Where good health is next to godliness

June 22, 2014

Faith and healing have been intertwined throughout Jerusalem’s history. Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis—a new, thematic exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, inside the Old City walls—reveals some of the sublime and grotesque examples of that link in the Holy City.

Take, for example, the caduceus, two intertwined snakes on a stick, that has come to symbolize healing and the medical profession. Westerners usually think of the symbol as Greek, but it actually dates back to third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the serpent as a life-healing symbol was commonly found in the Canaanite fertility cult.

In the exhibition we learn about the Nehushtan, a sacred object in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. The name of the object is a play on the Hebrew words for snake (nahash) and bronze (nehoshet). The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were afflicted by a plague of serpents because of their lack of faith, and it describes how Moses used a “fiery serpent”—a snake on a pole—to cure them (Numbers 21:4–9).

Later, the Nehushtan was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when it became an object of worship in its own right for its purported ability to cure sickness, King Hezekiah—the anti-idolatry reformer—tore it down (II Kings 18:4).

According to Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director, Jerusalem’s historical connection to healing is largely a function of its being a city of pilgrimage. Medical services had to be provided for the faithful who flocked to the holy sites. And this city, where there has long been strife between the religions, was the only place, Lieber said, where each hospital provided services for members of all religions.

But hospitals in Jerusalem were also used for missionary purposes. On display is a podium that stood in front of the Anglican Hospital in the city center. To attract Jewish patients, the podium is adorned with a Star of David, and the hospital made it known that it served kosher food to patients. But the rabbis threatened the hospital’s suppliers of kosher meat and forbade Jews to seek treatment in Christian hospitals.

According to Lieber, a story is told of a Jewish woman in the nineteenth century who fell in the street just outside the missionary hospital next to Christ Church and was brought inside for treatment. She subsequently died there, and after she was brought to Jewish burial her body was exhumed by extremists who claimed that she might have converted to Christianity in the hospital.

Jerusalem is home to a thriving pharmaceutical company, Teva, which began as a small business started by the Salomon family. All pharmaceutical developments in the city were based on plants growing in this hilly area, Lieber said, and the Franciscan order of monks had the city’s first pharmacy. In the eighteenth century, when the city was beset by bubonic plague, a Franciscan monk named Antonio Menzani di Cuna concocted a remedy from forty-two Jerusalem herbs that was dubbed “Jerusalem balsam.” The list of ingredients and jars like those seen in an early photograph of the pharmacy are on display. A version of the remedy is still produced (http://www.jerusalembalsam.com/) and marketed as a cure-all.

When, in 1860, Moses Montefiore built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, no one wanted to move there, according to exhibition curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa. It took the cholera epidemic of 1865 to spur interest in the new neighborhood.

But epidemics continued to beset the city. At the time, there was a Jewish belief that a “black wedding” could help. Two orphans, or two other individuals who could not afford a wedding, would be married under a black canopy in a cemetery, with the hope that the righteous dead interred around them would act as intercessors with God. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 photograph showing such a wedding of two Yemenite orphans, and the young groom appears so terrified that he has started running away.

The real answer to epidemics, of course, came in the form of modern hospitals. By the middle of the nineteenth century Jerusalem had three Jewish hospitals: Bikur Cholim, Misgav Ladach, and Meir Rothschild. Shaare Zedek opened in 1902; Dr. Moshe Wallach, who was strictly Orthodox, was its director until 1947 and lived there all his life, speaking only Yiddish or German. Records were kept in German, and on display is a page from a ledger during a typhoid outbreak showing, in neat German script, that twenty-five of the twenty-seven patients listed had a diagnosis of typhoid.

To this day, the hospital is run according to stringent Orthodox law and custom, though it is open to all Jerusalem residents (I gave birth to three children there), and although Wallach adopted a young Syrian girl who was abandoned there by her father.

According to Lieber, a story is told about a sick man who was brought in a carriage to Dr. Wallach on the Sabbath. After asking the man what was wrong, Wallach told him to wait until the Sabbath was over. The man died. Consequently, the rabbis excommunicated Wallach, then rescinded the excommunication. The true import of the incident was that it forced Jerusalem’s rabbis to clarify what was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life.

In 1888, the Rothschild Hospital relocated to what is today the center of modern Jerusalem, and in 1918 the Hadassah organization established the American Zionist Medical Unit, which took over the hospital. In 1925, when the hospital’s founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, made his last visit to Jerusalem at the age of eighty, the staff presented him with an album showing all the departments in the hospital. On the cover is an image of Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah organization.

One photograph in the album is of the hospital’s X-ray room, with a plaque stating it was dedicated to the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew, who died of tuberculosis. X-rays were used to diagnose this illness, which was common at the time. In addition to the album, which is on loan from the Rothschild Archives in England, the exhibition includes an X-ray machine—with a US Field Army label on it—similar to the one used in Hadassah. As is evident from the photograph, the dangers of exposure to X-rays were not yet well known, and neither patients nor staff were protected against them. Today Hadassah is a medical empire with two large hospitals and schools of medicine, nursing, and dentistry.

Some 300 objects, many of which have never been shown to the public, are on display in this, the largest exhibition the museum has ever undertaken. The exhibition and related tours will run through April 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

Dying for Love and Beauty: La Traviata at Masada

June 13, 2014

The moon shone brightly as more than 7,500 people came Wednesday night to Masada, on the shores of the Dead Sea, for the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the moment, the desert had disappeared, and they found themselves in a reception area that evoked a Parisian street—complete with a boulangerie, brasserie, and charcuterie and arches suggesting the Arc de Triomphe. That was part of the magic of the Opera Festival at Masada, now in its fifth year. Only after tasting the delights of this transported milieu did the audience enter the glittering and colorful, but ultimately tragic, world of the demi-monde.

The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, is young, vital, and beautiful, with an unusual capacity for self-sacrifice. But she is La Traviata (the fallen one), a kept woman. Hers was a position characteristic of mid 19th century France. And Violetta has consumption, another characteristic ill of the 19th century, especially of 19th-century heroines. To make everything worse, after she has given up her life of luxury to be with Alfredo, the man she loves, his father arrives to break up the relationship. After many complications, without which no opera could get by, and just as true love is about to triumph, Violetta dies.
There was a real-life Violetta named Marie Duplessis, who by the age of 17 was one of the most sought-after women in Paris. She also hosted a salon, where artists, writers, and politicians gathered. In 1844 an affair began between Duplessis and Alexandre Dumas fils, the poor and illegitimate son of the writer Alexandre Dumas. Realizing after a year that he could never have her all to himself, he ended the affair. She died of consumption two years later, at 23.
A few months after her death, Dumas fils wrote a novel based on their affair, La Dame aux Camelias, and after its success he turned it into a play. That became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera.
The role of Violetta, as sung by Aurelia Florian, is one of sheer beauty and memorable arias, for example, Ah, fors’è lui (Ah, perhaps he is the one). But opera is spectacle, and besides the many haunting arias and duets there were festive party scenes with the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Kielce Dance Theater in lavish, LED-lit costumes designed by Joanna Medynska. In one party scene the women wore skirts that consisted of colorful streamers hanging from the hip on a hoop.
And, of course, there were fireworks, and fire, and horses, and wagons, and acrobats on stilts—all the things that make opera fun for the masses. Looming behind the sparkling stage, like a harbinger of Violetta’s death, was the mountain itself, with its 2,000-year-old fortress and palace.
Daniel Oren, who has conducted all the opera productions at Masada, each time with the Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, had this to say about the experience: “Year after year I stand in awe in front of this powerful and majestic mountain and sense in my very being the pure harmony between nature and music in a country like Israel which is full of traditions yet in which the opera tradition is still young.”
La Traviata was the first opera ever presented in pre-state Israel. That was in July 1923, in Tel Aviv. It was first performed by the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera in May 1987.
This was the fourth time in five years that the Israeli Opera Festival returned to Masada. Previously, the festival featured Nabucco, Aïda, and Carmen, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from Israel and abroad. These expensive productions involve trucking in many tons of equipment over winding roads, in essence setting up an entire “city” for backstage workers, extras, and the performers themselves, plus the themed reception area—all of which must be dismantled and rebuilt anew.
This year’s festival will extend to Acco, in the north of the country, with an all-Mozart program, including Don Giovanni, Requiem, and an abbreviated version in Hebrew (for the entire family) of The Magic Flute.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. The image is by Yossi Zwecker, copyright 2014 by the Israeli Opera. 

What You See and What You Get: Clothing That Conceals and (Sometimes) Reveals

March 12, 2014

In Morocco, a traditional Jewish groom would wear a white shroud under his black groom’s coat. In Yemen, a Jewish woman would receive female guests on the first Sabbath after she had given birth, wearing a regal dress adorned with pearls—a dress she would then wear on Yom Kippur and eventually be buried in.
This keen awareness of the life cycle and of human mortality is one of the themes of Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe, an exhibition that opened March 11 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. On display are some 100 items, covering about 250 years and originating in nearly 30 countries. The exhibits, all of them worn by Jews, are but a small part of the museum’s collection of 10,000 items of costume, according to Efrat Assaf-Shapira, who is making her curatorial debut with this exhibition.
Jewish women in traditional communities around the world generally wore clothing that men deemed modest. But definitions of modesty varied and were influenced by the surrounding culture. Thus, long before the Taliban came around, Jewish women in Afghanistan wore a black chader with a full-face white veil, and in Iraq both Jewish and Muslim women wore a body wrap called an Image and a full-face veil made of hair from a horse’s tail. The manufacturer of these horsehair veils was a Jew, as were many of the people who worked in the textile industry.

These garments—symbols of the vise-like grip of patriarchal societies—send chills up my spine. Yet there are women in Israel today, known as “Shawl Women,” who have adopted coverings that are as concealing as any in this exhibition. Oddly, there is a feminist aspect to their super-piety, because they are acting on their own accord, without the sanction of (male) rabbis.
Traditionally, women could at least please themselves in what they wore under their wraps. “Concealing and revealing” is another of the themes of the exhibition, Assaf-Shapira said, pointing to the brightly colored trousers worn by Bukharan women under their whole-body cover-ups. And in Baghdad, the curator added, women wore sequined and embroidered bustiers hardly different from what Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna.

One of the oddest items on display is a pair of trousers, part of the bridal costume in Tunisia. The trousers appear to be size XXXL, and the explanation is that women were fattened up—even awakened at night to eat—before the wedding, because bodily fat was considered a sign of good health.

Image

Another very interesting, and rare, item is from Iran. Dating to the early twentieth century, it is all in maroon, and consists of a jacket, a short tutu-like skirt, and tight pants. Assaf-Shapira said the fashion was influenced by the visit of the shah and his wife to Paris, where they saw a ballet and were captivated by the tutus and tights. But the fashion was short-lived, because Iran at the time was moving rapidly toward the West.
As is obvious from the exhibition, brides did not always wear white. In fact, most of the bridal costumes displayed are in other colors. It was Queen Victoria who made white de rigueur for bridal gowns. On display is a magnificent mid twentieth century ivory gown from New York; the “something borrowed” is the fine, nineteenth-century lace veil, and the “something blue,” Assaf-Shapira revealed, is a blue ribbon tucked inside the bodice.
In traditional Jewish communities, a treasured dress that did not become a shroud might be donated to the synagogue after the owner’s death for use as a parochet (a cover for the ark). The cover would then be embroidered with the woman’s name, thus serving as a memorial for her.
Also on display is a collection of children’s clothes—nearly all of them looking like miniatures of adults clothes, because in traditional societies children were considered to be adults in the making.
Through October 25, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the images, written permission of the Israel Museum.

 

 

Opera returns to Masada with La Traviata; Mozart to feature in festival’s new northern venue in Acco

January 16, 2014

Verdi’s La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) tells a story of doomed love, set in the City of Lights. In June, Paris will be recreated in the desert as the Israeli Opera resumes its annual festival at Masada, near the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

The lead role, Violetta, will be sung by Elena Mosuc, alternating with soprano Aurelia Florian, and Alfredo will be sung by tenor Celso Albelo. The director is Michal Znaniecki and the conductor is Daniel Oren.

For the first time, this year the opera festival will also have a northern venue—the Old City of Acco (Acre)—where Mozart’s operas will be performed in the excavated Crusaders’ Courtyard. The southern and the northern branches of the festival will be held a week apart, so that visitors coming to Israel for the music will be able to enjoy all the performances.

Both the northern and the southern venues are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually in their own right. Hanna Munitz, the Israeli Opera’s general director, said that she expects as many as 5,000 “culture tourists” from abroad at the performances, and that by mid January some 3,000 tickets had already been sold to tourists.

Part of the experience of opera at Masada is the reception area, which creates the atmosphere for the performances before a single note is sung. For the launch of the Masada opera festival in 2010 with Verdi’s Nabucco, low-slung tables and couches and faux-marble columns created the illusion of a Roman palace. This year, the reception area will be designed to evoke the atmosphere of a Parisian street.

Asked why he thought La Traviata was suited to a desert venue, director Znaniecki replied, “It’s very easy. Because Violetta sings in the first act that Paris is a desert,” expressing her feeling that Paris is a wasteland for her. “My idea was to show this metaphor, to put Paris on the ground and cover it with sand,” Znaniecki said.

Arias from the popular La Traviata are familiar even to people who are not opera buffs. The melody of one aria is well known as the tune of the Ladino love song “Adio Querida” (Farewell, My Love).

The Masada festival, between June 12 and 17, will include a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 9, with international soloists and a choir, conducted by Kent Nagano. The festival will also include a performance of the Idan Raichel Project, an Israeli collaboration between musicians of different backgrounds and faiths.

The Acco festival, June 19 to 21, featuring works by Mozart, will include a semi-staged production of Don Giovanni, a performance of the Requiem, and a shortened version of the Magic Flute, suitable for children.

Among the innovations this year at the Masada festival will be operatic concerts at Dead Sea hotels and flights to Masada by Arkia.

Besides Nabucco, the Israeli Opera has performed Aida and Carmen at Masada. According to Munitz, in 2016 it is planning a coproduction with the Verona Arena Festival, which in 2013 celebrated its 100th year.

As Munitz put it, “A cultural project can grow wings in a way you didn’t imagine when you started.”

 

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

Dust is on my mind: Getting grave about art

December 5, 2013

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about dust lately. Any home improvement in Israel forces one to come to terms with the reality of minute particles of concrete and stone that get into your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs and finally settle on every surface.
Dust to dust. Now that’s a thought. Someday some house cleaner will be wiping bits of me off a shelf along with the bits of concrete and stone. Is it a kind of immortality?
Dust has a way of cloning itself, building little colonies, tiny mounds and valleys, creating landscapes that can even be beautiful.
Dust has a mind of its own. Despite your best efforts to capture it (and rid yourself of it), it clings, and hides, reappearing where you least expect it. And it does so with a vengeance after renovations.
So I was intrigued by a new exhibition called Collecting Dust, one of four shows of contemporary Israeli art that opened yesterday at the Israel Museum Jerusalem. I loved this show from the outset for the title alone, which reflected what I’d been preoccupied with for the past two weeks.
A few of the works in the show curated by guest curator Tammy Manor-Friedman are classics, like Bartolomeo Bettera’s still life of dust-streaked musical instruments, focusing on the transience of life. But the Israeli artists exhibited have a variety of interests.
Gal Weinstein’s “Petra,” for example, created with tiny bits of steel wool, sprayed with a mixture of Coca Cola and balsamic vinegar to induce rusting.
Petra is, of course, a huge and ancient necropolis. And rusting is a kind of decay. And yet this beautiful abstract landscape suggests art overcoming mortality.
Another, even more dramatic work, “Dust Cloud,” by Weinstein consists of a series of four still photographs of an eruption, that “gives form to something formless,” as Mira Lapidot, the museum’s chief curator of fine arts, put it.
Another photograph, by Sharon Ya’ari, captures a typical Tel Aviv sidewalk scene, including a broom and a pile of dust, signs of more home improvements.

One of the three other shows, Gideon Gechtman’s posthumous retrospective (1942–2008), is informed throughout by the artist’s sense of his mortality. Born with a heart defect, Gechtman underwent corrective surgery at age 31, following which he created an installation that included nude photographs showing his transformation from individual human being to patient/object. Later, he published newspaper notices announcing his own death and pasted up obituary notices in public places. Then he started playing with the obituary notices, creating them in various colors, even one with his name in neon lights.
Years later, Gechtman dealt with the loss of his firstborn son, Yotam, at 26, in an installation that includes mock hospital furniture and paraphernalia.
This exhibition is demanding and sometimes hard to bear, but it also arouses wonder at this artist’s ability to transform deep anxiety and grief into works that transcend time.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

Israeli legislation can ease lives and prevent tragedy

November 4, 2013

The lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis stand to be changed by two pieces of legislation reported in today’s Ha’aretz. The first, the lead item on the front page, is a government-backed bill concerning couples who seek legal recognition of their union—without having to wed under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel or undergo a civil marriage outside the country.

The bill does not specify the sex of the members of the couple and thus would apply to same-sex unions. It would also apply to couples whose members are of different faiths and therefore cannot be wed in Israel, where marriage is in the hands of the clergy. This is especially important for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were allowed to become citizens under the Law of Return because they have at least one Jewish grandparent but who are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate because they are not born of a Jewish mother. In Israel they cannot marry Jews. Having to bypass these strictures by undergoing a civil marriage abroad (Cyprus has a thriving wedding-package business based on Israelis) is both humiliating and expensive.

This bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, but it is a promising start. Meanwhile, an amendment to another law has already been passed by the Ministerial Legislation Committee, but this piece of life-changing news was buried at the bottom of page 5, perhaps because it will affect a much smaller number of people.

The amendment allows the courts to free adoptive Jewish parents of a non-Jewish child from having to prove that they are living as Orthodox Jews. Israeli law allows adoption only of a child that is the same religion as the adoptive parents. But until now, adoptive parents who had brought a child from abroad and sought to convert that child in Israel were required to adopt an Orthodox way of life and to send the child to Orthodox schools.

Now the courts may rule that what is best for the child does not require a punctilious examination of the “Jewishness” of the adoptive parents.

This item touched me because it brought to mind something I had written for The Jerusalem Post in 1996. In those days the paper ran occasional profiles of special-needs children in need of adoption. The peak of my journalistic career was learning that one of the children I had written about was adopted by a family in the north of the country.

But another child I fell in love with most likely ended up in an institution because he was born of a Christian mother and the law, as it stood then, meant that he could be adopted only by a Christian family, or, if he was to be converted to Judaism, an Orthodox family or one that was willing to adopt an Orthodox way of life—thus severely limiting the pool of potential adoptive families. This was Daniel, as I described him then:

“Daniel is a beautiful child. With his lithe body, large brown eyes, broad smile and golden-brown skin, it’s easy to imagine him acting the happy child in a breakfast-cereal commercial.

“But Daniel’s life has been anything but happy. Born in Europe and brought here by adoptive parents who then decided they couldn’t care for him, he lives in a temporary home run by the government adoption service.

“Each day this seven-year-old hopes a new family will come and give him a real home. He has even drawn pictures of the family he hopes will someday love him. But time is running out for Daniel. If an adoptive family can’t be found soon, he will have to be sent to an institution.”

The law made it virtually impossible for that Daniel to find a family, but the amendment can save the Daniels of today.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

A private passion becomes a source of joy for many

July 15, 2013

Color has tremendous power. It stirs the passions, uplifts the spirit. Little wonder, then, that a quarter million people lined up in 1998 to see the Israel Museum, Jerusalem’s first blockbuster show, the “Joy of Color.” Many of the works in that show of Fauve and expressionist art came from the collection of Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher.

 

Last week the museum opened “Color Gone Wild,” a show of forty-two Fauve and German expressionist works, all from the same collection. Werner Merzbacher was in Jerusalem for the opening and told how his interest in these artistic movements was shaped by the collection of his wife’s grandfather, Bernhard Mayer, a wealthy fur merchant who lived in Switzerland.

 

But Merzbacher was an art collector long before he met Mayer. He was born in Germany in 1928; his father was a doctor. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, Merzbacher’s parents send him to Switzerland, where a Christian doctor took him in. His parents died in Majdanek concentration camp.

 

Merzbacher won scholarships to schools, but for pocket money he did odd jobs, including working in a bakery. He already had the urge to collect art, an urge he did not attempt to explain, and by the age of twenty he could afford his first paintings, social-critical works. 

 

But the sight of Mayer’s collection of ten high-quality paintings from the 1920s impressed the young man and inspired him to develop his taste.

 

“It became a passion,” he said. “I worked a lot to be able to follow this passion.” The work was in the Mayer family’s fur business and also in finance. And the first painting to become part of the collection was “Dorfstrasse,” by Kandinsky.

 

The result was a home near Zurich filled with brilliantly hued works. The Merzbachers could have breakfast while looking at a Kandinsky and drink coffee under a portrait by von Jawlensky.

But the collection had its darker side: While the couple enjoyed the fruits of their shared passion for art, their older daughter, Merzbacher said, “never wanted to bring home friends because of what was hanging on the walls.”

 

And now, as he approaches eighty-five, he is hardly acquiring more art. “There’s no room to hang it,” he said simply.

 

But the works he has already collected are being shown more often. In 2015, works from the collection will be hung side by side with paintings of Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, to show the earlier artists’ influence. Meanwhile, the exhibition at the Israel Museum is scheduled to run until November 2.

P.S. Some day I will figure out how to insert images in the new WordPress format. People like me will never understand why website designers can’t leave well enough alone.

 

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. 

 

 

 

 

 

A private passion becomes a source of joy for many

When the cranes blew in again

July 4, 2013

I suppose that most bloggers enjoy receiving comments on their posts as much as I do and are as annoyed as I am by spam comments meant only to publicize such things as cellulite treatment and online slots. But sometimes I can only laugh at the spam that passes as a response.

One arrived yesterday in “response” to a piece that appeared last November, titled “What the cranes said,” about the semiannual bird migration that passes through Israel.

 

My piece began thus: “The cranes that glided to a landing in the bird pub in northern Israel last Wednesday squawked up a rumpus.”

And this was the comment that arrived yesterday:

Thanks for sharing your insights. Hard to find good information on construction equipment in blogs usually, so I am happy to find your website. I agree with you 100%.

I look forward to reading more in the future and if there is anything I can ever do for you please don’t hesitate to call or email my friend.

Truly yours,

Rob

To which I should respond:

Dear Rob,

I’m so happy you actually read my blog post about cranes. It’s hard to find good people who agree with me, so I’m especially pleased to have your full agreement.

I can assure you that cranes are a favorite topic of mine and that you’ll be reading more about them in my blog. Should you want to know anything about cranes in Israel, please don’t hesitate to call or email, my friend. I’ll also be happy to share my insights on punctuation.

Truly yours,

Esther

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

How our eyes deceive us

June 12, 2013

(Sorry. I couldn’t ge this image to load) Eran Reshef: Gates 2003–2007, oil on panel (courtesy of the Israel Museum)

All art is illusion. But many artists use illusion to undermine the idea that there is a single Truth. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem,  has kicked off its summer season with an exhibition in the Ruth Youth Wing called ArTricks.

Despite the location of the exhibition and the fact that it can be appreciated by children (probably from age five or six), “there is nothing childish about it,” said curator Daniella Shalev.  In all the works shown, “the illusion is a means, not an end.”

The 80 works predictably include an abundance of familiar pieces by Escher: birds that turn into fish, two hands sketching each other, impossible sets of stairs. But there is much more. Many of the works are by Israeli artists, including a painting of a dilapidated bathroom that is so realistic it seems one could walk right in (Eran Reshef); a gigantic cauliflower made of polystyrene foam (Michael Sperer); an English landscape made of wool on plywood (Gal Weinstein); and a tire swing in which a link is missing in each of the chains (Orly Hummel).

One room contains a work by Israeli artist Buky Schwartz consisting of an upright black chair and a red chair and a yellow chair painted on the floor. When this combination is projected on the wall, it looks as though all three chairs are standing. Children sit on or “jump off” the painted chairs, and in the projection it all appears to be happening in three dimensions.

In the courtyard of the youth wing, children can choose from among a variety of activities, including cutting Moebius strips, seeing multiple reflections of themselves in paired mirrors, and peeking into an Ames room in which the tilted floor distorts the apparent size of people inside it.

My young companions enjoyed the show. So did I.

Through February 15, 2014.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the image, written permission of the IsraelMuseum.

The Turkish elephant and the Jewish question

June 5, 2013

Every world event, it seems, has its Jewish angle. So while Taksim Square is roiling with opponents of Recep Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey, Israeli journalists have seen fit to pull out the plum story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Jewish roots.

Ataturk (1881–1938) is credited with being the founder of the Turkish Republic and was its first president. He was also the initiator of reforms in every sphere of life aimed at making Turkey a modern nation-state.

It was a time of “firsts” in the Ottoman Empire. In Palestine, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) was busy making Hebrew the living language of Jews in the Land of Israel, inventing words by the bushel for things and concepts that did not exist in biblical and talmudic times, and he was the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary. As part of his project, he spoke only Hebrew to his wife and children.

Ben-Yehuda’s first child, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943), was the first native speaker of Hebrew in a millennium. He became a journalist, writing for his father’s newspaper, HaZvi (“the gazelle”), and then editing another paper, Doar Hayom (“the daily mail”).

In his autobiography, according to Yaron London, a veteran Israeli journalist, Ben-Avi describes meeting Mustafa Kemal (he had not yet taken the name Ataturk) twice in 1911 in the Kamenitz Hotel in Jerusalem while Ben-Avi was writing for HaZvi. Just as Ben-Yehuda was passionate about reviving Hebrew as the language of daily life, so his son was passionate about transcribing that language in Latin characters. One of the topics he discussed with Kemal was making Latin characters the alphabet for all the languages in the Ottoman Empire. Ben-Avi published two Hebrew weeklies in Latin characters, but they met an early death and his idea never caught on. But Kemal, clearly a more powerful figure, did succeed, and Ben-Avi took credit for planting the idea in the Turkish leader’s mind.

According to Ben-Avi, after drinking to their shared loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, Kemal revealed that he was descended from Sabbetai Zevi (1626–1676), who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. Following Zevi’s conversion to Islam, many of his followers also converted but continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Kemal said that at home he had a Bible printed in Venice, and that when he was a child his father had engaged someone to teach him to read it. He then proceeded to recite, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai ehad” (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.)

The story appeared in the United States in The Forward in 1994 and has since been picked up by hate-mongers bent on proving that all of Turkey’s troubles stem from the “Zionist dictator” Ataturk.

This reminds me of a book, Efendi (“Sir”), by Soner Yalcin, claiming that many influential Turks are Doenmeh.  When it appeared in 2004, it sent a shiver of discomfort through the Jewish community. It was too reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.  

 

 


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