We take culture pretty much for granted. It has been with us for a long time. Ever since man turned from gathering wild fruit and roots, and hunting wild animals, and started growing his own food. The word culture is similar to cultivation, as in agriculture. It was only a few hundred years ago, in the 18th century, that it began to be used as a description of human social behavior. For as we progressed in the establishment of society, we have adopted a series of disciplines regarding human behavior that resembles in many ways our method of raising food. If once we were satisfied with a vegetable patch in the back yard, or a farm that a family, together, could operate, we now have huge farms operated by large companies using heavy technology. And parallel to that, our young move from one class to another absorbing education for 12 years, and then are expected to continue to higher education for a few more years in order to merit some worthwhile employment.
But at the same time, there are other forms of culture growing around us, and influencing our consciousness. If Vincent van Gogh revolutionized the expectations of the art world, I believe that today, graffiti is doing the same thing. And it is no surprise that so many people reject it and are disgusted with the way it has insulted our vision of civic order. I was reminded of this when walking through an old neighborhood in Jerusalem. The neighborhood of Mamila had deteriorated to the point where many of the houses were abandoned, and no one wanted to live there anymore. At that stage, the city decided on a gentrification process which turned the ruins into an attractive hub of activity. I have some interesting photos of the old neighborhood, and might post them separately one of these days. The place is completely different today. And all the graffiti is long gone.
In some ways, the graffiti found in our city has an international flavor. You can see the sort of artwork, and lettering that you might see in other major cities of the world. Some are satisfied just to leave their name or initials. Others paint rather intricate and artistic murals, and it is not rare to find English words and lettering. But you can also find messages unique to our language and culture. I like the human touch. It reminds me in a way, of wild animals who urinate where they’ve been to leave their mark. But it can be more than that. Sometimes it’s a comment on what’s happening in this world. It can be a political statement. And some folks actually try to amuse us. But at it’s best, it’s art.
The most common graffiti found in Israel, is a written line in memory of a much loved Chassidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman. He died in 1810, but he is remembered very fondly by a lot of people to this day. The line is a series of combinations of the letters of his name. Some believe there is mystical importance to these variations.
He was a charismatic rabbi, with a following and students too. He told stories that were parables about the human condition, and preached happiness as the path to serving God. He was the great grandson of the founder of Hassidism, and believed that one should converse with the creator as you would with a close friend. He visited the holy land for a couple of years but lived most of his life in Russia and the Ukraine. Many books have been written explaining his famous stories, and studying the depths of his philosophy. His followers are recognizable in our country by their very large white skullcaps, and their long earlocks.
When he heard of the terrible pogrom in the city of Uman, his heart filled with grief. When I die, he said to his friends, I want to be buried with the Jews of Uman who were slaughtered for no reason by bloodthirsty bullies. Some people still go to visit his grave… especially on the Jewish New Year, and on the day of Atonement. But many more people celebrate his philosophy, and remind themselves and the people around them that the way to God is happiness. I remember once, during the entifada, when we were suffering a lot of terrorist attacks here in Jerusalem, and many had witnessed body parts and blood splashed across the streets of our beloved city… A lot of people were walking around depressed. Tourists had stopped coming to visit our town. And then, one day, I saw this van pull up to a major intersection, the Zion square, and a number of young men got out with musical instruments in their hands. A few of them set up in the middle of the square and started playing this happy music, and a couple of guys got on the top of the van and started dancing and singing. People just happening by, like myself, drew near to observe the spectacle.
I was reminded of them again when visiting Eish Kodesh, that beautiful little village where I went for Passover. Because on the refrigerator of the apartment where I was staying, was a post card that had been handed out in honor of some wedding… of people I don’t know. The message on the card says: It is an important ‘good deed’ to be happy always. And underneath, it tells us that this is a souvenir from the wedding of Tamar and Nachshon Shacham.