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January 20, 2017 / 22 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Holy Land’

From Hollywood to the Holy Land

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

I didn’t intend to make this blog a history of how I came to Israel, but since it started off in that direction, it’s a good time to explain how a totally assimilated Jew living in Hollywood got turned on to Torah and ended up trashing fame and fortune in America for a simple life in the Holy Land.

When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform Jewish synagogue in New England. We went to temple on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, lit Hanukah candles, had a Christmas tree to be like the neighbors, ate matzah on Seder night and candy eggs on Easter. I remember the reform rabbi telling us in Hebrew School that the splitting of the Red Sea occurred, not through any miracle by G-d, but because a severe drought had dried up the sea, and a freak, sudden rainstorm brought a massive flood that drowned the Egyptians immediately after the Jews had managed to cross on dry land. His explanation sounded so ludicrous to me, I didn’t want to bother having a bar-mitzvah. But my parents insisted. Since, the congregation had outgrown our old temple, and the new one was still under construction, my bar-mitzvah ceremony was held in a Unitarian church. To me, that’s a perfect symbol for being a Jew in America, where you are totally immersed in a foreign, gentile culture. Growing up Jewish in America is like growing up in a great big church. Even if you live in a strictly-kosher ghetto, the World Series, Michael Jackson, Christmas decorations, the Oscars, and the NY Daily News are waiting for you the minute you cross the street.

For high school, I went to a very prestigious and snobby private school in Massachusetts. Out of the 800 students, there were only a handful of Jews. We had to pray on Sundays in the basement of the campus church. Upstairs in this gigantic, impressive cathedral, the rest of the students and the faculty were gathered in prayer, and we were stuck out of sight in the basement, as if we belonged to some third-class religion. That’s how I related to Judaism as well. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But it was impossible to escape the reality that I was Jewish. After afternoon sports, everyone had to shower in the same locker room. In those days, the gentiles didn’t have their foreskins removed at birth in the hospital, so once again we Jews were the odd men out. It was a vivid sign for all to see that we were different from the goyim. But I wasn’t proud of it then. I wanted to be like everyone else.

Most of my graduating class was accepted into universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. I decided to go to NYU Film School where I spent four years in the dark, watching hundreds of movies. The year after I graduated, I wrote a screenplay that became a Hollywood movie, called “Law and Disorder,” starring Caroll O’Conner and Ernest Borgnine. I also sold a novel to a top New York publisher. I was sure that I was on my way to attain my dream of becoming “The Great American Novelist.” Watch out Norman Mailer and Philip Roth! Here comes Fishman!

I tried to play the part by looking as American as Paul Newman. But weird things kept happening, as if God were trying to remind me who I really was. For instance, the summer before my novel hit the bookstores, I decided to make a literary pilgrimage to Europe, in the footsteps of the famous American writers, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway before me. I crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner and disembarked at the French port of Cherbourg. Remember, in those days I was clean shaven, without a big kippah and giant beard. As I was walking along the dock, a Mercedes Benz drove by and the driver yelled out, “Heil Hitler!” They were the first words I heard in Europe. It was freaky.

When I got back to America, my novel had been published. So I went to the publisher’s publicity department and suggested they send my picture to TV talk shows. After all, I was a good-looking guy. They agreed to try a campaign in the State of Florida. Sure enough, five talk-show producers immediately phoned back to book me on their shows. But when I flew down to Florida, I couldn’t find my book in the bookstores. Furious, I appeared on the talk shows and revealed all the smut I knew about the publishing company. The talk-show hosts loved it, but back in New York, my editor was aghast. He phoned me frantically to apologize and beg me to stop, but I was angry about their screw up. What was the point of my appearing on TV if my novel wasn’t in any of the stores? At that time, success was the most important thing to me in the world. When I got back to New York, the vice-president of the publishing company invited me to a meeting in his plush, skyscraper office.

Tzvi Fishman

Prominent Turkish Muslim Leader Sends Passover Blessings to the Jewish Nation

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Adnan Oktar (also known by his pen name Harun Yahya), a prominent Turkish intellectual and religious leader with a mass following, has communicated and met personally over the past decade with many Orthodox rabbis from Israel and abroad, expressing his friendship to the Jewish nation and his reverence to the Torah.

Oktar has sent via the Jewish Press his blessing to the Jewish nation on the occasion of Passover:

While we remember the Prophet Moses’, peace be upon him, exodus from the oppression of the Pharaoh, and God’s help during this amazing journey, we pray for the blessings of God upon all His servants. May God send His Mashiach soon, and bring the days that we can altogether make Korban (sacrifice) in peace and joy in the Holy Land.

[God said:] And remember, We delivered you from the people of Pharaoh: They set you hard tasks and punishments, slaughtered your sons and let your women-folk live; therein was a tremendous trial from your Lord.

And remember We divided the sea for you and saved you and drowned Pharaoh’s people within your very sight. And remember We appointed forty nights for Moses, and in his absence you took the calf (for worship), and you did grievous wrong. Even then We did forgive you; there was a chance for you to be grateful. And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (Between right and wrong): There was a chance for you to be guided aright. (Quran, 2:49-53)

Back in 2009, I conducted a short interview with Adnan Oktar over the email, which I will bring here. It is important to note that while our relations with official Turkey are at an unprecedented low, there are prominent, religious Muslim voices inside Turkey, which offer friendship and empathy to the Jews and to the Jewish state.

Yanover: First, may I congratulate you on your vision for peace in the Middle East and, indeed, the world, and on your staunch campaign to promote the values of Monotheism. A religious Jew, I am touched when I encounter reason and compassion among the nations, and your life’s work gives me hope for the future of humanity.

How pragmatic is your vision for a united Turkish-Islamic Near-East? Do you see it as coming to pass under the rule of a Divine redeemer, or is it a plan to be accomplished by people in this pre-Messianic reality? If it is the latter, you must be aware of the obstacles in many Muslim states to the development of democratic institutions and efficient, corruption-free state bureaucracies. How would you overcome these difficulties?

Adnan Oktar: Every day, important and positive developments regarding the formation of the Turkish-Islamic Union are taking place, although the real establishment of this union will take place under the leadership of Hazrat Mahdi, peace be upon him (the Muslim version of the Redeemer – YY). According to the information handed down from the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, Hazrat Mahdi, peace be upon him, will unite the fragmented Turkic and Islamic states and establish a great and powerful union.

Under his leadership, the Turkish-Islamic Union will be a union of love and friendship. Every state will preserve its own constitutional structure, but there will be full cooperation in defense, trade, science, art, love and brotherhood, as well as the beauty and abundance brought about by that cooperation. Hazrat Mahdi, pbuh, will be instrumental in the Turkish-Islamic world delighting in love, depth, compassion, peacefulness, art and beauty, and in scaling the peaks of modernity and nobility. And the devotion and love felt for Hazrat Mahdi, pbuh, will be instrumental in all disputes being resolved in a matter of minutes. As a requirement of the moral values of the Qur’an, the Turkish-Islamic Union will be one that attaches great importance to democracy, laicism and freedom of ideas, and these values will acquire increasing importance in all the states affiliated to the union.

Things that seem to be obstacles on the path to the establishment of the Turkish-Islamic Union are unimportant. The coming of Hazrat Mahdi (pbuh), the unification of the Turkish-Islamic world, the spread of moral virtues and the glory of Allah being praised everywhere is Allah’s promise. It will certainly be made good. Allah’s promise is true and Allah does not break His promise.

Yanover: Your love for all monotheistic people is clear and admirable. But while Jews are devoid of a directive to convert others to our faith, the very foundation of most Christian denominations is the command to bring others into theirs. Is it possible for God-loving men to live in peace with a large Christian element fomenting such aggressive intentions? Would it not spell constant tension and unrest within the community of God?

Adnan Oktar: It is natural for members of all faiths to think their beliefs are true and to defend them. Jews, Muslims and Christians have a perfect right to defend and tell others of their beliefs. However, it is of course unacceptable to try to force anyone to be a Christian or compel anyone to be a Muslim. Such a thing has no place in Islam. In verse 256 of Surat al-Baqara, Allah reveals, “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

Yori Yanover

Coffee and Me

Friday, March 16th, 2012

I love coffee, but I cannot drink it. This has been the case since my doctor issued the verdict last month – no coffee and no milk. I was quite disappointed to hear that as I love coffee, but I was determined to follow expert medical advice. That conviction, however, did not last more than one week into a new semester with a full course load. After three days of experiencing the overworked, sleep deprived college life, my determination began to waver, and I gave in. so I had a cup of coffee.

It was decaf and whitened with soymilk. It was bitter, it needed a lot of sugar to be sweet enough for my taste, and it left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth long after the cup was finished. And yet, I kept drinking it. Several times a week, I would drink a bitter cup of decaf coffee which I did not enjoy and which was not even effective as a stimulant. With every cup I told myself that I would stop. I questioned the logic of drinking something I did not like, but the logic was not strong enough. So, I kept going for the coffee because for me, coffee means something more.

It started when I was a small child, drinking a sip from my father’s coffee thermos which he would take every day to work. And from that first sip, I was hooked. Well, perhaps not quite hooked, since the next time I tasted it was several years later, and I did not enjoy it at all, but still, looking back, I see that first coffee encounter as a positive introduction to a drink that I would later come to enjoy.

I didn’t just enjoy coffee. It wasn’t just a drink. For me, coffee was comfort. Coffee was the warmth of a steaming brew in a disposable cup that I sipped in high school on those mornings when I really did not want to be in school. And a year later, in seminary overseas, coffee came to mean even more.

It’s not just that in Israel you can find the most delicious cappuccinos and lattes. It was the comfort of connecting with something familiar from home during those first few homesick months. And over the year, coffee came to mean friendship, the warmth of conversation and times shared with friends from different countries and states, on so many occasions, in various cafés around the country.

Even in Israel, despite the excellent quality of all things milk based, it wasn’t just the taste that made the coffee. As much as I loved my mochas and lattes, some of the best coffee I had was that shared with my principal, late at night in her apartment, which was always instant and usually decaf.

After completing the academic year and returning home, coffee was a tangible connection to Israel. It brought me back to so many places I had been, and while it induced longing to be back in the Holy Land, whenever I drank a really good cup, the way they make it in Israel, in some small way, I felt like I was back there.

Back home, post seminary, I continued to form positive associations with my special drink. As in Israel, coffee meant friendship and good times shared with my local friends who I had missed when I was abroad. And so, I kept drinking coffee.

When I started college, my coffee intake really soared. I needed the caffeine for energy on all those early mornings and late nights, and the sweetness was great company during all those hours I spent locked up in a room with nothing but my laptop and a stack of books. And of course, over coffee, I continued to make new friends and nurture old friendships.

But now I am told I mustn’t drink coffee. And so I don’t drink the real thing. I avoid the caffeine, I avoid the milk, but I can’t avoid the memories. The struggle to relent and have a coffee, compromised though it may be sans caffeine and milk, is still so very strong, and I often give in. And so I keep drinking bitter, decaffeinated coffee, illogical as it may be, because the associations I have with the drink are so very positive. Despite my best reasoning, I keep drinking something whose taste I don’t enjoy, and whose effect I have defeated by using the form without caffeine. Because to me, coffee is not just a drink. For me, coffee is comfort.

Yocheved Michelson

Denying Israel’s Biblical And Historical Roots

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

There appears to be a newly energized effort underway to delegitimize any identification of the modern state of Israel with biblical Israel. This sort of thing has been around for a while but it was usually engaged in by Arab nations and hardcore  critics of Israel.

Thus it was disappointing, but not surprising, that in his September speech to the UN General Assembly, PA President Mahmoud Abbas referred to the Holy Land as the “land of Palestine, the land of the Prophet and the birthplace of Jesus.”

And UNESCO’s granting of full membership to the Palestinians is certain to stimulate ever-greater efforts by that body to undermine Israel’s cultural and historical connection to the Holy Land. A little over a year ago, UNESCO classified Kever Rachel as a mosque and “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories.” And the Palestinians, separate and apart from the negotiating process, are asking UNESCO to recognizing 20 sites – including Hebron, Jericho and Bethlehem – as “Palestinian World Heritage Sites.”

Particularly dismaying is the broad traction achieved by a new book, The Unmaking of Israel, from Israeli journalist and longtime settlement critic Gershom Gorenberg. Mr. Gorenberg’s thesis is that by keeping and settling territory it conquered in 1967, Israel has undermined both its status as a democracy and the rule of law. He says it has led to corrosive ties between state and synagogue, promoted religious extremism and distorted Judaism.

Absent from his analysis is any notion that Israel has biblical/historical ties to the lands it won in 1967. And the fact that Israel has been given no real opportunity over the years to accommodate the Arabs (other than by marching into the Mediterranean) seems to play no role in Mr. Gorenberg’s thinking.

Not surprisingly, the Gorenberg book has been well received in academic and intellectual circles. Also hardly a surprise, The New York Times this past Sunday saw fit to publish an op-ed piece by Mr. Gorenberg (titled “Israel’s Other Occupation”) which was basically a screed against Israeli policies within the so-called “green line,” accusing Israel of doing to its Arab citizens what it is allegedly doing to the Palestinians of the West Bank.

Another article meriting mention is political scientist Ronald R. Krebs’s “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation,” which appears in Foreign Affairs, the influential journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Krebs argues that Israel’s continuing presence in the territories has played a central role in transforming a country once brimming with optimism into an increasingly despondent and illiberal place.

Like Mr. Gorenberg, Mr. Krebs not only provides a distorted narrative about the facts on the ground, he seems quite oblivious to the realities foisted on Israel by the Arab world and totally unconcerned with Israel’s biblical/historical ties to the land.

We hope to see informed rejoinders to the likes of Messrs Gorenberg and Krebs, in both popular and intellectual media outlets, in the coming weeks.

Editorial Board

The Power Of The Shofar

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

In my last column I wrote of that which we must do in response to the wake-up calls that have been knocking incessantly at our doors these past few months.

We all know that nothing in Jewish life happens by itself – our Torah teaches us that a man does not even stub his toe without it being declared in the Heavens above, so everything has its own message and its own significance.

In Jewish life, there are no random happenings. Every day has its own energy, so it is not by accident that the “messages” that have more recently called out to us have come specifically during this Rosh Hashanah season.

While I wrote in my article that, b’ezrat Hashem, I would try to spell out what these wake-up calls demand of us, I must also be totally realistic and concede that while many will agree that, yes, changes must be made, they are convinced, even as they say so, that it is too late for them. They are what they are and can no longer alter that.

But it is precisely because of this that the wake-up calls were sent to us specifically at this season. We are in the month of Elul, when the sound of the shofar summons us.

The shofar – a primitive instrument that to a stranger sounds like a lot of noise – has a magical power. It is capable of penetrating even the most dormant hearts and souls. Over the centuries we may have assimilated, we may have been lost in the melting pots of foreign cultures, but the magic call of the shofar has never lost its power to resuscitate us.

Therefore, before I write about what the wake-up calls demand of us, I would like us to focus on the shofar – which during this month of Elul is sounded every day in the synagogue, reminding us of the sanctity of our calling and our ability to change. Allow me to take you back to my earliest childhood, a time when the call of the shofar spoke to me for the very first time.

I recall standing next to my mother in synagogue as the shofar was sounded. A feeling of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated. Time stood still. No one moved, and though I was young, I was struck b the sanctity of it all.

Overnight, everything changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashanah 1944 neared, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were prepared to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.

Through heroic efforts and at great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect 200 cigarettes that we bartered for a shofar. Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashanah came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry.

Nazi guards came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads, we cried out, “Baruch atah Hashem, Elokienu Melech Ha’olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’shmoa kol shofar – Blessed art Thou L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.”

Many years later I was speaking in Israel in Neve Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the Yomim Noraim, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She had a handsome face and appeared to be a little older than I was.

“That shofar you spoke of,” she said. “I know exactly what you are talking about because, you see, my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp and my father blew it there.”

I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.

“I have the shofar in my home,” she went on to say, and with that, she ran to her house and returned with it a few minutes later. We wept, we embraced, we reminisced, all the while clutching the shofar in our hands.

The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s “final solution” had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And G-d granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria. Who would have believed it – the shofar from Bergen Belsen in our Holy Land held by two women who were young children in the camps and who by every law of logic should have perished in the gas chambers.

After almost 2,000 years of wandering, oppression, torture and Holocaust, we returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us. Indeed, who would have believed it?

Now, if the shofar – an inanimate, primitive instrument – can survive the centuries without losing any of its powers, if it can continued to awaken dormant Jewish hearts and charge them with their mission, then surely, every Yiddishe neshamah is a powerhouse into which the shofar can be plugged to create a light that will illuminate the entire world with the Divine light of Torah.

So yes, we can change, because in each and every Yiddish neshamah exists a Divine light – a light that emanates from Sinai and can never be extinguished.

(To Be Continued)

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

In Loco Templum: Amsterdam’s Esnoga/Portuguese Synagogue

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

One of the aspects of the biblical construction narratives – both those about the Tabernacle in the wilderness in Exodus, and in 1 Kings about Solomon’s Temple in the Holy Land – that most troubled and confused me when I was young was the aesthetic status of the structures.

 

If the Tabernacle and Temple were based upon divine designs, I reasoned, they could not possibly be improved upon. Yet, having attended many art classes that included intimidating critiques which left no work unscathed, I could not imagine how the Temple design could possibly be so clever and original that critics and historians would put down their pencils and simply adore and worship.

 

 


Rear view of Esnoga

 

 

Of course, youth has a way of making one feel that one’s questions are unique, and this aesthetic controversy has been considered and analyzed enough times that the path need not be further trodden. But I could not help but be reminded of it reading The Esnoga: A Monument to Portuguese-Jewish Culture (1991, D’ARTS, Amsterdam), particularly David P. Cohen Paraira’s essay “A Jewel in the City: The architectural history of the Portuguese-Jewish Synagogue.”

 

In the outward slanted buttresses in the rear of the 17th century synagogue (image one), Cohen Paraira sees an echo of contemporary visions of Solomon’s Temple. For example, an illustration (image two) in a book by Rabbi Jacob Juda Leon – called ‘Templo’ for his obsession with the Temple – depicts similarly sloped supports in the rear of the Temple. The additions to the rear of the synagogue were added in 1773-1774 “on the basis of the model of the Temple made by Jacob Juda Leon Templo in 1642,” Cohen Paraira says.

 

In 1642, Leon (1602 – 1675) wrote the book Afbeeldinge vanden Tempel Salomonis (Illustrations of the Temple of Solomon), which would be translated into seven languages. Cohen Paraira credits the success of Leon’s book to its legibility, accessibility and illustrations, in sharp contrast to the more esoteric competing book by Jesuits Prado and Villalpando. Leon also had miniature models of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple which he took on tour, and which, Cohen Paraira notes, resurfaced and commanded attention nearly a century after Leon’s death.

 

That the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardi community in Amsterdam went to great lengths to design the Esnoga based on Solomon’s Temple is indisputable.

 

 


Anonymous colored engraving of Solomon’s Temple according to Jacob Juda Leon Templo from Biblica Hebraica (published 1667). Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

 

 

Just as Solomon’s Temple had two columns (named Jachin and Boaz, which the Catholic church later claimed to have recovered and reinstalled in St. Peter’s) at its entrance, Esnoga had pillars on the west side. The Temple had a separation between the courtyard, Holy section (Kodesh) and the Holy of Holies (Kodesh HaKedoshim); Esnoga’s interior design and its strategically placed railings mirrored the separation between Temple domains. Additionally, Esnoga’s 12 pillars might correspond to the 12 tribes of Israel, and its 72 windows might refer to a 72-letter divine name, Cohen Paraira suggests.

 

Furthermore, the iconographic representation of the Ten Commandments over the Ark – which feature much more extensive inscriptions than most arks do – reference Moses’ tablets, which were housed in the Holy of Holies. According to Cohen Paraira, the Ten Commandments at Esnoga is likely “the first example of an Ark with the tables of the law.” Although that is a tall claim, which might or might not be the case, it is interesting to note that Rembrandt, who lived in the Jewish quarter and who was friends with Menasseh ben Israel, seems to have worked from virtually the same type face and layout in his painting of Moses.

 

 


Interior of Esnoga. Photo: Menachem Wecker

 

 

This might explain why Rembrandt made the curious decision to include significant parts of the final commandment in his inscription, and why he skipped certain words – having run out of space, he tried his best to remain true to the Esnoga layout. It does not, however, explain his spelling errors.

 

However much the 17th century Spanish-Portuguese community sought to mimic Solomon’s Temple and its perfect architecture (though Cohen Paraira notes it also tried to imitate classical Greek and Roman models of symmetry), it would have probably surprised the founders and patrons to learn what transpired during the 250th anniversary of the synagogue.

 

The parnassim (synagogue trustees) hoped to add another pulpit to the synagogue, which would be styled exactly like the tevah (area where the chazzan led services). But the synagogue had been listed as a historic building, so the parnassim had to submit an application to the national historic monuments commission.

 

 


Interior of Esnoga. Photo: Menachem Wecker

 

 

The response was eerily evocative of my own question about perfect divine-inspired architecture. “Portuguese synagogue is a building of such beauty, in its lines, proportions and sober ornament,” the national historic monuments commission wrote, “that no change whatsoever which might be made to the interior could improve it.”

 

Electricity has yet to invade synagogue’s interior, which is lit solely by natural light and candles (1,000 of them, placed in the massive chandeliers), and even the dust in Esnoga is holy – or at least fulfills a holy mission. As my tour guide, Vera Querido, explained, the floor of the synagogue was covered with sand to absorb both sounds and dirt from people’s shoes.

 

The day I visited Esnoga it was painfully clear from the temperature in the room that the lack of insulation on the walls made them no match for the chilling Amsterdam winds. But although it is surely easier to worship and to focus on one’s prayers in a synagogue with a climate-controlled interior, there was an aspect of the atmosphere that made a strong impression on me.

 

The holiday of Sukkot is supposed to remind worshippers, who leave the comfort of their homes for the precariousness of the sukkah-hut, how fragile they truly are. That was precisely the same feeling one gets standing in Esnoga.

 

Not only does the massive scale of the interior make one feel small, and not only does the ripe old age of the structure command respect, but it feels like a time warp. I could almost see the distinguished ladies and gentlemen sitting in the pews, and perhaps even Rembrandt, sketchbook in hand, standing off in the corner in the shadows.


 


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


 


This article is the fourth in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

Menachem Wecker

Have Artists Condemned The “Wayward Wife” To Oblivion? Richard McBee’s new Sotah series

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

At the risk of being crude, the narrative in Numbers 5 of the Sotah, the so-called “wayward wife,” ought to be a goldmine for biblical painters. It is hard to imagine a biblical punishment more vivid and aesthetically fertile than the adulterous woman’s belly bursting after she drinks the “bitter waters” into which the priest has erased the Divine Name – a violation of the third commandment so reprehensible it is clear how serious the Torah sees this issue. Forget the shyness of Esther before Ahasuerus, which has so fascinated artists for centuries. The Sotah is on trial for her life, literally exposed and alone in front of a host of men in the holy Temple. Numbers 5 devotes 21 verses to the Sotah; by comparison, Numbers 20 only gives 13 verses to Moses’ sin of striking the rock, which prevents him from entering the Holy Land.


But the only representation I knew of the episode (until recently) is disappointingly tame. There are no bloated bellies, and barely even an action shot. The miniature comes from a Christian book — a History Bible from Utrecht dated 1443, in the collection of The Hague. In the miniature, the suspected wife kneels before the priest, as another man – her jealous husband? – looks on. The priest hands the Sotah a golden vessel (though Numbers 5:17 prescribes earthenware), which surely holds the bitter waters with the Divine Name. Ironically, whereas Numbers 5: 18, where the priest uncovers the woman’s hair, is one of the sources for the practice of women modestly covering their hair, the miniaturist depicts the Sotah with a veil (or wimple) over her head.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Exposed” (2009).

Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish Studies at Vassar College, shared another image with me from Christian Hebrew scholar Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s 1674 Latin translation of the Mishnaic tractate of Sotah. In the image, two groups of observers watch as three priests restrain a woman under an arch, adorned with the Hebrew inscription, “This is the gate of the Lord; pure women might pass through it” (a feminized adaptation of Psalms 118:20). On the floor in front of the woman, lie a jug and a piece of paper, presumably the cup of bitter waters and the scroll with the divine name. Through the gate, the temple is clearly visible. The woman’s hair is bare, and she is partially unclothed.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Drinks the Bitter Waters” (2009).

Why have Jewish artists entirely neglected this important biblical episode, and why have Christian artists nearly avoided it altogether? It is hard to imagine that they were aware that the episode might never have been enacted. (See for example Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s article on Sotah at MyJewishLearning.com.) And even if Numbers 5 is meant to put forth a law that was never practiced, why should that have stopped artists?


I will save speculations about why artists avoided this narrative for other venues. Instead, it is worth examining a new series on the Sotah by Richard McBee, co-author of this column. In my opinion (and it is incumbent upon me to disclose that Richard has been a colleague and great friend for six years), McBee’s series is nothing short of revolutionary.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sin” (2009).

All images oil on canvas, 24 x 24, and courtesy of Richard McBee.

The four paintings (each 24 inches squared) in the series show the sin (here seclusion, not the actual obscene act), the exposure in the Temple (where the Mishnah in Sotah 1:5 says the woman is actually unclothed by the priest), the drinking of the waters and the woman’s return home with her husband after she is found to be innocent.


McBee sets the ancient narrative in a contemporary urban setting. The “Temple” where the Sotah is charged and tried becomes McBee’s own synagogue on the Lower East Side, and the Sotah and her husband’s apartment is part of a building that could be just about anywhere in a major city. The characters wear contemporary Orthodox and Chassidic garb – black hats, coats, shtreimels and dresses.


In the series, McBee manages to represent the narrative in an almost theatrical or cinematic manner, and it is easy to imagine his designs working for an operatic set. Although the palette is overwhelmingly dark and ominous – as is to be expected given the grave plot of the material – the divine presence, which is so apparent in the narrative, can be sensed in areas of intense light in each painting.


Although each of the four paintings merits careful examination, the final image, The Sotah Returns Home, is perhaps the most provocative. All the biblical narrative offers by way of resolution to the story is that if innocent, the woman, who nonetheless undergoes a humiliating public trial, is blessed with a son. “And the husband shall be clean from sin,” declares verse 31, “and the woman shall bear her sin.”


In McBee’s painting, the man and wife sit in opposite rooms in an apartment, the only lit room in an otherwise dark, cityscape at night. The woman sits on a bed in the dark, looking back over her shoulder at her husband. The man sits on a chair under a light, which passes through a curtain and shines a spotlight on the woman. The woman looks shy and helpless, while the man holds up his hand, as if explaining himself for his jealousy that subjected her to humiliation.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Returns Home” (2009).

McBee’s painting overwhelms the viewer with the realization that life will never be the same for the man and woman, who will have to get to know each other all over again. Perhaps there is an occurrence of PTSD – post-traumatic Sotah disorder.


I’m not sure why artists have shied away from the Sotah as if she were the plague. Maybe the story is so intense that it is hard not to caricature it. Maybe Christian artists found new episodes in their scripture that conveyed the same messages, and they chose to represent those narratives rather than Numbers 5.


Either way, McBee’s series not only tackles a long-neglected motif, but also examines it through very modern eyes. When private sins are so regularly broadcast publically on the news and on YouTube, contemporary bible readers might be equipped in an unprecedented way to grasp the statement of Rabi Yochanan the son of B’rokah in Avot 4:5, “Whoever desecrates the divine name in private is punished publically.” McBee has the brilliant insight to realize the desecration and the public humiliation is not the end of the story. In many ways, the reconstruction and the rebuilding that must follow the calm after the storm is the most interesting element of the narrative.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/have-artists-condemned-the-wayward-wife-to-oblivion-richard-mcbee%e2%80%99s-new-sotah-series/2010/02/17/

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