Category Archives: art

street art, Nachlaot

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As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the features of that walk through the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem was the examination of the graffiti found there. I enjoy street art, and have grown more tolerant of the scribbles and the name inscriptions that are also included in the category. But I’ve noticed that even in those cases where I was really impressed by a painting appearing on a street wall, after a short while I tend to take it for granted, as I pass by again and again.

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But sometimes, the unexpected can spark a greater interest. That is, if a picture has been moved or changed, or one that I especially liked has disappeared or been blocked by some other structure. Then, there’s that chase after old friends. And part of the chase is always the discovery of new contributions unnoticed before. Many are difficult to photograph because of limited space in the small alleyways of our city.

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what is written on the side: “How can I ask for what I really want as if I were joking?”

There is a series of very special miniatures that I like… they are in a place exposed to harsh nature and may not last all that long. Another series of paintings I especially enjoy, have something to say in the way of morality and self criticism. They are on a wall that seems almost too public. I worry that they will soon be replaced by advertisements. I remember some biting messages that had a short public life before being painted over by someone who didn’t care much for what they said.

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On my walk last week there were the big paintings, colorful and full of life. And there were also some very modest ones that you could easily miss, if not looking for them. Some seemed like footnotes to those ‘in the know’. One of them said, ‘sex now’, and I suppose it was meant as a retort to the many banners of ‘peace now’ that can be seen around the country. The drawing under that title was unexpected, and wide open to interpretation.

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One of the most interesting series I’ve encountered here might have been produced by three separate artists. As they appeared, I imagined two artists adding their works to the original inscription, though it could have been produced by the same artist who came back to the scene and added yet another and then another. All of the illustrations speak of a longing for Jerusalem by the Jews of the diaspora.

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There are these closed metal boxes that one finds all around the city, containing electric meters and connections of sorts. It is common to find paintings on their sides. Sometimes it’s a very abstract composition of form and color, and sometimes a picture of a butterfly or bird. It seems a lot of work was invested into this rendition of the inside of a refrigerator filled with drinks.

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this image was etched into the wall

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a personal note

It is my custom to write a post each Friday. Today, I find it very difficult to write. In the past few weeks, I tried to explain the situation here. But I think I have just scratched the surface.

Sometimes you get bad news… that you have so and so many weeks to live, or that a dear friend has died, or that someone that you trusted with all your heart has betrayed you… it’s very bad news, and you just don’t know how to take it, how to internalize it. You want to shake yourself loose from this terrible thing, and you can’t… as if you were being electrocuted, and you can’t let go of the wire that is burning you alive. You may rant and rave, or groan and moan. Some people just shut up. They don’t say anything.

And some people, gifted by god with an awareness of the universal, are able to translate their sorrow and heartache to a parallel universe, and tell the story as an analogy. They have that wonderful ability to eat their cake and keep it too. They can pour out their hearts, and not get buried in the details. This is the source of art for many. And when I read such a narrative that may have been written a hundred years ago, it seems as if the writer was telling my story… even though the details of his tale have long ago withered and decomposed.

This is the sort of thing I’m going through these days, I tried writing about it, but it didn’t work. The wound is too fresh. The pain is too jagged. I haven’t yet internalized it, and don’t know how long it’ll take. At this point, everything else seems irrelevant. So I probably won’t be writing again till I recover.

Peace be with you, my friends…
From an aching heart.

a woman's prayer
a woman praying

a fence worth looking at

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As I have mentioned previously, Hebrew is a conceptual language. It is built on a great many roots which are found in all verbs. When the same root is found in different words they reflect a conceptual relationship. For instance, the words: writing, dictation, correspondence, letter, and reporter all have a common root. The very nature of the language hints at certain values which are part of our culture. And so, it’s interesting to find that the root of the word ‘definition’ is the same as that for ‘fence’.

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A fence, we learn, gives definition to an area. Which goes together well with a saying I’ve heard in English, ‘a fence makes good neighbors’. This fence was found in one of the two industrial neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Talpiot and Givat Shaul. Both of them accommodate factories and workshops. And since there are workers there, they also have restaurants and simple eateries, shopping centers and stores. And because no one sleeps there at night, you’ll find night clubs there too, so people can enjoy themselves as noisily as they care to, at all hours. And where there are fences, they are meant to hide an unsightly industrial property or designed to keep people from wandering into a construction sight.

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I was visiting some clients in Talpiot when I first noticed this fence. It was made of sheet metal that had been put up between posts in the ground, and was painted in three colors with black lines. Turned out that a few businessmen had put together the money to buy paint, and some students from the Bezalel Art Institute in our fair city had volunteered to decorate the fence. The unpretentious stick figures fit in nicely with the many examples of graffiti found in the area. The paintings have a somewhat humorous, minimalist approach. And in my eyes, it’s art.

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As for fences, their very existence is something of a provocation. One wants to trespass or transcend. But if they’re designed well, they might seem like the skin that surrounds and protects our bodies. Though Jerusalem was a walled city in ancient times, there are relatively few fences within the city. The housing is fairly dense, yet here and there are open spaces, which provide that very important taste of nature in the city. I hope to do a post very soon on some of those public spaces here.

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You can see the set of the fence pictures here:

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Sculpture and the Jews

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We have a problem with art. In Hebrew, art and craft are almost the same word. They come from the same root, which is also the root for the word ‘faith’, from which the English word ‘amen’ is a derivative. Amen simply means ‘(I) have faith’. It is a Hebrew word. And though sculpture of a certain kind was found in the holy temple, it has most been associated with idol worship. And there are specific laws found in the bible prohibiting making reproductions of men or women, animals, or even objects found in nature. Throughout our long history, the plastic arts have been avoided by most of our people and those artists who did produce something, were always the exception to the rule.

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During the 18th century, there was a movement that gained some popularity among our people who were living in Europe, called ‘the enlightenment’, which tried to import some of the cultural standards and the knowledge which had been accepted in the west into our own culture. Despite the opposition of most of the religious leaders of the time, the movement became quite popular, and is credited with easing some of the anti-semitic laws which severely restricted us, as well as promoting greater integration between Jews and non Jews in Europe. It also brought about the modernization of a great many Jewish communities. Scientific and literary texts were translated into Hebrew, and absorbed into our common culture.

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But influenced by cultural prejudices an ingrained attitudes, even the non religious, secular, and highly educated creative souls among us were reluctant to express themselves in the arts. And when they did, they often chose some sort of abstraction or embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.

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The concept of one god who could not be represented by any image was in direct opposition to art as understood by other cultures. Sculpture suffered the worst. And to this day, one can find numerous abstract works of sculpture on some of the streets of Jerusalem, but the more realistic, representative pieces are hidden away in private spaces.

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One of the most interesting sculptures in modern day Israel was created as a memorial to the holocaust, and is hidden away in a forest, and completely unknown by most of the citizens of Jerusalem. It presents images from the history of our people and particularly from the holocaust in a series of reliefs found on a large column.

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Aside from the religious injunction prohibiting idolatry, modesty is considered one of the most important virtues. This too, has dissuaded many artists from using nude images. Even so, the restrictions inspired a creative spark as well, and I have seen fascinating two dimensional sculpture, and other variations on the use of three dimensional media by a number of our local artists.

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The conflict between the arts and our traditional view of the world is felt in other areas as well, including music. I hope to write about that one of these days. And because I feel limited regarding how many images to show on a blog post, I might add another post regarding the many ways Jewish artists have tried to express themselves in sculpture while still respecting the prohibitions of our culture.

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cows in the sun

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This morning, while listening to the hour long news roundup, I heard an item that might have been sensational, had it come from any other place in the world. But being local news, it didn’t seem to have the same effect. A skull was found in a newly discovered cave in the Galilee. And this skull has been dated as coming from someone who lived some 55 thousand years ago. In fact, the cave, which was completely unknown until 2008, contains many items which may teach us about the living conditions and life styles of prehistoric man. What is unique about the skull, is that it could be seen as a typical skull of modern man. And so, we now have another opportunity to try and understand the history of our species; whether man originated in Africa, and then moved out to the rest of the continents on the planet, as well as theories about evolution.

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But such a story is less sensational here in Israel, because it seems as if every time someone digs a deep hole in the ground, he comes up with ancient history. And over the years, it has become so common, that we hardly turn our heads when such a news item is reported. I am reminded of a story I heard about in my youth. A friend of ours decided to build a basement in his house here in Jerusalem, so as to add an extra room for his crowded family.

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As he was excavating, he came across numerous items that could only have come from ancient times. He showed them to his friends, and most of them thought that these finds had to be over 2000 years old. So a number of the guys got together to help this fellow out. They gathered at his home one night, with carts and wheel barrows in their possession, and quietly, quietly, they moved the dirt, rich in archeological finds, to a vacant lot in the neighborhood. A secret operation in the middle of the night.

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And why? Because if the authorities would have found out about this discovery, they would have declared the ground under his house a historical site, and he would have had to put off building his basement for years… probably till his children had grown up and left home. He just couldn’t afford to do the ‘right thing’.

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about winter, and the way I relate to the cold weather. But as I mentioned, we do get some breaks in winter, After a week or two of cold and rain, we’ll have a few days or a week of sunshine. And that’s all it takes for the wild flowers to arrive on the scene, bringing with them the spirit of spring. This is the season of the anemone, which are very popular flowers here in Israel. They grow in the fields, and among the olive trees and the cacti… and songs have been written to celebrate them.

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Seeing the anemones in the fields, some gorgeous little blue flowers, yellow and white flowers that come and go, I was inspired to go out and enjoy these signs of life stirring. Thought it might be an opportunity to revisit the cows in the light of day. Walking through the fields, in search of cows, we came across many beautiful flowers and plants… among them, the very first of the almond flowers, which are just beginning their season now. Soon they will be seen all over the place… exotic white blossoms with pastel hints. The almond trees in bloom, when seen from a distance, look snow covered.

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When finally I found my cows, they were relaxed and enjoying the winter sun which warmed them on this otherwise chilly day. The contrast between the sunny spaces and the shade was almost blinding. They were gathered in the general vicinity of a low pool of water that had been constructed to provide them with drink. I watched as a few of them ambled over to the pool to enjoy the water. There were a few who seemed to look at their reflections in the pool, as Nechama sometimes gazes in a mirror I have in my work room. Though she’s familiar with the mirror, she’ll always stop for a minute, as her reflection registers in her mind. Sometimes, she’ll voice a meow… and I never know if the meow is meant for me, or meant for the possibility that there’s another cat just like her… on the other side of that glass surface.

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And gazing at the cows, looking at their own reflections in the pool, I was reminded of a painting by the wonderful Israeli painter, Michael Kovner. It is not really typical of his work, but it is a painting, that after I saw it, was etched in my mind forever. Here it is:

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cows in the rain

In last weeks post, I spoke of my discomfort in winter weather; the difficulty I have trying to find artistic inspiration in the rain. But as I told you, when looking for pictures I photographed in the cold, rain and snow, I came across a number of old images I thought worthy of sharing. The photographs shown here are part of a set, called ‘Bashan cows’, and were photographed some 30 years ago, on negative film, in northern Israel on a cold and rainy day.

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My readers are aware of my love of cats. I have lived with them almost all of my life. I have learned from them, and built lasting friendships with them; more than I could count. But there are other animals as well, that I have learned from and loved. And from early childhood, I have had a very special regard for the Bovinae family, commonly called cows or cattle. I enjoy watching them graze; enjoy their moderate temperament, and learned a bit of meditation in their company.

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I first met them on a dairy farm, and afterwards spent time in their company in Switzerland, where they chewed the mountain grasses in summer, without a care in the world, appreciating nature. The voices of cows and bulls have a timber that makes its way to our hearts. And humans who enjoy the company of cattle are known to sing to them. Both in Switzerland and on the grasslands of Texas, in the western US, you can hear cowboys yodeling to these massive four legged domestic animals. And it seems to me, that as much as their herders influence these fine animals, they are themselves influenced by the spirit and the character of the cattle they live with.

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Not so long ago, I had a dream in which I’d fallen in love with a cow, and she had come to live with me. Her behavior in my dream was much like that of Nechama my cat, in real life. And when I’d be eating or working at my table, she would jump up on the table, to sit by me. But her weight proved overwhelming for the table, and again and again, the table would be smashed to smithereens, ending flat on the floor as a pile of wood. I would try to explain to my cow that this wouldn’t work, but she would just nuzzle up against me, and assure me that she was motivated by love.

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At one point, the carpenter came to repair the table, and I pointed out a large pile of wood on the floor of the salon, telling him he could use any of the wood he found there… explaining that those boards were what remained of three previous tables. When I awoke, I was laughing.

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The cows depicted in this series accepted the weather conditions with equanimity. And because of the heavy fog, one sensed their presence more than the details of their features. In art, as in dreams, the message comes through by way of hints, more often than not. Though I have photographed cows many times, in a great variety of circumstances, this series is most loved, because it doesn’t go into the details. It just tells the story by way of impressions.

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If you’re interested in seeing the whole series, your welcome to check out the following link, where you’ll find the pictures in larger dimensions. You may enjoy a slide show by pressing the play button at the top of the Flickr page.
https://flic.kr/s/4dhc

reward

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the emblem of Jerusalem

We human beings see ourselves reflected in all living things… primarily in animals, but in plants and flowers too. The symbol of my beloved Jerusalem is the lion of Judah, going back to the days when our capital was established on the seam between the tribal lands of Judah and Benjamin by King David. Our sages used to say, it is better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox. When I was young, you could still encounter the big cats outside of the city. You don’t see them anymore. They have disappeared in the face of modern civilization.

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And though I identify with the cats, I have always had a special fondness for frogs and butterflies because they appear on this earth in their second incarnation. I saw them as a promise to those who wish to build themselves beyond the circumstances in which they were born. The frog is first a pollywog, and the butterfly starts out as a worm. The case of the swan is more an allegory than a reincarnation. He wasn’t really an ugly duckling. It was just the ducks who thought so.

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fleet footed

But when reaching for fulfillment, there’s no taking it easy. The higher we want to go, the more we have to be prepared for the depths. There’s a balance in this world between pain and pleasure. But there’s also blind luck that doesn’t make sense to our logical minds. Lions and elephants are born to be big. They don’t have to crawl on the ground like a worm before spreading their wings, and soaring through the air. And there are some artists too, who are born with the promise in their eyes. All they have to do is learn their tools, and play those rough cat games in their youth. Of course, they too have their share of pain, and humility… left alone at times, beaten, scratched and slapped. It’s all a part of growing up. And woe to the cat who indulges in self pity, or seeks out consolation for the traumas he’s had.

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aching for life

Woe to the pollywog who found it so hard to be a little fish in the big pond that he didn’t want to grow up ever… We live in the age of compassion, of special needs, of nurturing… Wild animals have been hounded to death, and our garden hedges look like well manicured poodles. Every handicap has been categorized and is compensated for by the big mama of social services. Still, the wails resonate in the halls of learning these days. Though the sad sacks are given wheel chairs, and the confused are given multiple choices, despair floats in all directions like low hanging clouds that block the view. Don’t look for sympathy, my children. Don’t look for instant pleasures, eating till your bellies drag along the floor. Better to be a lean cat with sharp nails trained and tested on the acacia tree than a fat pig, grateful for his good life, and unknowingly on the path to slaughter.

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father and son

The artist, the poet, and the musician labor long hours striving for perfection… for a straight line, for an effervescent color, for a rhyme that won’t be confused with a knee jerk, for the whisper of infinity on the horizon. He doesn’t look for breaks or for presents, or for recognition or fame, nor for honor or love. The true reward doesn’t come as prizes or compliments from sycophants. Forget the awards. The only reward worth knowing is personal satisfaction.

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