Posts Tagged ‘hoopoe’

On Art And Memory

April 30, 2012

Despite the volumes of analysis, artspeak and criticism that accompany the long history of art, it seems that each generation is compelled to coin new definitions and ‘movements’ for their own artistic expression or at least redefine and clarify existing terms.

From my own experience, the question of what makes art ‘Jewish’ or what is ‘Jewish art’ was raised in the early 80’s during a solo exhibition. In writing his review, the reporter for a local newspaper asked me to define it for his broader audience. He wanted to know whether art was deemed ‘Jewish’ because of its subject matter or because it was made by a Jewish artist. At that moment, I couldn’t say, but I did know that it had to be some combination of both. Only a few days later on December 12, 1982, I’d finished reading Chaim Potok’s 1972 book, My Name Is Asher Lev when an answer came to me that I recorded in one of my journals: ‘Jewish art, regardless of its creator, is what emerges when one is inspired to create art whose imagery is specific to Jewish culture, history, tradition and/or ritual.’ Given my penchant for illustration, my love of stories and growing interest in a faith I was born to but did not deeply observe, that realization would become the touchstone for much of the work I would produce in the ensuing three decades.

As I explored the literature, history and traditions of Judaism, I began to understand how vital art is in the preservation of our collective memories so our descendants may inherit them and pay them forward. When the details of a story have faded with time, an image associated with that story remains the guardian of its essence. By visually encoding its imaginings, traditions and memories, these components are assured a certain immortality that becomes verbally embellished with specific details at each viewing. These thoughts inspired today’s illustration, The Besht’s* Minyan, based on an old, often retold legend of the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him that involved the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer. Afterwards, what he had set out to accomplish was done.

A generation later, when the Maggid**of Mezhyrich was faced with a similar task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers.” And what he prayed for became reality.

In a succeeding generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov too, was faced with the difficult task of ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. Returning to the woods where his ancestors had prayed, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we do know this place in the woods to which it belongs; that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

Finally, in the generation that followed, Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin was called upon to perform the time-worn task of preserving his community, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: ‘we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story on how it was done.”
And the story which he told verified in effect the actions of the previous three sages.

All of which persuades me to conclude that as I continue to interpret the stories that illuminate Jewish history, mysteries and seemingly mundane wisdom, I may be doing my small part to pay forward that vibrant tapestry of ideas into the continuum of who we were, who we are and who we may yet be.

I welcome your questions and interpretations of this image as I look forward to continuing this conversation…

*’Besht'(בעש”ט) is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov. Though later attributed to several of his descendants and disciples, this honorific was originally attributed to the 17th century rabbi Yisroel(Israel)ben Eliezer who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement based on his own spiritual and mystical insights and practices. For further information, Wikipedia offers a lengthier biography and explanation of the Besht’s philosophies at:

**an Eastern European Jewish itinerant preacher of Torah and narrator of religious stories.

The Mystery of Faith And Fortitude

August 18, 2011

This week’s Torah reading, Parashah Eikev addresses the dramatic destruction of Canaanite pagan culture while symbolizing the spiritual fortitude required to do so. It stresses the importance of strengthening and maintaining our faith so that we may partake of the abundant gifts of the Promised Land. Today’s illustration,  A Partnership of Faith‘, is a detail from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary.  Here, a mezuzah amulet, similar to the one in Parashah Va’Etchannan reappears, now as a symbol of protection for settlement in Israel while presenting examples of the seven species of produce that will be found there.  Blessing this process is a vision of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. The bird perched on her elaborate crown of pomegranates is a hoopoe. In addition to it being selected as the national bird of Israel on the country’s 60th birthday in 2008, the hoopoe was chosen to compliment her presence because of its legendary filial devotion and gratitude, caring for its parents as they age. This relationship is the metaphor of our partnership with each other and with God. The Hebrew quotation below her from Parashah Eikev, Ch. 8, v.7 translates as: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill…” This image is my response to the essential dual dynamic of hearing and being heard, that in turn validate each other.  Once, long ago, I received a large conch shell as a gift. Holding it to my ear, I heard the expected rush of an ocean tide, but my imagination overlaid that sound with the notion of a mysterious communication originating from somewhere deep beyond the interior spirals of the shell. To this day, that communication remains a mystery, but the experience inspired the images in this image of a grandfather and granddaughter sharing a moment of mystery and faith that is older than memory. The timeless  message in Parashah Eikev seems especially relevant now, drawing our attention to the dangers in our media driven culture and political climate that are characterized by those who only wish to speak while forgetting to listen.

This excerpt is from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher, or from Amazon, where you will find several reviews.