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In Search Of South African Jewish Art

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

South African Jewish Museum 88 Hatfield Street, Cape Town, South Africa http://www.sajewishmuseum.co.za

 

Cup presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

I went to the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town with high hopes of seeing how South African Jews uniquely approached the fine arts and Jewish ritual objects. Lions—as the symbol of Judah and later Israel in general—can be found in Jewish art throughout the ages and across the globe, of course. But I wondered if the Jews of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth incorporated other native animals into their art. I had visions of Zebras holding up Chanukah lamps, giraffes on Kiddush cups, and elephants on Havdalah spice boxes. I wondered to what extent South African Jewish artists looked to traditional African art and design for inspiration, and whether they drew upon symbols and styles from their Eastern European, primarily Lithuanian, heritage. At very least, I expected to learn a great deal more about William Kentridge, a Johannesburg-born Jewish painter with an international reputation.

Not only was I surprised not to find bead-encrusted mezuzahs and cheetah-patterned challahcovers, but I saw virtually no art at all. And the few works I saw had little or nothing to do with South Africa. Several glass cases with ritual objects in the first room didn’t even identify where and when they were created, and with the exception of one menorah, they all resembled ritual objects one could see in a Jewish museum anywhere in the world.

Menorah. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The menorah in question (image one), which had no identifying wall text, features at least three animals. On the pinnacle, supported by some sort of pedestal that could be a hand, jug, or flame, is some kind of deer. Judging from the antlers, the deer is more of the North American rather than African Kudu variety. Lower down on the menorah, two forms jut out, which could be crocodiles or merely geometric embellishments. But the central part of the menorah is the most interesting. Two animal forms stand on their hind legs leaning against an open portal. The blessing recited over lighting the Chanukah candles—“… to light the candle of Chanukah”—is inscribed on the two animals and above the portal they flank.

“Yerushalayim d’Afrike’” (Jerusalem of Africa), the history of the Jews of Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape, written in Yiddish by Leibl Feldman in 1940. Cover design by Rene Shapshak. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The animals are peculiar in shape and thus difficult to interpret. It’s clear that they have tails and ears, and they don’t appear to be lions, since they are mane-less. Depending upon which angle one inspects them from, they could be elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, or wolves. And the zigzag patterns on the animals, as well as the eye-like forms don’t help either, as the same patterns appear on the “crocodiles” and throughout the rest of the menorah.

If the symbolism on the menorah is ambiguous, the scene represented on a cup that the Jewish community of Cape Town presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857 is quite clear, although it’s a surprising mythological choice. Norden, who founded South Africa’s first Hebrew congregation, Tikvath Yisrael, was given the cup in honor of his return to England. A lion stands atop the large ceremonial cup, while a bearded man carrying a trident is depicted on the side of the cup. The figure—surely Neptune or Poseidon—stands in a chariot drawn by four horses in the water, as two angels blow trumpets (probably not shofrot). Berries and leaves adorn various other parts of the cup.

Whether the cup was originally created for a non-Jewish patron and later adapted as a gift for Benjamin Norden, or whether it was created specifically for the occasion, the choice of a pagan symbol, rather than a Biblical or rabbinic one, to mark the celebration of a Jew’s career in South Africa is noteworthy.

Other interesting aspects of the museum’s collection include references to Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather trade (see image three) and apartheid. “In my experience,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, in a quote that is printed in a prominent wall text, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Shtetl installation. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

Have Artists Envisioned Nebuchadnezzar As Hero Or Villain?

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

“Despite the fateful part he played in Judah’s history, Nebuchadrezzar [Nebuchadnezzer is sometimes referred to this way] is seen in Jewish tradition in a predominantly favorable light,” wrote Henry W. F. Saggs, the late Assyriologist, toward the end of his Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Nebuchadrezzar II (c. 630—c. 561). “It was claimed that he gave orders for the protection of Jeremiah, who regarded him as God’s appointed instrument whom it was impiety to disobey, and the prophet Ezekiel expressed a similar view at the attack on Tyre.”

William Blake. Detail of “Nebuchadnezzar.” C. 1795. Monotype finished in black chalk, pen and watercolor, coated with gum or size. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

That’s a far cry from the corresponding entry for Nebuchadnezzar by Emil G. Hirsch, Ira Maurice Price, Wilhelm Bacher, and Louis Ginzberg in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which notes that the Babylonian king was called “evil” (rasha) in several Talmudic references—like Megilah 11a, Chagigah 13b, and Pesachim 118a, for example.

In a section devoted exclusively to the king’s cruelty, Hirsch, Price, Bacher, and Ginzberg add that Nebuchadnezzar refused to let the exiled Jews rest from their walking for even a minute for fear that they would pray and that those prayers might be answered. And he tore up Torah scrolls, formed them into sacks, and filled those bags with sand and made the exiled people carry them as they walked. This is all besides the countless Jews murdered under the king’s orders.

So, would the real Nebuchadnezzar please stand up? Could the same figure—particularly such a controversial person—really be evil and cruel on the one hand, and viewed in a “predominantly favorable light” on the other?

Although it’s tough to dismiss Saggs’ expertise, my hunch is that either he may not have been familiar with the references in the Babylonian Talmud, or he was looking at other sorts of sources, like historians or works of biblical criticism. That said, it’s often informative to look at how controversial figures are depicted in art, and those visual conceptions can often shed new light on those characters.

The chances are very good that you are reading this article either on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet itself, or shortly thereafter, so it’s also a good time to consider not only the figure of Nebuchadnezzar—who laid siege to Jerusalem beginning on the 10th of Tevet—but also the ways in which he has been immortalized in art.

Munich Rashi Bsb Cod. Hebr. 5-II Fol. 209v.

Perhaps the most famous is William Blake Nebuchadnezzar, a series of prints that dates to 1795. In his series, Blake depicts the bearded and longhaired Babylonian king crawling on all fours—no doubt depicted in his period of madness described in the book of Daniel. And mad Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly is. The man has been reduced to beast, as Blake surely rendered the king’s legs and muscles ambiguously so they could also be read as fur. And, Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly has claws for toenails.

Further, Blake’s murky background—perhaps a reference to the tree from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which Daniel interpreted as foretelling the seven years of insanity—weighs down on the king-beast’s shoulders, rather than lifting him up. The weight of the world—and perhaps Nebuchadnezzar’s sins as well—threatens to crush the madman. But those who know a bit about Blake, who had complicated ties with Jewish and Christian mysticism and invented his own prophets, won’t be surprised to learn that his Nebuchadnezzar is more complex than just a madman playing a beast.

By focusing on just the king, Blake monumentalizes him. Nebuchadnezzar is unclothed (like an animal would be), unkempt, and poorly manicured. But he is also posing, and he looks out at the viewer with an expression of shock, fear, and pain. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the unbalanced man-beast; it’s also difficult not to see him as a tragic, or fallen, hero. Perhaps Blake had a sense of the different ways in which Jewish and Christian traditions viewed his subject, and he depicted the Babylonian monarch in that context.

Another famous depiction of Nebuchadnezzar’s story—though it doesn’t in fact represent the king—is Rembrandt’s etching of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which he created as part of a commission of Old Testament subjects for the Jewish publisher Menasseh ben Israel’s Piedra Gloriosa. In addition to the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, Rembrandt depicted Jacob’s ladder, David and Goliath, and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. Per Daniel 2, the “frightening” icon had a head of gold, silver arms, copper thighs, and iron and clay legs and feet. As Nebuchadnezzar watched, the idol disintegrated and was dispersed by the wind.

Rembrandt often looked to the Bible and Jewish and Christian biblical interpretations for inspiration for his art, and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is no exception. The idol has a prominent base, and one can just make out the stone that has shattered the sculpture’s legs, per Daniel 2. And, as Michael Zell, a professor at Boston University, explains in his book Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, Menasseh asked Rembrandt to inscribe each limb of the idol with the name of a kingdom that persecuted the Jews: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Babylonia appears on the sculpture’s head; Persia and Medes on the arms; Greece on the navel; and Rome and Mohammedans on the legs. The stone, then, represents the Messiah, who will destroy the persecutors.

The Physics Of Flame Combustion

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Just because the miracle of Chanukah defied physics doesn’t mean illustrations and illuminations of the Temple and Tabernacle menorahs haven’t grappled with the physics of flame orientation.

An analysis of dozens of ancient and medieval depictions of menorahs reveals that although most artists conceived of flames in scientific terms—the flames “point” upward, as one would expect real world fire to do, absent factors like wind—some artists seem to have been influenced by Midrashic or rabbinic interpretations of the directions of the Tabernacle and Temple flames.

English biblical commentary. C. 1463. Fol. 048v. Lower part of page of Exodus. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

According to Midrashic and Talmudic sources (e.g. Menachot 86b and 98b), the central flame of the menorah (what we now call the Shamash) had special significance, while the Ner Ma’aravi (western lamp), which might have been the flame closest to the Holy of Holies, also carried unique symbolism and prominence.

Various rabbinic interpretations (e.g. Rashi) on Numbers 8:2 observe that the biblical mandate to orient the flames toward “mul p’nai ha-menorah”—loosely the “face” of the lamp—suggests that the six wicks ought to face the central wick, or as Rashi explains it, “toward the middle one, which is not of a branch of the menorah, but its body.”

So, it seems, there is rabbinic and biblical precedent for flames to face toward the central wick (which might face upward, without any reason to face any other flame). All this comes with the caveat that the western lamp (which may have been the second candle from the east, depending which orientation of the menorah one subscribes to: north-south or east-west) might face toward the Holy of Holies rather than to the center.

Synagogue of Hamat; floor mosaic. 4th century. Hamat, near Tiberias.

In light of this context, it is worth observing the configuration of menorah wicks in a mosaic on the floor of the fourth century synagogue in Chamat near Tverya (image one). The mosaic, which also features two lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and shovels, interprets biblical verses literally when it represents parts of the arms of the menorahs as pomegranate shaped. And the flames emanating from the three arms of the lamps on either side all face the central bodies of the menorahs. The central wicks of each Menorah face opposite directions—but each points to the central architectural form: either a representation of the synagogue, Tabernacle, Temple, or the Holy of Holies of the Temple or Tabernacle.

If one examined the image from a literal perspective, one would likely assign the central architectural element to Solomon’s Temple, which was the only place to have multiple menorahs in residence. But whether it ought to be taken literally or metaphorically, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the artist intended both of the menorahs’ central wicks to face the synagogue-Holy of Holies.

It’d be one thing to suggest that the wicks facing the central branch were an artistic device of parallel structure and symmetry and had nothing to do with religious symbolism—that’d be a fine argument to make, except that having the wicks face upward would also be symmetrical—but the mirror-image reversal of the central wicks certainly seems intentional.

The same move doesn’t occur in several other menorah interpretations. All the wicks in a Byzantine mosaic (sixth century) at Chulda, which also represents a shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel and features a Greek inscription, “Praise to the people,” seem to point upward.

The menorah wicks also point upward in a drawing engraved into plaster on a lime floor in a first century house in Jerusalem (Israel Museum), as well as in several other manuscripts.

French Bible. Part I: Genesis to Ecclesiastes. 14th century. Fol. 049v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS. Bodl. 251.

A visual device that appears in a 19th century Mizrach (East) decoration—also in the collection of the Israel Museum—represents an interesting interpretation of the flames. The same move surfaces in a 14th century French Bible (image two), which is also in the collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The flames in these menorahs resemble hands, with multiple “fingers” reaching out in different directions. The “hands” actually resemble floral elements (or bells, or fleurs-de-lis) on the body of the menorah.

While it’s difficult to sustain the argument that the flames face the center, or even if some of the “fingers” face the center that the artist intended them to carry the kind of symbolism discussed above, it is a noteworthy depiction of the flames, in that they are represented as disjointed, rather than unified. Anyone who has watched flame carefully knows that there is tension in the “paths” that flame takes in space. Even if this artist had no Midrashic or Talmudic texts in mind, it’s worth pondering the possibility of wicks both facing the center and a more naturalistic or scientific trajectory simultaneously.

Sotheby’s Auctions Three “Long-Forgotten” Chagall Paintings

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Israeli & International Art

Sotheby’s New York

Auction: December 14, 2011; 2 p.m.

http://www.sothebys.com/

 

It’s hard to imagine an authentic Chagall painting or drawing that isn’t important, particularly to people who care about Jewish art. The three synagogue paintings (lots 13-15) slated to be sold at Sotheby’s, as part of its December 14 Israeli & International Art auction in New York City are no exception, which is why the high end of Sotheby’s estimate for the trio is $1.6 million (the low end is a cool $1 million). But it’s interesting to note not only the amount the works are promising to be sold for, but also how the works are being “sold” to the public.

According to the Sotheby’s New York press release, the works are “exceptionally rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors” by Chagall. Perhaps seeking to justify why the works are the rarest of rarities, Sotheby’s adds, “In all, only six finished oils of synagogues by the artist are known to exist.”

Apparently, news reports are buying the publicity materials that Sotheby’s has to sell. Writing for the Examiner.com New York art auctions page, Alison Martin calls the works “rare” and mostly cribs from the release. And, countless media outlets ran an Associated Press story, which began, “Three rare oil paintings of synagogue interiors by Marc Chagall are going on the auction block in New York City.” Sadly, the AP story also adds no details beyond the Sotheby’s promotional materials.

The truth seems to be that there isn’t a lot of information about the three works other than the name of their original owner (Max Cottin) and the fact that they last came to market 66 years ago, when they were acquired from an exhibit at the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York in 1945. Of course, provenance—or a work’s detailed past ownership—is particularly important these days, when many paintings were lost, stolen, or forcibly sold during World War II. But one wishes there was more information about the three works than just their previous owners.

Lot 14. Collection of Lillian and Jack Cottin. Marc Chagall. “Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem.” 1931. Oil over pencil on canvas. 28 7/8 by 36 1/4 in.

Lot 14, Interior of the Yemenite Hagoral Synagogue, Jerusalem (1931), is the largest and most expensive of the group. Sotheby’s calls the shul, which it says is near the market, Machne Yehudah, a “little-known” house of worship, which one accesses via “a maze of winding pedestrian streets, impassable to motor traffic.” It’s worth noting that the name of the shul, which Sotheby’s says is still in use, suggests the casting of lots—certainly an unusual name.

Chagall’s depiction shows the ark, the Aron—which has three parallel compartments, one of which is open to reveal several Torah scrolls—the podium, bimah, where the prayer leader stands, and an elaborate rug and other interior decorations. Above the ark is a depiction of the Ten Commandments, with seemingly correct Hebrew inscriptions, although a Hebrew verse on the ark itself seems to mis-transcribe the quote from Psalms 16:8, “I have set God opposite me always”—a verse that frequently appears in shuls. Chagall also represents a window, a kabbalistic-style amulet-drawing bearing God’s name, three hanging “Eternal Flames,” and what looks like two figures (albeit small ones, who are out of proportion) seated on benches. Most bizarrely, Chagall writes a Hebrew word (perhaps the Tetragrammaton?) above the top of the ark, as if it is written on the wall, or on a hovering halo.

 

This is pure speculation, but one wonders if Chagall didn’t intentionally decide to paint the ark off-center so as to include the blue door on the right side of the piece, and thus allow the viewer a point of exit. Of course, there are a variety of formal reasons for placing the door there – its arched top balances with the window and the Ten Commandments, and its deep blue color offsets the redness of the rug. And yet, after spending a good amount of time looking at the work, I can’t help but be struck by that door.

Knowing what we know about Chagall, he might have sought an easy exit strategy. “For a period of his childhood Marc Chagall was a singer at a synagogue, but he abandoned religion after his Bar Mitzvah, as did most of his generation,” writes Benjamin Harshav in the book Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World: The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography (Rizzoli, 2006). Addressing a 1917 Chagall synagogue painting—which isn’t one of the three at Sotheby’s—Harshav notes, “This synagogue is colorful but hollow, not performing its authentic functions. The man on the stage is supposed to read the Torah scroll, but he looks embarrassed and lost with no Torah in front of him. No one pays attention to the reading …. It is an exotic, old, and weary world, however vivid the memories about it may be.”

Jewish Depictions Of Hell

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Although it’s the Hebrew month of MarCheshvan—known as “mar” or bitter, because it’s devoid of holidays, unlike the preceding month which has the High Holidays and Sukkot, and the next month which ushers in Chanukah—that’s not why I’ve been thinking about hell (gehinnom in Hebrew) a lot lately. In fact, I co-wrote an e-book recently with New York-based lawyer and author Joel Cohen called Gehinnom: A Conversation in Hell. (The book, which is available for free download at www.joelcohengehinnom.com, is a work of fiction, or creative non-fiction. The characters come from the Bible: Cain, Korah, Saul, Balaam, Miriam. But the dialogue is imagined.)

The characters in the book cling in death to the same philosophies and self-awareness (or lack thereof) that they embodied in life. One by one, the characters enter a conversation in “a dark, dank, forgotten cave,” where they have to trust each other’s disembodied voices, since they cannot see each other. The characters (with the exception of Miriam and a young man who later surfaces) team up on one another and expose jealousies, hatred, self-righteousness, and a confusing—and thus, distinctly human!—blend of emotions. Of course, the lines the characters deliver have little to do with what the figures might actually have believed and felt, and everything to do with what Cohen and I believe they might have believed. For such is the stuff of art, and the majority of the artistic canon is fictive—even the works that purport to be “realistic.”

Haggadah shel Pesach (with interpretation of Abrabanel). Hayim ben Tsevi Hirsh. Fürth: 1755.

Surely, one can imagine countless works of Christian art that depict demons torturing lost souls, grim reapers with scythes, and flaming depictions of hell. It’d be foolish to suggest that Jewish art has anywhere near such a prominent tradition of depicting gehinnom, and it’s not my intention to do so here. But many readers of this column probably have a pretty good sense that the Christian apocalyptic traditions of representing demons and eternal punishment for sinners have their origins in Jewish texts.

Some of the Jewish sources include the Mishnah in Gemara Sanhedrin (10:1), which addresses the statement that “everyone in Israel” has a portion in the World to Come. If the Mishnah goes out of its way to specify that everyone “in Israel” has a portion in heaven, surely there must be some who have no portion, the rabbis argue, so they compile a list: those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who say the Torah isn’t divinely delivered, and those who are apikorsim, or heretics. Rabi Akiva adds that those who read “sfarim chitzonim”—“outside” books—also have no heavenly portion, nor do those who whisper (incantations) over a wound. Finally, Abba Shaul adds that those who recite God’s name as written also will not merit eternal reward. The Mishnah also adds a list of particular individuals and groups who have no heavenly portion, including the kings Jeroboam, Ahab, and Menashe (though Rabi Judah says Menashe was forgiven and did merit reward), Balaam, Doeg (who killed 85 priests), Ahithophel (who led Absalom astray, to say the least), and Gehazi, who disobeyed Elisha.

There are also chassidic traditions surrounding gehinnom. The Apta Rebbe (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, 1748-1825) famously said that as a sinner he’d be sent to gehinnom, but being unable to endure the sinners, God would have to send them out. His idea was to ensure that he’d be the only one there, a strategy that the Ropshitzer Rebbe—Rav Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, 1760-1827—also embraced. The latter figured that gehinnom empties out during the Shabbat, and that any sinner who had visited the Rebbe’s house on Shabbat while alive, ought to be able to visit his table in heaven. And what a foolish man the Rebbe would be to let the sinner be returned to gehinnom at nightfall, the Ropshitzer Rebbe said.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/jewish-depictions-of-hell/2011/11/16/

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