web analytics
September 2, 2015 / 18 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

Honeybee Songs

The Song of Songs:

The Honeybee in the Garden

Illuminated manuscripts by Debra Band

Through January 7, 2007

The Washington DC JCC

1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC

(202) 518-9400




         Song of Songs is one of the most controversial books in Tanach because of its ambiguity. The text can be read literally as a love story between a man and a woman or as an allegory for G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people. The rabbis considered banning it from canonization, for fear that too many people would interpret the book literally. Yet the text was canonized, and it remains with both its literal (peshat) and allegorical (derash) interpretations. It is probably no coincidence that Rabbi A. Y. HaKohen Kook published some of his most interesting aesthetics writings about Song of Songs, where he used a metaphor of a dwarf with cataract eyes standing beneath a tower to symbolize people who use culture for inappropriate purposes.


         But whatever the controversy surrounding Song of Songs, Washington, DC-based artist Debra Band has courageously tackled the text in her recent series of paintings and papercuts. Band describes herself as Modern Orthodox, having grown up in a “Jewish and general environment” that “accepts full intellectual engagement with the modern world.” She is married to an astrophysicist (who helped her translate the Song of Songs text), which has led her to comfortably reconcile the Big Bang with Bereishit. “So far as I’m concerned,” she said, “modern academic Biblical scholarship is basic to understanding Biblical texts, and any Biblical text project I take on begins not only with the traditional rabbinics, but with academic Biblical studies.


Song of Songs, Page One, Garden Entrance, Courtesy of DC JCC



         “I strongly believe that within the context of Jewish culture it must be understood simultaneously according to both readings; to understand it only as allegory is to willfully blind oneself, but to understand it only as romantic love poetry ignores its profound cultural value as the paramount expression of the love between G-d and Israel that colors and animates every aspect of Jewish life and thought.”


         Her Song of Songs book (JPS 2005), which was painted in San Diego and Santa Fe, took more than six years to make. The research took even longer. The book consists of 33 leaves (all made on kosher slunk vellum, a particular sort of parchment made from cows) that were crafted in Israel. On the vellum, Band used gouache (opaque watercolor) and gold leaf to heighten the color. On seven pages, Band cut shapes in the vellum and used the negative space to vary the pages somewhat. The oscillation between negative and positive space seems to mirror the different layers of meaning in the text.


         For the book, Band found it vital to use an up-to-date translation (for instance, “tapuach” is translated as apricot, where convention has held it to be apple), which her husband provided, based on his studies and those of his father, a Biblical scholar. “This was necessary, not only for the sake of honesty,” Band explained, “but because, working with the Midrash so much – which is already interpretive – the understanding of the poetry would have been entirely muddied by a translation that took liberties with the literal Hebrew text.”


Song of Songs, Page Two, Courtesy of DC JCC


        Allegiance to the text also proved essential for the artwork. Band wanted to treat the text “honestly,” and yet “the use of full-body human imagery would have meant incorporating an enormous amount of erotica, which would have been problematic on many levels.” So she chose to represent human bodies indirectly, strategically placing textile patterns over the lovers (see image two), and showing hands and arms (and a foot on one page) instead of whole bodies. She uses the symbols of flowers and the garden – which figures prominently into the text – throughout the book (image one shows the entrance).


         The lettering, in a scribal style, provides a very interesting touch, as many contemporary Jewish illuminated manuscripts tend to use more modern typography. Band sees no halachic problem in this enterprise, because illuminated books “do not have direct halachic requirements.”


        “Fortunately, I am not even slightly interested in writing sta”m (Torah scrolls, mezuzot and tefillin), and would not do so if asked because of the halachic requirement that they be written only by male scribes.”


Song of Songs, Page Nine, Courtesy of DC JCC


         Within the illuminated manuscript framework, which is not governed by halachic requirements, Band is able to employ some playful moves. The exhibit subtitle, “The Honeybee in the Garden,” is part of a scribal tradition in which scribes use their work, in part, as self-portraiture. Band’s signature, which she embeds within the text and title, is her name. Devorah means “honeybee” (thus the title), and in each painting she makes a Waldo-like move of hiding a bee (some are easier to find than others).


         By wrestling with the Song of Songs text through rigorous translation and identification of metaphor, through traditional illuminated manuscript coloration, typography and gold leaf, and with a playful feel for signature, Band is able to convey the vividness and life affirmation of the literal text through modest, allegorical forms. In a way, she is making the same move in paint that the rabbis made in their textual analysis.


         To see more of Band’s work (including her recently completed illuminated manuscript of a selection of 36 Psalms, to be published by JPS next year), see http://www.dbandart.com.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and editor living in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Honeybee Songs”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Palestinian Authority child terrorist. "Don't shoot. I am a child."
Netanyahu May Allow Soldiers to Shoot at Terrorists
Latest Sections Stories
Lunchbox Restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Bringing your own sandwich to a restaurant would appear as the height of chutzpah, but not any more—at least not at Lunchbox…


Last year, OneFamily published a cookbook in Hebrew featuring the bereaved mothers’ recipes.


How did an unresolved murder case turn into an accusation of ritual murder?

Excerpted from The Apple Cookbook (c) Olwen Woodier. Photography by (c) Leigh Beisch Photography with Food Stylist Robyn Valarik. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

The flag had been taken down in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting and was now back and flying.

A light breakfast of coffee and danishes will be available during the program.

A variety of glatt kosher food will be available for purchase at Kosher Korner (near Section 1).

Jewish Press South Florida Editor Shelley Benveniste will deliver a talk.

Corey Brier, corresponding secretary of the organization, introduced the rabbi.

The magnificent 400-seat sanctuary with beautiful stained glass windows, a stunning carved glass Aron Kodesh, a ballroom, social hall, and beis medrash will accommodate the growing synagogue.

Even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before.

I’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions regarding bullies, friendship and learning disabilities.

His parents make it clear that they feel the right thing is for Avi to visit his grandfather, but they leave it up to him.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/honeybee-songs/2006/11/29/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: