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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph’

Peace at Home And Among Our People (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Special Note: In my last column, I discussed the tragic consequences of  Sinas Chinam jealousy and hatred of the brothers toward Joseph that cast us into our first exile in Egypt, which continues to plague us to this very day. The following is a continuation of that column:

It is well known that the story of “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” was pivotal to our exile but we have yet to learn the lesson of that shameful tragedy. The very title of the story is puzzling, since the controversy was not between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, but between Bar Kamtza and the anonymous host of the party. Why is Kamtza implicated?

To refresh our memories: A gentleman in Yerushalayim made a party. He had a best friend named Kamtza and an enemy whom he despised named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to his party, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to his enemy, Bar Kamtza. Happily, Bar Kamtza came to the party only to be ordered to leave.

Mortified, he pleaded to be allowed to stay. He even offered to pay for the cost of the party, but his host remained adamant and had him thrown out. So, the question remains – why is Kamtza, the good friend, who never even made it to the party, implicated? Why is he named as a central player?

As a best friend, Kamtza had to be aware that his friend’s heart was filled with animosity and hatred. It would have been his responsibility to warn his friend not to allow such venom to overtake him. So too should the rabbis and all the other guests at the party have taken a strong stand and protested. But everyone remained silent and thereby countenanced this shameful act. Those same people would surely have protested had they seen their host serving treif, so how could they have remained impervious to his reprehensible behavior, which was a pure manifestation of sinas chinam – a treif manner of behavior?

We are all familiar with the teaching of Chazal that calls upon us to be among the disciples of Aharon, Kohen Gadol, and pursue peace among our fellow man. In Judaism, the pursuit of peace is so critical we are even permitted to bend the truth for its sake. When there is a conflict between emes and shalom, emes must take a back seat, for there is no greater good than shalom. So, it is that Aaron had no problem telling two warring parties that the other regretted his actions and wanted to make peace even though that may have been far from the truth.

We, however, not only fail to generate peace, but consciously or unconsciously, we often incite further discord. It behooves all of us to ask ourselves whether we are among the disciples of Aaron or those who attended the infamous party from which Bar Kamtza was ousted.

This question is all the more pertinent to us, for we are the generation that has been destined to live in this trying period of Chevlei Moshiach when, with every passing day, our trials and tribulations intensify. So the question remains B how can we spare ourselves this intense pain that is endemic to this period and speedily bring about the geulah?

But how do we go about making peace and fostering it among our family, our community and our people? Obviously, every conflict, every situation, is different, but the first step is to unlock the heart sealed by hatred. Experience has taught me that the best way to accomplish this is through Torah study and a story that has the power to reach the heart.

In one of my books, I tell the story of the Maggid of Kelm. On one occasion, he challenged his congregation and asked, If, chas v’shalom, Moshiach does not come in our lifetime and we are buried here in Kelm and then one day, we receive an invitation to arise from our graves and return to Kelm for half-an-hour, what would you do? Where would you go? And what would you say?”

Very often, I challenge my audiences with this very same question. What would you do? Where would you do? And what would you say? Would you check on your business, go shopping, to the gym? Would you visit your family? And if you did, what would you say?

On 9/11 we found out. For the very first time, something happened on that day that we had never encountered. Thousands of people were trapped in the Twin Towers. They knew that they were going to die, and somehow, they succeeded in sending out a last message. Tragically, there is nothing new about people being killed and dying, but this was the very first time that we had a recorded message from those facing death. Amazingly, they all got through on their cell phones.

Incredibly, they all left the same message B three little words, I love you…I love you Mom…I love you Dad…I love you, my husband…I love you, my wife…I love you, my children… I love you Grandma I love you Grandpa – I love you all so much!

I allow the people to digest the story and then I ask, Should we not say, “I love you” before it is too late? All the things that we fight about – money, kavod…Is it really worth it? In the end, when all is said and done, it’s all shtuot – nonsense. So once again I ask, Is it really worth it? Is it really worth destroying those who are nearest and dearest to you?” When these two preparatory steps are taken you can anticipate that you will succeed in making shalom. I learned this lesson long ago from my revered father, Harav HaGaon Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l.

At the end of WWII we were taken to a DP camp in Switzerland. A group of Polish young men, all of whom had undergone horrific, torturous experiences in Auschwitz arrived at our camp. They were orphans, angry, bitter, and openly expressed their hostility toward Judaism and Hashem. No one had much to do with them, but my father could not bear to see Yiddisheh neshamos so affected. He didn’t argue with them or admonish them, nor did he give them mussar. Instead, every night, my father went to their dormitory and said the Shema with them. Then he would go to each bed, give each boy a brachah and a kiss. Thus, my father converted their anger, and bitterness into faith, commitment and love.

The lesson of my father has guided me in my efforts to make shalom and unify family members. But those lessons should guide all of us, for they belong to our people.

(To Be Continued)

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home  (www.artsiona.com)

Siona Benjamin’s works can be seen at:
‘Lilith in the New World’
Solo Exhibition at Flomenhaft Gallery, New York.
(Oct 23- Dec 4, 2008)
 
www.flomenhaftgallery.com
 212 268 4952

 

‘Gathering Sparks: The Midrashic Art of Siona Benjamin’ solo exhibition 

The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (Dec 11, 2008 – Feb 11, 2009)

 

Siona Benjamin is a most unusual artist determined to recast Jewish art as a dynamic, cross-cultural phenomenon.  At first glance, she seems more at home in the art of the East and yet manages to forge her visions into our consciousness regardless of our cultural orientation.  Her works are deeply influenced by her personal experience as an Indian Jew, raised and educated in the predominately Muslim and Hindu culture of Bombay, India and yet fully savoring the contemporary American culture that she has made her home.


Siona’s work is driven by Torah narratives, especially of women, that are inextricable from her personal experiences.  Her Bene Israel Jewish family inculcated a deep sense of Jewishness, even while she was educated in the rich cultural diversity of Catholic and Zoroastrian primary schools within the predominant Hindu and Islamic culture of Bombay. 


This background was in many ways typical of the Bene Israel because of their accepted place within the Indian Hindu caste system.  They did not experience anti-Semitism and were simultaneously fully absorbed into Indian society and yet, because of the caste system’s intermarriage prohibitions, were kept culturally distinct. According to Dr. Shalva Weil of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, this experience is unique among all contemporary Jewish communities. 


One can well imagine the cultural dislocation Siona experienced as a Jew not quite fitting in the polyglot Indian society, a visual artist in Jewish society and as a South Asian woman in Midwestern America where she received her graduate college education.  Israel wasn’t much more comforting again, as an outsider and witness to Jewish/Muslim hatred that was largely unknown back in Bombay. 

 

 


Vashti (2006) 10″ x 7″, gouache & gold leaf on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

All of this was simultaneously liberating and daunting as she set down cultural and artistic roots.  Her journey to uncover her artistic self has been fascinating, as she finds inspiration in the disparate styles of Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts.


A particularly extensive series of works (2006 – 2008) is collectively titled “Finding Home” and is dominated by symbolic portraits of Biblical women that address, on one level, many aspects of Siona’s complex background and subsequent experience. One image is Tikkun ha-Olam and is based on a conflation of Hebrew manuscript illuminations and the image of an Indian multi-limbed divinity in the shape of a menorah.  Under Benjamin’s guidance cultures morph and blend into hybrid amalgamations.


Within the same series there are marginalized Jewish and non-Jewish women: Dinah is seen floating above a languid landscape entwined in a red fiery cloth that evokes her terrible fate; Tziporah is violently clutched in the air by a euphonious bird echoing her encounter with the “bridegroom of blood” and finally an amazing image of Vashti, forever the outsider looking into the palace that she had every right to possess.


The revealing title of last year’s exhibition at the Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College; “Blue Like Me” summarizes Siona Benjamin’s approach to her subjects.  She states that, as an Indian Jew, she is ” a colored Jew,” which has subjected her to negativity and racism from other Jews.” (Catalogue essay by Cheryl Kramer, “Blue like Me.”)  Beyond this, her radically different cultural background automatically gives her outsider status within the Jewish community. These elements are always present in her choice of subjects, the mini-narratives she weaves and the fact that, almost all her figures are blue- skinned much like some Hindu divinities.


The scope of Siona’s explorations is impressive as she depicts the myriad women of the Bible, each of whom she subtitles Fereshteh (“angel” in Urdu).  Miriam is seen in at least three versions; one as a traditionally-clad Indian woman trudging along with a suitcase, perhaps leaving Egypt, another Miriam is terribly sickly and surrounded by nightmarish demons suggesting the punishment of tzara’as and finally, a vision of her as an Islamic Persian angel tragically caught in a spider’s web. 


Tamar, Asnat and a double portrait of Rachel and Leah are rendered in fascinatingly complex details while, not surprisingly, there are at least three Pop Art inspired versions of the grand feminist rebel Lilith.  In another Lilith she is seen as an Islamic woman dressed in striped concentration camp clothes watering the ground filled with budding embryos.  Siona exploits her status as an “outsider” to view midrashic figures from as extreme a perspective as possible.

 

 


Esther (2006) each 6 ½” x 5″, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

A triptych of Esther re-envisions the ordeal that Esther had to endure as a secret Jew in the Ahashverosh’s court by presenting her as Hear No Evil (Pilot’s Helmet), See No Evil (Blindfold) and Speak No Evil (Gas Mask), each attribute resonating with one aspect of a Jew’s experience in modern Israel.  Until now, we have never imagined Queen Esther through this kind of contemporary political lens. 


While the vast majority of Siona Benjamin’s images are of women, the few depictions of men are equally arresting, especially since all these images are of female figures in the guise of male characters.  A triptych of Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac brings these Biblical figures boldly into the modern world.  Ishmael is seen as a flying Persian warrior, blindfolded and threatened by arrows and spears from all directions.  Abraham is leading a white ram against a background that seems to be raining blood.  Finally Isaac is stretched out in concentration camp clothes, flames rising from behind him as tortured Abu Ghraib prison figures prepare to lift him into their realm.  Grim, shocking and contemporary, Siona’s interpretations rivet the imagination and challenge traditional understandings.

 

 


Joseph (2006), 22″ x 17″, gouache & gold leaf on museum board by Siona Benjamin

Siona Benjamin’s Joseph seems to be an equally iconoclastic image depicting him turning back toward us to reveal his elaborately ornate coat.  It is curiously drained of color allowing us to see many scenes of animals and men in violent struggle.  Joseph’s blue face stares at us, passive and a bit defiant while he opens the front of his coat to reveal that it is lined with knives ostensibly for sale.  The figure is surrounded by four Persian angels and five giant daggers.  In the background, wheat fields summon both his prophecy and his success at managing the Egyptian economy in time of famine.  A spilled glass of blood red wine completes the symbolic narrative.


Perhaps more than most of the images reviewed here Joseph actually echoes many traditional interpretations of the Biblical figure.  Joseph’s feminized face reflects the midrashic understanding that he was exceptionally good looking in a captivating way especially for Potiphar’s wife – as the midrash tells us, “painting his eyes, curling his hair, and walking with a mincing step;” Genesis Rabbah 84:7; 87:3.  The daggers surrounding him may indicate the deadly malice his brothers felt for him while the Persian angels easily connote the Divine protection he surely benefited from. 


Finally, the overwhelming atmosphere of violence reflects Joseph’s role in the future time of the Moshiach.  As evidenced by the Talmud, Succah 52a, and later midrashic literature the Moshiach ben Joseph will, if necessary because of the sorry condition of the Jewish people, precede the Moshiach ben David. In the ensuing terrible war of Gog and Magog the Moshiach ben Joseph, brave and skillful at war, will be tragically slain. 


Siona Benjamin’s work establishes a singular place in contemporary Jewish art, forcefully demanding a multi-cultural perspective of Torah, Jews, Judaism and women.  Her work forces us to radically broaden our horizons beyond the Middle East, Europe and America and very likely engineering a confrontation with the Islamic East within our very familiar Torah narratives.  Given the crisis between Islam and the West, it might seem that her art is a first tentative step towards a common ground.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

The Character Of Rabbi Jacob Joseph

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008
          The Jewish Press recently published three articles about the life of New York’s chief rabbi, Rav Jacob Joseph (1840-1902): “Failed Experiment: New York’s Only Chief Rabbi” (front-page essay, May 30); “The Chief Rabbi Encounters Opposition”  (Glimpses Into American Jewish History, June 4); and “The Chief Rabbi’s Funeral”  (Glimpses, July 4). This column augments the previous pieces by providing some insight into the personality of RJJ, giving readers a feel for the measure of the man.

          When RJJ passed away, he was survived by his wife, Esther Rachel[i], his son Raphael, and two daughters, Mrs. Anna Brody and Mrs. S. R. Schultz. Toward the end of his life, the chief rabbi was under the care of his son-in-law Dr. S. Robert Schultz. His children and his wife were all present when RJJ passed away at 11:45 p.m. on July 28, 1902.[ii]

 

As soon as the death became known crowds began to gather in front of the house. Nearly a thousand persons were there, and prayers were offered for the rabbi. The fervor of the men and women was striking. Inside the house could be heard loud lamentations over the death.[iii]

(Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes below are from “The Position of Chief Rabbi.”[iv])

Many stories about the greatness and philanthropy of the chief rabbi were told after his passing.

“He never knew what money was,” said a President of one of the synagogues last week. “Rabbi Joseph could have left a million dollars, but he died in absolute poverty. Millions passed through his hands. Never a dollar did be hold for himself.”

Rabbi Joseph’s concern for his fellow man and his humility were legendary. He was scheduled to deliver his first drasha on Shabbos Parshas Devarim 5648 (July 21, 1888) at Congregation Bais Medrash HaGodol, located at 64 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, where he had been appointed rav. The officers of the congregation anticipated a huge crowd would turn out to hear the chief rabbi speak. They estimated that as many as 50,000 people might show up. However, the shul was designed to accommodate 1,000 people at most. Their concerns about an overflow crowd were justified. The New York Times reported:

At an early hour yesterday afternoon a crowd began to gather in front of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, on Norfolk street, attracted by the report that the new chief rabbi, Jacob Joseph, would preach there his Inaugural sermon. As time went on the crowd grew denser, until by 3 o’clock it had filled not only the space directly in front of the synagogue, but the entire block between Grand and Broome streets. It clamored vociferously for admission, and Capt. Webb and 12 stalwart policemen had their hands full trying to preserve order among the struggling mass of people bent on gaining at least a foothold within the temple.
They paid not the slightest heed to the officers’ remonstrances and positive declarations that no more would be permitted to enter.

The synagogue was crowded. It accommodates comfortably about 1,000, but yesterday afternoon it must have contained at least 1,500 people. The heat and lack of proper ventilation caused considerable discomfort, yet every man, and there were none but men present, wore his hat. Several Individuals, evidently not of the Jewish faith, took or their hats, but were at once politely informed that It was contrary to the Hebrew religious law to appear in the synagogue with the head uncovered. [v]

Rav Joseph arrived at 3:45 PM. As the president of the synagogue related:

We decided to sell tickets of admission. Rabbi Joseph was then little known here — that is, his personal characteristics. The doors were opened for the lecture and thousands flocked around the place. Rabbi Joseph, tall, dressed in a frock coat, came through the crowds practically unknown. He went to the door of the church [sic] and saw the people giving up tickets of admission.

“What is this?” asked Rabbi Joseph of the heads of the synagogue who were near the door. It was explained that an admission charge was necessary to keep the people from hurting themselves in the jam at the church [sic]. “Then I will buy one of those tickets,” said Rabbi Joseph quietly. “You don’t need one,” said one of the leaders of the synagogue. “Yes, I do,” replied the rabbi. “I want one ticket to get in, and I want another ticket to take me back whence I came. I won’t stay in a place where the people must pay to hear me lecture.” This was the first time the men in that synagogue were brought in contact with the splendid views of the rabbi who had already won fame as a biblical scholar and teacher.

‘I Don’t Want Your Money’

A Mr. Levy, who was president of one of the many synagogues that dotted the Lower East Side, related the following story:

He came into the world in poverty and he went out in poverty, after devoting his life and every dollar he earned to his fellow beings. No man was ever a broader philanthropist than Rabbi Joseph. One matter I had before him which showed to me his character.
Two brothers became involved in a lawsuit. After a civil action had been begun it was decided by the brothers to take the matter to Chief Rabbi Joseph. The lay judges who were associated with Rabbi Joseph and who were seated around him when he heard statements of his people gave careful attention to the litigation of the two brothers. Rabbi Joseph settled the matter, and the brothers were so well satisfied with his decision that both insisted on giving Chief Rabbi Joseph $200.

“I don’t want your money. I want to help you all,” he said. The two brothers insisted. It then became my duty to give the $200 to Rabbi Joseph. He turned to his lay judges and said: “Take this money and divide it among the first eight needy people who apply for assistance.” That ended the litigation.

 

The Jacob Joseph Playground

It was mentioned above that Rabbi Jacob Joseph had one son, Raphael Joseph. Raphael had a son Lazarus (1891-1966) who was an attorney, six-time New York State Senator from 1934-45 (21st District 1934-44, 24th District 1945), and New York City Comptroller (1946-1954). Lazarus had a son who was named after his illustrious great-grandfather. Captain Jacob Joseph died during World War II. A park located on the Lower East Side was named in his honor.

           This playground, bounded by Henry and Rutgers Streets, is named in memory of Captain Jacob Joseph (1920-1942), a member of the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, and scion of a family devoted to religious education and civic affairs. Born and raised in New York, Joseph left Columbia University as a junior in 1938 to enlist in the Marines. Joseph died in action at Guadalcanal on October 22, 1942. Five years later, a local law named this playground in his honor. The dedication ceremony was attended by Mayor William O’Dwyer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Councilman Stanley Isaacs, and Joseph’s father, City Comptroller, Lazarus Joseph. Parks also unveiled a bronze commemorative plaque on the flagstaff, which celebrates the life and bravery of Capt. Joseph.

This playground was built in part to meet the needs of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, named after Capt. Joseph’s great-grandfather.[vi]

May Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph long be remembered for his valiant efforts to strengthen Yiddishkeit at a time when there was an overwhelming move on the part of many to reject the religious values of their ancestors. The existence of today’s vibrant American Orthodoxy rests on the groundwork laid by him and others like him.



[i]Obituaries of Esther Rachel Joseph, The New York Times,February 11 and 12, 1922

 

[ii]Death of Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph, The New York Times, July 29, 1902, page 9.

 

[iii]Ibid.

 

[iv]  “The Position of Chief Rabbi: How It Was Made One of Importance by Its First Occupant, the Late Rabbi Joseph — Little Stories Now Told on the East Side Illustrating His Character,  Just Why He Wielded so Great an Influence,” The New York Times, August 10, 1902, page 25.

 

[v]Hearing the New Rabbi, The Synagogue Crowded and Hundreds Causing Disorder Outside, The New York Times,”July 22, 1888,page 8.

 

[vi]http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/historical_signs/hs_historical_sign.php?id=8261

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu  

Rembrandt’s Abraham: Etchings At Swann Galleries

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008


100 Important Old Master Prints


Swann Galleries


104 East 25th Street, NYC


212-254-4710


Todd Weymen, specialist


tweyman@swanngalleries.com


 


Note to readers: The auction of the aforementioned was held on May 1.

 

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham.’ And he replied, ‘Here I am.’ ” (Genesis 22:1) What was the nature of this test and, more to the point, isn’t this test also a test of the Jewish people from generation to generation? When did the test really begin? It was at that moment, or perhaps years earlier. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), the great Dutch painter and printmaker, provides us with a fascinating answer in a series of three etchings seen at auction at the Swann Galleries.

 

Swann Galleries, founded in 1941, specializes in rare and antiquarian books, and has since expanded to include photographs, autographs and – since the 1990′s – prints, drawings and vintage posters. It is now considered a world leader in the auction market for works of art on paper. The auction consisted of 100 Important Old Master Prints and another selection of over 500 Old Master − Through Modern Prints. The premier exhibition of 100 old master prints included 33 works by Durer, 10 works by Piranesi, 3 Goyas and, most notably, 37 etchings by Rembrandt.

 

The Rembrandt etchings include genre, figurative, portrait, Christian and Biblical subjects which span his career, starting with youthful works done in his mid-20′s to mature masterpieces composed in his late 50′s. His biblical subjects consist of Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob (1633), Joseph Telling his Dreams (1638), Abraham Caressing Isaac (1637), Abraham and Isaac (1645) and Abraham’s Sacrifice (1655). The last three represent a miniature narrative history of Abraham leading up to the climactic moment of his life, the sacrifice of his son Isaac.

 

 



Abraham and Isaac (1645), etching by Rembrandt van Rijn


Courtesy Swann Galleries


 

 

The first two concerning the Joseph narrative are typical of early Rembrandt, filled with picturesque details, finely articulated characters and broadly expressive hand and facial expressions. Jacob throws his hands up in despair and twists his head in anguish at hearing the alleged fate of his beloved Joseph. Equally dramatic is Rembrandt’s depiction of his jealous brothers. They listen with rapt attention, concern and finally anger, as Joseph relates his prophetic dreams to their aged father Jacob. In many of his early narrative works, Rembrandt seeks out the most dramatic moment to better capture what he perceives as the essence of the biblical narrative. His later work shifts emphasis by concentrating on a subtler psychological tale, finding quiet moments to explore the complexities of a human drama.

 

Abraham Caressing Isaac is a work of aching tenderness foretelling the final tragic test. Its delicate and yet intense lines depict the aged patriarch seated with his child Isaac nestled between his legs as he strokes his curly locks. The boy, probably about five years old, is smiling broadly at something off to the side while Abraham looks directly into the viewer’s eyes.

 



Abraham Caressing Isaac (1637), etching by Rembrandt van Rijn


Courtesy Swann Galleries


 

 

His gaze is a curious mixture of tenderness and paradoxical sadness. First of all his hand clasps Isaac’s chin affectionately, holding him close. But revealingly beneath the shadows of his streimel-like turban, Rembrandt’s etched lines become thin and airy, allowing Abraham’s piercing gaze to dominate the scene.

 

Suddenly we know why he looks out at us rather than at his beloved son. We know how God will test him in the years to come. We understand how God had already tested Abraham with the promise of a son who would inherit the holy covenant with God. Abraham had been patient and was finally rewarded with his son in his old age. And yet as the boy grew, Abraham must have known that the testing was not over.

 

Rembrandt has seated father and son next to a cluster of flowers, some of which appear to be lilies. Combined with the apple Isaac is holding, it is apparent that the artist is drawing on specifically Christian symbols (apple = Adam’s Fall and Jesus’s salvation; lily = resurrection) to link Isaac with Jesus. This form of typology is not uncommon in Baroque art that links the “Lamb of God” with the sacrifice of Isaac (see Caravaggio). Nonetheless, Rembrandt’s psychological narrative insight remains forceful and relevant beyond this theological context.

 

The next Rembrandt etching brings us immediately into the Akeidah narrative. Abraham and Isaac have stopped along the way, and Isaac has asked his father where the lamb is for the offering. Abraham explains by pointing his finger heavenward; that God will provide the lamb.

 

Isaac listens obediently, his face in a shadow of concentration as he holds the bound wood for the offering. Abraham’s gesture is doubly telling. His left hand oddly hesitates with only one finger pointing up while the other three visible fingers are still extended but pulled back. Nonetheless his right hand is the main actor narrating the image, as he desperately grasps his chest directly over his heart. In this dramatic gesture Abraham’s inner pain is revealed, even as he tells his son that God intends him for the sacrifice.

 

Finally there is the last etching from 1655 of Abraham’s Sacrifice. Abraham is caught in the arms of the angel, who forcibly restrains him from slitting his son’s throat. Everything is ready; the straight knife in his left hand, the oval basin to catch the blood (actually a more accurate understanding of a sacrifice than the Torah text itself), and in the foreground the basin containing hot coals for the altar fire.

 

 



Abraham’s Sacrifice (1655), etching by Rembrandt van Rijn


Courtesy Swann Galleries


 

 

In both a physical and psychological sense, Abraham’s position is uncertain and contradictory. He appears to be half-standing and half-kneeling, as his head twists to better hear the angel’s message. The angel speaks clearly into Abraham’s right ear, but our patriarch seems to have trouble understanding as his craggy cheeks and sunken eyes express doubt. How could this be, he asks, how could this test not be completed?


Rembrandt has taken the Torah at face value, insisting (as do many commentators) that Abraham did not flinch one moment in his faith and obedience to God. While his enthusiasm is clear from his outstretched hand bearing the slaughtering knife, his love and compassion for his son is equally represented by his right hand that covers Isaac’s eyes, shielding his beloved from the violence of slaughter.

 

The composition of this etching relentlessly directs our attention to the center; to the intense heads of the three actors, two in dialogue, and one effaced by his father’s protective hand. The blinding band of light from above proclaims God’s presence, as the quartet of hands plays out the heart of the narrative. The angel’s right hand holds Abraham’s defending right hand, while the angel’s left hand subdues Abraham’s hand of obedience. Isaac’s hands are hidden; the willing victim is not even bound.

 

This brilliant metaphor of hands has played an important role in all three etchings, offering a complex subtext to the overall images. In the first image, Abraham − the loving and yet troubled father − is signaled by Isaac’s both hands free and playful, while only Abraham’s right hand is supporting his son’s head. The left hand that will be the slaughtering hand is hidden. In the next image both father and son’s hands are fully visible, representing mutual autonomy as they agree to submit to God’s test. Finally the four hands in the center of Abraham’s sacrifice reveal a shift of narrative emphasis, actively bringing the divine (by way of His messenger angel) into direct relationship with Abraham. Here Isaac has become an object, faceless and with hands hidden, powerless. It is a perfect, visual metaphor for Isaac’s disappearance from the text at this very moment.

 

It is highly unlikely that Rembrandt intended this narrative flow. These works were done at separate times and under highly different circumstances over a period of 18 years. And yet, we have derived a narrative meaning from them because we, like Rembrandt 400 years ago, are deeply immersed in Torah and the struggles of parental love, obedience to God’s will and God’s continual tests of his creations. Abraham’s test, as seen through the insightful eyes of Rembrandt, continues to be the tests and challenges of the Jewish people.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.  

A Coat Of Transparent Colors

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

Chana Cromer – The Story of Joseph: Unveiling the Text


November 19, 2006 – March 25, 2007


Yeshiva University Museum


15 West 16th Street, New York


212-294-8330


http://www.yumuseum.org/



 

 

It is easy to read the narrative of Joseph and his alienation from his family as a tragic tale of missed opportunities in parenting, and brotherly compassion and patience. It is easy to flip the pages and to imagine a tormented father mourning a son he thought was killed, without paying much attention to the object of deceit – the multicolored coat drenched in goat’s blood. But even a quick glance at Chana Cromer’s textiles in her first solo show in New York – the Yeshiva University Museum exhibit, “The Story of Joseph: Unveiling the Text” – shows that the stained coat has not evaded Cromer’s gaze.

 

There is a lot at stake in the image. Jacob was convinced he had lost his son, Joseph, without even a body to bury. He was hardly a stranger to tragedy; his own brother, Esau, attempted to murder him, and his father Isaac was only moments away from being killed by his own father, Abraham. But Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son – firstborn child of his favorite wife, Rachel, whom he had buried on the way to Efrat. To Jacob, burying Joseph meant burying another part of Rachel that he had managed to preserve. All he had left, he believed, was a coat stained with blood.

 


“Dreams.” 80 x 200 cm. Dyed, painted, silk screened

fiber-reactive dyes, metallic pigments, habotai silk.

 

 

Joseph, of course, was quite alive and faring well for himself in the Egyptian aristocracy. Unbeknownst to Jacob, his sons had kidnapped Joseph, thrown him into a pit (empty, says the text, but filled with snakes and scorpions, according to rabbinical interpretation), and sold him into slavery to Egypt for a pair of shoes. To fool their father, the brothers killed a kid, dipped Joseph’s coat in its blood and brought it to their father. Somehow, they mustered the chutzpah to ask, “This we found. Please recognize – is this your son’s coat or not?” According to the Bible, Jacob mourned for “many days,” and refused all of his sons’ and daughter’s efforts to comfort him. “For I shall descend to my son as a mourner to the grave,” he cried.

 

Cromer’s “Recognize This” incorporates 10 pieces of Thai silk, each painted with fiber reactive dyes. The dye is a blood red, and the pieces range from completely red to various degrees of variegated washes. Cromer told me that the difference in the amounts of red symbolizes the brothers’ different degrees of culpability in selling Joseph (though she said she had not intended the two completely red ones to signify Simeon and Levi, the two masterminds of the sale of Joseph). The silk that Cromer used is off-white, which leads the viewer to wonder how Jacob could recognize the generic-looking coat, which is monochromatic.

 

Cromer has created a series that gives form to the brother’s trickery. Without the title, the 10 silk forms could be an abstract series, the kind you would expect to see in the modern section of a museum. But titled, the red evokes blood, and the whole piece begins to assume an eerie tone. In her preface to the catalog, director of the Yeshiva University Museum Sylvia Herskowitz finds a more modern relevance to “Recognize This.” “The artist not only references Joseph’s 10 brothers – all of whom shared in the cruel deception of their father – but also reminds us of the agony of Israeli parents who have been confronted with the loss of their children in the current bloody conflict.”

 


“Sheaf: The Great Giver.” 300 x 80 cm. Painted, fiber-reactive dyes,

metallic pigments, pleated, stitched, silk luvex.

 


 

All of Cromer’s 12 pieces in the show (which use collage, embroidery, etching, silkscreening, and staining) attend to clothing. “Clothing plays a part in every stage of Joseph’s life,” Cromer writes in her artist’s statement in the catalog. “As favored son, prisoner, servant and Egyptian official, he wears clothes of different textures.”

 

Cromer is an Orthodox woman, who lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she was born in Italy and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Cromer studied art and textiles at Philadelphia College of the Arts, Pratt Institute (New York), Bezalel Art Institute (Jerusalem) and Boston College. She now teaches textiles at a Judaica workshop at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. She told me that she created most of the pieces in the show over the past three or four years.

 


“Joseph Was Seventeen.” 70 x 80 cm. Painting, etching,

fiber reactive dyes, Israeli currency, Thai silk, silk taffeta.

 

“Esau” references Esau’s coat with its unique smell that Jacob mimicked to trick Isaac into blessing him. To make the shirt, Cromer wet the Thai silk fabric and then stained it with leaves and berries. To get the desired effect, she also “cheated” and added fiber reactive dyes. “I wanted it to have the outdoors,” she said. The berry stains could easily double as bloodstains, as in “Recognize This,” which could symbolize the many men Esau murdered according to the Midrash.

 

Like nature, midrashic interpretation can be said to abhor a vacuum, and the Midrash attempts to trace Joseph’s multicolored coat back to earlier textual references. Cromer cites one Midrash that calls the ketonet the coat of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Cromer used that Midrash as an influence for her “more feminine” coats in the exhibit. Why, she wonders, should the ketonet not be traced all the way back to the kotnot ohr (literally “coats of hide”) that Adam and Eve made for themselves when they became aware of their nakedness after the Sin. Some rabbinical commentators noted that “ohr” can also refer to light, if one ignores the spelling and attends only to the sound.

 

Cromer’s “Skin/Light” is made of multiple silk screens and contains leaf patterning. Like the first coats of fig leaves that Adam and Eve made for themselves, the coat embodies a certain natural resourcefulness and expediency. But the coat also is quite transparent (it allows light to pass through), which references the play on words with “ohr.” (I asked Cromer if a transparent garment conformed to the laws of tzniut, but she said that was not something she had considered when creating it.)

 

Clothing is often very personal and, to a degree, Cromer engages in self-portraiture in certain pieces. “Pit Coat” is a black wool coat, which Cromer previously used as an artist’s coat. “The Child is Not,” a hand dyed linen shirt, looked too well ironed to Cromer, so she had to wear it to make it look used. Another piece, “Entrance to Enaim” (literally “eyes,” the place where Tamar sat waiting for Judah), hangs from the ceiling and depicts eyes – Cromer’s.

 



 “Skin/Light.” 130 x 130 cm. Silk Screen, metallic pigments, brocaded organza.


 

 

Cromer told me she likes tapestries because they move. Much of her work explores dreams, and the mobile tapestries evoke fleeting dreams. I pointed out that the air conditioning (AC) in the gallery was on high, and it was blowing the pieces about vigorously. I wondered if this was an intentional symbolic move, but Cromer pointed to one delicate piece that was flopping about like a dead fish out of water. “I’d really like it to stop,” she said of the AC.

But “Dreams” is perhaps Cromer’s most ambitious piece. The piece, a blue tapestry with small, off-white triangular and bow tie shapes, asks whether there is a connection between the dreams that Joseph and Jacob had. Joseph dreams of sheaves of wheat (referenced in “Sheaf: The Great Giver”) in which the celestial bodies are bowing to him while Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Cromer says that she can see the ladder as only “ethereal,” an adjective with which she describes much of her work. As she demonstrates in “Dreams,” Cromer imagines angels as comprised of light. “I can’t imagine an angel as people draw it – as a human.”

 

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

One Thousand Words Are Worth A Picture

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

Exemplary Hebrew Printed Books:


The Library of Joseph Gradenwitz


Kestenbaum & Company


12 West 27th Street, New York


Auction to be held on Tuesday, September 12, 2006


http://www.kestenbaum.net


 


 


Book collectors are often pack-rats that are obsessed with the printed word in all of its manifestations. If Jews are the People of the Book, Jewish book collectors can be satirically characterized as bookaholics who would sell their kitchen table for added shelf space. It is thus somewhat surprising to discover a book collector who not only managed to focus his collection on ancient Jewish manuscripts, but who also conceived of his books as art objects, more than simply as carrying cases for texts.

 

Where many collectors seek texts that are interesting for the significance of the words, Joseph Gradenwitz, whose collection is up for auction at Kestenbaum and Company, approached collecting with the eye of an artist. As Daniel Kestenbaum – who founded the auction house 10 years ago – described it, “Gradenwitz took the humdrum books and made them into this,” pointing at a book bound in red and gold, with silk on the inside cover. “You seldom see interesting binding like this.

 

Gradenwitz was born in 1917 in Berlin. He attended school at the Realgymnasium of the Adath Yisroel Community in Berlin. His father, Raphael Gradenwitz, collected Hebraica, and Raphael supplemented his son’s education by taking him along to his many visits to libraries and bookstores. The Gradenwitz family fled the Nazis and moved to London, where Joseph studied physics, chemistry and mathematics, as they pertained to the textile field.

 

Though Raphael’s collection was lost during the Holocaust, Joseph began a collection of his own, with quite a few gems. A talented bookbinder, Joseph rebound some of the books in his collection. One book cover he bound contains two long red triangular shapes (one faces north, one south). The triangles are outlined in gold (on a black-blue background), and a halo of gold circles or dots orbits the top of the triangles in an oval path. The abstract design does not seem to respond to the book text in any serious interpretive way, but as design, it proves a very interesting composition. Perhaps it was Gradenwitz’s proficiency with the art of binding books that also influenced his collecting decisions, which skew heavily towards art rather than text.

 

The most expensive piece in the collection and the most interesting graphically is the mid-18th century miniature manuscript collection of prayers by Jospe Ben Meyer Schmalkalden of Mainz. The book is billed as “Seder Keri’ath Shema al Ha-Mitah” (prayers said before going to sleep at night), though it has additional prayers that are not part of the formal night Shema. Kestenbaum’s pre-auction estimate of the book is $150,000-200,000, which makes sense in light of a variety of peculiar components of the book.

 


Seder Keri’ath Shema al Ha-Mitah. By Jospe Schmalkalden of Mainz.

All images courtesy of Kestenbaum and Company.

 

 

The book is richly illuminated in a remarkable fashion. The page accompanying the prayer “Adon Olam” (master Of The Universe) shows King David (presumably) kneeling before G-d, playing a harp. David wears a gold crown (to match his gold harp), and his robe is a bright pink, color-coded with the pink covering on the table before which he kneels. The artist renders the tiled floor with strong attention to perspective, and the architecture of the hall behind the kneeling king is breathtaking in its attention to detail (though the Book of Psalms on the table is quite disproportionately rendered). The arches and pillars and ornate ceiling are a bluish-gray – “cool” while the fabric and floor are more “warm” reds. The motif evokes Indian miniature paintings (also on vellum), which combine very rich colors and extra-fine detail.

 

The illustrations in the book are certainly masterful. Another illustration shows a bedroom with a bed, dresser, chair and windows (somewhat evocative of some Van Gogh work of a similar motif), while yet another shows fruit trees, accompanying the blessing over fruit. The book is especially remarkable considering its size: 2 x 2.75 inches. But there are two parts to the book that elevate it to its unique statues and price range. On the page accompanying the blessing for wine (“the Creator Of The Fruit Of The Vine”), the artist shows a man sitting atop a barrel with a crown of foliage on his brow, a wineglass in his right hand, and a bunch of grapes clutched in his other hand. He is flanked on both sides by grapevines. This character – although his chubby face lends him the appearance of a child – is Bacchus (Dionysius in Greek), the Roman god of wine. To see a depiction of a Roman god in a Jewish book is surprising (though Zodiac symbols often appear in synagogues), especially a prayer book.

 

The book’s origin is also peculiar. It is inscribed “In honor of my wife. I am her husband, Joseph Daern Katz” on the title page by the patron who purchased it. As we addressed earlier in this column (see the March 15, 2006, column in these pages, titled “People Of The Book, People Of The Text: The Harry G. Friedman Society And Jewish Books”) it is unusual for books to be addressed to women. But it is the artist’s signature that is most unusual.

 

On a page with the blessing to be said over a rainbow “Zocher habris – He who remembers the covenant” (dating back to the rainbow that symbolized Noah’s covenant with G-d), the artist depicts a woman with her hair covered holding a prayer book. She wears an elaborate trendy dress, and behind her, over her right shoulder is a walled city. Upon inspecting the tiny writing in the book that the woman holds, the auction house discovered the artist’s signature – Jospe Schmalkalden of Mainz. The catalog offers an explanation about the placement of the signature: “One wonders aloud why Schmalkalden did not sign his name on the title-page, as is customary? Why was he forced to resort to this subterfuge? Was it that the gentleman who commissioned the artist was so vainglorious that only his own name was to appear on the title page?

 

Another auction item, Tobias Cohn’s “Ma’aseh Tuviah” (first edition) attends to scientific meditations, amongst other things. Published in Venice in 1707-1708, the book contains information about astronomy, metaphysics, theology and medicine, as well as a pharmacological and botanical lexicon in Hebrew, Latin and Turkish. One page (numbered 106) shows an architectural mapping of the human body. A man on the left has his innards laid bare, and the heart, lungs, kidneys and several other organs are visible, while others parts of the drawing are harder to interpret.

 



Ma’aseh Tuviah. By Tobias Cohn.


 

 

On the right side of the drawing is a house with four floors. The artist labels each organ with a Hebrew letter, which helps match them to the corresponding part of the house, also labeled with the same letter. Thus, the man’s ears become chimneys in the house, his lips become a window, and his kidneys become central rooms, one with an oven. The metaphor of body as house is a peculiar one, though Jewish texts often map bodily organs across ritual objects like the lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah on Sukkos.

 

One final object will be of particular interest to an Orthodox audience, though it carries less pictorial significance than the other books discussed above. The complete first edition of Joseph Karo’s “Shulchan Aruch” (Prepared Table) printed in 1565 is quite rare. According to the Kestenbaum catalog, no such complete set of the Shulchan Aruch has appeared in decades, in part because two sections of the book – Even ha’Ezer and Choshen Mishpat – are harder to come by because they were less practically useful than Orach Chaim and Yoreh De’ah.



Shulchan Aruch.  By Joseph Karo.


 

Gradenwitz’s collection is much more extensive than the miniature prayer book, the body-house and the Shulchan Aruch. But the three are quite typical of the collection, and they convey Gradenwitz’s collecting preferences. The show helps explain how Hebrew manuscripts are an evolving process: Rather than being completed and “dying” when the illustrator finished his work, many of the manuscripts in the Kestenbaum show were rebound and reinvented by Gradenwitz, the collector-artist. Many of the texts carry important prayers and truths that transcend their time, and the artistic and collecting decisions to preserve the books ensure that the tangible, book-object also survives.


I graciously acknowledge the input of Amy Stempler in researching this piece. Amy is studying library and information sciences at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan.

 

Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com

Hidden Agenda (Part Three)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

(Names Changed)




In Canada and the U.S., the government has passed new legislation to protect us. However, it often makes our lives more difficult. The new Privacy Act is driving many couples insane as they discover they can’t do simple tasks for each other if both their names are not listed on documents or bills. In some high schools, children who have turned 18 do not need their report cards signed by their parents. They do not need to share their progress with their parents either. In fact the school is forbidden to discuss an 18-year-old’s progress with the parents without the student’s permission, it is their private information.


The Freedom Of Information Act is another document designed to protect us. It should give us access to see documents that have been written about us. But some schools, personnel offices and some other such places that keep files on people they employ, or take care of, know only too well how to get around this. Some like the idea of keeping two folders. One for sharing and one not for sharing. So when you ask to see your file (singular) you get to see only the one for sharing.


Few of us think to ask if another file exists, or if there is any other items that apply to us. Some places make getting the information they have about you such an ordeal, so convoluted, tedious and/or expensive, you just decide it isn’t worth it. This can also be true of a health care system as related in the following stories from the chronically ill and their well spouses.


Joseph was chronically ill. Complications from his latest illness kept him hospitalized for months. He was happy to be at the point where he could take himself in his wheelchair for x-rays, MRIs, lab work and other tests that could not be done in his hospital room. To Joseph’s great surprise, the hospital rules insisted that an orderly accompany him to all tests and procedures. This was not to ensure Joseph’s safety or to make sure he arrived on time. Joseph was told he could meet the orderly at the time of the test appointment if he wished.


The orderly’s sole purpose was to carry Joseph’s chart to the appointment. The chart contained confidential information that was for the hospital staff’s eyes only. Joseph was not allowed to see his own chart. He could of course request to see it. To do so would require filling out the correct application in writing, seeing that it got to the correct place in the large hospital, and talking to several people en route to explain why he wanted to see his records etc.


Jehred felt he was getting poor treatment. He had been forced to wait in his hospital bed for weeks until the surgeon found time to do a short procedure that would start the healing process of a pressure sore. As days turned into weeks, Jehred found himself getting weaker and weaker from his confinement to bed because of the sores. He knew that once the surgeon would finally get around to him, it would probably be another six weeks before he could get out of bed and back into his wheelchair and have some mobility. He feared he would never regain the limited mobility once he lost it.



Jehred told me he felt his care at the hands of this surgeon had been more then substandard throughout his stay. He was determined to get a copy of his records and see if there was anything in them that could help him get more appropriate care.


When he requested to see his hospital records he was told he had to apply through the appropriate channels in writing. They would photocopy his records at a mere 50 cents a page. This of course would take time, since there was over 1,000 pages in his file (not unusual for someone who has been chronically ill for a long time) and they wanted the money up front. The photocopying might also take months as they needed to assign someone to make the copies.



Freedom of Information Act not withstanding, finding out what has been written about you is often made extremely difficult. These records about us are confidential. It seems that almost everyone in a facility might be able to gain access to your records, except you. It is only the tenacious among us who might have the where-with-all to travel the maze to finally find out what is so confidential that it needs to be kept from us while being open to so many others.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/hidden-agenda-part-three/2005/12/28/

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