Page 10, 9th February 1979

9th February 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 9th February 1979 — Ins and outs of Jewish art

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Locations: Jerusalem, Newport, Florence


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Ins and outs of Jewish art

I HAVE always taken it as axiomatic that the Jews had no visual arts. There is no such thing as Jewish architecture, and seeing the

way they were harried I am not surprised.

The late and rather tiresome Bernard Berenson, a New Englander who presided over the arts with great and dictatorial elegance in Florence and brought up a whole generation of museum curators, whose say-so was enough to authenticate or dismiss an Old Master, whose valet used to warm his wristwatch in the morning before he put it on, had this to say: "Jews ... have displayed little talent for the visual and almost none for the figurative arts ... To the Jews belonged the splendours and raptures of the word."

Sigmund Freud thought that the biblical prohibition about graven images "signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea; it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses ..."

So, although there are certain universal symbols like the sevenbranched candlestick and the Star of David, there is no special style for a synagogue. There is a rich synagogue near Hyde Park where I and several other journalists, all looking rather absurd in hats, waited outside because a controversial rabbi was going to preach.

I cannot remember the details, except that a worshipper with some percipience came up to us and hissed at us: "Vultures!" But inside, it was vaguely romanesque, rich, rather uncertain.

All of these places have a large, locked tabernacle where the sacred Scrolls of the Law are kept and then cradled in a man's arm, are carried through the people. But there it ends. For the most part synagogues were built in the contemporary and local style.

remember one in Newport, Rhode Island, which looked like an elegant, evangelical meetinghouse with brass chandeliers and white woodwork and an elegant gallery for the ladies.

In the Meir Sharim district, where the most Orthodox live in Jerusalem, there must be a dozen little synagogues, very plain and poor, where men in long coats with beards and ringlets chant and pray almost as if they were alone.

It is not as beautiful ritual, and the men rock from side to side as they pray. The music is sometimes heartrending. But it is absurd to judge it by Catholic standards since it is the words alone that matter, and one does not know Hebrew.

They wear prayer-shawls and some of them strap phylacteries to their foreheads and arms which are like wooden boxes containing prayers. The result is not elegant.

In the Jewish quarter of Old Jerusalem they have dug out and restored a network of underground synagogues. They are veyr small and special places, and compel awe. One of them has a baroque Venetian reredos (screen) which could do for a church but which is the container for the scrolls.

But recently I have come across a book on "Hebrew Manuscript Painting" by Joseph Gutmann. The scrolls were never decorated, but some of the books were, in exactly the style of the civilisation in which they were made — except that the initial letters are on the right hand side of the page, Hebrew being read from right to left.

So there are paintings that appear to be Persian miniatures or Arab decorations. And there arc lovely medieval illuminations, all of Old Testament subjects of course, which could be from precious Christian holy books. There is, of course, no image of God.

There is a nice set of the Plagues of Egypt with frogs jumping all over King Pharoah (who looks like King John of England) and with more of the vermin, very creepy-crawly, over everything. Even some of the Hebrew lettering turns Gothic in style. With the possible exception of' the Anglo-Irish ascendancy — and they were spoiled by their preoccupation with horses— the Jews have no real peers for their sheer cleverness. They are tremendous in music and philosophy and literature.

Their cooking is delicious. They can be almost suicidally witty. But I never knew that for centuries they have been producing such lovely books. Not all Jews, however, approve of

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