Painting on Chabad Facebook Page Sparks Charges of Racism

A painting posted on the official Facebook page of Chabad-Lubavitch, which has been "liked" more than 900 times and has nearly 200 shares, is stirring up controversy on social networks, with some charging that it is racist.

The painting, by Chava Light -- a Connecticut- and New York-based artist, according to her Twitter profile -- depicts an apparently Hasidic woman reading from a religious text on a No. 3 train in New York.

It's ambiguous whether an instrument case behind the woman, who is clad in a red coat and and heels, is slung over her shoulder, or sits on the bench behind her, but there is perhaps a hipster element to her, as evidenced by purple Converse All Stars dangling at her side.

Behind the woman -- who happens to be the artist's sister -- three African American commuters are seated in the shadows. But it's the caption Chabad attached to the image that is so controversial.

"When reciting words of Torah while in the store, walking in the street, or riding the subway, one purifies the air," notes the quotation from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, the sixth Chabad Rebbe.

Many of the comments on Chabad's official Facebook page were along the lines of, "Love that visual" or "Beautiful," but others noticed the juxtaposition of the African American figures and the quote about purifying the air.

Evidently, enough people weighed in on the image that an official Chabad representative and the artist responded. "Everyone is welcome to see what they want in the painting. We chose to focus on the positive," wrote an EZ, posting from the official Chabad Facebook page. And Light also responded.

"As the actual artist who created this image, I'm really happy that most people seem to see the positivity intended with this image: the idea of an independent Jewish woman -- dressed stylishly, with hobbies and interests (plays guitar, dances), who is also confident and self-assured -- and is proud to be an observant, religious woman praying on the subway," she wrote.

Light added that she is saddened that some see negative aspects of the painting. "The image itself was compiled of many reference photos, and the people in the image were actually there -- and were aware photos were being taken and were fun to work with," she wrote. "I wish people would see the positivity in people of different backgrounds sharing a ride and an experience together."

Light says she would have felt "uncomfortable and dishonest" changing the race of the figures in the painting, or in any other image. "I would have felt that was a disservice to the people who were in the train at the time this photo was taken," she wrote.

Elsewhere on Facebook, such as on Chaviva Elianah Galatz's page, commenters were less forgiving.

"How many well meaning sheltered chasiddish [Hassidic] communities refer to the 'shvartzas' as dirty ... w/o even realizing their racism ... I've heard it many times in my life," wrote one Facebook user, "just look at the illustration and tagline. Nuff said. And actually not judging the illustrators [sic] ignorance either ... I have heard those comments and they usually come from the sweetest unknowing people."

Another person added, "What would've made it racist is if the artist went out of her way to change the people in the background so as to avoid *seeming* racist. That's reverse discrimination. Which is just as bad because it implies that there's something to discriminate about."

That last perspective, though, raises age-old questions about the role of representation in art. The artist, after all, hasn't depicted every hair on the figures' heads, or every speck on the floor. The notion that an artist has a responsibility to transcribe nature verbatim, rather than approaching it as a collage, is a particular way of viewing art, which some of the commenters obviously take for granted. Further, the question of the degree to which, if at all, artists lose ownership of their own work once it gets served up to the public is also relevant here.

The question of how appropriate the work is, and whether it belongs on Chabad's official Facebook page, may literally be out of the artist's and Chabad's hands at this point.