A concentration camp survivor once told me that the most important thing in the world is a small - even very small - crust of bread.
I recall that back in the Depression days of the '30s, a piece of fried bread was a childhood delicacy.
All this came back to me as I visited the wonderful new Israel Museum summer show Bread: Daily and Divine, a huge exhibition exploring the role of bread in the rituals of this country's three main religions.
The show is mercifully almost completely free of conceptual art; the breads themselves, specially preserved but looking as though they have just emerged from the oven, are the stars (don't be tempted to steal a piece; the preservative is poisonous). The breads are accompanied by explanatory color photographs, archaeological artifacts, religious vessels and farm and bakery tools used in every aspect of the wheat-growing and bread-making process.
Both Judaism and Christianity assign an essential function to bread in their ceremonial meals celebrating the main rites of passage during the year. In Islam, bread is commonly referred to as "God's blessing." There are special breads for breaking the Ramadan fast, too.
The process of kneading dough and letting it rise, then shaping and baking it is a daily miracle. Bread has been around for a long time. It heralded the dawn of civilization.
"It was in order to make bread that humans learned to domesticate grain and fashion the first storage pots," says exhibition curator Noam Ben-Yossef.
The variety of bread designs for ritual purposes is astonishing and even artistic. Among the loaves on display are decorated breads with colorful dyed eggs symbolizing joy; consecrated breads such as the Holy Host for the confirmation ceremonies of boys and girls; a 12 kg. halla made for a first-born male child redemption ceremony; an elaborate "bride bagel" broken over a Jewish couple's head as a blessing of fertility and abundance; and bags for dough hung over the doorpost of a bridegroom's home in Arab communities. Carved stone and wooden stamps for marking decorative or divine symbols are also on view. Decades ago, I used to purchase these in the Old City.
Bread is still a symbol of social unrest in Israel. Installations and films document nearly a century of protests in which the slogan Lechem! Avoda! (bread and work) was and still is the ultimate expression of Israeli social protest.
Another section of the exhibition traces local bread-making processes, from the seed planted in the soil to the fresh loaf delivered to the table, via demonstrations of both personal home-baking expertise and commercial bread production.
Particularly fine are the sculptural tools from the early 20th century used in the fields, and others used in bakeries. In the baking of the large, flat pita esh tanur, both Arabs and Jews still use a cushion to slap the pita dough onto the hot walls of a masonry Arab-style oven.
The photography throughout, by many hands, is superb as well as didactic. There are shots of most of the ceremonials, like the taking of the wafer in the Catholic mass. There's an action click of Jerusalem haredim enjoying the mitzva of making Pessah matza; and a matching array of special Greek Orthodox breads for Easter. Most of the breads are laid out on tables and well lit.
As we (nearly) all eat bread (I love Russian rye), I suppose we have to accept the secular examples of contemporary art included (and partly hidden in the rear). I was rather dismayed by Hanna Fuad Farah's Moon Skin, a huge curtain made of strings of hundreds of pitot rising out of a sea of flour on the floor. My Depression era upbringing jibs at the waste of food.
Incidentally, the basic loaf in Israel is cheaper than anywhere else in the world and was once used to feed not people, but chickens.
Photographs by Orit Raff, one of a wall of empty flour sacks, are excellent. And an impeccably brought off academic oil, Bread and Water by Aram Gershuni, also adorns the cover of the wonderful and fully-illustrated Hebrew catalogue to the show (an English edition is promised).
Hopefully, this fine effort will bring local Christians and Muslims to the museum. (Weisbord Entrance Pavilion, Israel Museum.)
ANOTHER NEW Israel Museum show, now at the Youth Wing and devoted to shadows and silhouettes, is a disappointing effort. There is an over-preponderance of silhouettes that no matter how well done are of limited interest, whatever the cultural stories attached to them may be. Cast shadows are of limited interest, too.
What this show should have concentrated on is the fact that light and shadow in painting, the dramatics aside, were chiefly a way of describing volume; and that shadows on the figures of a nude or other sitters are often filled with reflected light. Both academic and impressionist art also dealt with the temperatures of light and shade. Shadows were cooler than lit areas, though often at least partly illuminated by warm areas of reflected light. All this could have been demonstrated with both paintings and special illustrations of their details. Instead, this show offers elaborate but useless installations of cast shadow and many local and international art works that are beside the point.
Children are interested in learning how things work, not how they relate to cultural or political legends. Teach them how to color an arm in light and shade and you will make them ever grateful. (Both shows till October.)