Benno Elkan (1877-1960) was born in Dortmund, Germany and became a sculptor of medals, busts and monuments. By 1933, life as a Jew in Germany became intolerable and he fled to England where he continued his artistic career. His work was predominantly non-Jewish, including sculptures of Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oran-Utan Group at the Edinburgh Zoological Garden, Great War Memorials and other public works and tombs. Notably the bronze candelabras for Westminster Abby, conceptual prototypes of the Knesset Menorah, were taken with him as he fled Nazi Germany.
He began work on the reliefs that would become the Knesset Menorah at age 68 and completed the work 10 years later at 78. As the creator of the Knesset Menorah, arguably one of the most recognizable images from Israel in the world, he is a man of mystery behind an extremely vibrant symbol. (It should be noted that the official symbol of the State of Israel, the menorah, was derived from the Roman relief found in the Arch of Titus that commemorated the defeat of Jews at the hands of the Romans in 67 CE.)
At first glance, the 29 images on the menorah seem random without chronology or theme, spanning ancient Jewish history through the Middle Ages, the early Modern era, and concluding in the mid-20th century. Upon reflection, certain patterns and elementary narrative structures emerge – so much so, that a preliminary outline can be offered:
The Central Branch is the main narrative, starting at the top and descending to the base. It depicts the fundamental struggle of 2,000 years of exile, finally ending in the creation of the modern State of Israel.
The side branches’ narratives frame the central story and should be read horizontally, starting with the uppermost row, moving down row by row and then inward toward the central branch. Admittedly this complex scheme is problematic, since some of the alleged subjects of the reliefs are not clearly confirmed by the visual images and do not conform to either a chronological or thematic narrative. Nonetheless the specific combination of Biblical narrative, symbolic figures and actual historical events yields a complete conception.
In keeping with the militant tone of the menorah, the three uppermost central images are of Moses presiding over the battle with Amalek, his arms supported by Hur and Aaron, flanked on the left by David brandishing the head of Goliath and on the right by a defeated Bar Kochba. The triumphant David image is symbolic of the tiny Jewish state that bravely confronts and defeats its larger and numerous enemies – and easily resonated in 1956, as well as now. Bar Kochba’s defeat reflects the periodic dashed Messianic hopes and yearnings of the Jewish people amid a crushing military debacle.
The central image of Moses spiritually leading the Jewish army with the help of Aaron and Hur proclaims a fundamental Jewish concept of the Divine role in Jewish survival. Professor Hannelore Kunzl, noted scholar and professor of Jewish Art at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, correctly assesses that the ancient battle with − and defeat of − Amalek represents the all too recent struggle with Hitler. For today’s Jews, the war with Hamas and Hizbullah are no less urgent.
Next on the central branch of the menorah is the image of the Ten Commandments surrounded by the flames of Sinai − front and center on the menorah − as much as it is a crucial tenet of Jewish life and history. Subsequently, on the central branch is the image of Rachel weeping for her children who have gone into exile, as described in Jeremiah 31:15. The kneeling figure of Rachel is gently comforted by the beautiful Ruth, standing over her and holding a three-branched lamp, illuminating not only the sorrowful Rachel but also the crown of kingship seen floating above. This is the same crown that her descendent David would possess to establish Jewish sovereignty over the land and establish the first Jewish commonwealth.
Beneath Rachel and Ruth is the Ezekiel panel, the prophet seen as a dramatic figure, gesturing to the viewer as well as to the painfully struggling skeletal figures emerging from the ground beneath his feet (Ezekiel 37: 1-14). Ezekiel prophesized that, by God’s word, the Jewish people would rise from the dead and become a great army, a great people – indeed, just as the post-Holocaust Jewish people arose and created the State of Israel.
Following Ezekiel is the much more complex visual theme of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Violence, individual courage, anguish and massacre combine to bring Elkan’s images into the horrific 20th century. Armed struggle, frequently against impossible odds, was a defining reality of throwing off the shackles of exile. The next image is the passage to the present, i.e. the rebuilding of the Land and establishment of the State of Israel. A flaming round plaque proclaims “Shema Yisrael” as the beacon of hope and strength that will lead the Jewish people from the ashes of the Holocaust to a renascent state in Palestine. The entire foundation of the Knesset Menorah rests on the final central panel of restoring the land: plowing, planting, building and reaping the sustenance that God has promised. The reward for the patience, courage, suffering and struggle of exile is the precious Land of Israel.
Just as the central branch represents the fundamental narrative of the Jewish people, this heroic tale is refined and subtly shaped by the images that surmount each branch on either side. On the extreme left is Isaiah’s vision of the End of Days (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6): “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” And “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper’s hole “
Yearning for such a peaceful paradise is brutally contrasted with the image on the extreme right. Jeremiah’s thin and anguished body stretches heavenward in lamentation as the sinfulness of the Jewish people blinds us to the opportunity for repentance and God’s law.
This kind of pairing further comments on the next two crucial figures of Ezra the Scribe (adjacent to Isaiah) and Hillel (who is seen next to Jeremiah). Ezra’s heroic task, shown here reading a large Torah scroll to the transfixed masses, was to reconstitute the decimated Jewish people returning from the Babylonian exile. His pivotal role is echoed on the other side of the menorah by Hillel, who is seen patiently teaching a convert who impetuously demanded to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot.
The relief beautifully illustrates the famous response of the wise Hillel (Shabbos 31a): “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Elkan juxtaposes the radical simplicity and kind wisdom of Hillel with Ezra’s tempered urgency of preserving a Jewish people on the precipice of obliteration.
Many other of the images on the side branches reverberate with similar contrasts, central to the contextualization of the primary theme that explores the many aspects of exile. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s witnessing of the Second Temple as it tumbles into ruins is posed next to the personal anguish in the betrayal of Job’s friends, forcing us to see the communal as but an aspect of the deeply personal. Just as easily, going across from one branch to another – the image of Jews mourning the Temple on the edges of the waters of Babylon – seems to reflect the death of Aaron’s sons.
The calm brilliance of the Rambam, pondering Yad haZakah with the writings of Aristotle under one arm, is seen right next to the awesomely serious Torah scholar, one thumb characteristically thrust up in a moment of brilliant assertion, ready to affirm the construction of the metaphorical rabbinical fence behind him – so necessary to navigate ordinary life.
The complexity and diversity of image and Jewish history multiplies at each glance of this monumental menorah, giving more and more breadth to the expanse of Jewish life that was − and continues to be – the fabric of Jewish exile. Ironically, the diversity of images and themes tend to dilute the central theme of suffering and violence that dominates the fundamental narrative. Even the main inscription on the bottom of the lowest branches from the Chanukah Haftarah (Zechariah: 4:6), “Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit, said Hashem, Master of Legions,” seems to question our historical experience. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the menorah’s theme of violent struggle, war and strife? And yet this is exactly the point.
The constant reality of Jewish life, especially in exile, is contradiction − tenaciously holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head at the same time. They are the two realities of struggle and dreaming – violent assertion and pure faith. Both must be present for us to move forward, and both are demanded of us until Moshiach arrives. Both illuminate Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com.