Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Land ?


Visions From the Transcendental to the Prosaic

Gideon Ofrat, Translated by Peretz Kidron, Moment, April 1998/Nisan 5758

She attracted them all. Devoid of her virginity and sparkling biblical beauty, reduced to the servile handmaiden of her conquerors, Jerusalem never failed to bewitch the numerous suitors who came to woo her during the 19th century. They took the Messiah’s route, arriving from the East. Mostly Christian, they planted themselves in succession on the Mount of Olives, from where the Lord will return to His city. "On that day, [the Lord] will set his feet on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall split across from east to west, and one part of the Mount shall shift to the north and the other to the south, a huge gorge... In that day... there shall be light at eventide... Never again shall destruction be decreed, and Jerusalem shall dwell secure" {Zechariah 14:4-11).

The bewitched travelers were uncertain what to admire first: the exotic men of the East, the chasm yawning at their feet, downhill from the Mount of Olives, or the allure of the Temple Mount, flooded with the brilliance of heavenly light. They returned hundreds of times to paint, photograph, or etch this sublime landscape - Jerusalem the mythical, leaping from the temporal to the supratemporal. They depicted Jerusalem in three strata: life - Orientalist-pittoresque sensuality in the foreground; death - the vague menace of the Kidron Valley tombs below the Temple Mount; and renewed life - the Temple site itself, symbol of eternity. David Roberts, William Henry Bartlett, David Wilkey, Edward Lear, W. Tipping - these artists and many others stood at precisely the same spot, directly opposite the Mosque of Omar, known as the Dome of the Rock. They were level with it, virtually touching it, experiencing death and resurrection just as in the days of Jesus, dispatching to the faithful Christians left behind (mainly in Europe) a Jerusalem sacred and redeeming.
1911 A Berlin Zionist and close friend of Herzl, Ephraim Moshe Lilien photographed Jerusalem's holy places and then turned the photos into etchings, such as this one of the glowing Temple Mount see from the slope of the Mount of Olives.

1911 To this same location on the Mount of Olives came EPHRAIM MOSHE LILIEN (1874-1925). Here he created an etching (seen above). A Berlin Jew, the foremost artist of the Zionist congresses and a close friend of Theodor Herzl, Lilien had arrived in Jerusalem with his camera five years earlier, photographing holy places and people in traditional garb to later transform into handmade etchings. Lilien followed a familiar formula: Bedouin in the foreground (here housed uncharacteristically in a tent, perhaps to suggest Jewish wandering which will end in Jerusalem); in the mid-plane, the shadows of the valley and the tombs; on the upper plane, Jerusalem the transcendent, tranquil, and eternal.

But Lilien "Judaized" Jerusalem’s Christian panorama and "baptized" it in the waters of Zionism. Lilien added a well, inserted into the center foreground, directly opposite the Mosque of Omar. The well alludes to the recurring biblical description of Torah as a "well of living water." The roots of the olive trees and the excavated well are his earthly response to the celestial Jerusalem in the distance. The glowing rays of the sun may echo Zechariah’s prophesy that "there shall be light at eventide" {Zechariah 14:6c).

1929 Stunned by the Arab riots of that year, Yosef Zaritsky focuses on the Dome of the Rock, simultaneously mourned and forsaken by the Messiah - an eagle - harbinger of the artist's own farewell to his Jerusalem home.

1929 Almost three decades into the century, bloody Arab riots erupted on the Temple Mount in August, spread from Jerusalem to Safed, Hebron, and elsewhere, leaving 133 Jews dead. Living then in Jerusalem was 38-year-old artist YOSEF ZARITSKY (1891-1985) who had arrived from the Ukraine in 1923. Zaritsky was one of the leaders of Eretz Israel modernism. Unlike other modernists, he did not relocate to Tel Aviv but stayed on in Jerusalem, working wonders by translating Oriental folklorism into pure, formal textures of painting.

But Zaritsky’s work was more than mere form. Avoiding romantic and messianic approaches, he rejected the standard view of Jerusalem from the east and looked at his Jerusalem from the west. While other artists were transfixed by the Dome of the Rock, Zaritsky largely ignored it; even if his angle of view included the mosque, he seemed intent on purging the landscape of any trace of messianic metaphor.

In 1929, however, the year of the Arab riots, Zaritsky painted something unparalleled elsewhere in his work (above). A black and green eagle hovers, casting its shadow over the black dome and green walls of the Dome of the Rock. The colors of the shrine are the colors of the eagle.

That same year, only a day after the outbreaks in Jerusalem, the nationalist-messianic poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, a resident of the city at the time, published the poem "In a Child’s Ear I Relate":

He didn’t come, the Messiah... Like an eagle he flies above the bloody chasm/.../ Perhaps it was he that rose in eagle’s form from the Kidron valley/ And flew describing a circle over the Temple Mount, and did weep/... I saw him describe the circle and heard his weeping. A bird weeping.../.../ Israeli messianism in the form of a bird, bidding farewell to Temple Mount.../ And the eagle has completed his circle and does fly to the sea./ Flies without the beat of wings, and it was so dark."

Zaritsky may well have read Grinberg’s lament. In his painting the eagle is the weeping Messiah, turning his back on the Temple Mount, on his conquered shrine, and fluttering westwards. This is not the time of redemption say both the poet and the painter; it is a time of bloodshed and devastation. Zaritsky’s painting was his farewell to the promised Jerusalem. The day after painting it, Zaritsky, like the eagle, moved westward to Tel Aviv, a city without shrines.

1948 Reuven Rubin's ethereal Temple Mount is barred by the double, locked gates of the orchard and of the city wall. Only after Jerusalem was reunited in 1967 and the Old City again became accessible to Jews would Rubin open the gates in his paintings.

1948 Israel was established. The War of Independence left Jerusalem’s Old City conquered by the Jordanian army. The view of the Temple Mount from the east is now accessible to Jews only through distant views, dreams, yearning, and prayer. REUVEN RUBIN (1893-1974) painted Jerusalem in 1948, shortly before leaving Israel to serve as the new state’s first ambassador to Rumania. His Jerusalem (above) appears in the pinks of a saccharine dream. The blue mosque hovers in midair. The locked gate at the bottom of his picture, a familiar motif for Rubin, suggests the words of the Song of Songs: "A garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a sealed-up spring" (Song of Songs 4:12). The closed double gate of the orchard leads to the closed double gate in the city wall (far right known as the Golden Gate or the Gate of Mercy - a gate, legend says, which will open again only when the Messiah comes.

In the years following, Rubin abandoned the domain of fantasy - the Old City of Jerusalem - for the domain of reality - olive trees - and painted these trees without respite. But after the Six-Day War in 1967 reunited Jerusalem, for two years, he returned to painting the Jerusalem of dreams. And in these paintings, the gate is open.
1964 "Agripas Street" and a doorway from anywhere, this was Aryeh Aroch's remembrance of Jerusalem while he served in Sweden as Israel's ambassador.

1964 New painters became spokesmen of the "pop-art" avant-garde. Among them was ARYEH AROCH (1908-1974), a leader of the Israeli artistic revolution that embraced the abstract. Aroch lived in Jerusalem, although as a Foreign Ministry employee, he spent most of his time in Israeli embassies abroad. While serving as ambassador to Sweden in 1964, he painted "Agripas Street," which depicted a familiar street in central Jerusalem named for a notorious Roman consul.

Homesick for Jerusalem, he was reminded by the street sign of intimate vistas, of his days as a Bezalel art student and apprentice to an artisan who made ceramic signs. The black rectangle below the sign depicts a door, perhaps the door of his parents’ home in Kharkov, Ukraine, from which the artist’s family emigrated in 1924. Kharkov and Jerusalem are fused in Aroch’s vision from Stockholm in a personal, humanized Jerusalem - fragmentary, antiheroic.
1969 Resplendent with mystical symbolism, the left hand panel of Mordecai Ardon's triptych "In the Gates of Jerusalem" contains the geometric lattice of God's attributes below a fragment of Hebrew text and a floating aleph.

1969 Jerusalem was reunited by the Israel Defense Forces. MORDECAI ARDON (1896-1992) sang a hymn of praise in a large triptych title "In the Gates of Jerusalem." In 1965, Ardon had painted "Night of the Ascents" another Jerusalem triptych entirely in the gloom of chaos, agony, and lament. But in 1969 he reverted once more to the Jerusalem sky, and in place of crucifixion nails and matches, he offered heaven, replete with the signs of creation. The gates of Jerusalem have opened. Here (above), we see the left-hand panel of the triptych, its dark sky strewn with Kabbalistic signs - Hebrew letters and the sidewise "tree" of the ten sefirot (colored balls representing the attributes of God). An unidentified page of text conceals the Hebrew letter bet, first letter of the Book of Genesis, while aleph, the first letter of the Ten Commandments and of the alphabet, hovers overhead. The two letters, the visible and the concealed, are derived from a midrash concerning creation. In this tale, all the letters disputed before God for the right to primacy in representing the world created by God’s word. The second letter, bet, was granted the honor to be the first letter of the Bible because, said bet to God, "All the people praise you daily through me," using the word baruch ("blessed"). The first letter of the alphabet, aleph, was rewarded for its humility because it did not argue its claim; thus it begins the Decalogue. Ardon’s work is a metaphysical Jerusalem of sky and text, the "higher spiritual Jerusalem."

1989 Recovering from tragic loss and his own illness, Avraham Ofek painted Mt. Zion in Jerusalem with tortuous forms. Alluding to the domestic group in the foreground he titled his work with words from the Talmud: "As long as the Temple was in existence, the altar absolved Israel [of sin] and now, a person's [eating] table absolves him."

1989 Shortly after the death of his daughter and a few months before his own demise from a painful ailment, AVRAHAM OFEK (1935-1990) painted a series of tragic gouache paintings. Ofek frequently depicted Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, where he came in 1962 from his kibbutz and began teaching at the Mt. Zion branch of the famous Bezalel art school. In the 70s, he completed numerous paintings of Jerusalem’s prosaic streets. But in the painting (above), he turned to semi-demonic forms to express his inner turmoil. Ofek seated a family at a table on the Mt. Zion hillside, suggesting Ofek’s own lost domesticity. The paired buildings of the Dormition Abbey - the pointed tower and the angular dome to its left, identified in Ofek’s paintings as archetypes of male and female, father and mother - lean on the verge of collapse. Jerusalem is on the threshold of perdition. Judgment Day. The two-story theological seminary (center) may be the spiritual legacy of the artist and teacher who pursues unity in art and metaphysics. Perhaps the additional building on the right represents the Bezalel building where Ofek taught. The girl seated at the table (A Last Supper? Tradition has Jesus eating his last meal on Mount Zion.) is crowned with a gigantic royal acanthus plant, which served in the coronation of kings and which Ofek raised in his garden. Is the woman the artist’s dead daughter?

Ofek chose his title for the painting from the Talmud: "As long as the Temple was in existence, the altar absolved Israel [of sin] and now, a person’s [eating] table absolves him" (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 55A). In Ofek’s Jerusalem the Temple is desolate and absent. In its place, the table becomes the altar.

The Jerusalem of Israeli art hovers restlessly between heaven and earth, between the holy and the secular, between the personal and the divine, between utopia and holocaust. History and politics are merely a pretext for the great polar duality between the temporal and the supra-temporal.

1983 Palestinian Suleiman Mansour follows the tradition of earlier artists and locates the Dome of the Rock as the focal point of a lavishly detailed landscape.

1992 The Jerusalem Artists House brought together Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites for an exhibition called Around the Walls. The Mosque of Omar, the site of the Temple, again was featured by artists from both groups. Palestinian SULEIMAN MANSOUR’s Jerusalem of 1983 (above) shows the Mosque of Omar/Dome of the Rock erupting into the heart of the urban landscape. The golden dome cleaves the heavens as the sun ignites the eastern sky, a Palestinian response to the Zionist sun of the east that Lilien painted at the beginning of the century. Sunrise and sunset, experienced in the past and future by the sons of Abraham, confront an unattainable Jerusalem, alluring and devouring.

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