Archive for June, 2013

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.

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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.