A new perspective

MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Etsy Frankel-Fersel doesn’t presume to be the next Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh or Cezanne.

Yet the Bala Cynwyd resident possesses an amusing while poignant insight into the Jewish experience that the great masters somehow managed to overlook. From now through March, the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art at the city’s only reform synagogue, Rodeph Shalom at 615 N. Broad St., will host an exhibition of Frankel-Fersel’s paintings, which mimic classic works like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night and American Gothic while displaying distinctly Semitic themes.

For example, her Mona Lisa is alternately titled Minna Leah and accentuates a demure beauty who dons a sheitel, a Star of David pendant and a shell blouse to give more coverage to her bosom. Likewise, Frankel-Fersel has converted Monet’s Water Lilies to depict the rescue of baby Moses from the Nile River by the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter. 

About two dozen of the artist’s adaptations are on display in a gallery that abuts the century-old sanctuary, which should be considered a work of art in its own right with its vaulting starlit dome and its Byzantine and Moorish fusion decor. The congregation dates to 1795 and has members from throughout the city, including a prominent Northeast contingent, according to spokeswoman Carol Perloff. It’s widely considered the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in the country.

Frankel-Fersel’s personal history inspired her illustrations. She spent her formative years in an Orthodox household in Brooklyn.

“Everything can be seen through a Jewish prism,” she said. “I was raised Orthodox. I grew up in a religious home and continued to go to lectures and work on my spiritual being. And (during that process) you’re really trained that everything can be seen through a Jewish prism.”

Painting is not her primary vocation. She’s a social worker by day, but has nurtured a lifelong passion for visual art. At age 10, she joined a community art school. In college, she majored in psychology and minored in art. Today, she works mostly in drawing and oil painting.

“I’ve always had something going on in the arts,” she said. “I’ve always had a painting that I’m working on.”

Seven or eight years ago, she was visiting a friend’s home when she gazed upon one of Claude Monet’s water paintings. It was a print, not the original.

“I kept seeing the Tashlikh, a ceremony that involves throwing bread into water,” Frankel-Fersel said. “I ordered a print and on that I painted a Jewish family doing Tashlikh. My family saw it and enjoyed it and asked what else I could do. Next I did Starry Night and added Jewish men blessing the new moon. It was a really fun outlet.”

She’s been working on the project ever since and has accumulated about 60 paintings. The museum exhibition features about two dozen. Earlier this year, Toby Press released a coffee table book featuring images of the entire collection. Converted Masters: World Famous Masterpieces with a Jewish Twist is available from online retailers. Sample images can be viewed at convertedmasters.com

Frankel-Fersel’s take on Whistler’s Mother depicts the familiar somber matriarch in her black dress surrounded by chatting ladies who appear to be making a shiva call, as if to join in her mourning. The artist evoked Andy Warhol’s One Hundred Cans for another image that features an array of Manischewitz matzo ball soup containers, rather than the Campbell’s beef noodle cans depicted by Warhol.

Frankel-Fersel doesn’t sugar coat that she stretched the limits of artistic license in manipulating so many iconic images. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be generating much backlash.

“I’ve heard (criticism) twice. Ninety-nine percent of the time I get great feedback,” she said. “Sometimes people feel art is sacred and shouldn’t be tampered with. But if you look at Salvatore Dali, he was famous for putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. And Andy Warhol took something that already existed and made it pop art.”

Most of the images are considered public domain because the artists have been dead for more than 75 years, Frankel-Fersel said. She obtained permission to use some of the newer ones as bases for her own works.

“The collection is meant to amuse and educate and maybe inspire,” she said. “For people who are not familiar with all of the customs in Jewish tradition, it can be educational and sometimes inspiring. Maybe they will want to learn more about it.” ••

MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
A Jewish palette: The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art is hosting an exhibit of Etsy Frankel-Fersel’s paintings, which mimic classic works like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night and American Gothic while displaying distinctly Semitic themes. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO