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.  

 

 

The good life, in Jerusalem and Bayonne

May 26, 2013

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Visitors inspect the crafts for sale at the old-new train station in Jerusalem.

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A boy reads about the history of the Jaffa-Jerusalem rail line at the old Jerusalem station.

JERUSALEM’S OLD TRAIN STATION COMES BACK TO LIFE

Jerusalem has finally found a use for its old train station, in the heart of the city. The gabled stone building with arched doorways and the surrounding compound are the capital’s newest entertainment spot, offering cafes, restaurants, shops, crafts and food fairs, a small history museum, and free entertainment for children. A variety of tours, including a self-guided hybrid-bicycle tour, set out from the souvenir shop.

Blessedly, everything there is open on Saturday

Although I was afraid that the city would not have the good sense to preserve the memory of its first train (completed in 1892), I was pleasantly surprised. True, the old train station lay abandoned and neglected for many years, but even before the new entertainment area opened this month a very pleasant park was built alongside the old tracks, running west from the train station for several kilometers. It has become very popular with bike riders and walkers.

 

CHOCOLATE: IT’S IN THE GENES

I thought there had to be a reason for my chocolate addiction, and now I’ve discovered it. According to a recent Times of Israel article, Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal starting in 1536 brought the knowledge of chocolate processing to France, settling on the outskirts of Bayonne, in southwestern France.

After they taught the secrets of the trade to local workers, the chocolatiers guild barred Jews from producing the sweet stuff.

This month, 500 years later, Bayonne has paid homage at its Chocolate Days festival to the Sephardic Jewish chocolate pioneers.

Michèle Kahn, the author of the novel Cacao, told the Times that little is known about how Jews got into the chocolate trade in the New World, but surmises that some must have sailed across the Atlantic with Cortes. I would look at the Jewish involvement in the sugar trade as a possible connection.

So what are my chocolate genes? There’s a family legend (on my mother’s side) that places an ancestor in Amsterdam, where many of the Jews were Sephardic. It’s as good an explanation as any.

 

CHURCH TREASURES TO DEBUT IN JERUSALEM

For centuries, European aristocrats sent tributes to Catholic churches in Jerusalem but these precious gifts were hidden away for safekeeping by the Franciscan Order in the city. Now, according to the daily Ha’aretz, these treasures—ritual objects and works of art—are to be displayed in three museums in the Old City starting in 2015. Among the items are a 13th century Mongolian bell, an inscribed golden goblet from the Spanish king Philip III, and a ceremonial silver scepter from the Italian king Victor Emmanuel II.

 

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

 

 

 

 

Stones and water in the Holy Land

May 13, 2013

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A dove pecks at grapes in a mosaic recently discovered in southern Israel. (Yael Yolovitch)

THE BEAUTY BENEATH OUR FEET

When Jacques Neguer, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s head of art conservation, told me that the Holy Land has 7,000 sites that contain mosaics, the number seemed hard to believe. He went on to say that the total area of these mosaics is more than 50,000 square meters (more than 12 acres). Beit She’an alone has 10,000 sq. m and Caesarea has 4,000 sq. m. Some of these mosaics are very basic, but some rival in quality the finest such works found in Italy, Greece and other countries.

And more mosaics, some of them spectacular, keep being uncovered here. The most recent is in Kibbutz Beit Kama, about 90 minutes’ drive southwest of Jerusalem. A Byzantine settlement (from the fourth to the sixth centuries CE) covering about 1.5 acres was found there in the course of construction of an interchange.

The mosaic was the floor of the 1,100 sq. ft. main building. It has rich geometric patterns and its corners have amphorae (jars for transporting wine), a pair of peacocks, and a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril. The designs are not unusual, but the combination of a large number of them in a single mosaic is very rare.

Archaeologists are still puzzled by the presence of pools and a system of channels and pipes connecting them in front of the building, in what they believe was a Christian settlement. The excavation was directed by the IAA’s Dr. Rina Avner.

 

AND A CHILD FLOWED INTO THE WORLD

Yarden didn’t just flow into the world, she gushed in. First she knocked politely on the sluice gates, and then she just surged in. Her mother, Liat, didn’t even make it to the front door of her house to leave for the hospital.

If an online etymology is to be believed, Yarden (the Hebrew name for the Jordan River) is derived from the Hebrew root yarad, which means “descend,” or in the case of the river, “flow down.”

So, welcome, Yarden. We hope the world welcomes you with the same eagerness with which you flowed into it on the morning of May 11. We certainly do.

 

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

FOUR IN JERUSALEM

May 10, 2013

MYSTERIOUS WRITING

One day, a family in the United States received a friendly but unsigned letter. For twenty years after that, a letter arrived every day.

Then, one day, the letters stopped, as mysteriously as they had started. The family never found out who the secret writer was or what the motivation was.

I recall this story from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, one of my favorite books when I was a child. I liked this story almost as much as the one about the Chinese, marching four abreast, who would never cease passing a given point (of course, long before the one-child-per-family policy). And then there was the man who could swallow his nose, the girl who gave birth at the age of eight, and the poor man who prepared his own epitaph: “I have nothing, I owe much, the rest I leave to the poor.”

A SIGN OF BETTER TIMES, PERHAPS

Today’s headline “Street signs in the city are being changed” hardly moved me. But the subhead made me laugh so hard I nearly fell off my chair: “A special municipal committee found that many signs in English contain errors.”

They needed a committee for that? And not just any committee, but a special one? Any English-speaker in town could have told you that. One doesn’t have to look far in a city in which the sign that points to the Jerusalem Magistrates Court says, in English, “Court of Peace.”

I’m not a betting woman, but I’m willing to wager that even after the “special” committee concludes its deliberations and new signs go up, any English-speaker in town will still find plenty of errors.

 

ANOTHER SIGN OF BETTER TIMES

Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, has ordered all relevant government ministries to take action to end the exclusion of women from the public sphere, the Ha’aretz daily reported this week. Weinstein’s order includes an end to sex discrimination on public buses, in cemeteries, and elsewhere. No longer will it be legal to post signs saying that women must dress modestly or that they can’t walk down a particular street (and yes, this isn’t Tehran). Weinstein also called for legislation that would make the exclusion of women a criminal violation.

 

BUT AT THE WESTERN WALL, IT WAS BOTH GOOD TIMES AND BAD TIMES

After a recent precedent-setting ruling by the Jerusalem District Court that allowed women to pray at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, the Women of the Wall conducted their monthly worship service ushering in the new month this morning without being harassed by the police or arrested. Instead, the police, who were out in force, formed a human chain to protect the women from a mob of ultra-Orthodox protesters, who reportedly threw water, water bottles, and other objects at the women.

The stones of the Western Wall, having seen their share of baseless hatred and human folly, merely smirked. God, as usual, was silent.

 

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

 

 

Strudel: A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

December 31, 2012

@

Hebrew is a wonderful language. Just think of @, which English-speakers call, rather unimaginatively, the “at sign” or “at symbol.” The only reason those names are appropriate is that the symbol was used (and perhaps still is) in commercial contexts as shorthand for “at,” as in “3 pairs of socks @ $1 each.” (Lordy, I was going to write 25 cents, but then couldn’t find a cent sign on my keyboard. What’s the world coming to?)

Hebrew, like its second cousin once removed Yiddish, is so much more expressive. In common parlance in Israel, the “at sign” is referred to as “strudel,” pronounced “shtrudel.” When I dictate my e-mail address over the phone, the second half is “strudel gmail nekuda [dot] com.” But “strudel,” fitting to a “t” the symbol it names, isn’t really Hebrew, of course. The proper Hebrew name, which you can hear used on the radio more frequently these days, is “cruchit,” which comes from the Hebrew root caf resh caf—originating in Akkadian—that signifies wrapping and binding (and also the actions involved in creating a book, so that the word for “volume” in the sense of a book is derived from it).

Many Jews are familiar with the root from the Haggadah, read at the Passover seder, which mentions how rabbis in ancient times ate the symbolic foods of the festival. One of these symbolic foods is corech: the bitter herb between two pieces of matzah—a Passover sandwich, if you wish—symbolizing the bitterness of exile and slavery (and also, paradoxically, the beginning of redemption, according to the commentary of Adin Steinsaltz). The Haggadah explains that “this is what Hillel [one of the greatest scholars in the time of Herod] did.”

“Cruchit” is simply Hebrew for strudel, which, as you know, does not contain any matzah but is made by wrapping a tasty filling—apples, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins—in a fine dough (the secrets of which, alas, my mother, who was a master baker, did not pass on to me). So, at year’s end, I’m left with a cent-less keyboard and a strudel I can’t eat. But among the year’s blessings is that ever-renewable source of psychic energy: joy in the versatility and expressiveness of Hebrew.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.