An Idol in the Holy of Holies (Song of Songs)

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R. Akiva called the Song of Songs the Holy of Holies. And there the Beloved is, in this image-rich picture of a human-not-so-human presence in the midst of the garden sanctum –head, arms, torso, legs, made up of bright precious metals and stones.

This is what he looks like:

His head is finest gold,

His locks curled

And black as a raven.

 

His eyes are like doves

By watercourses,

Bathed in milk,

Set by a brimming pool.

 

His cheeks are like beds of spices,

Banks of perfume

 

His lips are like lilies;

They drip flowing myrrh.

 

His hand are rods of gold,

Studded with beryl;

 

His belly a tablet of ivory,

Adorned with sapphires.

 

His legs are like marble pillars

Set in sockets of fine gold.

 

He is majestic as Lebanon,

Stately as the cedars.

 

His mouth delicious

And all of him delightful.

 

(Song of Songs 5:11-16)

 

A beautiful thing to read in the synagogue on Shabbat for Passover, is this not an image of divinity on par with the more famous ones presented by Ezekiel and Isaiah? Combining liquid, metalic,  vegetal, crystal, and animal elements, it looks like an idol placed in the Holy of Holies.

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Song of Songs Elegant Decadence (George Barbier)

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In black-gold-white, did the Song of Songs ever look so elegant, strange, and sexy? Greek or Japanese? Designed by George Barbier in art nouveau style, the version of the biblical book reeks of perfume and musk. There’s a definite air of Japonisme in the use of blank gold backgrounds and highlighted flowering branches. As if from another planet, the decadent figures are pagan and alien. The life they enjoy is their own,  lush, and metallic. I saw it on display at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last April (2014) over at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books. Infinitely kind, my mother always lets me photograph the books that interest me.

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Shadows & Silhouettes (Martin Buber)

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They announced to me nothing other than their presence. And they did this with the precision of a shadow…Look at the ground, at the shadows of the trees as they stretch themselves over our path. Have you ever seen in the upper world of the trees a branch so outlined, so clear, so abstract as here? Is that not the branchness of the branch. Shadows –and firs f all I saw what I saw today in the theater like a shadow play: like an overly clear and still somehow unclear play. The intellectual prologue passed me by; I knew and did not know what happened…Yes what I saw was the spectacle of duality” (Martin Buber, Daniel, p.103-104)

 

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(Bloody Mess) Expressionist Chad Gadya (Menachem Birnbaum)

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My father buys one kid. Cat kills kid. Dog kills cat. Stick kills dog. Fire burns stick. Water consumes fire. Ox drinks up water. The butcher slaughters ox. Angel of death slays butcher. And God, the Holy One, kills the angel of death. That’s what we teach our children. It doesn’t get any better? Probably not. In Menachem Birnbaum’s 1919 expressionist Chad Gadya, the traditional child’s ditty is shown to be a bloody mess.  My favorite images here are the ox and the butcher. I like the dark and red muscular fleshiness and the way it fills up the page; and also the closure of the eyes as each figure goes about a function or task; and also the circular litheness of the dog energy. Anticipating Barnett Newman, the representation of God by an abstract white zip of a line is pretty good. I saw this at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books.

 

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Moshe and Sorel (The Pressburg Haggadah of Hatam Sofer)

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I saw this 1924 facsimile copy of the Pressburg Haggadah at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books this year at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. I’m sure I’m getting details wrong but apparently the ms. was  presented to the Chatam Sofer to mark his in wedding to Sorel, daughter of R. Akiva Eger, in 1815.

About this Haggadah manuscript, including its translation into German, and the more general practice of the Hatam Sofer, Meir Hildesheimer writes,  “[I]n 1816, Rabbi Moshe ben Natan  Hacohen, a pupil of the Hatam Sofer, wrote the Pesah Haggadah in artistic form, including a German translation in Hebrew characters, and various other decorations. As it happens, it was the custom of the Hatam Sofer to recite the Haggadah on Pesah eve both in Hebrew and in German.”‘ The translation is identical to that of Yoel Brull, and was in time ascribed to Mendelssohn.” (Meir Hildesheimer,  “The Attitude of the Hatam Sofer toward Moses Mendelssohn,” in “Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research,” 60, 1994, p.186 [p.47])

You can see the German translation in Hebrew script constituting the top of the left column of the page. The original illuminated figures are crude, while the use of color is sparing and quite delicate. No, Moshe ben Natan was no great artistic talent. The architectural exteriors and interiors seem all misshapen. I wonder why he chose or was asked to illustrate the plague of frogs in the king’s palace, as this is a fairly atypical choice. I’m wondering if it was intended as a rebuke of court Jews in the service of gentile rule.

I’ll note that that this book, with its art and German translation, was in the possession of the Hatam Sofer, a dedicated opponent to Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. On both counts, the Pressburg Haggadah would run counter to the grain of what one might ordinarily expect of someone of the Hatam Sofer’s reputation or from his social milieu.

The dedication to Sorel is more obviously traditional, describing her in terms of dignified modesty, while highlighting the status of her husband in the holy congregation of Pressburg. The calligraphic work is as floral as the decorative motifs that surround it. The dedication, which I found written out online, reads as follows

שייך להרבנית האשה החשובה, צנועה מכל הנשים באהל תבורך, מפז היא יקרה, ומפנינים מפוארה, לאישה היא עטרה, כל כבודה פנימה, פרשה לעני כפה, ושלחה לאבין ידיה, אילת אהבים ויעלת חן, אשת חיל מרת שרל אשת הגאון הגדול מוהרר משה סופר אב”ד ור”מ דק”ק פ”ב יע”א, לשם תפארת ותהלה, ולתת שבח והודיה, לשמות הגדולים הנזכרים, ונעשים פה בראשי תיבות, ואלו הן * שירות רוממות להגיד אף שארי תהלות הבורא, גבורותיו אגיד ורב נפלאותיו, הוא גדרדרכי, ויפנה לי מסילה, ויביאני האהלה רב רבי משנתו שמנה ההלכות סגולתו ותפארתו, פועלרברביא, איש ברורה דברתו, והוא ריש מלכיא דאורייתא, קול קדושת פיו בוטא יקרת עילת אלהא דשמיא וארעא יתברך בפי על כי הגדיל לעשות לי כל הכבוד הזה, להעביר מנחה הבאה בידי ה”ק משה הכהן

In bold letters, the acrostic spells out שרל אשת הגאון הגדול מוהרר משה סופר אב”ד ור”מ דק”ק פ”ב יע”א, or, Sorel, wife of the great Gaon my Master and Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of the Holy Congregation of Pressburg, God protect it.

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Palestinian Students Visit Auschwitz (Professor Mohammed Dajani)

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Professor Mohammed S. Dajani of Al-Quds University took a group of twenty-seven students to visit Auschwitz. It created a bitter reaction on campus, and the Al-Quds University administration disowned any connection to the trip, which is not surprising but very disappointing. Professor Dajani has no regrets. The article appeared in the Washington Post. I think it’s interesting to compare this case and the decision by American college and university presidents who sought to distance themselves from the BDS decision of the American Studies Association.  Unlike faculty members who should be free to do what they think best, university administrations work under different sorts of public pressure. This brave act goes to show what’s wrong trying to zero-sum the conflict over Israel and Palestine, the way it removes its human side.

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Fine Arts & A Little Apocalypse (Marilyn Braiterman Rare Books at New York Antiquarian Book Fair) (2014)

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Mixing up worlds from the fin de siecle at Marilyn Braiterman Rare Book, where fine arts Judaica are enmeshed in architecture and design. The elegant intelligence of this inventory reminds me that Jewish Studies and the German Jewish philosophical tradition have a rightful place under glass as antiquarian objects. You can find catalogues online.

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