Two years ago, I spoke at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (VLJI) on contemporary spirituality about the use of pop-psych and contemporary non-Jewish spirituality in American Orthodox Jewish spirituality. I presented a range from Aryeh Kaplan’s use of Huxley to Abraham Twerski’s 12 step and self esteem psychology to those Orthodox spirituality books of the 21st century who are using Anne Lamont, Tony Robbins, and various new age concepts.
One of the attendees at the conference was Noa Lea Cohn, an Israeli graduate student in art history who wanted to apply my research to her field of contemporary orthodox art. I sent her a half dozen emails of bibliography on various aspects of the topic. In turn, she asked me to write an introduction for an exhibition catalog of a show she was curating on Hasidic pop -art as part of the Jerusalem Biennale called “Popthodox / Black Humor.”
She called the exhibition Black Humor after the Israeli slang expression for the ultra-Orthodox, who are called “blacks” for the dominant color of their clothes, and exposes for the first time a new pop art genre called Pophoddox. The exhibition wanted to show a two-way view: interior and exterior. The exhibition’s artists “use introspective, inner humor that belongs to the public in which they belong to the thin nuances within it. On the other hand, humor enables them to direct an external critical eye on themselves” as a “self-conscious stranger.”For her, it showed the sociological processes taking place under the radar in ultra-Orthodox society.
I was already familiar with several of the artists and already actually had a prepared lecture with a handout with some of the art as part of my Hasidut class. Below was my short entry in the exhibition catalog. (There were several other entries more concerned with the art itself.)
Hipster Hasidic Pop-Art –Alan Brill
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Creator is found in all things and that one should serve God in all of one’s ways. Hence, some Hasidic groups, especially Chabad, encourage their followers to use their God-given talents to serve the Almighty. Following this expansive view, some contemporary Orthodox artists serve God through creativity and individuality.
Contemporary Hasidism is not outside of culture nor does it have to bridge the worlds of art and Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodoxy is embedded in the wider culture around it. One should not conceive of Chabad adherents as otherworldly nineteenth-century mystics, unfamiliar with technology and new ideas. Rather they are media savvy enough to create advertisements, appear on Oprah, and host non-Jewish Hollywood stars in their fundraisers. Hasidim walk the same streets, buy the same consumer goods, and use the Internet as everyone else. Media, graphic design, and popular culture are everywhere in their daily lives.
In recent years with Chabad’s strong emphasis on outreach, its adherents have become masters at using popular culture to bring in unaffiliated Jews. They might almost be considered another form of modern Orthodoxy in that they adopt a modern sense of urban life, media use, and material culture. In order to reach people they have created a rich world of popular psychology, motivational posters, graphic design, and cool evenings devoted to the cutting edge in food, eyeglasses, or design. Many young Chabad Hasidim work in web design or online marketing, so they are well aware of recent trends and are conversant with Photoshop.
One does not have to go to art school to learn about the official pop art of the 1960s. Rather, people with open eyes appreciate the graphic designs that are all around them. The famous designs of the 1960s of Milton Glazer, Peter Max, and Robert Indiana continue to inspire artistic descendants to create pop art on packaging, on housewares, on children’s toys, and on city streets. In living their embedded life in the vibrancy of New York City, Chabad Hasidim are exposed to the pop styles of Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Barbara Kruger. From daily life, they know of the commercialized images of commodified art such as famous cartoon characters, as well as the pop use of them.
Strictly religious cultures create an interest inversion: the more religious it is, the more a particular group has to create its own art. The paradox is that the more the Orthodox community becomes part of an open society, the more it partakes of the general secular culture, and the more it experiences its own sectarianism. When this happens, it must descend into the realm of popular culture in order to produce more accessible products for the Orthodox community.
Since the 1990s there has been a trans-Atlantic hipster subculture of young creatives who distinguish themselves by their quest for authenticity, especially in material culture, as well as by a lifestyle distinguished by its rejection of mass produced consumerism. Journalists noted a subtrend of cross acculturation of Chabad Hasidism and hipster subculture in which the former were seen to adopt various cultural affinities similar to the local hipster subculture. In the hipster Hasidic pop art trend, they have given up the more sentimental and romantic images of dancing Hasidim done as illustrative realism in favor of depicting their authentic lives with the contemporary popular culture they live within
Those in the world of Hasidic hipster religious pop art do not think that art has to have an overt outreach message and be adaptable for a worship service. Rather, they strive for emotional vibrancy and honesty. In this approach, there is a need to be able to see eyn od milvado, all things as connected to God, as a total celebration of Judaism. Many young Orthodox Jews note “there is nothing besides Him” as their religion on Facebook. The question is not whether or not pop art should be used to convey a religious message; rather anything can be used, as long as one believes it will lead to authenticity and commitment.
This is part of the larger trend of religion and religious art around them. Just as Hasidim appeal to finding God in all things, contemporary hipster Evangelicals appeal to the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the riches of art, even art that does not line up with their theology. Many Evangelical pastors are following the lead of hipster trendsetters blurring the lines of cool and religion.
Evangelicals want to leave behind the early decades when, owing to their sole focus on outreach, religious art was fuddy-duddy, kitsch, and unconcerned with broader trends. They are even ironic about these earlier trends. Now they can portray Christian images as pop art with hipster sensibility. Conversely, they offer a redemptive gesture toward the objects of the recent past, in this case pop art.
Hipster Christian pop art culture makes extensive use of the hipster interpretive tool of irony and suspicion of popular mainstream culture, thereby allowing multiple perspectives. For some, this is a path for moving out of the constraining community. For others it is a limited rebellion against conservative elements. Hipster Christianity sends mixed signals.
The Hasidic pop art in this exhibit shows a similar spectrum from the colorful to the mild rebellion to the critique of the system. Some use the art as a criticism of their social limits and some are already pointing outward toward new lives. They are not all inside the system; rather, there are those who are completely in the system, those who have minor adaptations to the system, and others who are already looking at the community with a sense of distance.
On the one hand, we have Moully with his goal of showing that Hasidim are not homogeneous and that they can appreciate color and pop art. His emphasis is on individuality and creativity. Moully was even featured on a program featuring Oprah’s exploration of the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in 2012. Her religious teachings of individual spiritual journey are filtering down into Orthodoxy. (Notice the Individuality of the Orange Socks.)
On the other hand, we have those who use their art for more sustained social criticism. Shai Azouly shows the incongruity of Hasidic life with many ordinary aspects of daily living even when not prescribed by religious law or tradition. The Hasid with a well-coiffed poodle highlights a contradiction between the community’s aesthetic and social practices and the wider world, while his image of Hasidim gathered around a museum exhibition of a dinosaur illuminates the problematics in the Hasidic intellectual world.
In a similar perspective, Yiddy Lebowits draws attention to professions that are currently not associated with being Hasidic, such as doctor, fireman, astronaut, or tai chi instructor. The art allows one to push against the current aspirational limits of the community.
We see a very different approach in the bricolage of Yom Tov Blumenthal, who portrays a football player as getting his power from Kabbalah, as indicated by the magical emblems all over his uniform. The image plays with the meaning of power and strength: does strength actually come from religious ritual or can this ritual be compared to secular strength.
Finally, Anshie Kagan’s defining “Hashem is here” with the digital icon of a pinpoint in the way places are defined on a GPS or foursquare is highly insightful for its misplaced concreteness and irony, which leads us to reconsider what it means when we say God is here.
In the work of all of these artists, the use of pop designs allows for an isolated individual image without background or landscape. In many ways, this is a reflection of the artists themselves grappling with issues beyond their Hasidic backgrounds. In the absence of meta-narratives, atomized individuals follow media inspired mini-trends. The show thrives on the fact that nothing is black and white. Even when it is ironic, it acknowledges that there is also a post-ironic.
Postmodern religion, including much of Chabad, accepts its role as a commodity more than as authentic spirituality. But the semi-ironic gives place for the non-commodified change in people’s lives. The pop art leads to utopian change through its use of irony, immanence, and individuality. The art re-establishes a critical distance between the individual and his society, and recognizes the need for an examination of the material condition of the religious life. Popular culture plays, and will continue to play, an increasing role in Orthodoxy, as one needs products that relate to the first-person journey through life.
 Many of these ideas are further developed in Alan Brill, “The Emerging Popular Culture and the Centrist Community,” in Developing a Jewish Perspective on Culture. Ed. by Yehuda Sarna. (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2014) 16–66.
 Bjørn Schiermer, “Late-Modern Hipsters: New Tendencies in Popular Culture,” Acta Sociologica 57:2 (October 8, 2013) 167–181; Linton Weeks, “The Hipsterfication of America” (November 17, 2011) https://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142387490/the-hipsterfication-of-america (accessed October 12, 2018).
 Nicole Greenfield, “Birth of Hipster Hasidism?” Religion Dispatches (February 2, 2012).
 James Bielo, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (New York: NYU Press, 2011), showed how the quest for authenticity of the 1960s counterculture fed into the turn to Evangelical Christianity in later decades. There is a similar connection in Judaism.
 Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2010).
Nick Rynerson, “The Problem with Writing Off ‘Un-Christian’ Art,” MAR 12, 2013 christandpopculture.com (accessed October 12, 2018).