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February 22, 2017 / 26 Shevat, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Menachem Wecker’

A Jewish Palimpsest In Maastricht, Netherlands

13 Iyyar 5772 – May 4, 2012

Three Medieval Jewish manuscripts
Regional Historic Center Limburg
Sint Pieterstraat 7, Maastricht, Netherlands
http://www.rhcl.nl/

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.) Pre-Gutenberg, books might as well have been worth their weight in gold, and even if peasants somehow managed to become literate (which they didn’t), they couldn’t just walk across the street and find a public library. It is within this context that one can begin to understand a palimpsest, or a manuscript that has been repurposed and retooled.

Due to the high price of vellum (animal skin used for book pages), some book owners would decide they weren’t too keen on the text they had inherited or purchased, and they would have the text scraped off the pages. A scribe would then write the new text on top of the old one, which might still appear ghostlike beneath the new text (not unlike a poorly erased Etch A Sketch). New technologies, which are far more effective and less invasive than their predecessors, have allowed scholars to decipher the old texts, although they are barely visible.

One particularly compelling example is the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, which focused on a mathematical work by Archimedes that had been erased by monks after it was acquired by a monastery. Perhaps unaware that he was defacing an otherwise lost work by Archimedes, the monk wrote a new religious text on top of the old one. The restored and carefully imaged text was part of the exhibit “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” which was open from October 16, 2011 to January 1, 2012 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

The palimpsest that Johan van de Walle, head of library at the Historisch Centrum Limburg on Sint Pieterstraat in Maastricht, showed me on my recent trip to the Netherlands had undergone something like the opposite kind of journey as the Archimedes book. Whereas the Archimedes text began as a scientific work and was then appropriated in a sacred context, the palimpsest in Maastricht was first a biblical text, and was subsequently turned into a tax register.

The Regional Historic Center Limburg, where Walle works, is itself a sort of palimpsest. Based in an early 14th century Franciscan monastery, which was turned into a state archive in the late 19th century, the archive—whose building has also served as a prison, a sauerkraut factory, and an artist’s studio, according to its website—still contains several tombs, and its documents span more than 11 miles.

First half of the 14th century. Leaf from a manuscript copy of Genesis 42:35 to 43:12. (“Membrum disjectum,” or disjointed element.) Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Walle showed me three Hebrew documents, all of which dated back to the 14th century. The first manuscript comes from a book of Genesis. Mislabeled in the archive as representing Genesis 42:35 to 43:27 (it in fact starts midway through verse 35 of chapter 42 and only goes until midway through the verse 43:12), the manuscript contains a few interesting elements. Whether a result of decay or scribal error, some of the letters are poorly formed (like the first line, for example), but more noteworthy, the scribe struggled with fitting the text on the lines.

On several occasions (for example, the last word on the third line of the right column), the scribe tried to fit a word into the line, only to run out of room and begin the word again on the subsequent line. Other times (such as the seventh line of that column), the scribe anticipated running out of room, so he extended a letter to fill out the rest of the line.

At the end of the first column, another interesting thing happens. The scribe, per usual, had to truncate the last word of the line, but instead of beginning the next line with a new word, he instead repeated the second to last word again. The truncated word, which is sandwiched between two iterations of the same word, isn’t even the correct partial word sequentially. And perhaps most atrociously, the scribe misspelled a word (he left out the final letter) 15 lines down the second column.

Marc Chagall At TEFAF Maastricht

28 Nisan 5772 – April 19, 2012

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) March 16-25, 2012 (25 year anniversary) Maastricht, Netherlands http://www.tefaf.com/

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

“There is more Chagall than usual this year. I don’t know why, but each year there seems to be one artist who is the main artist of the year. Next year there may be only one or two,” says Anthony Brown, managing director of the London-based gallery Connaught Brown.

Ben Springett, manager and head of sales at Alon Zakaim Fine Art in London, agrees. “There do seem to be more Chagalls this year than perhaps before, although they have always been popular at the fair,” says Springett, whose gallery was participating in the fair for the first time. “Several people have said that the strength of the modern section at the fair has grown over the past few years.”

Marc Chagall. Autour de l'equilibriste. 1975-78. Oil on board. 24 x 16 ins / 60 x 40 cm.

Chagall’s “Les maries aux deux violonistes au cirque,” which was exhibited at the Alon Zakaim Fine Art booth, shows a bride and groom at the circus. The couple is surrounded by fiddlers, what might be a man with a donkey’s head, acrobats with wings, and flower bearers. In the top right corner of the piece, a painter (perhaps a self portrait of Chagall?) stands at an easel with a canvas depicting Jacob’s ladder with an angel climbing heavenward.

The conflation of angels and acrobats is an interesting move on Chagall’s part. At first blush, all of the danger and the excitement of acrobatics is lost if the performers have wings. Michael Jordan’s soaring dunks were so impressive because he is human; if he could suspend himself mid-air indefinitely it wouldn’t be nearly as arresting an image to see him pull off seemingly extra-human moves.

On the other hand, Chagall’s circus of angels—superimposed on Jacob’s dream of the ladder, so that the acrobat’s swing becomes a rung of a ladder—bridges the human and heavenly realms. That is after all what Jacob’s dream is about, and also the impression one gets from watching people flying on high wires as if they are birds.

Chagall brings the circus-Jacob’s ladder comparison full circle by depicting a sleeping (or dead?) figure lying on the ground in the circus ring. The figure, which seems to lie among red, orange, green, and blue petals, could be a dreamer imagining the Jacob’s ladder painting within the imagined circus, or it could be a fallen acrobat-angel. Just as some can soar, some remain earthbound and asleep, Chagall seems to say.

Marc Chagall. L'homme à la chèvre. 1950. Gouache, India ink and pastel on paper. 62.5 x 48.5 cm.

Another Chagall work at Alon Zakaim, “L’homme à la chèvre,” depicts a bearded man carrying a goat. A boy stands beside the man, as a purple village unfolds behind them. The blood-red moon and the red and orange sky almost suggest flames, which appear even warmer when juxtaposed with the cool colors in the foreground. A few figures can be made out in the shtetl in the background, but the most conspicuous character is a bearded man exiting stage left with a cap and a large sack slung over his shoulder.

According to an essay written by the Koller auction house, which previously owned the work, Chagall was influenced in “L’homme” by his childhood in Vitebsk, and “he often painted such dreamscapes as a dialogue with his hometown.” The man, according to the essay, may be Chagall’s uncle Neuch, who was a cattle dealer. “A young Chagall loved to accompany his uncle when he went to buy cattle from the peasants in the region, and once commented, ‘How happy was I when you allowed me to drive with you on the bumpy barrow!’” according to the essay. The young boy in the work, then, may be a self portrait of Chagall.

Marc Chagall. Over Vitebsk. 1915-20. Oil on canvas. 26 3/8 x 36 1/2" (67 x 92.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art.

Yet, the painting is also confusing, the essay continues, because the man’s intentions for the goat remain ambiguous, the sky is “threatening” due to the “intense and thunderous horizon,” and there is the man with the sack and the people lying on the streets. The scene could be one of figures fleeing the town, and it may record “the discriminations and pogroms of the Jewish people which took place in Tsarist Russia. Chagall once said: ‘If I weren’t a Jew then I wouldn’t be an artist,’” the essay concludes.

Jewish Medals At TEFAF

15 Nisan 5772 – April 6, 2012

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) March 16-25, 2012 (25 year anniversary) Maastricht, Netherlands http://www.tefaf.com/

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Some of the most fascinating displays of wealth at TEFAF were small change, so to speak—or at least they used to be. Tucked away in display cases at booths are a trove of coins (used for currency) and medals (non-legal tender), that although less dazzling than the wall-dominating medieval paintings and life-sized contemporary sculptures, are no less worthy of close examination. In fact, four medals at two vendors (Nomos in Switzerland, and Tradart in Belgium and Switzerland) are of particular interest to those who are passionate about Jewish art.

A silver medal representing Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1801-1825), labeled “The Emancipation of Russian Jews,” shows Alexander on the front (obverse), wearing the eight-pointed star of the Order of St. Andrew, Russia’s patron saint. The tsar, identified by the inscription “Alexandro,” is shown in profile dressed in armor. On the reverse side of the medal, the Jewish community is personified by a bearded (and perhaps helmeted) man looking heavenward with his hands clasped in prayer—or, as the vendor, Tradart, describes it, “as a token of gratitude to the tsar for the laws of 1804 granting Jews relative emancipation.” A Latin inscription declares, “He freed the Jews from burden, February 9, 1805.”

In front of the figure, who is dressed in biblical rather than contemporary garb, is an altar of sorts, with laurel wreaths and a flame. According to Tradart, the medal is thought to have been struck outside of Russia, with a golden copy presented personally to Alexander I. “In that case, it would precede by many years any other issuance by the Jewish community of Russia,” according to the gallery. “Knowing that engraver, Paul Merker, came from Brunswick, it could substantiate the claim that it was commissioned by the Jews of Berlin.”

Another medal at Tradart’s booth is a rectangular bronze plate commemorating the inauguration of Frankfort’s synagogue. The Hebrew inscription, “house of prayer of the upright” (depending on how one translates the word Yeshurun), appears above a sun setting (or rising) over the Frankfurt synagogue. Some of the floral details adorning the arch over the Hebrew inscription and along the sides of the plate resemble the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter of one of the divine names and, therefore, many mezuzah cases and other Judaica objects. And beneath the synagogue representation, another Hebrew inscription offers the Hebrew date of the inauguration.

The composition of the commemorative plate evokes the title page of Soncino’s editions of the Talmud (among other secular publishing designs). Three steps (which could symbolize any number of Jewish things) lead up the synagogue, which is circumscribed by an arch and two columns. The synagogue is represented in remarkable detail, but the artist has devoted equal—if not more—attention to the borders of the piece and the inscriptions. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the inscriptions seem to be confused, as some letters are slightly more elongated than they should be, and others are imprecisely formed.

A silver medal offered by Nomos also contains Hebrew inscriptions, but doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the Jewish community. The king appears in profile, wearing what might be the Order of the Golden Fleece (it’s tough to make out, but the interlocking shapes in the chain appear to be the iconic Burgundian ‘B’). Henry VIII was hardly a friend of the Jews (there were taxes and pogroms, among other oppressions), although by some accounts, Henry VIII enlisted Jewish scholars and their biblical expertise to justify his controversial divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

On the reverse side of the silver medal, inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek declare Henry VIII not only king, but “supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland,” according to Nomos. The Hebrew and Greek inscriptions, as the other two biblical languages besides Latin (which appears on the front of the medal), “affirm the legitimacy of Henry’s appointment,” according to the website of the British Museum, which owns one of two gold versions of the medal.

But a close inspection of the Hebrew inscription yields a different text. The word Messiah appears prominently, and although one can make out the term “community of England,” Ireland doesn’t appear. One term that is unaccounted for in the translation is Kush, and another 10-letter word doesn’t seem to be transcribed properly. More work can certainly be done on the inscription of this medal, although Richard Bishop’s Hebraica Veritas essay on the medal is very informative, particularly in its tracing of the humanism of the time and growing interests in Greek and Hebrew. A Hebrew font was developed in Venice by Teobaldo Mannucci in the very late 15th century, according to Bishop, and study of biblical Hebrew allowed scholars to understand the bible ad fontem (“at the source”)—although through a Christian lens, of course.

Max Ferguson’s Portraits Of His Father

1 Nisan 5772 – March 23, 2012

Max Ferguson: Painting My Father April 15–June 29, 2012 Hebrew Union College Museum One West 4th Street (between Broadway and Mercer) http://maxferguson.com/

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture. Viewers are literally obstructed in their attempt to “enter” the image, as Ferguson has cropped out the foreground and filled it with the deli counter. Yet every detail—from the hanging meats and the scales to the portrait of the man behind the counter and the ceiling tiles—is so carefully and lovingly rendered that one can’t help but want to linger despite the blocked entrance and lack of firm ground to stand upon.

Less well-known, but arguably even more visually arresting is Ferguson’s 2005 painting, My Father in Katz’s,which is part of his upcoming solo show at Hebrew Union College that opens next month. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, Richard (1912-2005), who wears a flat cap, sits alone at a table eating a sandwich. A Dr. Brown’s cream soda (with straw), ketchup and mustard containers, and a salt shaker look up at him from the table, and Ferguson, who cleverly scrawls his signature into the wall in the bottom left corner, captures an impressive array of textures. Ferguson finds common elements in the textures, though, and one of the wall patterns (which isn’t unlike a snake’s scaly skin) is echoed in the jacket Ferguson’s dad wears. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but the work is so realistic that one can practically smell the food.

Max Ferguson. “My Father in Katz’s.” 2005. Oil on panel. 16 x 20 inches. Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Even from a cursory glance at Ferguson’s personal website, it’s easy to see that he takes Jewish images seriously, since one of his headings under “portfolio” is devoted to Jewish works. They include Ratner (1996), a deli which is no longer in operation; Schapiro (1996), the no longer operating wine store on Rivington Street; Bagel Bakery (1998); Schindler (1995),which shows the marquee of the since closed Art Greenwich theater; Yonah Schimmel (1992), a knish bakery that is still in operation; Torah Scribe (1993), which depicts a bearded scribe writing a Torah scroll; and Matzo Bakery (1992). Works in other sections of the site—such as the drawing Butcher Shop (2003) and the oil painting Jerusalem Fish Vendor (2004)—could also appear in the section on Jewish art.

“Despite spending so much time in Jerusalem, I continue to paint primarily New York-themed imagery,” the artist notes in the Hebrew Union College press release. “I don’t want anyone ever saying about me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he was Jewish.’ With my Ellis Island name, people often assume I am not.” Ferguson adds that the exhibit, of 30 paintings he made of his father over three decades, coincides with what would have been his father’s 100th birthday.

Not all of the images of Ferguson’s father scream their faith as loudly as the other Jewish subjects. Saturday Night/Sunday Times, strictly speaking, has nothing Jewish about it, but the full-length portrait of Ferguson’s father receiving change from a street newspaper vendor after purchasing a New York Times certainly represents a New York ritual that will speak to many Jewish viewers. Ferguson often seems to treat props as seriously as he does figures, and this piece is no exception. The stacked copies of New York Daily News, Newsday, and New York Post are rendered with as much careful attention to detail as the texture of the figure’s skin.

Though it’d be a stretch (particularly in the absence of any indication on Ferguson’s part) to suggest that the artist was drawing upon a visual tradition of Annunciations or angelic appearances, it is interesting to note that the cropping of the newspaper seller’s arm—coupled with the spotlight that illuminates the two figures—conveys something more otherworldly than a simple monetary transaction.

Max Ferguson. “My Father on Fifth Avenue.” 2011. Oil on Panel. 9½ x 12 inches.

My Father on Fifth Avenue, by comparison, is hardly otherworldly. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, clad in comfortable shoes and a striped shirt, sits on a park bench reading the newspaper. Fallen leaves litter the ground at his feet, and the stone wall behind his back is an abstract mosaic of gray stones—perhaps the way one might envision the parted Red Sea. Many of Ferguson’s paintings, including this one, evoke the work of Edward Hopper, whose figures are often lonely and forlorn. But though Ferguson’s father sits alone without another soul in sight, he is so engrossed in his newspaper that he doesn’t seem to mind.

Thinking Outside The Tzeddakah Box

16 Adar 5772 – March 9, 2012

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor? Having a beautifully decorated receptacle also seems to encourage the accumulation of coins rather than the regular dispensing of that money to the poor on an as-needed basis. In that sense, the difference between the miser and the selfless alms giver grows increasingly small; both become hoarders, and the only distinguishing factor is what happens to the money in the end.

Yet, given the double commandment of tzeddakah—a positive charge to give, and a negative prohibition not to abstain from generosity in Deuteronomy 15—why shouldn’t the commandment of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the law, apply? Surely we all wish that poverty didn’t exist, but given the inevitability of there being needy, and thus the necessity of a receptacle to contain alms, it is only reasonable to adorn the box appropriately.

In this context, the American Jewish World Service’s new competition, “Where Do You Give? National Design Competition,” is a provocative project. The competition’s website refers to reimaging tzedakah for the 21st century and of “globally conscious designers,” who will “translate tzedakah meaning into compelling, relevant design.”

According to Aaron Dorfman, vice president of programs at AJWS, there have been 70 submissions so far, and the AJWS hopes for another 30. “Like a lot of Judaica, tzeddakah boxes get a bad rap as kitschy, but one of the reasons we’re hosting this competition is because we believe that Jewish material culture—the ritual objects with which Judaism is lived and practiced—has the potential to hugely influence our thinking about Jewish attitudes, values and behaviors,” he says.

It remains to be seen whether the AJWS submissions will be innovative and interesting or kitschy and derivative (AJWS didn’t provide images of the submissions by press time), but it’s worth considering some other examples of noteworthy tzeddakah boxes. For example, the pushkas of about a dozen artists can be found in Ray Hemachandra’s 2010 book, 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.

Toby Rosenberg. Tzedakah Box (2008). 9 x 3.5 inches. Hand-built stoneware. 24-karat gold; fired.

Toby Rosenberg’s Tzedakah Box (2008) represents an unusual interpretation of the pushka. Whereas the boxes that get passed around for donations during synagogue services tend to be durable, metal containers that often look like they could block a bullet, Rosenberg’s piece, which is covered with floral patterns, looks fragile.

On her website, the artist explains the link between the flowers and leaves and the function of the box. “This tzedakah box will fill your hands and remind you/ To make tzedakah is to plant a seed of Justice/ that will grow and blossom.” Not only is giving alms similar to seed planting, but the flowers and the delicateness of the box parallels the helplessness of the intended beneficiaries of its contents.

Just as the 17th century Dutch still life paintings of ripe fruit and cut flowers carried a memento mori (“remember your mortality”) component—the flowers and food might look good now, but they are doomed to decay and spoil with time—the beauty of Rosenberg’s tzeddakahbox can be viewed in a different context. Just as the fortunes and fate of the flowers is inevitable, so too is the inevitable cycle in which some people move in and out of certain tax brackets, as well as comfortable and more challenging living conditions.

Aimee Golant. Justice Tzedakah Box. 8 x 4.25 x 3.5 inches. Silver and tin alloy.

Aimee Golant’s tzeddakah box achieves the opposite effect—evoking Tobi Kahn’s abstract landscapes. Golant’s rectangular box stands on feet (that lend the sculpture a look that isn’t unlike a Torah scroll), and represents an enlarged Hebrew letter tzadik, the first letter in tzeddakah. “The round texture inside the Y of the letter looks like coins dropping into the box, or money flying up into the air like confetti. As we give to others, we all receive,” according to the artist’s website.

In one sense, the box conveys a generally sober response. It is monochromatic and largely minimalist in its composition. And yet the power of the ‘Y’ form—the upper part of the tzadik—is so arresting that it is clear that this is not just any old tzeddakah box. The ‘Y’ can also double as an illustration of a fork in the road, which could be one of two transitions—either the choice, or divergence of possibilities for the alms giver (and box owner) or for the person who will receive the tzeddakah. If the giver chooses the right path, so to speak, the destitute recipient might then suddenly have a second option where there was previously just one inevitable path.

The Purim Narrative At The Pardo Palace

4 Adar 5772 – February 27, 2012

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs. The palace was decorated with works of art that represented a variety of mythological and historical scenes, from Bartolomeo Carducho’s Agamemnon and Achilles to Francisco López’s Surrender of Boabdil, Sultan of Granada, to Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, January 3, 1492 (circa 1607-12).

Gallery of the Queen, Pardo Palace. Hall of the Biblical Joseph by Patricio Caxés.

But two series are particularly unusual. If one turns left immediately after passing through the ground floor’s main entrance, one arrives at the queen’s hall, which is decorated with a series on the biblical Esther by Patricio Caxés. And elsewhere on the ground floor, a series on Joseph by Jerónimo Cabrera can be found in the queen’s gallery. What was it about the stories of Esther and Joseph that was deemed so appropriate for Spanish queens? And why were subjects from the Jewish, rather than Christian, scriptures selected for the summer hunting palace?

The queen’s hall also contained individual works that portrayed Judith (with Holofernes’ head), Ruth, Deborah, Rebecca (or Miriam), Sara (or Naomi), Yael, and Rachel, but it’s clear that the program on Esther was given particular prominence. With Purim looming on the horizon, this article focuses on the Esther works and leaves Joseph for a different occasion. The Esther program, which appeared on the ceiling of the queen’s hall, includes the following scenes: Esther’s coronation, Esther reporting the assassination ploy to Ahaseurus; Esther standing with outstretched arms in front of other figures; Esther collapsing before Ahaseurus, Esther and Haman at Ahaseurus’ dinner, the insomniac Ahaseurus with attendants, Mordechai on the king’s horse, Haman pleading at Esther’s feet, and Mordecai counseling Ahaseurus.

Jerónimo Cabrera, Esther faints before Ahasuerus, Queen’s Room, Pardo.

Although a frequent scene depicted in biblical art, the only episode from Cabrera’s program that doesn’t appear in the Book of Esther is the fourth work—Esther falling before Ahaseurus. It’s reasonable to assume that Esther may have bowed before the king, but the biblical tale has Esther standing rather than prostrating herself. It’s worth noting that Mordechai had refused to bow before Haman earlier in the story, but clearly the bowing wasn’t the entire extent of the problem, as Joseph’s brothers bowed before him in Egypt.

Queen’s Room, Pardo Palace. Ceiling Frescoes of Esther by Jerónimo Cabrera.

In the most comprehensive English study on the subject of the Esther and Joseph works, “Old Testament images defined by the Spanish catholic empire: the story of Esther and the story of Joseph in the Pardo palace” (submitted to the faculty of George Washington University in 1996), Abby Krain locates Esther and Joseph within a framework of Christian symbolism. To Krain, Joseph and Esther represent ideal models for kings and queens, particularly for the patrons of the projects: King Philip III and his wife, Margaret of Austria. Esther, who epitomizes humility and obedience, is a stand-in for Mary, while Joseph’s honesty makes him a proxy for the Christian savior, Krain suggests. Although Krain makes a sound argument, it’s worth pondering whether there might have been something more colorful and provocative in the Pardo biblical commissions.

That the king and queen would have believed that figures from the Jewish Bible foretold the characters of Christian scriptures is undoubtedly true. But even if one concedes that point, Joseph and Esther are odd choices as regal role models. Joseph was clearly righteous, but he is also perhaps guilty of vanity, which, according to rabbinic traditions, one of the reasons he deserved to spend time in an Egyptian prison. And although Esther also emerges as a heroine in the Purim narrative, Mordechai rebukes her for seemingly caring too much about her own regal station rather than her people. This is not to incriminate Esther and Joseph, but there might have been more apparent role models that would have made more sense in the Pardo Palace.

According to Krain, the Persian King Ahaseurus selected Esther “for her beauty and, more significantly, for her obedience and loyalty to both her people and her adopted kingdom.” And not only would Phillip III have seen Esther as a role model for Margaret, but Krain also observes that there were political reasons why the arranged marriage between Esther and Ahaseurus was a parallel to the king and queen’s marriage, which “reinforced the exclusive control of the Spanish Empire by the Hapsburg family.” With Protestants questioning whether the divine endorsement of monarchical lines was passed from father to son, Phillip III may have marshaled the story of Esther as a response to the Protestants; just as God had selected Esther for royalty, the argument would have gone, so was Margaret, Esther’s contemporary protégé, selected by God to be queen.

John Logan Approximates Mark Rothko

18 Shevat 5772 – February 10, 2012

Red By John Logan; directed by Robert Falls; starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews Jan. 20 – March 11, 2012 Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. http://www.arenastage.org

 

One morning, Ken, Mark Rothko’s studio assistant, comes into the studio to fulfill his daily duties of stretching and priming his employer’s canvases. When he turns on the light, he sees Rothko lying on the floor, his arms and hands dunked in buckets of red paint. Rothko sheepishly admits that he had intended to paint, and presumably he fell asleep on the floor instead. Ken brings a wet towel and cleans Rothko up.

The scene, which comes toward the end of John Logan’s script for the play “Red”, is artificial. Ken (Patrick Andrews) is a contrived character, and as far as I know, Rothko (Edward Gero) never fell asleep on the floor of his studio with his arms submerged in red paint. But the scene is a brilliant foreshadowing of the artist’s suicide, when his real assistant, Oliver Steindecker, found Rothko dead on the floor early in the morning on February 25, 1970.

It’s impossible not to connect Ken cleaning Rothko up in the play—particularly after the former had compared one of Rothko’s palette choices to dried blood—with the artist’s real life and sobering suicide. The decision to literally keep the suicide obscene and to reference it metaphorically is both classy and compassionate. It’s just one of several great decisions in the play, which depicts the end of the life and career of Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Vitebsk, the same then-Russian province that produced Marc Chagall.

Patrick Andrews as Ken. Photo by Liz Lauren

At several points, Rothko directs Ken to look at his new works—the so-called Seagram Murals—which are evidently lining the fourth-wall of the theater. Ken silently stares out at the audience, and even as the impatient Rothko rushes Ken to tell him what he sees, Ken keeps pushing back and requesting more time. Sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to feel that Ken is judging both the invisible paintings and the audience. In fact, the silence that Ken temporarily achieves, coupled with the realization that the lights prevent the actor from actually seeing the audience, is arguably the most gripping part of the play.

Rothko’s paintings (the real ones, not those in the set) can be said to command silent attention—even adoration—and Ken’s silent absorption of the canvases becomes unsettling quickly, but it soon calls upon the audience to see itself through Ken’s probing eyes. Sadly, though, the rest of the play is too loud, from Rothko and Ken battling over the record player to Rothko’s incessant nagging and pontificating.

To be fair, Rothko is a difficult artist to interpret. On the one hand, his paintings—hovering clouds of brilliant color—are surely amongst the most sensual works of art, which can be experienced purely on the emotional level. But Rothko was also a careful student of philosophy and art history, evidenced by his posthumously published book, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art(2004), and his other writings, which included an article in the Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, the newsletter of one of the schools where he taught.

Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as Ken. Photo by Liz Lauren.

There isn’t necessarily a conflict between academic and expressionist painting, and there’s no reason why Rothko’s art cannot and should not appeal to viewers on both an intellectual and an emotional level. But one can choose to emphasize one or the other when discussing Rothko’s work, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that the script of “Red” depicted a didactic and preachy old painter, whose artistic vision was simplistic at best.

The script devoted a good deal of lines to Rothko’s aversion to the color black, and his fear that it could overpower his red forms—which one got the sense were his favorites, particularly given the underscoring of the play title. But aside from throwing around the word “pulsating” a few times and using various metaphors for paintings being “alive” and “moving,” the Rothko character didn’t give a lot of insight into his artistic process and values that got much beyond clichés.

Audience members laughed knowingly and mockingly when Rothko questioned whether Warhol would still hang in museums 100 years later—although the jury must still be out, it’s hard to imagine Warhol disappearing in the next half century—and there were a few grunts of agreement when Ken denounced Rothko as a hypocrite and sell out. The sell out charge was in response to Rothko’s willingness to produce work for a high-end restaurant, and the hypocrite label was a reaction to Rothko’s refusal to acknowledge the value of the younger generation of rebellious artists even as he argued that it was necessarily for every generation of artists to “kill” their predecessors.

Hebrew Bible From Lisbon At The MET

3 Shevat 5772 – January 26, 2012

Lisbon’s Hebrew Bible: Medieval Jewish Art in Context

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exhibited from Nov. 22, 2011–Jan. 16, 2012

http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/cervera-bible

 

Within Shakespeare’s worldview, an assassination like Macbeth’s of King Duncan upset the so-called Great Chain of Being, or the cosmological organizational chart, in which power structures that were clearly articulated could only be disrupted at a cost. Immediately after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire in the murder of Duncan, there is a report from Lennox, a lord, that nature itself seems to be suffering the repercussions of the assassination (though Lennox doesn’t yet know that Duncan has been killed).

: Joseph the Frenchman, artist; Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan, scribe. Hebrew Bible. Concluding page of the book of Deuteronomy. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment. Painted and written 1299–1300 in Spain.

“The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say, Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion and confused events New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird

Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth Was feverous and did shake,” Lennox testifies.

To which Macbeth responds, no doubt troubled, “’Twas a rough night.” Lennox adds passionately, “My young remembrance cannot parallel A fellow to it.”

The natural consequences of the disruption of the divinely-ordained order aren’t unlike biblical accounts—as in Leviticus 18:25—of the defiled land of Canaan “vomiting out” the sinners. It’s almost as if the holy land is physically allergic to sin, and the response is biological rather than spiritual. It is perhaps within this larger kind of framework that Joseph the Frenchman (Yosef ha-Tzorfati) illuminated the final paragraphs of the book of Deuteronomy, which details the death of Moses.

Joseph the Frenchman, artist; Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan, scribe. Hebrew Bible. Signature Page. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment. Painted and written 1299–1300 in Spain.

The late 13th century manuscript, the Cervera Bible, a designated National Treasure from the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon, which was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shows two monsters (“grotesques”) flanking the last lines of the text. In fact, the triangular regions occupied by the monsters become mountains—albeit mountains with floral peaks—that invade the textual region of the page. It’s almost as if the art is trying to slow the text down to keep Moses alive (at least textually) as long as possible. Or, since Moses’ death is recorded on the first line of the column, the scribe and the artist might have wanted to draw out the accolades of the prophet’s life as long as possible.

Beside the text is a lion, which the Metropolitan Museum show describes as sleeping in a tower. The label is correct when it points out that lions were “a favored device in both Jewish and Christian art” and that in Jewish art “they often served as a symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah.” I wonder why the lion is sleeping, though, if its head seems to be lifted and its eyes are open. Lions of course could also be symbols of the tribe of Dan (which has an image of a lion whelp in one of its blessings) and of Samson, who wrestled a lion to death.

Joseph the Frenchman, artist; Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan, scribe. Hebrew Bible. Text on Hebrew Grammar. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment. Painted and written 1299–1300 in Spain.

In this instance, one wonders if the reference in the text to Joshua, who would succeed Moses as the leader and prophet, is paralleled by the lion, which might allude to Joshua’s partner, Caleb. While most of their contemporaries were killed for trusting the ill report of the spies, Caleb and Joshua opposed the evil spies and were thus spared. Perhaps the illuminator and scribe wanted, here, to show the transfer of power from Moses to Joshua, Caleb, and others. The curtain behind the lion might also be significant if it refers to the curtain (parochet) in the Tabernacle or Temple, which separated the Holy region from the Holy of Holies. In that case, the lion might either symbolize the divine, or someone communicating with the divine, who is hidden on the other side of the curtain.

On another page of the Bible, the artist Joseph the Frenchman devotes significant real estate to signing his work. As the Metropolitan Museum label points out, artists rarely identified themselves in medieval manuscripts, let alone using an entire (costly) page for their signature. But here Joseph writes—in playful grotesques arranged in the form of Hebrew letters: “I, Yosef ha-Tzorfati, this book [have] I drawn and completed.” In the Stars of David on the right page, the artist circumscribed a lion and a castle, the symbols of the kingdoms of Leon and Castile, where, the Metropolitan Museum curators speculate, the patron may have lived. It’s worth noting that the castle and the lion are also the symbols of the tribes of Simeon and Judah.

In Search Of South African Jewish Art

1 Shevat 5772 – January 24, 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?

9 Tevet 5772 – January 4, 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

20 Kislev 5772 – December 15, 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.

Jewish Depictions Of Hell

19 Heshvan 5772 – November 16, 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.

David Levine, 1924

5 Shevat 5770 – January 20, 2010

At a parent-teacher conference, one of my high school bible instructors told my mother I was well behaved and sat quietly in the back of the room. “If he is sitting quietly in class,” my mother assured the rabbi, “he is either reading a book or drawing.” She was right. My primary high school achievements were my ravenous readings of philosophy and literature and the few hundred copies I made of David Levine’s brilliant pen-and-ink caricatures, which filled several sketchbooks. I was too young to get most of his political references, but when they were explained to me, I laughed genuinely and hysterically.

 

Even after I moved to New York, it never occurred to me to look Levine up in the phonebook. He was a role model and one of my greatest inspirations, and I assumed that he was inaccessible. I had no way of knowing how kind and humble he was. Then I met artist Mark Podwal, a close friend of Levine’s, at an event at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, and he encouraged me to make the call.

 

David Levine. Ben Gurion.

 

 

I still remember the phone call. I was sitting at a computer in the office of the Yeshiva University Commentator. When Levine picked up, I told him I learned how to draw portraits by trying in vain to copy his meticulous cross-hatching. Though I was sure the artist who published thousands of drawings and paintings in the New York Review of Books and in publications like The New Yorker and Time had better things to do with his time, he shocked me by agreeing to an interview right then. After the shock wore off, chutzpah kicked in; I told him I wanted to meet in person. To my surprise, he was giving me his address in Brooklyn and telling me to stop by the next week.

 

Levine gave me more than two hours of his time, and actually looked at and critiqued every single one of the 100 or so of my drawings in the sketch book I brought. He very kindly told me that he preferred my copy of his Ezra Pound (which I drew without lifting my Rapidograph pen) to the original. Needless to say, there was no comparison.

 

There have been many fine articles about Levine over the past few weeks (Michael Kimmelman’s in The New York Times and Steven Heller’s piece “The Da Vinci of Caricaturists” are personal favorites), and readers can find out plenty about him by reading his bio on the Review of Books page, where many of his drawings are available. Amongst those drawings are dozens of images of Jewish and Israeli politicians, actors, artists, intellectuals and other celebrities, many bearing very distinct Jewish symbols.

 

David Levine standing in front of some of his drawings. 2004.

Photo by Menachem Wecker.

 

 

The reason I am writing this column about Levine, though, is not only because I consider him such a great caricaturist (and an even more impressive painter), but also because he was such a great man. Both Levine’s wife Kathy Hayes and his son Matthew Levine told me that Levine, despite the biting humor of his drawings, “truly loved his species.” Levine’s art was always blunt, but he was neither petty nor vicious.

 

Hayes told me that her husband’s lap was always full of art books, even if the television was on, and that he impressed her with the humor of his non-sequiturs – in his conversation, not his drawings. The first time she went to Europe with her husband, Hayes said, they went to Notre Dame. Hayes remembers being blown away by the art, while Levine, looking up at a painting high up on the wall, loudly complained of its water damage and the poor lighting.

 

According to Matthew Levine, his father was not religiously observant, but “I do know that he loved being Jewish.” Levine also “relished Yiddishisms that he liked to say,” said Matthew, and he loved his mother’s geshmirte matzoh. “He was deeply supportive of Israel in some senses, and deeply critical in others.”

 

Although Levine told me that he did not think Hitler could be depicted properly in a caricature, because the medium would invariably distort Hitler and play into his favor, Levine drew Hitler dozens of time. One reference to Hitler might escape many viewers.

 

 

David Levine. Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s dance. 1970.

 

 

According to Podwal, Levine’s drawing of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (which appears on page 11 of Levine’s book Pens and Needles), both dressed in military uniforms and doing a dance with their hands on their hips, alludes to Hitler’s bizarre dance on June 21, 1940, after accepting France’s surrender.

 

Although the dance upset many Americans at the time, it was later revealed that the video clip of Hitler dancing had been manipulated for propagandist purposes. As John Lukacs explains in his book, The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, John Grierson, a Canadian filmmaker and “propaganda official,” took several images of Hitler, including one with a high step, and “looped” them together to make it appear that Hitler had danced a “silly little jig.”

 

Adolf Hitler’s alleged dance. Germany. October 1940. LIFE.

 

 

Lukacs cites an account of the jig being shown in a Berlin movie theater in 1940, which suggests some version of the dance may have been real – “Were the Germans so stupid as to show the American version of the newsreel?” Lukacs wonders – but either way, Podwal says Levine was probably unaware that the jig was a hoax. Irrespective of the historicity of the dance, Levine incorporated it into the drawing, although he knew full well that few people were likely to recognize it. It often seems to me that Levine achieved something in his caricatures not unlike what James Joyce accomplished in his writings.

 

“David was in such a class by himself that over the last decade or so, he was to some degree, taken for granted. The New York Times failed to review his more recent Forum Gallery exhibitions. Museums would not give him exhibitions he more than merited,” says Podwal. “Nevertheless, his work will remain a mirror of our time – just like the drawings of Thomas Nast.”

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

David Levine, 1924 – 2009: A Satirist Who Loved His Species

5 Shevat 5770 – January 20, 2010
At a parent-teacher conference, one of my high school bible instructors told my mother I was well behaved and sat quietly in the back of the room. “If he is sitting quietly in class,” my mother assured the rabbi, “he is either reading a book or drawing.” She was right. My primary high school achievements were my ravenous readings of philosophy and literature and the few hundred copies I made of David Levine’s brilliant pen-and-ink caricatures, which filled several sketchbooks. I was too young to get most of his political references, but when they were explained to me, I laughed genuinely and hysterically.

 

Even after I moved to New York, it never occurred to me to look Levine up in the phonebook. He was a role model and one of my greatest inspirations, and I assumed that he was inaccessible. I had no way of knowing how kind and humble he was. Then I met artist Mark Podwal, a close friend of Levine’s, at an event at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, and he encouraged me to make the call.

 


David Levine. Ben Gurion.

 

 

I still remember the phone call. I was sitting at a computer in the office of the Yeshiva University Commentator. When Levine picked up, I told him I learned how to draw portraits by trying in vain to copy his meticulous cross-hatching. Though I was sure the artist who published thousands of drawings and paintings in the New York Review of Books and in publications like The New Yorker and Time had better things to do with his time, he shocked me by agreeing to an interview right then. After the shock wore off, chutzpah kicked in; I told him I wanted to meet in person. To my surprise, he was giving me his address in Brooklyn and telling me to stop by the next week.

 

Levine gave me more than two hours of his time, and actually looked at and critiqued every single one of the 100 or so of my drawings in the sketch book I brought. He very kindly told me that he preferred my copy of his Ezra Pound (which I drew without lifting my Rapidograph pen) to the original. Needless to say, there was no comparison.

 

There have been many fine articles about Levine over the past few weeks (Michael Kimmelman’s in The New York Times and Steven Heller’s piece “The Da Vinci of Caricaturists” are personal favorites), and readers can find out plenty about him by reading his bio on the Review of Books page, where many of his drawings are available. Amongst those drawings are dozens of images of Jewish and Israeli politicians, actors, artists, intellectuals and other celebrities, many bearing very distinct Jewish symbols.

 


David Levine standing in front of some of his drawings. 2004.

Photo by Menachem Wecker.

 

 

The reason I am writing this column about Levine, though, is not only because I consider him such a great caricaturist (and an even more impressive painter), but also because he was such a great man. Both Levine’s wife Kathy Hayes and his son Matthew Levine told me that Levine, despite the biting humor of his drawings, “truly loved his species.” Levine’s art was always blunt, but he was neither petty nor vicious.

 

Hayes told me that her husband’s lap was always full of art books, even if the television was on, and that he impressed her with the humor of his non-sequiturs – in his conversation, not his drawings. The first time she went to Europe with her husband, Hayes said, they went to Notre Dame. Hayes remembers being blown away by the art, while Levine, looking up at a painting high up on the wall, loudly complained of its water damage and the poor lighting.

 

According to Matthew Levine, his father was not religiously observant, but “I do know that he loved being Jewish.” Levine also “relished Yiddishisms that he liked to say,” said Matthew, and he loved his mother’s geshmirte matzoh. “He was deeply supportive of Israel in some senses, and deeply critical in others.”

 

Although Levine told me that he did not think Hitler could be depicted properly in a caricature, because the medium would invariably distort Hitler and play into his favor, Levine drew Hitler dozens of time. One reference to Hitler might escape many viewers.

 

 


David Levine. Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s dance. 1970.

 

 

According to Podwal, Levine’s drawing of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (which appears on page 11 of Levine’s book Pens and Needles), both dressed in military uniforms and doing a dance with their hands on their hips, alludes to Hitler’s bizarre dance on June 21, 1940, after accepting France’s surrender.

 


Although the dance upset many Americans at the time, it was later revealed that the video clip of Hitler dancing had been manipulated for propagandist purposes. As John Lukacs explains in his book, The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, John Grierson, a Canadian filmmaker and “propaganda official,” took several images of Hitler, including one with a high step, and “looped” them together to make it appear that Hitler had danced a “silly little jig.”

 


Adolf Hitler’s alleged dance. Germany. October 1940. LIFE.

 

 

Lukacs cites an account of the jig being shown in a Berlin movie theater in 1940, which suggests some version of the dance may have been real – “Were the Germans so stupid as to show the American version of the newsreel?” Lukacs wonders – but either way, Podwal says Levine was probably unaware that the jig was a hoax. Irrespective of the historicity of the dance, Levine incorporated it into the drawing, although he knew full well that few people were likely to recognize it. It often seems to me that Levine achieved something in his caricatures not unlike what James Joyce accomplished in his writings.

 

“David was in such a class by himself that over the last decade or so, he was to some degree, taken for granted. The New York Times failed to review his more recent Forum Gallery exhibitions. Museums would not give him exhibitions he more than merited,” says Podwal. “Nevertheless, his work will remain a mirror of our time – just like the drawings of Thomas Nast.”


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

The Insecure Prophet: Walking A Mile In Nathan’s Shoes

15 Elul 5767 – August 29, 2007

David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes


By Joel Cohen


HiddenSpring, 2007, $16.00


www.hiddenspringbooks.com



 

 

         When the prophet Nathan woke up in the morning and saw his to-do list for the day – rebuke the king of Israel for his sin with Bathsheba – did he hit his snooze alarm and try, like the prophet Jonah, to shirk his duty? Did he dress in the normal way and eat his breakfast, or did he deny himself his regular routine to get a head start on mourning his solemn duty and David’s imminent punishment?

 

         As Joel Cohen’s new book, David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes, correctly points out, “We will never know if, when Nathan condemned the King of Israel, the forebear of Messiah, the Prophet coarsely pressed his finger to the warrior’s chest, or spoke to the King in discreet privacy, whether tears rolled down the Prophet’s cheek when he spoke, or whether Nathan was so repulsed by the sinful conduct of David that he simply ‘pronounced sentence’ on the King, and turned his back to walk away.”

 

 


Book jacket. Photo courtesy of Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.

 

 

         The Bible simply does not find it necessary to give its readers these sorts of details. To Cohen, a partner at the New York law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who has recently published several “creative non-fiction” memoirs from the perspectives of biblical characters, “only the human imagination can be invoked to suppose what actually transpired beyond the sparse words delegated in the text – and no one man’s imagination is better than another’s in furnishing, for him, that which remains unstated.”

 

         Just because the Bible does not describe every detail in every narrative episode, does not mean that it insists (or even encourages) its readers flatten the characters in their minds. Biblical characters were human and, as such, exhibited personalities. And yet some of their deeds are solidified in the Bible, while others are left to the reader’s imagination.

 

         Notably, the thoughts and actions of women in the Bible are likewise reserved for readers’ imaginations. The Bible offers no words on what went through Bathsheba’s mind when David approached her. Surely, she must have known that if she refused the king’s wishes she might be put to death. And yet, adultery is a sin that is considered so terrible that one must choose it over death. Some say that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, would have surely served her a conditional set of divorce papers called a “get l’mafrayah,” which would effectively declare that if Uriah never returned from war, the divorce would retroactively have begun from the moment he left. (This strategy was designed to avoid allowing the wife to become an agunah or a woman who must remain faithful to her husband whose whereabouts are unknown.) But the situation is far more complicated, for if that were the case, Bathsheba could not yet have known that Uriah would not return from war, even if David was already considering his plot to abandon him to enemy fire on the front lines.

 

         A cursory examination of commentators yields very little discussion of Bathsheba’s role in the story. There seems to be unanimous agreement that she has not sinned and is not punished for any sin, though the death of the baby surely punishes her as much as it does David – if not more so. Cohen’s book tangentially addresses Bathsheba’s thoughts (to date, Cohen’s books have focused exclusively on male biblical characters), focusing instead on another relatively quiet and mysterious biblical character, the prophet Nathan.

 

         Cohen conceived of the idea for his book on the morning of the unveiling of his father’s gravesite. His father was named Nathan, and “he too was a very disciplined man willing to ‘speak truth to power,'” as the prophet Nathan did to David. “On the morning of the unveiling of his gravesite, I looked for the hallmark of the prophet Nathan’s life to find something to say about my father in the context of his namesake. And there it was: precisely how my father would go about getting someone to admit his wrongdoing,” Cohen said over e-mail.

 

 

 


Joel Cohen. Photo courtesy of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

 

 

         In Cohen’s book, Nathan considers playing hooky – like Jonah. “And who is he who dared condemn David? Just a wrinkled man who arrogantly pointed his finger to the King’s chest and told the King who might so easily have killed him as he did Goliath, Uriah the Hittite, and so many others, that the King is an adulterer and murderer,” says Cohen’s self-conscious Nathan. “Why must these visions be placed in my eyes? And, again, do I sin to quarrel with G-d’s plan for me?”

 

         Not only does Nathan wonder why he has received prophecies, but he also wonders why G-d sends him to rebuke David and condemn his family, rather than delivering the prophecy directly to David – himself a prophet. And yet Nathan tells David what he does not know himself, namely that he has sinned to G-d. Cohen’s Nathan recounts the moments after he levels the accusation, “You are the man!” – connecting David with the parable about the rich man who steals the pauper’s only lamb.

 

         “Decades, it seemed, passed during which the King’s silence deafened me. Perhaps, while I still stood before him, the great psalmist would compose those lofty words for which he was so much heralded. Or perhaps he would continue to say nothing. Perhaps, he would simply dispense with me and ask to be left to his thoughts or other duties of state – all the while maintaining a bold exterior. But, in an instant, the words came quickly without embellishment: ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ There was nothing else to say. Nothing else worth saying! And to reveal, at that moment, my own sadness in having told David his punishment would detract from my duty as G-d’s messenger.”

 

         But more ambitiously, Cohen allows Nathan to reflect upon the very nature of receiving a prophecy. “But as the nighttime approaches, I wonder about my role in all of this, and the role of prophecy,” Nathan thinks, as David lies on his deathbed. “In describing to him some of the bleak future that lay before David, both in his lifetimes and thereafter, I offered no ability to right his wrongs, and possessed none. All I imparted was the ability to reject my parable, or to acknowledge that he was the loathsome ‘rich man’ I had described.” Cohen’s observation captures the reason why biblical kings so often despised the prophets – seeing them always as harbingers of evil and a dark future, as part of the problem without any advice for a solution.

 

         This surely affected prophets when they were charged with a vision. When he is told to deliver water to the Jews in the desert, Moses epitomizes this when he tells G-d he fears them. “In just a little bit, they shall kill me.” He must have known he was untouchable and still indispensable in the divine plan of redemption, but part of the human condition (as opposed to, say, the angelic one), is the doubts and tricks of the mind that surface. This is regardless of the presence of convincing arguments indicating that all is well. In that light, one can now better understand Jonah’s fear in telling an entire city that it was doomed. The Book of Jonah makes very clear that G-d was dissatisfied with Jonah and punished him through the solicitation of a whale. But it is vital to remember that prophets, despite their extraordinary gift of vision, remain men and are not divine. Any other perspective would be idolatrous.

 

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-insecure-prophet-walking-a-mile-in-nathans-shoes/2007/08/29/

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