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PAGE 2OA HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 29, 2013 Artist Siona Benjamin brings Hindu and Muslim motifs to portrayals of biblical outcasts By ChaeLieber MONTCLAIR, N.J. (JTA)-- In the space of a single painting, Siona Benjamin juxtaposes feminism, Indian mythology and Jewish im- agery. On a three-foot canvas, she'll paint a portrait of a blue-skinned figure, usually a character from the Bible, with nods to Persian miniatures, Talmudic fables and Vishnu gods. Often there's a message in Arabic. "I want people to realize there can be a universal mes- sage in Jewish art," Benjamin told JTA. "I didn't want to just be a Jewish artist, explaining my culture in my paintings, because it's deeper than that. I'm a Jewish woman of color and a feminist with Islamic and Hindu influences, and they are all a part of me." Benjamin, 52, was born in Mumbai and her artwork combines the various influ- ences in her life. Her favored subjects are biblical outcasts, and she aims to redeem them by presenting an alternative narrative. In her home studio in this northern New Jersey town- ship some 15 miles west of mid-Manhattan, Benjamin is wearing a modern version of a shalwar kameez, the traditional Indian dress of blossomy pants and tunic By GamHel Kronemer It was eight years ago, on a rainy afternoon at New York City's Javits Center, while I was covering the annual Kosherfest trade show, that I first met one of the fathers of the modern kosher wine industry. At the time, I had just started writing The Jewish Week's "Fruit of the Vine" column, and I was still relatively unknown in the industry. While most of the ven- dors, noticing my press badge, treated me courte- ously, there was one vendor who gave me the real VIP treatment--not, I think, because I was awine colum- nist, but because he seemed to treat everyone that way. His name was Shimshon Welner. At the time, Welner had just recently returned to the kosher wine trade, after a nearly decade-long absence, and he was at Kosherfest pro- moting his company, Welner Wines. Today, Welner Wines has a portfolio more than 30, mostly budget-priced wines that Welner himself makes at wineries in eight different countries. I recently caught up with Welner by phone at his home in the Golan Heights. At the time, he had just returned from a winemaking trip to South America, and was preparing for a sales trip to Europe. Welner's wines can now be found in retail outlets in 19 countries; he is particularly proud that his wines are sold by the British-based inter- national grocer, Tesco. But thre decades ago, Weiner Artwork by Siona Benjamin top. Her shelves are lined with books about Islamic leaders, Asian art and Jewish sacred texts. Doodles of Bollywood pop art and Buddhist statues serve as inspiration. But it has taken Benjamin years to grow comfortable with all the diverse elements of her art. "I'm trying to use my Jew- ish heritage as a vehicle to create a universal message for their stories," Benjamin said. "People think they know a full story, just like they see me as an Indian Jew and believe ste- reotypes. But there is so much more to these characters. "If you look at biblical characters, there are deeper stories than what meets the eye. And I paint them blue because I'm redeeming myself through them, too." Benjamin grew up in the suburb of Bandra, the prod- uct of a wealthy family who enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. As a child, she was envious of Indian friends who had large, boisterous families. Benjamin was an only childwhose family lived mostly in Israel and the United States. A ninth-generation Indian Jew, Benjamin's parents sent her to Catholic and Zoroas- trian schools. Surrounded by this multireligious influence, Benjamin often found herself wrestling with questions of self-identity. Her mother lit an oil lamp every Friday for Shabbat, but she also believed in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda and practiced Buddhist meditation. At 24, Benjamin left India for America to pursue an edu- cation in fine arts, but found herself feeling even more lost and lonely. "At that point, I was ashamed of being so differ- ent, of fitting into so many categories," Benjamin said. "I spent so many years won- dering what I was going to paint: Jewish themes of my ancestors or Buddhist ideas from my childhood? Where was home? Was India home to me? Or Israel? Or America? I think the estranged char- acters in the Bible felt just as confused as I was because I belong nowhere." Benjamin eventually drew comfort from her embrace of the Bible's lost characters. She paints characters such as Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, or Vashti, the dethroned queen from the Book of Esther. Benjamin often uses their stories to highlight feminist themes. Their faces are presented usually in blue in a nod to Benjamin's Indian heritage, which typically presents its gods in blue hues. In one painting, Benjamin paints Sarah hugging Abra- ham's handmaiden Hagar as a suicide bomb explodes behind them. In another, Benjamin portrays Lilith wearing a prayer shawl and worshiping God as she catches fire. Benjamin's artwork has exhibited in museums across the United States, Europe and Asia, but she is most excited about an upcoming project featuring the Indian Jewish community, which she fears is slowly disappearing as its members immigrate to Israel. Following the 2008 terror- istattack in Mumbai, in which a Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the murdered, Benjamin said many people approached her with ques- tions about the city's Jews and what they looked like. In the course of several trips, Benjamin took photographs. Her project, a photo collage of Indian Jews titled "Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Nar- ratives," will go on display at the Prince Wales Museum in Siona Benjamin Jewish artist Siona Benjamin paints portraits of women in the bible, using her Jewish and Indian background as influences. Mumbai in September. "Siona's work has been rec- ognized as extraordinary in the contemporary art world, in that she combines Juda- ism with a Persian-Muslim stylistic departure," said Mat- thew Baigell, an emeritus art history professor at Rutgers University who has authored several books on American Jewish art. The wandering Jew of kosher wines business] with grapes.' ... I didn't know much about making kosher wine, but I learned it step by step." Working with a group of Golan Heights-based grow- ers' cooperatives, Welner helped found what remains one of Israel's premier win- eries, the Golan Heights Winery, which produces the Yarden brand of wines. One of Welner's first moves in starting the winery was to bring Peter Stern, who would later become the head winemaker for American kosher wine giant Herzog Wine Cellars, to Israel to act as a consultant. "Peter brought with him a student from UC-Fresno, Phil Steistreiber, and to- gether they produced the first harvest" for the Golan Heights Winery in 1983, Welner recalls. "I learned from [Stern] how to do it, and after two or three years, when he left the winery, I more or less knew how to make the wine." While today Israel has a large and growing domestic market for dry table wines, in 1983 most Israelis were only familiar with sweet, sacramental-style wines. So Welner decided to sell his wine in America (where the fledgling winery could also earn some much-needed hard currency), with half being sold to importers on the West Coast and the other half in the East. "In 1985 1 met with David Herzog," the head of the ko- sher wine giant, Royal Wine Corp., recalls Welner. "I told him I have a good wine, and he told me, 'You're crazy. You want to sell me wine for $3 a bottle when I buy wine for less than $1. Are you drunk?' I thanked him for the meeting, and left." Welner goes on to say that after New York Times re- porter (and now columnist) Thomas Friedman visited the winery and gave it a nice write-up, "David Herzog is on the phone saying he is willing to pay the $3." Welner is a skilled wine- maker, and from the begin- ning the Golan Heights Winery received a remark- able amount of international recognition. "We won a trophy in Bordeaux for the '85 vintage, and I will never forget after I got the trophy I was interviewed by French TV, and the reporter asked me, 'For how many genera- tions has your family been producing wine?' I told him that 'it's my third wine, and my third year in the wine business. I never knew any- thing about making wine in the past.' The reporter became very angry, and told the cameraman to stop re- cording. Itwas unforgivable that a Sabra from Israel, who [formerly] knew only sweet wines, should win a trophy." After eight years, Wel- ner left the Golan Heights winery, and for five years he made wine in Italy and Chili for the Royal Wine Corp, under the S'forno and Alfasi labels. "I am not used to staying in one place for very long. Before the winery, I was in the apple business for seven years, and before that I built water dams in the Golan Heights. [After leaving the wine business], I worked in the aircraft business for seven years .... However, in Israel, they say the criminal will come back to the place of the crime, so after many years I came back to the wine industry." In 2001, Welner decided he was tired of working for others, and the following year, with his wife Liora, Welner started selling wine through their family-owned corporation, Welner Wines. While the corporate name Welner Wines may not be well known among kosher wine consumers, many of its brand names, such as Tierra Salvaje, Primo-V and Banero, are popular with novice kosher wine drink- ers. Many new kosher wine producers have focused on trying to produce high-end wines, but Welner's business model focuses on producing fairly priced budget wines. For Welner, it has been a successful model. "I used to work for Kedem [i.e., the Royal Wine Corp.], and I can tell you it's a good company. They're my com- petitors, but I like them; and the difference between me and them is that they hire people like me," says Welner. "We are working now with 10 wineries, but we don't make too much wine at each winery--a few thousand cases from each." Welner says that this means his capital is not tied up in warehousing stock. But this approach has led to some criticism from within the industry. Since Welner rarely produces the same wine at the same winery for more than one year, the critics argue that Welner's brands do not develop consistency from vintage to vintage. During the interview, Welner frequently empha- The Jewish Week Shimshon Welner was jus taking his first steps into the world of wine, and his inspiration for entering this new world was the apple. "I had managed Perot HaGolan, a large apple cold storage company in the Golan Heights, and [the climate in] the Golan Heights was similar to the Yakima Valley [in Washing- ton State] .... So month after month I found a few pages in The Fruit Grower, the monthly [trade magazine] for Yakima Valley, on how good apple-growing condi- tions were also good for growing grapes. "So when one of my ven- dors in the Yakima Valley bought a lot of apples, I went there, and visited the Ste. Michelle Winery, and I met the winemaker and asked him, 'How do you make wine?'" Welner recalls that when he returned from the U.S., "I got back to the kib- butz, and told my friends, 'I am finished with apples, and I am going to [build a Baigell has written that contemporary Jewish art is experiencing a "golden age," and he points to Benjamin's interpretive paintings as one example. "She's providedone-of-a-kind perspective on female charac- ters from the Bible," he said, "and is part of a group of artists who are not afraid to expose their Judaism in a creative way." sized that the strength of his business is that he makes all of the wines himself, and that his approach does bring consistency and eliminates much of the overhead faced by kosher wine negociants (a type of wine wholesaler who buys wine and then sells it under his own label). Indeed, Welner was clearly offended when at one point I referred to him as a negociant. "I am not a negociant! I buy the grapes, I work with the people [at the wineries where he makes his wine] and I bring the mash- gichim [kosher supervisors]. I do everything." According to Welner, he is also able to save money during production. "When I come to a winery, I will, for instance, move the crusher next to the tank; that way I can save some labor costs at the production floor ... and use less workers, because they [the kosher supervi- sors] can see the tank from the crusher. This saves a lot of money." As the interview was coming to an end, I pointed out to Welner that he had now been running Welner Wines for longer than he had been in any of his previous positions. I asked him if he thought he would be mak- ing another career change. While he did not say no, he did say that Welner Wines is different. "It's a family business." Daniel Rogov, the late wine critic for the Israeli daily, Haaretz, once de- scribed Welner to me as "a man who knows what the kosher consumer wants." Welner disagrees. "I just know how to make good wine," he says.