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November 26, 2014 / 4 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Bar Kochba’

Lag BaOmer: The Fire Burns

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The circle of men whirls around the fire, hand in hand, hand catching hand, drawing in newcomers into the ring that races around and around in the growing darkness. A melody thumps through the speakers teetering unevenly with the bass, the sound is both old and new, a mix of the past and the present, like the participants in the dance, the traditional garments mixing with jeans and t-shirts until it is all a blur.

It is Lag BaOmer, an obscure holiday to most, even to those who come to the fires. The remnants of the Jewish Revolt against the might of the Roman Empire are remembered as days of deprivation in memory of the thousands of students dying in the war, until the thirty-third day of the Biblical Omer, part of the way between Passover and Shavuot, the day when Jerusalem was liberated.

Deprived of music for weeks, it rolls back in waves through speakers, from horns blown by children and a makeshift drum echoing an ancient celebration when men danced around fires and shot arrows into the air. The fires and bows have remained a part of Lag BaOmer, even when hardly anyone remembers the true reason for them.

The new Yom Yerushalayim, the day of the liberation of the city, is coming up soon,  but the old Yom Yerushalaim, came thousands of years ago and ten days before it on the calendar. Time is a wheel, and, like a circle, everything comes around again. Hands pulling on hands, years pulling on years, on and on like the orbits of planets and stars. The Divine Hand of God pulls us along, and we pull each other in the dance of life.

The circle speeds up, men racing faster and faster, the children left behind, as the flames sputter and night falls. The rebellion, although bravely fought, failed, and Jerusalem fell again, and then Betar. The joy of the celebration turned to ashes, but, even in the shadow of the empire, their spirit endured. The stories were changed a little, the rebellion encoded into a story of Rabbi Akiva, the pivotal scholarly figure in the war, and of his students who perished because they had not been able to get along with one another. The failure of unity had been the underlying reason for the Roman conquest and the Jewish defeats. It is the ancient lesson still unlearned that the circle of the dance teaches us.

The Bar Kochba revolt was not the last time that Jews fought to liberate their land. It was not the last time that the gates of Jerusalem were thrown open to a Jewish army. The liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 was the fulfillment of a struggle that had been going on for nearly two thousand years, as empires and caliphates had claimed the land, planted their spears and rifles over its barren hills, and enforced their laws upon it. And if Jerusalem falls again, if Masada falls again, if we fall into the fire, then we will rise out of it again, less in number, less in memory, but still a circle.

Fresh from battle, the soldiers danced around the flames. They had defeated the legions of Rome, without any special training and with poor equipment, they had beaten the greatest army in the world. They had survived the flames and in an explosion of joy, they raced around the celebratory fires, tasting the momentary immortality of battle. Their names are forgotten, lost to memory. Lag BaOmer is associated now with two of Rome’s scholarly opponents, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who passed on the teachings and traditions that kept the circle intact even in the fire.

Wars are won and lost all the time. No victory, however significant, endures forever. There is no immortality in the victories of the flesh, only in the triumphs of the spirit. For all our losses, this circle is a victory, an ancient celebration of a spiritual triumph kept secret in the face of the enemy. The circle of clasped hands reminds us that against the dead hand of history, we have a Living Hand that guides us even in our darkest hours, in the smoke and flame, in the ash and fire.

A Light Unto The Nation: Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

While the heart of Israel’s democracy is to be found in the Knesset in Jerusalem, just across the road is a quiet but persuasive work of art that sums up the awesome narrative of Jewish history that finally brought us to the Land of Israel. War and strife are the undeniable subjects of this 15-foot high bronze menorah by the British artist Benno Elkan. Both the subject and tone of the 29 relief panels that emblazon the menorah were significant not only for the Israel of 1956 − when it was given by the British people to the still new State of Israel − but also for a contemporary audience all too well acquainted with the fight for survival in the face of intractable enemies. Tragically, so little has changed. This is a menorah that will continue to illuminate brightly well past its first 53 years.


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.

 

 


Knesset Menorah (1956) cast bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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.

 

 


Moses, Aaron & Hur (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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.

 

 


Rachel & Ruth (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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.

 

 


Ezekiel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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 “

 

 


Isaiah (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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.

 

 


Hillel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel

 


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 rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

The Peace Snake

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

The cult of the talking snake began in the town of Abonoteichus around the year 150 CE, shortly after the Bar Kochba revolt. Located on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey, the town was in fact a Greek settlement under Roman rule that practiced paganism.
 
One day workers in the local temple discovered some strange bronze tablets there proclaiming the imminent arrival of a divine healer named Asclepius, supposedly the son of Apollo. Locals quickly erected a new temple to honor the guest from heaven. And just as the temple was being completed, a strange egg was discovered in its earthworks. When cracked open, a baby snake emerged. A man named Alexander then proclaimed that this snake was the expected “god” and that he himself was its oracle.
 
Within days, the baby snake transformed itself miraculously into a giant one, much larger than a python. It revealed secrets and prophesies to its oracle, Alexander, spoken conveniently in the local Greek dialect. People from all over the Roman empire – including dignitaries from Rome – came to hear the prophecies.
 
Many brought the oracle Alexander valuable gifts. A single prediction of the future or message of advice from the snake would cost the supplicant the equivalent of a day’s wages, and the snake could provide a hundred of these on any working day.  Husbands, hearing the snake’s advice to turn their wives over to Alexander as concubines, did so.
 
As it turned out, the entire snake cult was nothing more than a pagan predecessor to the movie classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The snake had been created out of paper mach?, with a speaking tube inside its head constructed from wind pipes of large birds, connecting to a room behind the wall. The snake had levers that could make its head move and stick out its tongue. Alexander would operate it all from the next room, much like the humbug wizard pulling the levers behind the curtain to fool Dorothy and her friends.
 
The original bronze tablets with the prophecy had been placed there by Alexander, who had also hidden the baby snake inside an ostrich egg glued back together.
 
Alexander ran his scam for many years, until he died at the age of 70 and his tricks were uncovered. The cult of the snake was strongly denounced by Greek Epicureans and by some early Christian writers in the Roman Empire.
 
But whatever became of the pagan snake itself, the collection of moving paper mach? parts that led astray tens of thousands of people? After exhaustive research, we have discovered the answer.
 
Many centuries after the death of Alexander of Abonoteichus, his snake reappeared, but under a new name. In the late twentieth century the talking snake with the levers and the speaking tubes made a new grand appearance. “My name is Peace,” it proclaimed. “All who desire peace must come and hear my pronouncements, then follow my commands and obey my oracles.”
 
With its tongue flicking in and out, the sounds emerging from its speaking tubes were no longer Greek, but modern Hebrew. The Peace Snake from the New Middle East first emerged as a baby from an ostrich egg discovered in a Norwegian fjord by left-wing Israeli academics, meeting in Oslo with representatives of the PLO.
 
Smuggled back to Israel, the miraculous baby snake was displayed to Shimon Peres by Peres’s loyal apostle, Yossi Beilin. Then, right before their eyes, the snake underwent a metamorphosis, turning into a giant python, several times larger than any seen before.
 
“The Peace Messiah has arrived in the form of a giant talking snake,” Peres happily announced to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. “All we need to do is follow its instructions.”
 
“And what might those be?” asked a skeptical Rabin.
 
“Just obey it. One must not argue with such a divine creature,” insisted Peres.  “First, it wants Israel to announce that it accepts the existence of a ‘Palestinian people,’ recognizes their right to their own state, and agrees to recognize the PLO as its national leadership. Next, Israel must allow Palestinian terrorists from all over the world to enter the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, arm themselves, set up militias in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and impose their sovereignty upon the Arabs there. Then Israel must evict all Jews living in the Gaza Strip and promise to do the same with the Jews living in Judea and Samaria. Finally, Israel must bankroll the PLO terrorists and provide them with weapons.”
 
“The public will never accept this,” objected Rabin.
 
“Ah but you are wrong,” replied Peres. “We will simply show them the talking snake head, proclaiming in Hebrew the emergence of a peaceful New Middle East.  The snake head is charming and comforting. The people will believe in its pagan magic.”
 
Rabin was finally sold on the idea.
 
“Behold the magic snake,” proclaimed Peres to the nation. The snake urged listeners to accept Peres as its prophet and obey its divinations, as whispered into Peres’s ear. No one seemed to notice that whenever the snake would speak Hebrew, it was in Peres’s Polish accent. Strangely, the snake head spoke no Arabic at all.
 
After Rabin was assassinated by a non-believer in the snake, it became all but impossible to denounce the serpent as a sham. Snake doubters were rounded up and indicted for incitement. The media fell into line and broadcast and published the snake’s epistles. Virtually no time or space was allowed for rebuttals from anti-snake dissidents.
 
The demands of the snake kept escalating. Its message was essentially the same: “The highest form of courage is cowardice,” it hissed. “Capitulation is the highest for of victory. Weakness is the highest form of strength. National self-debasement is the highest form of patriotism. Terrorism must be rewarded. The best way to end war is to pretend it does not exist.”
 
Since then, Peres has been replaced as the snake’s chief oracle by Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Audiences stand before it with mouths agape as it hisses through its speaking tubes: “There is no military solution to the problems of terrorism. Erecting a Palestinian state is the best assurance for the achievement of Zionist goals. Talk with Hamas. Negotiate with Hizbullah.”
 
And all the while, the Israeli humbugs of defeat pull the levers that make the serpent writhe and speak, while the media proclaim the miracle of the talking snake’s peace.
 

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-peace-snake/2008/07/30/

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