Jewish homes leave part of their structure unfinished, symbolizing mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. Dean of Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham describes contemporary art’s reflection of this mourning practice.
The Talmud, in Tractate Bava Batra, describes different mourning practices that spread throughout Jewish society following the immense trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple. Among others, the following practice is mentioned:
Rather, this is what the Sages said: A person may plaster his house with plaster, but he must leave over a small amount in it without plaster. And how much is a small amount? Rav Yosef said: One cubit by one cubit. Rav Ḥisda said: This should be opposite the entrance… as it is stated: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, etc.’ (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 60b)
Maimonides, and following him the Shulkhan Arukh, combine the opinions of Rav Yosef and Rav Ḥisda and decree that the size of the space that must be left unplastered is one cubit by one cubit, and its place in the house is opposite the entrance.
This ancient practice of marking the Destruction within one’s personal space using an exposed portion of a wall has undergone different developments throughout the ages, and paradoxically, often transforms into an aesthetic image. We will now examine two works of art inspired by this practice.
On the 19th of Tammuz, 1924, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman-Maimon, one of the heads of the Mizrahi Movement and the future first Minister of Religion of Israel, entered, with his family, their new home in the Romema neighborhood – the first Jewish neighborhood built in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. Above the front door they installed a painted ceramic slab, made in the ceramics workshop of the ‘Bezalel’ art school. At the bottom of the slab appear the words “In memoria of the Destruction” זכר לחורבן and “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning…”. At the center of the painting is a window, which opens onto a view that echoes the verses from Psalm 137: “(1) By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. (2) There on the poplars we hung our harps.”
At the center of the scene viewed through the window is a large willow tree, against which rests a harp, several of whose strings are torn. The branches of the tree extend in both directions and are bowed downwards from of the weight of the instruments hung from them. In the background we find a wide river on which boats float, and on the other bank of the river we see Babylonia.
The target of the yearning of the exiles sitting on the banks of Babylonia’s rivers – Jerusalem – is represented by the two small medallions at the top portion of the work: In the right-hand one we see the Tower of David, and in the left the Western Wall.
One should note that the exiles themselves are absent from the painting. Why?
I would like to suggest that this slab, which was placed at the opening of a new house in the rebuilt and renewing Jerusalem, provides new meaning to the traditional image: alongside the mourning of the Destruction, it refers to the national revival in this period, and the absence of the exiles represents the return of Jews to their land after two thousand years of exile.
The idea of ‘in memoria of the Destruction’ occupies contemporary artists as well. Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, has created a marvelous series of oil paintings named ‘memoria’, and we will now look at the first painting in the series: ‘memoria 1’.
The painting is divided into two equal squares, both painted in a light shade that resembles the whitewashed wall of a house: In the center of the right-hand square is an internal square in a light gray, which resembles an exposed concrete wall, and under this the words ‘in memoria of the Destruction’, again in a light color. At the center of the left-hand square is a frame within which is an arched gate, which frames the structure of the Dome of the Rock. Above and below the building is found an Arabic inscription containing praise for Allah. This image corresponds with ceramic tiles decorated with the image of the Dome of the Rock, used for the façade of Muslim houses. The artist, who resides in the Galilee, says that the series was born following a visit to two houses in her near vicinity which carried these two images on their walls.
This work of art addresses the emotional link between the believer and the holy place: The square of exposed concrete, like the ceramic tile decorated with the structure of the Dome of the Rock, brings the holy site, or its memory, into daily life and into the private space of the believer, and strengthens his ties to it. Alongside this, the view is dichotomous: the Muslim site is presented as an actual entity, colorful and majestic, whereas the Jewish site is represented through its absence: the absence of shape, the absence of color, the absence of life, destruction. In this work, the artist leads us to the private space of memory in Jewish and Muslim homes, and leaves us, the viewers, with questions and thoughts about the essence of the holy site for the two religions.
SHAVUA TOV FROM SCHECHTER
Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks. She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.