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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Near Eastern’

Echoing Vishniak: Ahron Weiner’s Photographic Pilgrimages to Uman

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine

Photographs by Ahron D. Weiner

Through August 15, 2011

The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, Congregation Rodeph Shalom

615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia



At first glance, the chassid in Ahron Weiner’s “In Memorial” looks like he may be wearing an earring on his right ear, which is framed by his dark brown side curl. Further inspection reveals the ear is in silhouette, and the “earring” is indeed white light cast by one of the many memorial candles he contemplates – tributes to the tens of thousands of Jews of Uman murdered in the 18th century and nearly two centuries later by the Nazis.


The ear of the chassidic man with the white knitted kippa is not literally pierced, but it might as well be. The photograph is one of 29 by Hewlett, N.Y.-based artist Weiner, who first visited Uman, the central Ukrainian city and burial place of chasidic master Rabi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), with his father in 2004. Weiner, who was raised modern orthodox and “borderline yeshivish,” says he was a teenager when his father took an interest in Rabi Nachman’s teachings and traveled to Uman twice in the 1990s.




In Memorial. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.



        A lover of travel and curious to see what the Umani scene was like, Weiner agreed to accompany his father in 2004. “The experience was nice,” he says. “I didn’t think I was planning to go back until I developed my film and saw images that echoed what Vishniak shot in his travels across pre-war Eastern Europe.” He returned for Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages for the next five years and documented his trips. Weiner’s gallery titled “Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine” on his website contains 129 photographs.


Weiner has described the pilgrimage experience as “”Mount Sinai meets Woodstock,” and his photographs corroborate that characterization.


           “Overhead” shows about 75 people packed into the picture frame like sardines. Umani pilgrimages, it would seem, are not for the claustrophobic. But they are for just about any other type of person, as Weiner explained to Ezra Glinter and Nate Lavey of the Forward. In the picture, Weiner said, all sorts of Jews can be found, from those wearing black hats to baseball caps to those with bare heads. (One has to take his word for it; everyone in the photograph seems to have at least some kind of head covering.)




Overhead. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.



Weiner’s perspective, quite literally and figuratively, is laden with religious meaning. Some of his bird’s-eye-perspective photographs were taken from an enclosure meant to keep Kohanim safely away from tombstones. Weiner and his camera were peering out from a space reserved to keep priests holy into places of death and sad memories. Talk about echoing the works of Roman Vishniac!


He also framed the project with a quote from Rabi Nachman, said to have been delivered on his deathbed. “Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman], recites the 10 Psalms and gives even as little as a penny to charity,” he translated the chasidic sage, “then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power – spanning the length and breadth of creation – to cleanse and protect him. By his very payos [sidelocks], I will pull him out of hell!”



Pastoral. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.



“This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult, annual pilgrimage to Uman,” he writes.

If “Pastoral” is any indication, those men encounter stunning scenery. But as the men and boys lounge on the riverbank and glide in a rowboat, there is an ominous reminder that the Jewish presence in Uman has not always been a joyous one. A young boy on the far left holds a toy gun, and faux weapons can be found in other photographs in the series.


Weiner explains that it’s a Breslov custom for fathers to bring their young sons. “The Ukrainians sell lots of plastic toy guns, so yes, there are lots and lots of kids running around with plastic replica guns, shooting plastic BBs at each other,” he says. “All in good fun.”


“Dance” is certainly an image that is all fun, however intense the dancers’ gaze is. Four men lock hands and dance, though it’s worth noting the asymmetry of their dance. One dancer holds a prayer book in his hand, which sets the tone for the other dancers – more of a single file chain than a circle. The fourth man might not even be dancing.



Dance. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.



Though the dancers’ movements are blurred, the shadows they cast are clear. One gets the sense that what Weiner is after – and perhaps all the pilgrims too – lies in shadows rather than solid form.


William Rimmer’s gorgeous and troubling painting, Flight and Pursuit (1872), which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows a man with a cloak and dagger running through what the MFA website describes as “shadowy and mysterious labyrinth of a chimerical Near Eastern temple or palace.” Although it initially appears as if the man is fleeing his reflection (which appears in the middle of the canvas), there is a large and ominous shadow cast by a form outside the picture frame. One shadow is chasing a second shadow which is chasing a man.


The same formula might work for Weiner’s Uman. The shadows in “Dance” are sharper than the dancing figures, and the same is true of other photographs in the series. For the period of high holidays, tens of thousands of Jews descend on a land of shadows. Like Vishniac, Weiner has done a masterful job of negotiating the boundary where the shadows end and the people begin. Often, it seems, the shadows are cast by such monumental sources that they seem to take on a life of their own, and promise to outlive those who cast them.



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

YU’s Tawil: Achievement Of A Lifetime

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

After more than a decade of devoted research, Hayim Tawil, professor of Hebrew Studies at Yeshiva University (YU), has completed what he describes as his magnum opus. Tawil’s achievement has scholars from across the world lauding his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew as a defining accomplishment in the field of biblical study.

Exploiting the etymological and semantic similarities between biblical Hebrew and Akkadian, the Companion allows for more precise translations of biblical texts. Akkadian, a parallel Semitic language that was prevalent in the ancient Near East, is contemporary to biblical Hebrew, and its discovery has enabled the proper translation of words and terms that eluded biblical scholars for centuries. Unlike biblical Hebrew, which preserved only a limited vocabulary of 8,000 words, Akkadian, which was written on clay tablets, boasts a known vocabulary of close to 50,000 words. As such, the Companion allows for a much clearer understanding of nuanced idioms and terminologies found in biblical texts.

Tawil, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in the fields of Assyriology and Northwest Semitic languages, insisted that he is not an Assyriologist per se, but rather focused his studies on ancient Semitic languages in order to forward his study of the Bible. Tawil, whose Companion was acclaimed by Professor Richard White, a lecturer of Semitic languages at YU, as “the greatest contribution to biblical study published in the past 100 years,” maintains that had another accomplished this scholarly feat previously, there would have been little reason for him to have studied Akkadian at all. Indeed, the Companion was conceived as an aid to biblical scholars and students who did not pose an intimate knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages.

Scholars from around the world are celebrating Tawil’s achievement. Jeffrey Tigay, the Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “It’s a great achievement and a gift to the field.” Shalom Paul, professor emeritus of Bible at the Hebrew University, wrote, “This is a major accomplishment, and one you [Tawil] can be expressly proud of. It is literally a milestone in research, and will be a tremendous benefit to all of us working in these cognate fields of study.” Tawil’s work, which had received considerable praise years prior to its completion, was praised by the late Brandeis University professor Dr. Nahum Sarna, this way: “[Tawil's] work will be of major importance to the study of bible,” and has not only lived up to, but has exceeded expectations.

Though it is certainly the most significant of his academic achievements, the Companion is one of several projects that Tawil is currently engaged in. With the completion of the Companion, Tawil has turned his attention to promulgating the importance of Aleppo Codex, a text critical to the understanding of the transmission of the Masoretic Text of the bible. His research, aimed at sparking popular interest in one of the oldest known biblical manuscripts, is due to be published this year. It is titled, Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex. Tawil is also deeply involved in a new translation of King Solomon’s Song of Songs, due to be published within the next few years.

In addition to his biblical scholarship, Tawil dedicated a considerable number of years to studying and advocating for the Jewish communities of Yemen. His five-year hiatus from academia while serving as chairman of the International Coalition for the Revival of the Jews of Yemen (ICROJOY) nearly derailed his scholarly career. In what Tawil described as being the product of Divine inspiration, he was able to return to his studies and continue producing scholarship at the highest level.

Tawil’s An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew is a critical text for anyone interested in biblical study. It has already garnered a considerable following among both scholars and laymen. This unprecedented and unique scholarly work is published by KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Hayim Tawil (right) holding his new lexicon, together with Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University.

MFA Boston Vs. The Metropolitan Museum: Does The Bible Belong In Art Exhibits?

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC

Hung November 18, 2008-March 15, 2009

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York



Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum

Hung Sept. 21, 2008-Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

465 Huntington Avenue, Boston



When Ephron the Hittite discussed a real estate transaction with Abraham in Genesis 23:10 that would secure the late Sarah a burial plot beside Adam and Eve, what was he wearing? How had Hittite art and interior design changed by the time David secretly sent Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, to the front lines to die in 2 Samuel 11? When Achan – the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah – stole from the booty of the decimated city of Jericho in Joshua 7:1, what color was the Shinarite (Babylonian) cloak that he poached?


These questions sound unusual, not because they are unimportant but because most readers of the Bible treat narrative details like irrelevant filler. But the Bible itself sanctions examinations of archeology and aesthetics. The book of Joshua not only specifies that the garment Achan looted was an “aderet” (loosely, a cloak) rather than pants or shoes, but also that the garment was “tovah,” or beautiful. Why should readers care if it was beautiful if they were not meant to consider its appearance?


The recently completed exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has the opportunity to merge biblical and artistic traditions. But when “Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC” did address the Bible, it did so in local descriptions of a few works rather than in the larger conception of the exhibit. By contrast, a recent exhibit of Assyrian art at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston did a far better job of contextualizing the show. In his introduction to the catalog, Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund director of the MFA, noted that British archaeologist Austen Layard, who uncovered the Assyrian ruins in the 1840s, found artifacts that showed the Lachish siege in Judah (addressed in Joshua 10) on the walls of Sennacherib’s palace and cuneiform tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library with a flood story.



“Advice to the king to stop fasting.” 4 May, 670 BCE From Nineveh. 7 cm x 3.5 cm x 2 cm. MFA exhibit.



The MFA catalog also records a variety of aspects of Assyrian culture that are particularly relevant to Jewish and biblically minded readers. The first traveler to observe the location of the ancient city of Nineveh was the 12th century rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela. Another Layard find yielded an artistic representation of the biblical king Yehu (who surfaces in 2 Kings Chapters 9 and 10) paying tribute to the Assyrian king. And the city of Calah from Genesis 10:11 surfaces in a discussion of the ninth century BCE king Ashurnasirpal II.


The MFA exhibit mentioned the Assyrian sun god Shamash (sure to relate to the Hebrew shemesh, or sun), and it turned to Solomon’s temple and its lion motifs to explain “the splendour of some furniture in the Ancient Near East.” Many of the objects in the exhibit contained texts in Akkadian, a language like Hebrew and Aramaic, and the letters aleph, bet, and gimmel appeared on several of the pieces.


The most interesting piece in the show might have been one that the exhibit did not relate to the Bible. A two-and-a-half-inch tall clay tablet with cuneiform script on it, dating from 670 BCE, offers advice to King Esarhaddon to stop fasting. Balasi and Babu-ahhe-eriba, senior court officials and astronomers, suggest that the king, who was ill, should eat after having fasted for three days. “He should be encouraged,” the catalog translates, “by the fact that Jupiter has just risen heliacally and will be visible for a whole year.”


It is interesting that the MFA, after diligently noting the biblical context to so many of the works, does not make the connection between the piece from the city of Nineveh, the fasting king, and the book of Jonah. According to 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah lived during the time of King Yeroboam, whose life scholars date to the eighth century BCE. After Jonah had petitioned Nineveh to repent, and after the king of Nineveh did indeed call for a public fast (Jonah 3:7), it would make perfect sense for a future king of Nineveh, less than 100 years later, to have kept a tradition of fasting.




Milky chalcedony, perhaps with allusions to the Song of Solomon. 3 cm (h) x 1 cm (d). Mesopotamia, Middle Assyrian, 13th century BCE Pierpont Morgan Library, NY. Metropolitan Exhibit.



Biblical references at the Met’s show are much harder to come by, and emerge only several times in the 450-page catalog. A three-inch tall milky chalcedony from 13th century BCE Middle Assyria – in the collection of New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library – shows a deer jumping in a forest, which could be an “echo” of Song of Solomon 2:8-9, where the narrator’s beloved, compared to “a roe or a young hart,” leaps “upon mountains and skips upon hills.” A 1250-1050 BCE bronze stand, about five inches by four inches by five inches, features an image of a man playing his harp, which might be King David, though it might also be Homer or Kinyras (“the legendary musician-king of Cyrpus”).


A more plausible biblical connection arises in a gold pendant found in the Uluburun shipwreck, a Late Bronze Age ship discovered in Southern Turkey in 1984. The pendants, which contain images of suns and moons, might be the subjects of Isaiah 3:18-23, where the prophet condemns the “haughty” daughters of Zion, who “walk with stretched necks and winking eyes.” God smites the tops of their heads, and also takes away “their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels.”



Medallion with four-rayed star and four curved rays, perhaps referring to quote from Isaiah. 10.3 cm x 11 cm x .1 cm. Uluburun shipwreck. Late Bronze Age, c.a. 1300 BCE Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology, Turkey. Metropolitan exhibit.



The catalog also mentions the cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), which were used to build Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 5:5-6) and the House of the Forest of Lebanon (for which the catalog erroneously cites 1 Kings 11:21 when it means 1 Kings 10:21). Another Solomonic reference might have eluded the curators. Many of the vessels in the Met show have animal imagery, including lions, bulls, ducks, dolphins, dogs, and several kinds of birds. It seems pretty likely that Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre who helped build Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7, was drawing from this tradition when he created the washbasin (called yam, or sea, in the text). The basin rested upon a base, which was made of 12 oxen. The base also had lilies on it (another prominent Near Eastern form), as well as lions.


“Beyond Babylon” must be commended for gathering an important body of Near Eastern art and for its important catalog. But if the exhibit had at least entertained the possibility, as the MFA Boston show did, that the Bible could play an important role in the show’s vision, it could have not only shed more light on some of the pieces, but also brought a new awareness to biblical passages. For example, when the Israelites left Egypt after 10 terrifying plagues, they “borrowed” from their former taskmasters “vessels of gold, vessels of silver, and clothing.” Perhaps the vessels had bull horns on them or were eagle-shaped, and perhaps the clothing included caps with boar tusks woven together as armor. We can only hope that a future show will not be afraid to ask these questions.


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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/03/18/

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