Israeli photographer and sculptor uses art as ‘common language’
Visiting ArtistForeign Culture Comes to Pittsburgh

Israeli photographer and sculptor uses art as ‘common language’

Asaf Elkalai shares art and information during Pittsburgh stay

Lynn Magid Lazar, Teri Cowan, Asaf Elkalai and Marcia Levaur gather at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Photo by Dale Lazar
Lynn Magid Lazar, Teri Cowan, Asaf Elkalai and Marcia Levaur gather at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Photo by Dale Lazar

Understanding Israel and its culture requires more than a conversation about politics or religion. It necessitates familiarity with art, artists and the many museums that line the Jewish state, said Asaf Elkalai, a Tel Aviv-based photographer and sculptor.

“To use the language of art, it’s a great way to have an interesting conversation and to fill the link, if you want to have a link,” he added.

Elkalai has a bachelor’s in photography and an MFA from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and also completed Bezalel’s combined teaching program with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Last year, he received the Ilana Elovic – Bezalel Prize for Excellence in the Arts and a $7,000 prize. His work has been exhibited at Tel Aviv Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Lanserhaus Museum in Eppan, Italy, Galeria Arsenal in Poznan, Poland, and Sotheby’s Gallery in London. Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, Elkalai participated in an artist’s residency in Buffalo, New York.

Elkalai shared thoughts and images of his works during a recent address at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside to members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. His presentation in Rodef’s Aaron Court juxtaposed videos and stills with slides listing current galleries and exhibitions.

While Elkalai marveled at the fact that Israel possesses more museums per capita than any country in the world, his listeners appreciated the insights.

“I don’t know a lot about the art scene there. He gave us a glimpse into what’s really going on,” said Lynn Magid Lazar, the umbrella organization’s vice chair.

“We hear of so much negativity about Israel,” echoed Heather Spitzer, of Oakland. “We don’t hear enough about the arts or technology.”

“Swiping.” Photo courtesy of Asaf Elkalai

Disseminating such information is part of what Elkalai hopes to accomplish during his three-week Pittsburgh stay. His other goal is education. Though Elkalai is primarily based at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh — Elkalai is its current F.I.N.E. Artist in residence, an opportunity aided by Classrooms Without Borders — he sees the entire city as an opportunity for learning. So far he has been able to accomplish such aims by walking the streets. A short stroll on the North Side brought him into Randyland. Two hours later, after an extended tour and conversation with its co-creator Randy Gilson, Elkalai remarked, “Oh my God, I met an angel.”

Speaking with museum patrons has also yielded new knowledge. Questions regarding Elkalai’s accent, where Israel is located and what life is truly like there have forced him to consider his identity.

Simply by virtue of being an Israeli and speaking Hebrew, people reach certain conclusions, he explained. “My accent is political,” he said. But art, that’s “a common language.”

Elkalai hopes that his work at the Children’s Museum will facilitate more mutual understanding. So does Tsipy Gur, Classroom Without Borders’ founder and executive director.

“Especially now, with the situation in Israel, it is so important to bring Asaf to Pittsburgh and show Pittsburghers a different side of Israel,” Gur said. “The world is more global and having this exchange is really important.”

Barbara Trellis, a celebrated needlepointer whose pieces adorn Rodef Shalom Congregation and other area worship spaces, attended Elkalai’s May 9 program and said that his visit offers benefit to local residents.

“He is very interesting and informative,” echoed Georgia Davidson, a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

Considering what the artist has done to date, said Trellis, “There is a lot of youth and vitality in this young fellow.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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