in the last year, I’ve collaged, tattooed (on fruit), drawn with food, and learned traditional calligraphy with a quill. I surprised myself with what I was able to accomplish!

5. Why do think it is important to include Jewish subject matter in your art?

Growing up, I assumed all Jewish art was uninteresting and stale. Everything I encountered was dated, kitschy, or ironic, and I felt no connection to it. As I got older, I saw my Jewish identity and my creative practice as two separate parts of myself, focusing on art as a periodic escape from my Jewish bubble. This was true for my friends as well. I made my first typographic Hebrew pieces on a lark, just to see how these two universes would interact. The response was so positive I knew I was on to something. I hope that my unabashedly Jewish work, with its serious and honest exploration of Jewish content, allows a new generation of young Jews to find a point of access to their heritage through art that appeals to their sensibilities. With all the talk of Jews abandoning Judaism, I want to preempt the kind of identity split I went through—to inspire the twelve-year-old version of myself to feel pride in his Jewishness and connect to his past and present.

6. Who is your favorite Jewish artist?

Many artists and designers of the early 20th century were deeply vested in this question of how do we make Jewish work that is modern and compelling and takes into account our surroundings while still connecting to our heritage. Ludwig Wolpert’s typographic metalwork looks as fresh today as it did 50 years ago. The typefaces of Bezalel Narkiss, Ismar David, and Henri Friedlaender and others are masterpieces of simplified form and legibility. El Lissitsky was simultaneously at the forefront of the Bauhaus as well as involved in the production of Yiddish children’s books. And I’m constantly discovering little-known designers and craftsmen—the marketers of Yiddish theater and Jewish dance in pre-War Europe, contributors to socialist and literary magazines, commercial advertisers in Mandate Palestine and young Israel—whose work defined generations of forward-thinking cosmopolitan Jews.

7. What’s one piece of advice that has sustained you as an artist?

Art is a job. You have to show up and put in the work.

8. Any other projects you want to lift up?

My Parsha Posters have put me in contact with a whole bunch of people also doing amazing parsha-related projects, and other long-term projects rooted in Jewish texts. Abe Mezrich (TorahParsha.com), Elizabeth Topper (parashapoems.wordpress.com), and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/VR-divrei-torah.html) all have powerful Torah poetry, and Shep Rosenman has parsha songs (54mosaics.tumblr.com). Jacqueline Nicholls (jacquelinenicholls.com) draws a page of Talmud every day, and does a great counting the Omer series every year. 

Hillel Smith is an artist and graphic designer focusing on engaging communities with their heritage in innovative ways. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Visual Studies. He has painted dynamic Jewish murals in Southern California and Israel with his Hebrew street art venture Illuminated Streets, with more murals on the way. He revitalizes ancient rituals with online projects like his GIF Omer Counter and Parsha Poster series, encouraging creative reconsideration of religious practice. He leads workshops on Jewish art, including Jewish street art, at a growing number of institutions, centering on artistic empowerment, continuity, and manifesting identity through the arts. Seeing Hebrew as the visual glue binding Jews together across time and space, he also teaches Jewish typographic history, using print as a lens for Jewish life and culture. Making fun and engaging content is also the crux of his work as a designer of educational products, viral videos, and marketing materials for organizations large and small, as for clients like Patton Oswalt. See his work at hillelsmith.info. Purchase prints at his online store.

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