Jewish art and tradition- Israeli politics and culture

רחל צרפתי


Jewish art and tradition- Israeli politics and culture


Many holidays on the Jewish calendar, such as Purim and Hanukkah, were established to commemorate events that were formative for the Jewish people. Others, including some holidays established in the bible, have accumulated various traditions and meanings over the years. That is how the biblical command to donate fruit to the Temple contributed to the establishment of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. In the 16th century the holiday's traditions were affected by the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, and in the early 20th century by the Zionistic ideals, when it became customary to plant trees all over the Land of Israel.

The permanent exhibition at the Jewish Art and Life Wing at the Israel Museum displays the biblical and Talmudic holidays alongside new holidays, set and established by Law in Israel. These new holidays also commemorate dramatic historical events of the Jewish people, but unlike the traditional holidays the events they commemorate occurred in living memory. These three holidays are the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Independence Day.

Our Holy Days and Days of Remembrance gallery is one of three dedicated to the cycle of the Hebrew Calendar. It encompasses also the traditional holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Ninth of Av, alongside the above mentioned newer holidays. But how can these older and newer holidays be coupled, in Museological display? Memorial Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day lack traditional ceremonial objects, such as the Sukkah, the Hanukkah lamp or the Seder plate. The Israel Museum is not a historic museum like Yad Vasehm, or the Jewish Historic Museum of Amsterdam. Its collections are encyclopedic, and they hold artworks from many different cultures from all over the world. It is due to this aspect of the Museum that I chose to represent these newer holidays using works of contemporary art, rather than documentary films explaining the historical significance of the events.

On both Days of Remembrance a siren is sounded across the country, during which a moment of silence is observed. This is the focus of Yael Bartana's piece of video art, on Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers. Her work, entitled Trembling Time [2001], is an unexpected visual representation of the siren: the sound itself is almost unheard, but one can see how traffic on a busy highway slows to a halt for a moment of visual-silence.

On the nearby wall is the Holocaust Memorial Day display. It is important to note that our purpose was to represent the Memorial Day for the Holocaust, and not the Holocaust itself. This is why rather than focus on the immense tragedy, I chose to deal with the story of Jewish ceremonial objects that had been looted by the Nazis, but somehow survived. The centerpiece of the display is not a work of art, but a text: it is a stanza from a Yehuda Amichai poem, "Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever". The poem was written after Amichai visited the Museum, and it discusses objects that survived without their owners, and without the hands that used to grasp them. Objects that, after the Holocaust, have ceased to be ceremonial objects and are now Museum objects.

The final holiday, Independence Day, is also represented by video art, by artist Doron Solomons [2010]. The video is deceiving, as it seems at first to be a sweet and nostalgic view of the holiday celebrations and services. However, the criticism of the artist soon surfaces. The holiday's well-known barbeque tradition becomes almost vulgar under the handling of the artist. The video is provocatively entitled "Sacrifice".

These new holidays are purposefully displayed near the traditional holidays, due to their thematic connection. The Yom Kippur display is adjacent to the video piece commemorating Memorial Day. The two are strongly linked in Israeli consciousness  since the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the heavy loss of life it incurred. The day of personal reflection became also a day of national introspection. This blend of emotions can be seen through the media content every year on the eve of Yom Kippur: a mixture of religious and political discussion and debate.

Similarly, we’ve placed the Independence Day video art work adjacent to the Ninth of Av display. The desire here was to tacitly mark the end of an era of Jewish history that began with the destruction of the Temple, and the new era marked by the establishment of the State of Israel.

The connections between the old and new Holidays are generally not seen by the casual visitor to our galleries, but rather pointed out during guided tours. We take those as our opportunity to share with the visitors the various considerations we faced when putting up the permanent display. Also in our temporary exhibitions we make an effort to show items of Jewish ceremonial art in the social-political context of Israeli society today. This is part of an ongoing examination of how items, customs and traditions change over time, under the influence of the cultural and political life here in the State of Israel.

In my most recent exhibition, Each Year Anew, my aim was to develop this line of thought, and show how traditional customs grow and change in modern Israeli culture. It is an exhibition of a selection of our new year's greeting cards, a custom which began in the early 20th century with the invention of the post-card. The life span of this tradition is merely a hundred years— since already by the end of the century it became irrelevant, with technological inventions like the fax machine, e-cards, e-mails and of course text messages.

The exhibition displays a selection of cards, arranged chronologically from Europe at the beginning of the century, to Israel in the 1990s. The 20th century was eventfully dramatic for the Jewish people, and many of the cards carry images which reflect these historical events, rather than images of the High Holy Days.

Thus, cards designed in Israel in the 1940s and 50s clearly reflect the ideology of the Zionist movement: they carry idyllic images of building, living in, and working the land, alongside battle descriptions of the War of Independence and the struggles that followed it. The Israeli youngster in the early decades of the State of Israel lived the Zionist ideal, of becoming a farmer to work the land, or a fighter to protect it.

In the 1970s (following the Yom Kippur War, by the way) the Zionist vision and the Israeli consensus regarding it began to crack. Parallel with this social political shift in Israeli society, the New Year's greeting card become a vehicle for Israeli artists to express political and social protest. In the 1980s, designer David Tartakover created a series of New Year's posters entitled "The Seven Species". The title is inspired by the popular image on traditional greeting cards. The first poster in the series, from 1983, bears a grenade, a word which in Hebrew is homonymous with the holiday fruit- the pomegranate. The poster was made following the murder of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig.

In 1985 Tartakover designed a poster entitled "wheat", which bears the image of a single slice of bread, as a criticism of on the capitalist economical policies of the Israeli government. The final poster of the series (which was never completed), is entitled "olive", and it is of a Coca-Cola bottle filled with olive oil, which has become a Molotov cocktail. This stands for the Molotov cocktails thrown by Palestinian militants in their struggle against Israel. This poster became something of an ominous symbol, as it was published for Rosh Hashana of 1987, and the first Intifada broke out in December of that year.

In 1995 Tratakover designed a poster of a gun. It was a criticism of the violence which had become a part of Israeli society—family violence, and violence against the Palestinian population. This motif might have also been inspired by the traditional military motifs of the 1950s and 60s. On November 4th of that year this poster also became a dark prophecy; two months following its publication Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

The assassination and the change from a left to a right-wing government brought about the creation of cards with explicitly political content. Over several years, designer Ilan Molcho designed a series of cards with the message to remember and not to forget the assassination of the prime minister. The cards bear no greetings for new year, only the number of years since Rabin's death, as though it were a new Jewish calendar.

This upcoming April I will open an exhibition which reveals, for the first time, Jewish ceremonial objects that were smuggled out of Egypt in the 1960. The collection tells the story of the Egyptian Jews. This community lived in close proximity and good relations with their Muslim neighbors, until the establishment of the State of Israel and the escalation of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This community was forced out of Egypt almost overnight, leaving all their belongings and property behind. This mass-immigration is referred to by the community as the Second Exodus from Egypt. It will be a small exhibition in the space of the permanent exhibits, adjacent to the Passover display. In this way I hope to draw a connection between the first Exodus and the second—between the biblical tale and recent history. I also hope to raise awareness for this political issue: the property of Egyptian Jews has remained in Egypt, ceremonial objects left in abandoned synagogues, and the Egyptian government refuses to allow it to be returned to its owners, under the pretext that these are items of Egyptian art and heritage.

As I mentioned earlier, the Israel Museum is not a historical Museum, and its permanent display was not intended to teach the history of the Jewish people from the middle-ages to the establishment of the State of Israel. The intent is to show the art of ceremonial objects in relation to their customary use. But Judaism and its customs have changed throughout the centuries, and we must make way for those changes, as well. Since the Museum is located in Jerusalem, there is also room for focusing on the locale and Jewish customs. This balance is difficult to maintain, and it raises criticism from visitors from both sides of the political map. I will end by quoting the words of a visitor who was disappointed by the video-art display for Independence Day:

"When we come to an exhibit of Jewish holidays we seek an air of celebration. We get more than enough political protest and criticism in the contemporary-Israeli galleries."

This is a legitimate critique, which needs to be taken into account alongside my other considerations, outlined above.