The Jewish Eye
5777 / 2017 15-month calendar of art
The Stories Behind the Pictures
This year’s JEWISH EYE Calendar of Art just went off to press! I’ve been working on it non-stop through all of July. The calendars cost $15 in my webstore until the end of September; thereafter $18. Order here!
For the next fifteen weeks, each week I’ll add to this post a story about one of the images in the calendar.
Every image has a story behind it, just like many of the familiar objects we live with in our homes. Some paintings carry lifelong associations with events that unfolded at the time they were made. Others anchor a long-ago vision. Still others depict my reflections on Torah and Israel’s history, lately the result of research for my forthcoming picture book The Life of an Olive.
Interested in buying original art? Many of these paintings are for SALE. Please inquire for prices: email@example.com.
The calendar begins with The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah, beginning at sundown, October 2) and goes all the way through December 2017. Each image has a caption in the printed calendar which is separate from these stories.
We begin with October:
View From Old City Ramparts
In this painting I strive to preserve an afternoon in Jerusalem’s old city. Along with three friends, my daughter and I descended into the Western Wall Tunnels that enable visitors to penetrate below ground along what was centuries ago the ground level of the Kotel, or Western Wall. This wall (not the one shown in the painting) is all that is left of the most sacred site in the world for Jews – the Second Temple, built in 516BCE and which stood until the 70th year of this Common Era, when Roman legions under Titus tore it down.
The air in these excavated tunnels was hot and stuffy, blown in from above through ducts. We squeezed through narrow stone passageways. Light bulbs shed a yellowish hue on the walls, illuminating crude carvings and the remains of ancient shrines. We passed foundation stones the size of a school bus. A small video explained how, by way of a complex system of pulleys, teams of 36 or more oxen were engaged to move a single one of these stones. Visitors from all over the world walked these tunnels almost in silence, not only because of the strange acoustics, but because the sheer age of this architecture and depth of these historical roots is not easy to grasp. People are literally deep in thought down there.
Emerging from the bowels of the old city, the fresh air, clear light, and late afternoon breeze were especially welcome. From the deepest depths we then ascended to the highest heights – the Old City Ramparts, built in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent. From the top of this massive wall, I fell in love with the view to the west, with its patchwork quilt of buildings and trees. The old city meets the new in this landscape of cypress and olive, stone walls and tiled roofs.
Three studies precede the acrylic painting shown above:
Pencil sketch done on location, 7″ wide
Study in gouache painted on the flight home, 13″ wide
Gouache painting on rice paper collage
mounted on matboard, 12″ wide
It was a great afternoon, one which I will always remember. And the image continues to distill in my mind. One more painting remains to be done of this subject – a larger canvas, in oils. With each version, the image simplifies and accommodates new characteristics. Watching how they come out is sort of like watching kids grow up. I love it.
My daughter Sage and her friend Lotem
on the old city ramparts, November 2013
Sleeping in Rechavia
Dreams have long informed my visual inspirations. As a young artist in my twenties, I learned Jungian dream analysis from a stately octogenarian named Winifred. She was my mentor, a grounding presence in those turbulent years. Winifred taught me to understand the language of the unconscious, and to trust its message. I loved everything about the inner landscape, woven from images and words. I learned to think in terms of archetypes – images and meanings common to all humans. Eventually this led to my work as a religious and multicultural illustrator, in which I strove to create universally human images of Christian, Jewish, non-denominational, multiracial, and community themes.
When I began studying Torah, dreams took on a whole new meaning. The dreams of Jacob, Joseph, and others are full of poetry, mystery, and meaning. Dreams are condoned in the Bible like no other form of divination or sorcery. They are widely respected as windows into the soul, and into something larger than oneself. My own dreams have taken me to Jacob’s tent, where I was instructed to create windows in time with my art. I have dreamed of a wolf that leaped out of the forest and tried to eat my shofar; a bear that consumed the Shema where it was carved into the wall of a prehistoric cave; and a gloriously-blooming rosebush that leaped from a pool of blood on the street in Jerusalem. I have pondered these dreams for years, and taken many to heart. Not every component in a dream can (or should) be decoded – but with practice, dreams can be understood.
Sleep is very much affected by our environment. In this painting of my first nights in Jerusalem, it is not so much the dream as the state of dreaming that I strive to depict. The experience of sleeping in Jerusalem settled into my unconscious, sifting down from the sights and sounds of the day. Whatever I soak up eventually reemerges in the form of images. Each idea has a governing axiom – in this case, the arrangement of strips of background like the spokes of a wheel, with the upside down woman’s sleeping profile in the center. I wanted to convey a sense of kaleidoscopic immersion as I dreamed in Jerusalem, a city I have illustrated more times than I could possibly count. Jerusalem has been called the “beating heart” of the world, a place where mythology and history coexist. With each visit, that feeling comes back to me – and inspires images for many months to come.
Tree of Life Menorah
My idea for a menorah design was inspired by collections at two museums: The Jewish Museum of New York, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Both have exquisite collections of chanukiyot (plural of chanukiyah, or Chanukah lamp). My eyes feasted on menorah designs from places as diverse as Russia, Tunisia, Ohio, and Mexico. But it was the Mizrachi designs from north Africa, Persia, and other eastern lands in the Israel Musuem’s permanent collection that captivated me most. I fell in love with an Algerian menorah that made me want to say shehechiyanu for arriving at that moment, in that museum gallery, on that day. Two years later I was back, and again two years after that.
By creating a menorah design, I join a very long line of artists. Together, menorahs from all over the world reflect the cultures and historical trends of both Israel and the Diaspora. Though mine is a mere painting and not a usable candelabra, it reflects my culture of origin, too. So do the glue-and-glitter menorah designs created by the kids I’ve worked with in synagogue classrooms. There’s no limit to what you can do with this sacred geometry!
Why a tree of life? Because the original menorah (Hebrew for “lamp”) was fashioned in the likeness of an almond tree. And because Judaism is well represented by a growing, living, blossoming, fruit-bearing tree. The original seven-branched golden menorah was used in the Mishcan, or Tabernacle (traveling tent of meeting), where the holy ark was housed as the ancient Israelites made their 40-year trek through the desert. Later, the golden candelabra was used in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Maccabees regained Jerusalem in the second century BCE, they rekindled the Temple lamp and as legend holds, one day’s worth of olive oil miraculously lasted for eight, until more oil could be pressed. Thereafter, chanukiyot were made for the occasion of Chanukah – with eight candles plus the shamas, or servant, to light the others. (It is interesting, and no accident, that this “servant” often occupies the highest place in a menorah design. Food for thought . . . )
I’d love to forge a menorah design in metal someday. You never know!
The Burning Bush
The story of the Burning Bush has always fascinated me. In my first rendering of this image, I focused on the space between the flames. The painting is graphic and bold, with only three colors: yellow, orange, and black.
In this new version, the image is inspired by a dream I had about a year ago, in which I was at the Kotel, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem. I saw a bush growing from the base of the wall, its branches wavy as if aflame – yet there was no fire. I approached the bush cautiously, and saw that instead of leaves, it had paintbrushes. I reached out to touch a brush as the dream ended.
This dream left me pondering for months. First of all, the brushes were square – and I have never used a square-tipped paintbrush in my life. Second, there was the wall. What would it be like to paint a wavy-branched bush against a grid of solid stone? It would be a matter of bringing opposites – angles and curves, structure and energy – into visual harmony.
So I went out and bought square brushes, and got to work. I began with a stylized Hebrew letter shin for the basic structure of the bush, and let it grow from there:
I put over thirty sessions into this painting, often sneaking fifteen minutes to work on it early in the morning before the beginning of my work day. My primary project at the time was the illustration and design of my forthcoming picture book, The Life of an Olive, to be published in September by Heliotrope Books. The story follows the life of a 2000-year-old olive tree in the Galilee. I thought about Israel’s history as I started each day of work on this book – and as I painted the Burning Bush. How has the Jewish tradition changed over the millennia, and how has it stayed the same? What has time burned away, and what has survived? The answers found their way into the painting: synagogues and scrolls, people and stones and stories. Above it all is a crowning eye with a sunrise for a pupil. And at the base of the bush, the four Hebrew letters of the sacred tetragrammaton, yud-hey-vav-hey, shine forth.
Week after week I worked on the many parts of this complex oil painting, which measures 30″ square. I wanted the bush to be alive with revelation! I don’t know if I succeeded or not (what do you think?) – but I do believe I preserved a very special dream – one I will treasure always, along with the story of the burning bush.
Blue Door, Tzfat
The Kinneret is very hot during the summer. There’s something about that inland sea that gathers heat. Tiberias felt like an oven the day we passed through, eating shwarma along the way. Tzfat (Safed, or צפת in Hebrew), a smallish city nestled into the irregular mountainous terrain that rises steeply from the north side of the Kinneret, also bakes in the heat. I felt even hotter there in July and August than in steamy coastal Tel Aviv.
People seem to keep to themselves here in the heat of the day. Footsteps echo through the stone alleyways of the old city, receding quickly. I walked through the irregular passages, clinging to cool shadows, soaking up the other-worldly atmosphere. The pale blue streets of Tzfat filled my senses and lifted my spirits. Where was I in time, as I walked these corridors of history? These ancient stones were hewn so long ago, they don’t look man-made anymore. The oddities of a single street express the long evolution of the city’s architecture. Behold the quirks and anomalies! I love them all, for therein lies the character of the place, which I sought to capture in this painting.
All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
My grandmother was a mystery to me throughout my childhood. Regina Loewe was the daughter of a successful tailor, with five beautiful sisters. At the age of eighteen, she emigrated to New York by herself – and was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She became a talented seamstress herself, and made many of my clothes as a child and teenager. I still have the seersucker magenta skirt she made for me long ago, with its wide ruffle, the once crepe-like fabric now smooth with age.
Though “Nana Jean”, as I called her, never talked about it, she was deeply haunted by the life she left behind. She had a characteristic way of holding her hand to her cheek – and would often sigh, lost in memories. Sometimes she would say “oh, yes” to someone out loud, I don’t know who. As a teenager, I imagined she secretly wore a yellow cloth star under her clothes, sewn into her skin with stitches even she could not remove.
Other than these mannerisms, like many Jews who survived the Shoah, Nana Jean kept the pain of the past to herself. She spoke no words about her life in Hungary, or her family. Life carried her forward. I adored Nana Jean, as she taught me to make matzo ball soup, sewed lace on the hem of my doll’s dress, or gave me carrots and raisins for a snowman’s face. She let me climb on the back of her couch, and did jigsaw puzzles with me. To be snowed in at Nana Jean’s was heaven, filled with the smells of her kitchen, the sound of her sewing machine – and her trusty slippers shuffling along the floor.
Many of the shapes and objects in this painting are inspired by carvings from Eastern European Jewish gravestones, which I was exposed to that year through an exhibition at the American Museum of Folk Art. This exhibition traced back merry-go-round animal carvers of the early 1900s, most of whom were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, to carvers of synagogue arks and gravestones in the old country. Regina’s Star depicts that old country – the village of my grandmother’s childhood (taken from photos my own mother, Regina’s youngest child, took when she visited there a decade ago). Her patchwork life also includes the tenements of the Lower East Side where she passed her young adulthood before moving to the Bronx, where my mother was raised; the hills of the Hudson Valley where she passed her old age; and how I imagine she may have thought of Eretz Yisrael. Mingled with all this is the promise of the future as well, as a flower unfolds from the mouth of a bird, and on either side of the synagogue where Regina grew up, a split menorah bursts forth with new life.
All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
I have long wanted to paint a seder table as a mandala. All the ritual foods and objects, dinnerware and guests make a fine circular design. Two years ago, I penciled out a rough sketch – but something held me back from working on it any further. The canvas sat untouched until this year’s Pesach, when the combination of two very different seders combined to crystallize the image.
The first seder table was beautifully set by my dear Israeli neighbor and friend, whose husband, of German Jewish descent, had grown up in Bolivia after his family fled Europe before WWII. Among the possessions they managed to take with them was the family seder plate – a large, beautifully crafted ceramic dish with six small saucers for the ritual seder foods. Many years later the family, along with the plate, emigrated to New York. Now this plate, in perfect condition, sat peacefully on the table surrounded by flowers, candles, and good cheer. Here was the table I wished to emulate in my painting: three generations of Jews from four countries, with a family heirloom at center which had survived the Holocaust and traveled across three continents. This was not only a ritual meal, but a symbolic one. Much of this seder was read in Hebrew, to my delight.
The second seder was completely different. Triple the number of family and friends gathered at the long temporary table in my friend’s home in the northern Catskills. Here it was the diversity of this family as well as the homemade haggadot (seder guidebooks) that struck me. Parents and children, male and female gay couples, cousins and far-flung siblings gathered from Florida, Arizona and Manhattan, all mingled in loving banter. On the inside cover of the family’s dog-eared haggadot, we read long lists of the names of people who had used the book for the past thirty years. Some of those people were no longer alive; some of those present had not yet been born when this precious haggadah was created. Then we added our own names to the copy of the book in front of us. These copied and stapled collections of blessings and poems, with minimal Hebrew, were far from comprehensive, but they carried another blessing – something accrued over decades of use – and served as testament to the love and longevity of this family.
I felt privileged to attend both seders. The beauty of this ancient Passover ritual is that no two seders are alike, and each brings a different family, different food, and different traditions to the table. Yet at both seders, the story of Exodus was central, and the question of how tyrants and slavery exist in the world today was debated. The power of great spiritual literature is that it remains relevant in each generation. The Passover seder passes that heritage on like no other ritual, with food and family, story and ritual, round tables, round plates, round cups, round faces, round eyes, and round circles of history – ever widening, ever more intricate . . . like a mandala.
Still Life with Yarzheit Candle
This small oil painting, just 16″ wide, is among several still lifes I’ve done on the occasion of a family member’s yarzheit (anniversary of their death). It’s a wonderful way to sit with the memory of a relative. It keeps me looking at the photo for hours, studying the faces until eventually the painting, like our memory, takes on a life of its own. Over several hours, I watch the candle burn down, the light of the steady flame keeping me company as I work.
For me it’s a great pleasure to use muted colors. As a children’s book illustrator, I’m compelled to paint in bright, cheerful colors. But as a fine artist, I can bend my palette, sink into something different, darker, which this image begs to express.
In a painting, everything appears equally real, as most artists use a style and brushstroke that is consistent across the canvas. Rendered in paint, the juxtaposition of living, ripe fruit and flowers with people in a photo, makes those people and fruit, flowers and candle all appear equally real. My grandmother and her sisters appear equally alive as the plums and pear, the lovely rose of sharon – and as I see it, this brings them to life in a small way.
Every still life becomes a memorial of a moment, of what is gathered together in that time and place. Like my grandmother and her sisters, the rose of sharon bush lives no more, choked out by a black walnut tree. The fruit was long ago eaten, the candle holder recycled. Even the table has been moved away. What does remain is the painting – and my memory of a day spent in loving memory of my grandmother, Regina Loewe, z”l; and her beautiful sisters, whose names I do not know.
I find many forms of geometry in Judaism. There is the underlying structure of Hebrew, with numeral values assigned to each letter, and shoreshim (word roots) that grow into structured forms. There are acrostics, and letters enlarged within words to form alternate meanings. There is symmetry within certain Torah portions such as Vayeira, which begins and ends with the appearance of angels. And there is geometry in certain hand positions used in Jewish blessings and prayers, including the ancient Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim. The hands are held aloft like an aperture with wings, forming a most interesting symmetry. There is something bird-like about those hands, I thought.
So I made a tracing of my hands in that vulcanesque position, cut them out and turned the cut-outs this way and that. Then I taped them in place on a canvas and traced the sketches onto the surface using a back-light. The middle-size hands with pale skin are actually traced from my hands. The bigger and smaller hands are drawn freehand. I played around with these shapes at different angles until I came up with a repeating, crystal-like structure. Then I balanced out the large shapes with some finely-curved vines. I like the variety of skin tones and the contrast of skin to foliage. Everyone who chooses life deserves this blessing!
What danced in the minds of our ancestors when they gazed through this gate of human hands shaped to resemble the Hebrew letter shin (for Shaddai, an ancient name of God) to receive this blessing??
The traditional blessing (from Numbers 6:24-26) reads:
May G‑d bless you and guard you.
May G‑d shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
May G‑d turn Her countenance toward you and grant you peace.
The Hebrew words are sometimes stacked to reflect pauses in the melody for call and response (the first word, Yivarechecha – “may you be blessed”, is at the center of the painting):
You can hear the traditional blessing being recited/sung here.
The blessing also fits with the melody of Let it Be; I’ve heard it sung that way many times. The phrase Ken y’hi ratzon – “Let it be God’s will” is combined with just one verse from the blessing, the final one: “May God grant you peace”. I can’t seem to find a recording of this on Youtube – do you know of one? This is a beautiful song and peaceful intention for troubled times. That this most ancient blessing has survived and evolved to this point amazes me. That is the beauty of Judaism – it is truly a tree of life: a growing, changing organism with deep roots, cycling seasons and always budding with new life – and informed by ancient language.
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Interested in buying original art? Many of these paintings are for SALE. Please inquire for prices: email@example.com.