They could have used horrific images. Instead, Jerusalem's monument is restrained.
by Christine Temin, The Boston Globe, Jerusalem, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 7, 1998
It's the pale, honey-coloured stone that gives this most politically fractured of cities its surprising visual harmony.
It's used in buildings ancient and new, designed by architects whose names are long lost and by famous contemporaries
like Canada's Moshe Safdie. Nowhere is it used to more powerful effect than in the Valley of the Communities at Yad
Vashem, Jerusalem's majestic memorial to victims of the Holocaust.
The Six-Branched Candelabra is a memorial light for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The base of the candelabra is a pillar which rises and
then spirals upwards, with the six branches emerging from the spiral. The
candelabra is the symbol of Yad Vashem, and it is lit every year on Holocaust
Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day.
It is indeed a valley, this great monument, a one-hectare hole dug into the ground. As you walk down the slope
toward it, you feel as if you're entering a network of tombs - except that these tunnels, passageways, and rooms are all
open to the sky. The walls, towering to a height of six to nine metres, are made of huge hunks of stone, both smooth and
rough, pale golden and rust-coloured; cyclamen sprouts in their cracks. More stones crunch underfoot as you walk
through the uneven terrain. On the smooth stones are carved, in Hebrew and English, the names of Jewish communities
affected by the Holocaust, both the thousands that were destroyed and the few that survived. It is a tribute simple,
factual, and moving.
Names also figure prominently in other parts of the Yad Vashem complex. In the Hall of Remembrance, the
names of some of the Nazi death camps are engraved on the floor. The building itself is made of boulders, with a tent like
concrete ceiling pressing down on them, admitting a sliver of light between ceiling and walls. Another light comes from
the eternal flame that burns in a flame-shaped metal sculpture by Israeli artist David Palombo, who himself met a horrible
death, in a 1966 motorscooter accident near his studio. His bike ran into one of the chains that Orthodox Jews stretch
across roads to prevent people from driving on the Sabbath. Palombo remains a strong presence in Jerusalem, though.
His jagged, cruel-looking metal gates guard the entrance to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
There are still more names in Yad Vashem's Children's Memorial, dedicated to the 1-1/2 million children killed by
the Nazis. The names and ages of victims resound through the space in a seemingly endless recorded litany. A Moshe
Safdie design, this haunting building features one room where faces of children float in the air like apparitions - their
photographs have actually been printed on panels of glass - and another room where mirrors create infinite reflections of
a single candle, like spirits that refuse to die.
Among the most moving sculptures at Yad Vashem is Bernie Fink's Memorial to Jewish Soldiers, six giant
boulders lined up so their inner edges form a Star of David; shooting up through the centre of the star-shaped space is a
long, pointed sword.
The designers of Yad Vashem, which was established by an act of the Knesset in 1953, have been wise. They
could have clobbered visitors with horrific, manipulative, and ultimately numbing images; instead, they've created a
monument of supreme restraint. Like the AIDS quilt or Maya Lin's Vietnam wall, Yad Vashem acknowledges both the
individual and the horrifying numbers of the dead, and does so with elegance and eloquence.
It takes time to do justice to Yad Vashem's multiple buildings and monuments, and it's an experience likely to
resonate in your heart and head long after you've left. "Visiting this place is like planting a seed," says Jerusalem sculptor
Israel Rabinovitz, who was my guide to the memorial. "After you leave, it grows inside you." Rabinovitz, who dreams of
making a work for Yad Vashem, visits the memorial every couple of months, the way a New York artist would routinely
check out the Museum of Modern Art.
Rabinovitz's latest public piece in Jerusalem is in a courtyard of the Hadassah Hospital, which attracts visitors
even if they're not sick or injured. Its stained-glass windows by Chagall are a must-see for art tourists. Rabinovitz's
sculpture, a memorial to three students killed in an auto accident, is a stone tree drilled with 800 holes. The holes are all
plugged with ceramic stoppers in the artist's trademark turquoise, the colour of water, a precious commodity in a desert
nation. In each hole is a letter of remembrance from the students' friends, families, and teachers.
Rabinovitz is also chairman of the Artists House, a remarkable organization that, while little known outside Israel,
is arguably the country's most adventurous exhibition space. Housed in an 1890 architectural fantasy with crenellations
and Gothic arches, it mounts a staggering schedule of shows - 40 a year. Its director is Ruth Zadka, a passionate artists'
advocate who says, "The big question here is, why don't Israeli artists break through to an international audience?"
Answering her own question, she says, "If you can't afford to bring international curators here, and stage big
biennials, no one notices your art." She works to remedy that, overseeing shows that have brought visibility to Israeli
artists, and that have also brought together Israeli and Palestinian artists, religious and non-religious Jews. The Artists
House has a political as well as an esthetic purpose. In its mission statement is a sentence the likes of which you'd never
find in North America, where artists are, overall, far less politicized than they are in Israel. "Since the early 1980s," it
reads, "the Artists House has been a major trailblazer in efforts for a peaceful end to the occupation and a resolution of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Noble statements aside, Zadka's provocative programming has managed to annoy Israelis across the political
spectrum. Conservatives were offended by the swastika made of hair that turned up in a show last summer. Liberals were
offended by the highly traditional painting on glass by David El-Kayam, a member of a prominent rabbinical family, in a
show this winter.
The Artists House also partly fills the commercial gallery gap in Jerusalem, which is short on places handling
good contemporary work. There are schlock shops for tourist art, and that's about it. Zadka's organization has stepped in
with a ground-floor sales gallery that features moderately priced, high-quality work by dozens of Israeli artists.
Another good bet for good contemporary art is Artspace, which is actually Linda Zisquit's house. An American
poet transplanted to Israel, Zisquit eased into art consulting when visitors kept asking where she'd gotten the works on
her walls. In 1994, she started having shows in her 19th-century house in Jerusalem's picturesque German Colony; the
house-turned-gallery is open to the public three days a week. The walls are hung with works like Mira Weinstein's
ethereal weavings of light-catching strands of plastic; the blunt, psychologically disturbing figurative paintings of Pamela
Levy; and the subtly layered landscapes of Larry Abramson.
Contemporary art plays a prominent part in the three important institutions that stand on a trio of hills in West
Jerusalem: the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the Israel Museum. It's no surprise that the latter is filled with world-class art and archeology. It is, after all, the country's biggest and most comprehensive museum. It is surprising, though,
and gratifying, that art is a key component of both the Knesset and the Court.