Lights of heaven

Jerusalem artist Yoram Raanan exhibits at the Heichal Shlomo Museum of Jewish Art.

Yoram Raanan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Heavenly Lights: Yoram Raanan’s Contemporary Art of Ancient Jewish Symbols,” which opened yesterday, is currently showing at the Heichal Shlomo Museum of Jewish Art. This exhibition includes large expressionist canvases, as well as paintings and sculptures using painted book covers as their medium.
In the heart of the Heichal Shlomo complex, juxtaposed to the existing exhibit of holy books rescued from Vilna, is a new presentation of Raanan’s book covers. Alongside the old Torah scrolls that hang like bodies wrapped for burial, Raanan’s painted, freestanding covers from the Babylonian Talmud’s Vilna edition bring a spirit of renewal into the historical exhibition.
Nearly 90 percent of the Jews in Vilna were murdered, but the Nazis could not extinguish our light. For thousands of years, the Babylonian Talmud has been the nexus between God and the Jews, and their history. By painting on these covers, Raanan creates a dialogue with the past that celebrates our indomitable spirit, which survived its ordeals and now flourishes anew in the Holy Land.
The Vilna exhibition recalls the Jews who boarded up their windows with holy books, to protect themselves from the bullets directed toward their homes. It displays a wall of windows filled with books that survived the Holocaust. In one small window, a door opens to a colorful book cover, which stands triumphantly painted with rich strokes of thick impasto paint. On the opposite large wall hundreds of books stand with their spines turned away, as testimonies to the unknown identities of the victims of these pogroms and the Holocaust. In a niche in this wall, a chariot painted on a book cover flies across a dark background, symbolizing our journey back to our Holy Land.
The Jews of Vilna could never have imagined that 40 years later piles of book covers with their classic designs would be rescued from the garbage bins of a printing press in Jerusalem by a contemporary artist, and recycled into a “canvas” for his stunning art. For over 20 years, Raanan has been using book covers as a painting surface, as well as in 3D sculptures.
The covers stand on their own as freestanding objects of art, and are painted on both sides. The convex and concave shape of the cover’s spine adds depth, and allows the cover to be bent into different shapes and forms.
Other covers are used in collages, attached to canvases or to other book covers. Some of these collages are shown for the first time in the side gallery.
On the left of the entrance, a large showcase displays works painted on silver, metallic “Gematrikon” book covers. The Gematrikon is a kind of kabbalistic dictionary which gives the numerical value of Hebrew letters and words. The original cover is of silver foil, with embossed letters and numbers engraved in different sizes.
Using oils, Raanan painted over the embossed areas and then scraped away some of the paint, allowing the surface to shine through in an intriguing way. The textured letters add depth and energy to the work. Here, as in much of Raanan’s work, there is a creative tension between the revealed and the hidden realms.
Concurrently, the spacious entrance gallery of the museum displays Raanan’s large canvases, which highlight major Jewish themes and symbols. All the works are created in abstract expressionist style, full of raw energy, color and movement.
Shlomit Sabbagh, the manager of the museum, comments: “Our vision at Heichal Shlomo is to establish a heritage center for the Jewish people that draws those who are questioning their roots and yet are curious about Jewish traditions.” Art is the perfect place to connect, because it engages both the heart and the head.
Allowing the creative process to lead him, Raanan says that the paintings arise both from the paint itself, and from the recesses of our collective Jewish consciousness. This artist sometimes paints with his fingers which, like magic wands, conjure up the scenes that take their form on the canvas. He is often as surprised as we are by what gets revealed in the painting process.
In Menorah Shin, the branches of the menorah look like the fingers of a hand raised in joy, and in this sense hints at the joyful reverie of its own creation.
Recently, Raanan began printing on fabric to create Torah ark curtains, exhibited here for the first time.
In Bshvili, jewel-like colors shimmer in the sunlight between the golden pillars of a numinous sanctuary. At the same time, the faint radiance of the moon ascending is enigmatic and hopeful.
Rays of blue light form pathways rising into this mysterious place.
Bshvili can be translated as “my own pathway” or “just for me,” as in the verse “The whole world was created just for me.” There are pathways leading each of us to our own dream, our own purpose and our place in the Holy Temple of the future.
Raanan earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 1975. After traveling through Europe and the Near East, he settled in Israel in 1976. Living and painting in a spacious studio in the hills leading up to Jerusalem, he is inspired by living on the land, his Jewish heritage and his intense appreciation of music.
This appreciation of music informs his art, which is akin “visual jazz,” exploring the moment driven by the energy and melody of the soul. Each work of art conveys a subtle variation of mood through illumination and vibrancy of color, evoking memories of the temple, heavenly spheres and biblical narrative.
In his paintings, there are the multidimensional layers of space and meaning. This element of multiple interpretations is an important aspect in Raanan’s work. The more one engages with his work, the more one sees.
Indeed, “Yoram Raanan’s paintings create a bridge between the past and the future, between the individual and the community, between the physical and the spiritual,” said Nurit Sirkis-Bank, curator of Heichal Shlomo Museum.
The exhibition runs through April 30 at Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo Museum of Jewish Art, 58 King George Avenue. Gallery talks will be held on March 27 in English and in Hebrew, at 11 a.m., and on April 17 at 12 noon. Works by the artist are on sale at and can be viewed at 11 Dubnov Street.
The writer is the founder and director of A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school that presents classic Judaism as a path of transformation.