The Stories Behind the Pictures – 5777

Introducing

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The Jewish Eye

5777 / 2017 15-month calendar of art

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The Stories Behind the Pictures

I’m pleased to present this year’s JEWISH EYE Calendar of Art.  This beautifully printed wall calendar measures 11″x17″ (open), and costs $18 in my webstore.  The calendar covers all of the Hebrew year 5777, and all of 2017, with half pages for the last three months of  2017 (which is already into 5778).  Order your calendars here!

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: durga.yael@gmail.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:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
View from Old City Rampart 72dpi

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:

View from Old City Ramparts - pencil drawing 72dpi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pencil sketch done on location,  7″ wide

Study for View from Old City Ramparts -2

 

 

 

 

Study in gouache painted on the flight home, 13″ wide

Study for View from Old City Ramparts 1 72dpi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sage & Lotem on ramparts

 

 

 

 

My daughter Sage and her friend Lotem
on the old city ramparts, November 2013

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November:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael BernhardSleeping in Rechavia 72dpi

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.

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December:

© 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
Tree of Life Menorah 72dpi

 

 

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!
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January:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
The Burning Bush ver2 72dpi

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:

Burning Bush backboneBurning Bush backbone 2

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.

 

February:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
Blue Door, Tzfat 72dpi

 

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.

March:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard

Regina's Star 72dpi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regina’s Star

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.

April:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard

the-seder-72dpi

The Seder

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.

May:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
still-life-with-yarzheit-candle-ver3-72dpi

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.

June:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
birkat-kohanim-72dpi

Birkat Kohanim

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):

Yivarechecha
Adonai
viyishmirecha
Ya’er
Adonai
panav
elecha
veechuneka
Yeesa
 Adonai
panav
elecha
viyasem
lecha
shalom

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.

July:

All images © 2016 Durga Yael Bernhard
morning-light-rechavia-72dpi

Morning Light, Rechavia

There’s a particular bird that sings in the morning in Jerusalem.  I wish I could translate its simple three-note song into words.  It’s not very melodic, but these three level notes with their rhythmic pause somehow give voice to the time of day when the air is cool and the world is quietly waking up.  I’ve heard this bird before, in West Africa, and love its simple song in both places.

This bird was my unobtrusive soundtrack as I worked on a study for this painting in July of 2011.  Working in my traveling painting book from Thailand, I painted the study quickly, in flat gouache paint.  Later, I rendered a second version at home, shown here, which appears for the month of July in my calendar – this time in watercolor pencil and acrylics.

Most of my landscapes are of something far away that is seen through, or in relation to,  something up close.  If you look at the landscape section of my website, you’ll see many examples.  (The month of September in my calendar is another example.)  Often the objects near at hand are trees that form a natural frame for the main subject in the distance.  Near and far are depicted in relation to each other, adding a sense of dimension and contrast to the piece.  Contrasting scales are also a device I use a great deal in my children’s book illustrations.

  Here the frame we’re looking through is man-made – a door frame.  In addition to large against small, more contrast is added in the dark curtains against the light courtyard, and in cool colors against warm.

It was wonderful to wake up to this scene each day, and open the doors to the balcony to let the morning air in.  I’ll never forget this apartment I rented on Narkiss Street on the edge of Rechavia, a neighborhood in west Jerusalem, twice.  I wanted to capture not just the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood, but the whole feeling of waking up there – and of something inexpressible waking up in me, as an artist and a Jew in Jerusalem.

The image holds potential for another, larger, more architectural, more purposefully rendered painting.  It joins a long line of ideas for oils on canvas that rattle around in my head.  Patiently they wait their turn to take form, each one carrying its own essence – like a gift from G*d.

August:

all images © Durga Yael Bernhard

lithuania-zl-72dpi

Lithuania z”l

The facts about Lithuania are sobering.  I do not wish to put a picture in your mind of what transpired there.  That human beings are capable of committing such mass atrocities led me to understand why my grandmother’s faith, and that of so many other deeply religious Jews, was broken after the Holocaust.  Even worse, the truth about Lithuania is whitewashed by too many of its present-day citizens.

All this was brought home to me last year by a correspondence with a Jewish friend of Lithuanian descent who was investigating her roots.  Somehow she gained possession of a pre-war map, which enabled her to find the names and locations of many shtetls that no longer exist.  I helped her transliterate the Yiddish, and stared at the maps for a long time.

A few months later, another dear friend and colleague traveled to Lithuania, and actually  found the neighborhood where her grandfather’s shtetl once stood, and took photos.  Haunting photos.  The houses, painted in muted colors – dark and light, irregular in appearance – bear a grim history.  Every window, every door seems to stare out from the past.  Every house may have once been alive with Yiddish words and Jewish families, foods, and customs.  These homes now belong to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of many who were complicit in murdering their own neighbors, coworkers, and sometimes even friends.

Normally when we say or write the names of our deceased loved ones, we add the abbreviation z”l or zichronah l’vrachah – “of blessed memory” – after the name (Hebrew: (f) “זיכרונה לברכה” \ (m) “זיכרונו לברכה”).  Though the term is used for individuals and not nations, I invoke artistic license here in order to remember as a whole the cultural fabric of Jewish Lithuania, once so richly woven.  Lita z”l (Lithuania of Blessed Memory) is written in Hebrew on the bridge over the strings of the lyre in this painting, in which my dark-haired friends play a melancholy ode to the countless lives lost and remembered.  In the many-angled houses of the surrounding neighborhood, the star of David is both hidden and revealed behind dark veils of shape-shifting color.

Quoting the philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-English Holocaust survivor, on the occasion of Tisha B’Av (August 13th) of this year, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “’All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history.  They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived.’ He was right. Judaism is a religion of memory.” 



Elie Wiesel, too, has spoken of the “sacred duty” of memory.  May this image serve as a small reminder.

September:

view-from-neot-kedumim-i-72dpi
View From Ne’ot Kedumim

This painting is one of two studies that I did on my very first trip to Israel.  It was the day after my friend and I arrived, and I was suffused with both jet lag and that magical feeling of tov l’hiyot ba’aretz (“it’s good to be on the Land”).  After visiting the Kotel, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem, I was eager to get out on the land itself, and to sit down on the earth to paint.

So we rented a car and headed to Ne’ot Kedumim, less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem.  It was August, and the summer heat baked the dry, porous earth.  This was only my second day in Israel, and already I was aware of how tiny this country is – smaller than Massachusetts.  A distant ridge, partly wooded by cypress, olive, and fig trees, though scarcely two miles away, was already over the “Green Line” that marks the disputed territory known as the West Bank.  Its Hebrew name, Shomron or Samaria, dates back to before the Maccabees fought in this region to free Israel from Greek invaders in the second century BCE.  Their graves, now a national monument, are within walking distance of where I sat.  History pressed in on me on all sides, as I was also not far from Latroun, where Ariel Sharon fought as a young soldier in Israel’s War of Independence.  Severely wounded on the battlefield, he was barely rescued by a comrade, forging in him a lifelong devotion to serve his country.  Also nearby is the city of Lod, hotly disputed during the same war and the present location of Ben Gurion airport.  Ben Shemen, the moshav famous for its agricultural school, is just a few miles away.  Founded in 1905 by the Jewish National Fund, this is where former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, who recently passed at the time of this writing, was educated.  Scarcely 30km behind me – just 18 miles away – lay Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean coast.  At her narrowest point, Israel’s girth not including Samaria is only 9.3 miles wide; at its widest point just 71 miles wide.  Her borders snake with the landscape of irregular wadis and hilly plateaus, and are further convoluted by the history that has brought wave after wave of conquest and war to the region.

Yet in this moment, all was peaceful as I mixed colors and made quick brushstrokes.  One part of the ridge in front of me showed a distant mosque.  Its white simplicity was beautifully striking against the mottled landscape.  I had to be quick, since my friend was waiting for me, dozing with jet lag in the nearby shade despite the dry, rocky earth, using his hat as a pillow (honestly, I was tempted to paint that instead).  The result is this study – a mere gesture of color and shape – a scratch in time in a place of timeless meaning and beauty.

October:

ALL ARTWORK © DURGA YAEL BERNHARD
simchat-torah-72dpi

Simchat Torah

As I write this post, Simchat Torah – literally “Rejoicing in Torah” – draws near.   This lesser-known Jewish holiday is one of my favorites.  First of all, it’s fun for kids.  I like that, and not just because I brought my daughter year after year and watched her cavorting around the synagogue to lively Klezmer tunes.  On Simchat Torah, grown-ups act like kids too, prancing around with the Torah, or forming lines of smiling people who caterpillar round the room.  Following the hard soul-searching of Yom Kippur, this is our time to relax and celebrate.  It’s also a birthday party!  For the Torah, the body of spiritual literature that has sustained Jewish tradition for over three millennia, is one year older.

To literally dance with the holy scriptures is to affirm that we each have our own individual relationship with the Torah.  No intermediary, no priest is required.  Yet this individual relationship exists as part of a community.  People take turns dancing with the Torah scrolls.  Children are given small, stuffed Torahs to dance and play with.  Rich and poor, young and old are equal here.  We try to embrace the Torah in a lighthearted manner, with humor and fun.  There’s no one right way to do it, just like there’s no one right way to dance.  We step lightly as we turn her round and round, moving and breathing across time and space.   The celebration may be for only one night, but the relationship being celebrated is everlasting.  Jews are taught to think of the Torah as a tree of life – which  continues to reach back in time with its strong roots, and forward in time with ever-growing branches.

After seven hakafot (dances), the scroll is often unrolled, with a circle of congregants holding up the parchment by its edges, making a large circle of its entire length – often big enough to fill a large room.  The final passage of Deuteronomy is read, V’zot HaBerachah (“and this is the blessing”).  What a beautiful ending!  Then Creation immediately begins again as the circle completes itself and the first passage of Genesis is read.  Each year on Simchat Torah, the world is created anew.

Chag Sameach (happy holiday)!  To read more about this fascinating holiday, visit here.

November & December:

blue-alley-tzfat-72dpiBlue Alley, Tzfat

Tzfat, or ‫צְפַת‬, commonly spelled “Safed” or “Zefat” in English, is a fascinating city in the Upper Galilee.  It is situated on top of a mountain that is 2780 feet high – quite a rise from the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee, which is below sea level only about ten miles away.  During the Second Temple period, fire signals were built in Tzfat to let people know about festivals and the new moon.  After the fall of the Temple, priestly families settled there.  During the Crusades, Tzfat became a mountaintop fortress, just 30 miles from the coastal port city of Acre which became a stronghold in that war.  In 1266, Tzfat passed into the hands of the Mameluks, who ruled the region for several hundred years.  In the 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition brought a great influx of Sephardim from the expulsion of over 350,000 Jews.  Tzfat became the center of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah.  The renowned Kabbalist Isaac Luria lived in Tzfat, and his grave there still draws thousands of visitors each year. The spiritual flowering of the town was accompanied by material prosperity, as trade in honey, oil, silk, and spices thrived.  In 1573, the first printing press outside of Europe was set up in Tzfat by Isaac Ashkenazi, a Jew from Prague.  In 1837, Tzfat was hit by a devastating earthquake which killed 5000 people and leveled the city.  Most of the Jewish population perished, and Tzfat became an immigrant town with a mixed Arab population.  In 1948, Tzfat became a crucial strategic point in Israel’s War of Independence.  Approximately 200 Jewish Palmach fighters overpowered 4500 Arabs, when the entire population – both civilian and military – fled the town.  Today Tzfat is an artists’ colony and the home of many historic sites, yeshivot, and ancient synagogues, making it a popular tourist attraction.  The city also contains a new medical school that is attended by Israelis and Palestinians alike.  Founded in 2011 by Bar Ilan University, it produced its first graduating class of 48 physicians in June of this year.

Though it is not mentioned in the Bible, Tzfat is considered to be one of Judaism’s four holy cities – along with Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Hebron.  I can see why.  Somehow, this ancient city of stone has absorbed the mystical emanations of those who have walked its alleyways.  Wandering through the old city in Tzfat is a walk through history.  The complex unfolding of events have accrued in the many-layered architecture, century after century.  As an artist who loves to paint near and far views in relation to each other, I was in heaven in Tzfat.  Every street is pregnant with the past.  Every corner yields a unique and different view.  Every stone has a story to tell.  Every juxtaposition is an opportunity.

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ALL ARTWORK © DURGA YAEL BERNHARD

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading The Stories Behind the Pictures.  Interested in buying original art?  Many of these paintings are for SALE.  Please inquire for prices: durga.yael@gmail.com.

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