Western, Ethnic, Jewish Art – What’s Your Gift?

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by: Shimona Tzukernik

A couple of years ago, I conducted an interview with Mel Alexenberg, then Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute. He traced archetypes of creative expression back to the book of Genesis, meandering past the Giving of the Torah and deep into the Sanctuary whose construction we read of in this week’s Torah portion.
The first paragon of Jewish art resides, according to Alexenberg, in the Biblical persona of Noach. His three sons each exemplify a different sense modality, the specific interaction of which generates the Torah ideal of beauty. When spelled in reverse, noach reads chen, meaning grace or beauty. And chen itself is an acronym for chochmat nistar, hidden wisdom. Thus the word may be more properly understood as denoting inner beauty.
Of Noach’s three sons, we read, “God shall enlarge Yaphet. He shall dwell in the tents of Shem and Cham shall be their servant.”[1] The name Yaphet, the progenitor of Greek and Western civilization, is related to the word yafa, visible or surface beauty. Shem is related to the word shmia, or hearing, and Cham to chomer, or matter and tactility. Just as the family of Noach included the three of his sons, so too chen, true artistic beauty must incorporate each of these modalities, the visual and aural, and their manifestation in the physical world.

For the Jewish people at the foothills of Sinai, the world of the spiritual was as concrete as that of the physical.

In the art of different cultures, one or other of these modalities tends to dominate. Ethnic art is largely tactile and utilitarian, albeit symbolic and conceptual. It is art that requires a close proximity and interaction between object and observer. The principal modality of Western art is visual, necessitating a certain distance between the work and its viewer. And the art of Arabian countries, according to Alexenberg, functions primarily in an auditory modality. “Its symbol, the crescent, echoes the domes of its architecture, which like the repetitive fluid patterns, envelop one like sound.” The concept of hearing is actually embodied in the name of the father of the Arabian people, “Yishmael”, which means, “God hears.” Though the art of each of these cultures necessarily employs all modalities, in each case there is one that emerges to the fore.

Jewish art, Chen, requires a union of modalities, an equal incorporation of the visual, aural and material. An example of this complex relationship between sight and sound emerges from a close study of the Biblical narrative of the Giving of the Torah. Our commentators explain that at this climactic moment, occurring after years of oppression and their miraculous departure from Egypt, the people heard that which was normally seen and saw that which was usually heard. By and large, physical reality is perceived visually, and that which is more abstract is sensed aurally. Thus the implication of this kinesthetic inversion is that for the Jewish people at the foothills of Sinai, the world of the spiritual was as real and concrete as that of the physical.

That the senses of sight and hearing are understood to be intimately connected with the faculty of comprehension is evidenced explicitly in other places in Jewish writings. For example, asked at Mount Sinai if they would accept and follow the laws contained in the Bible, the Jewish people responded, “We will do and we will hear, “ which our Rabbis interpret to mean, “We will do and then we will come to understand.” Seeing too is not always understood as limited to surface perception. It is associated with insight. “Some people,” says Alexenberg, “see the external and hear the internal. In Judaism, the opposite is true. Panim, “face” and P’nim, “internal” are the same word.” This dynamic interplay between seeing, hearing and understanding of both surface and interior, is reflected in the way the command “understand” is translated in the Talmud and the Zohar. In the Babylonian Talmud (the revealed, legal aspect of oral Jewish tradition) we find the word tashma, “come and hear,” whilst in the Zohar (the concealed, mystical dimension of the Torah, the name itself connoting “glow”) we read tachazeh, “come and see.”


The Temple he built was the epitome of beauty because King Solomon had the ability to penetrate the interior in a way that echoed the the Jewish people’s perception of the spiritual at Mount Sinai.

The union of the aural and visual, a perception that penetrates beyond the surface to the interior, is as essential to Jewish art as it is in its religious literature. This vital interplay between surface and interior existed in the first Temple, one of the most glorious manifestations of multi-sensory Jewish artistic expression. We find it alluded to in the writings of Rashi, a foremost commentator on the Bible of the twelfth century. On the clause, “and God shall dwell in the tents of Shem,” Rashi states that God’s enlarging of Yaphet refers to His enabling Cyrus, of the descendants of Yaphet, to build the Second Temple. Rashi continues, “Nonetheless, there did not dwell in it the Divine Presence. And where did it dwell? In the First Temple, which King Solomon built.”[2] The First Temple is perceived as being on a higher level than the Second precisely because it housed the divine Presence. Yaphet, the visual, no matter how masterful, was not sufficient for creating a complete beauty. King Solomon, one of the most righteous of Jewish leaders, was able to actualize the ideal of “Chen.” The Temple he built was the epitome of beauty, because King Solomon had the ability to penetrate the interior in a way which echoed the Jewish people’s perception of the spiritual at Mount Sinai.

The interplay required in Jewish art is not only one between the different senses, but extends to the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives. This is not surprising given that dynamism is a fundamental aspect of Jewish consciousness in general. As Alexenberg notes, “The first time we read of a Jew, Abraham, in the Bible, is in the portion entitled Lech Lecha. Lalechet meanst to walk or go. The word for Jewish law too, halacha, coming from the same root, reflects this dynamism.” Commenting on an article sent to him by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he points out that the word for spirit, ruach (raysh-vav-chet) and the word for matter, chomer (chet-mem-reysh) are intimately related when inverted since the letters “vav” and “mem” are interchangeable in the Hebrew alphabet. “Unlike certain traditions where you have to renounce physicality in order to attain spirituality, in Judaism they are essentially one. All that changes is one’s angle of vision, the way we perceive. Jewish art is about the spiritual nature of one’s encounter with the physical world.” Since this encounter is constantly changing, so too Jewish art must be ever dynamic and responsive to its surroundings.

Jewish are is a multi-media, all involvement event.

Such dynamism entails an open-endedness and necessity for active involvement on behalf of both artist and viewer which is paralleled in the “happenings” of the art world of some decades back. Happenings attempted to break the passive observance of traditional western art by incorporating the audience into a process or event which was in itself, or out of which rose, a final “artistic product.” Alexenberg contrasts Jewish art with, for example, the more passive process of traditional Western theatre. “Jewish art is a multi-media, all-involvement event.” He perceives the Pesach Seder and the Sukkah as examples of Jewish “happenings.” “We follow a text, the Haggada, at every Seder. There is a narrative flow, but it is not linear in the sense of a classic text. We have the four cups of wine, the children running after the Afikomen, the Charoset, the bitter herbs which bring tears to our eyes. The audience and the performers are the same people. It’s a multi-sensory, multi-media happening. A Sukkah is the same thing. We have a chance to get out of the house, the world, civilization…and observe. Yet we are inside and outside at the same time. I remember discussing with Alan Kaplan, innovator of the first happening, as to how he developed the concept. It grew organically…I mentioned to him the parallels between happenings and the Pesach Seder and he saw the correspondences. Having himself sat around a Seder table, he subconsciously had the parameters of a happening there all the time.”

This idea of “happenings” in Jewish art has its original root in the building of the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary built by the Jews in the desert upon leaving Egypt. It is the paradigmatic happening. In the Mishkan is embodied the totality of service to God which was played out through the smell of the incense, the eating of sacrifices and the splendor of its visual objects. The Mishkan however, is more than a happening. It establishes not only the form, but also focus of Jewish art. Out Rabbis teach that from the textual juxtaposition of the Biblical portions describing the construction of the Mishkan and injunction to keep the Sabbath; we learn that the types of work that were involved in this construction are precisely those that are forbidden on the Sabbath. On the seventh day, we abstain from our creative activities to realize that we too have been created. The day serves to humble us to that we may reorient and purify our weekly actions. The Mishkan’s association with the Sabbath infuses Jewish are with these concepts. The Mishkan was the quintessential creative endeavor, the work of man solely for the service of God. As the essential prototype of Jewish art, the Mishkan then reminds us of the imperative to direct our creativity away from narcissism, away from the creation of art for the sake of art alone, towards the higher goal of revealing the spiritual in the physical, the ruach in the chomer. This is the true purpose of Jewish art – and life.
[1] Genesis 9:27
[2] Rashi on Genesis 9:27

Hot-Ice for Channukah

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A Lesson in Metaphysics from a Street Drain, Hot Ice, and the Chanuka Flames

Marion Place surrounded a wild field where scorpions roamed and hardi-ha birds nested. We lived at number 66 and the field was our other playground. I loved the rawness of the place. There were large stones on which to sit and dream, and places to hide in play. The street circled the field like a belt. Beneath it ran a drain gutter. Etched in my memory like scratches in the tar is the recollection of lowering my body into the channel, raising my hands to receive the pushcart passed to me, taking my seat and gazing down the tube whose only light came from rain drains up above. G-d knows what could have been if the heavens opened and flooded the intestine of the road. But time and again I took off, racing faster and faster down the hill, fleeting beneath the slatted light, and finally curving to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Then the long walk back and the haul out. Each ride was always a first!

The upside of the street held its pleasures too. Sitting on the rubber tire swing, we read stories about children who sold lemonade on the curb. They were stories of other lands. No one really passed Marion Place other than the people who lived there. And no one was interested in buying lemonade, or the biscuits we baked. But that didn’t stop us from setting up our stand. And then we’d wait, like Charlie Brown, for the elusive customer who never came.

What children did buy was ice-cream. The ice-cream man rode by most afternoons. His skin burnished deep and dark. He rode a bike to which a large box was attached at the front. It was filled with hot ice. Playing on the front lawn, shaded by a garden-bed packed tight with aloes and stralitzias, we’d hear his bell. It was a tin manual one, strapped with string to the handlebar. Inside the darkness of the box his ice smoked, its metallic smell mixed with that of the sugars and chocolates of the ice creams. Oh how good it was to dip my hand into the black space and pull up wrappers of different colors, searching for the chocolate cone, the orange sorbet, the milky bar…

It was a Sunday when I learned how hot the cold was. Dad offered the ice-cream man some extra pennies for a chunk of the stuff and cut a deal. He pulled on the work gloves tucked into his pocket and lifted the ice from the darkness. It smoked white and hard against the backdrop of his shirt, then past the shrubbery and along the red brick wall that skirted the driveway.

“Come see,” he said, walking towards the pool.

He was our Pied Piper, leading us to the water that glistened beneath the sun. Smells of chlorine and fermenting peaches mingled in the air.

“Let me touch Dad, let me touch”

“Careful, it burns”

“No ways,” I bounced, reaching my hand out.

It sure did, sticking to my skin and holding it as I pulled back in surprise.

“Step away,” he said, flinging the ice into the water.

Boom! It exploded in an instant, a white volcanic eruption right there in the very water we splashed about in noon-after-long-African-afternoon. Our mild pool, reserved for gentle play, or spirited dives and games of Marco-Polo at most, was spewing forth hot vents as if it were a deep dark ocean bed. Bubbles burst to the surface and popped open from the blue below. It fascinated me that something so cold worked like fire. The ice burned a memory within me.

It was one of those days you don’t get the full significance of until later. I frequently return to the black tar and the open veld. To the street’s underbelly with its slatted light. To memories of my father. I am standing poolside and the ice is burning, bubbling. It frightens me. And it excites me. Was it that even then at the age of ten I intuited the questions I would only articulate with the weight of a couple more years? Are things as they appear to be? Or is everything also its opposite? Is heat hot? Or is it cold as well? Is ice fire? And am I no-thing?

I think of that day and ponder most deeply how each thing contains its opposite as I sit before the fluttering glow of the Chanuka lights and our children twirl their dreidels, tossing hazel nuts at each other across the floor. I gaze at the flames. They are born of oil rather than wax and glow gold against the doorway, luminously balancing the mezuzah which shines behind my back. They pull me in to their glimmer. At the epicenter float black cords – silent charred strands blacker than night. Yet it is this darkness that feeds the fire. Each wick is framed by a purple light itself surrounded by a pale light, and then ephemerally framed by a halo hovering between matter and spirit. I look at the flames and then I’m standing at the pool watching the ice burn. Just as that moment was soaked with contradiction; it jars my mind that the black wick is the core of the plasma and halo. How is so much light and such radiance born of the charred stuff? And how is it that the fire is hottest right there where the wick is dying?

In some way gliding on my rocker with the lights on low as the flames multiply night to night, I sense I am sitting before the secrets I spend my life in search of. The flames are a parable not only of my body and soul but also of my purpose. The black wick is my body, the flame is the G-dliness my labors of love generate, and the oil the Divine deeds enacted each day that fuel the fire.

The body sweats and excretes, desires pleasure, decays and dies. Even in its prime it proclaims its limits. It is black in death and albeit pink, is black in birth. But the inner dimension of that darkness is brilliance. It is shining luminescent G-dliness. With my body I birthed our children. My wick is the fulcrum from which I host guests, give charity, wipe a bleeding nose, sweep the floor, light the lamps. My body serves my life just as the wick serves the flame. In the same way that the cotton cord is the anchor for the light so too is my physical existence the anchor and support for my entire existence.

The world itself, the very matter I engage with, is also a wick. Black beans. Black table. Black fruit which even in its robust sweetness is decaying. A world of wicks. The universe is matter that in and of itself is dense and dark even as it is pleasurable. But – and this is the crux of it all – when I use that world in service of the Divine, it becomes a source for Divine radiance. This is our deepest purpose. To be lamplighters.

Lest the light die quickly, I feed the flame with oil. The fuel for G-dly light is the acts my Creator charges me with: Take a citron with a palm frond, some willows and a sprig of myrtle. Wave it just so. And lo and behold, Divine light. Take the skin of an animal, tan it fine. Take ink and write the following words on the leather. Lo and behold, Divine light. Take money and give it to someone in need. Lo and behold, Divine light!

So dark is light, and black matter is G-dliness. Each thing is transmutable. The principal holds true for every act mandated by G-d. A mitzvah is a candle. But the two mitzvot that most embody this principal are the Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Both shine forth the secret that counter-intuitively each entity holds within itself its contrary dimension. Each shines forth the message that the darkness of matter is in essence Divine light when properly channeled. Beside the menorah, our children play. The dreidel spins…Everything is in motion, each thing is itself and simultaneously its opposite. The oil has become flames and the flames are light and the light is the desire of G-d. G-d’s presence is hovering manifest in our dining room, shining at us from the cups of oil.

This notion that matter can be transformed is uniquely Jewish. That’s why it so irked the Greeks. “You want to philosophize? Fine. Go ahead and indulge in pleasure. But don’t come telling us that you can take a wick and turn it into a holy flame. Don’t spew nonsense proclaiming that oil squeezed from a bitter olive can be sacred!” And so, in violent reaction to the radical notion that ice is fire and black is light and matter is Divine, they ransacked the Temple looking for…for what?! For cruses of oil! They would not, could not have us calling out that either physical pleasure or philosophical inquiry or anything in between can be G-dly.

A small group of radicals persevered. They were the visionaries of their generation. They knew the secrets of ice and fire and light. And their entirely non-logical relationship to reality undid an entire army bent on their destruction. They lived from the place of the impossible. Their grasp of the contradictions inherent in reality enabled them to re-invent the way people saw themselves. They gave us back our access to the wondrous principal, “Let there be light.” At the very outset of the creative process, “in the beginning,” G-d told us our mandate was to bring forth the light from all the chaos. The Maccabees took that command and ran with it. The G-dliness they generated captured the primordial vision of G-d and still shines forth from each Chanukah candelabra lit anywhere on the globe. Let there be light.

With this point I can risk the death of my ego. Let it burn! The death will be a birth. Through the surrender of selfhood and in giving over our personal willfulness to the will of G-d, we generate light. We do not have to hold on to the external form of reality. Entering the hidden opposite dimension sets us free. Existence is transmutable. When I think of Marion Place, I realize that the drain belly of that crescent was as sweet for me as the ice-cream lying in the box above. And the tar was as black as the belly. It was always the same street, just top and bottom. Both were dark and both were sweet. Even in the bowels, there was a thrill. Even in the cold, damp darkness the pushcart raced beneath the grids of light and filled my heart with heated joy.

This article was originally published on www.thejewishwoman.org. If you’re a writer, submit your work to the editor Sarah Esther Crispe here.