Will the Real Janet Sobel Please Stand Up?


New York University professor, writes “was the first major anthropological study of East European Jewish culture in the English language.”50 In contrast to others, I would even argue that Janet Sobel’s fame in the early and mid- 1940s came about because she was a woman, especially one whose very homey domesticity was so different from the public’s ideas of what the typical avant-garde artists then coming to prominence—like Jackson Pollock—were like.51 It may also be true that during World War II, when American men were more likely to be serving in the armed forces and overseas, it was easier for a woman to receive recognition for working in a factory or as an artist and doing a “man’s job.” Beyond her work’s artistic qualities, the press was intrigued that so conventional a woman—a matronly, plump, unpretentious, middle-aged, middle-class Jewish Brooklyn mother of five, a grandmother, a housewife, who had no art training and who had begun to make art only in the past five or six years—was so gifted and original an artist. However, Sobel never had to seek out the interest and support of members of the New York art world and cultural hierarchy on her own; she was very fortunate that her son Sol so energetically showed his mother’s artworks to his own art teachers and to prominent individuals like Sidney Janis, who at the time was known as a collector and art writer and had not yet opened his gallery; and to the philosopher and educator John Dewey.

Sol also introduced his mother to her fellow Ukrainian émigré, the famed artist Marc Chagall. In her 2005 article, Levin writes that Janet Sobel met Chagall in his studio after Chagall had escaped from Europe to New York in 1941. Levin notes, as did Sol Sobel, who told Levin of this meeting, that his mother and Chagall “spoke Russian together,” not their other shared language, Yiddish, and the two emigrant artists also shared “Russian culture … and a love of music.”52 In Franz Meyer’s massive monograph on Chagall—Meyer’s father-in-law—Meyer explains why Chagall chose to speak in Russian rather than in Yiddish: “Although Chagall and his brothers and sisters still spoke Yiddish with their parents, among themselves and in the street they spoke Russian,” and “the family had given up the use of their Jewish names.”53 Moreover, after leaving his Jewish elementary



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All texts copyright © Libby Seaberg, 2009