The keeper of false memories

Israeli artist Dor Levy transforms Hamidrasha Gallery into a nightly spectacle of an unreachable synagogue in Beirut.

A still image from Dor Zkekha Levy's newest work 'Shomer.'  (photo credit: Courtesy)
A still image from Dor Zkekha Levy's newest work 'Shomer.'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A man wearing IDF uniforms stands looking at the façade of Maghen Abraham (Abraham’s Shield) synagogue in Beirut, Lebanon. The year is 1982, and the Israeli army is advancing into Lebanon with the intention of taking sides in the Civil War that had ravaged the country since 1975.
Three years into the war, the Israelis step in with a plan: They will help the leader of the Lebanese Christian minority – Bachir Gemayel – to win, and in return, Israel would finally have an ally in the region.
Gemayel is murdered in 1982, and the IDF remains in Lebanon until 2000, when then prime minister Ehud Barak orders a withdrawal. The man photographed does not know this. On the earphones, each visitor to the exhibition receives we hear a voice speaking in Hebrew.
“For me,” the voice explains, “having been born and raised there, it was a powerful experience to return to the city as an adult man in an army. I can’t discuss what I did, but we did some great things over there, things that really helped people.”
As we progress into the exhibition we learn surprising new things about the synagogue, that it was damaged during an Israeli bombing is one. That the PLO – the same terrorist group Israel demanded exit Lebanon (it did, in 1982) – actually posted guards defending it from looters is another.
The exhibition, titled Shomer, was created by Dor Zlekha Levy and is now on display at Hamidrasha Gallery. Night screenings of the synagogue on the gallery’s façade seem to transplant the physical building, still in Beirut after renovations, to the heart of the first Hebrew city.
As we ascend the staircase, we witness an architectural movie that presents us with an attempt to display a model of the synagogue to match the words we hear. When the speaker explains how, as a child, the seats in the men’s section looked huge and, as an adult, they looked small, we are shown close-ups and long-shots of the chairs. When the voice speaks about the abandoned house of worship, we see the chairs covered in grime and a tree growing from the floor.
YET LEVY is not interested in a nostalgic homage to a Jewish memory site in Lebanon. The voice belongs to an actor who is playing a part based on a real interview Levy conducted. The work deals with the tricks memory plays on us. For example, the speaker explains how much he loves Lebanon and still feels it is his homeland, seemingly oblivious to the impression his return to Beirut as part of an occupying force might have had on his former neighbors.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Levy, who is descended from Iraqi Jewish immigrants, openly discusses the complexities he and others of his generation feel when the matter of Arab culture and legacy is brought up.
“I most certainly deal with nostalgia to the so-called good old days,” he says, “but this is material I use from an artistic point of view.” Those who wish to see an exact replica of the synagogue as it once was will have to search elsewhere, this is a project about how people remember or fail to remember things.
“I have no doubt that the Iraq I was told of doesn’t exist anymore,” he explains. “I saw Iraq being burned [during the Gulf War and the Iraq War] on the television screen. This creates a gap that cannot be breached between what, for example, my family speaks of and the reality of Iraq today.”
He adds that, as an Israeli, he is barred from entering Iraq and most Arab countries in the region. In that sense, those born to Jewish immigrants from the Arab world who came to Israel found themselves at an odd spot. Valued for their intimate knowledge of Arabic and Arab culture in the intelligence community and the security services, they were cut off from a civilization that might have disappointed them, but was still close to their hearts.
“Iraq, for me, is doomed to remain a virtual space,” he says, “just as Lebanon is. So because I can’t go and sort things out for myself, this becomes a great starting point for an artistic project.”
Levy spoke with dozens of people before selecting to use this specific interview and, as he says, “sat down to preserve a building that had already been preserved.”
Lebanese construction firm Solidere, which is owned by the family of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was involved in the renovation work. While the site does not currently offer religious services to the tiny Jewish community in Lebanon on a regular schedule it is possible to arrange a visit to observe it from the inside, for those who don’t hold Israeli passports.
Just as the PLO made a point using the Jewish site, so did the terrorist group Hezbollah, claiming that Jewish people have lived in Lebanon for centuries and their concern is with Israel, not Jews.
Speaking about his meetings with Lebanese who took pictures of the site and passed them to him when they met in a third country, Levy speaks about the hard work that went into ensuring that the windows visitors see in the film recreate the exact view-point of the person who took the image and offered it to him.
“There is a totally personal experience of being within a moment without really being there in the flesh,” he says, “who is the guardian and who is the attacker in such cases?”
In 2017, the Post described an earlier exhibition created by Levy and musician Aviad Zinemanas as on the same beat as Arnold Schonberg and Wassily Kandinsky. The Maqamat exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art also focused on a historical memory – that of the 1932 First International Congress of Arab Music in Cairo. Writing about the exhibition, Eyal Sagui Bizawe informs us that “playing string instruments is forbidden by Islamic law, it was mostly Jews who learned to play them.” In the 2017 exhibition, David Regev Zaarur is recorded playing the qanun, the same instrument played by his illustrious great-grandfather Yusuf Zaarur during the Cairo congress.
In that work, the music is “manipulated by electronic means as the mood ebbs and flows between soothing Middle Eastern sounds and vibes of a far more energized and contemporary nature,” wrote the Post’s Barry Davis.
Bizawe, who is of Jewish-Egyptian descent, directed the 2015 documentary Arab Movie, which tells the story of how exactly Egyptian films smuggled into Israel illegally via Palestinians became a hit when aired on the only black and white television channel operating in the Jewish state.
Unlike Levy or Zaarur, who descend from Iraqi Jews, Bizawe is able to visit Egypt and often writes about his experiences there, noting that it is a strange feeling to need a visa to go to a place you see as your homeland.
MUSIC AND SOUND take an important place in the artistic work Levy does, in Songs of the Next War, for example, he re-mixed an old record he found on which Mizrahi singers sang – in Arabic – songs mocking Arab leaders and praising Israeli ones during the 1967 Six Day War.
“These songs are exactly like the songs being produced in Arab countries at the time,” he says, except they’re in reverse. “There is a wealth of historical lives that existed here and they don’t add up with the narrative we are usually told on who is a friend and who is a foe.”
He told the Post that after playing the mix in a lecture in a third country, people from Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon told him they really identified with the music.
This is an ongoing element in Levy’s work, not to use the past as an academic, a tour guide or a political activist would – but to use it with the energy and modifications of today.
“There’s no point to preserve a building that already had been restored,” he points out, “yet that building [in today’s Lebanon] almost doesn’t produces new memories [as almost no Jews use it now], that site had been blocked” to him and others like him.
Many of his works, such as 2016’s Umbra at the Ticho House Museum in Jerusalem, request the visitor begin in darkness and lend an ear to the music being played. In this position of the in-between, Umbra allows the viewer to see two rosettes as filmed from the inside of an oud as the string-instrument plays a Jewish hymn. “I am busy creating freedom of movement,” Levy says, “[the same one] I wish to have in reality.”

Shomer by Dor Zlekha Levy and curated by Avi Lubin will be on display until October 19 at Hamidrasha Gallery, 19 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv.
The works mentioned can be experienced via Levy’s website.