‘DECAYING ROOTS’ shows the lamentable state of the Bhamdoun Synagogue in Lebanon. (photo credit: Blend Studios)
‘DECAYING ROOTS’ shows the lamentable state of the Bhamdoun Synagogue in Lebanon. (photo credit: Blend Studios)
Jerusalem art exhibit explores old Sephardi communities

Art, the creation thereof, draws on so many levels and areas of the human experience and condition. There is, of course, the technical side of it. If, for example, a painter does not know how to mix a couple of primary colors in order to arrive at a third, he or she is not going to get too far. Then there is that most fascinating, ephemeral and evanescent of elements – the imagination.

That generally feeds off several sources – personal experiences and, certainly in this virtual day and age, the vicarious and, possibly, the genetic too.

Knishta – Treasures from the Past is probably a combination of all of that. The exhibition of that name is currently on display at the Biennale Gallery, at the venerable former Shaare Zedek Medical Center building on Jaffa Road. It is curated by Jerusalem Biennale founder-director Rami Ozeri under whose aegis the exhibition is taking place.

The pictures in the show were created by Beverley-Jane Stewart, a Jewish British artist who, in recent years, has made a habit of presenting her work here, including at Artists House both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There have also been exhibitions in the U.K. and Italy, and in Romania whence her forebears hail. But, possibly, not only from there. Therein lies the crux of Knishta which, we are told, means gateway in Aramaic.

FIRST OFF, let’s get down to the pictorial subject matter. The principal visual elements across the exhibition are synagogues. These are not just a bunch of Jewish places of worship selected for their aesthetic appeal. The temples featured in Stewart’s etchings and monotypes were all located in North Africa and these general Middle Eastern environs. There are scenes from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all, presumably, pretty culturally extraneous for the Ashkenazi painter. Perhaps not.

 JEWISH-BRITISH artist Beverley-Jane Stewart digs into the past of Jewish communities around the world. (credit: MOOLI GOLDBERG) JEWISH-BRITISH artist Beverley-Jane Stewart digs into the past of Jewish communities around the world. (credit: MOOLI GOLDBERG)

Stewart says she looks for what binds us, our common human ground, rather than what sets us apart from each other. Many of us, she points out, have been refugees or immigrants or have that in our familial backdrop. As a definitive cultural melting point, the vast majority of people living in this country can identify with that. 

“I am trying to make people connect to the past and bring it into today,” she declares. It is generally a good idea to delve into our roots. It has been noted that, as much as we may want to ignore or even deny our past, if you don’t know where you’ve been it is hard to make significant headway into the future.

There is also the matter of the people around us and how our background not only informs who we are but also how it impacts us. “We also need to look at where we are as a multicultural society. We can’t live in complete isolation anywhere in the world, with today’s technology,” Stewart adds.

That wasn’t the case when the subjects of the etchings were vibrant religious and social concerns. But time has inexorably moved on, not always for the better. “At the time, people felt they were part of a particular community. They did that in isolation. Then, when they moved away, other cultures, unfortunately, went through similar experiences, possibly not for the same reasons.” The relocation could be due to persecution as Jews and members of other religions through the ages have known only too well; or, possibly, down to healthier reasons, such as socioeconomic progress.

Some of the synagogues Stewart researched became ruins, while others took on a different lease on life. 

I recall from my own youth in Manchester attending the bar mitzvah of a classmate at the Great Synagogue in the formerly largely Jewish district of Cheetham Hill. The local community was way past its heyday, and I found myself joining all of 12 other males for Shabbat services in a cavernous once magnificent edifice, with a capacity of several hundred. The community there eventually died out completely, and the building subsequently became a warehouse and a mosque.

Stewart conjures up the spirit and communal vibes of the synagogues she portrays, as well as the time sands continuum. “There are synagogues that turned into churches and mosques. Life goes around. It started with us [Jews], and then moved on.”

“There are synagogues that turned into churches and mosques. Life goes around. It started with us [Jews], and then moved on.”

Beverley-Jane Stewart

There is, of course, an element of sadness or, at least, nostalgia when one reflects on the generations of a Jewish community for whom the now ruined, or converted, synagogue served as a religious center and social hub. Possibly hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings took place there, not to mention the weekday, Shabbat and holiday services with all the associated ritual, pomp and circumstance.

Stewart notes that the accrued life experiences, joys and bereavements and, basically, anything and everything that goes into our existence on terra firma can also be summarily obliterated. “I think it is so sad that you can take a bomb and destroy all of that.” Bombs don’t tend to discriminate. “This exhibition is about not only respecting but also appreciating people’s differences.”

The latest installment in an ongoing series on old synagogues, Jewish communities

KNISHTA IS the latest installment in Stewart’s ongoing treatment of synagogues and Jewish communities of different leanings. Previous projects have examined the interior décor of leading synagogues in Britain and the history surrounding them. For Stewart, it is always about more than the architecture and in-house aesthetics, however sumptuous they may be. She focuses very much on trying to convey a sense of what life was like in and around the communal hub.

That comes across particularly powerfully in Once Remembered, The Dar Bishi Synagogue, an aquatint work featuring a scene from Tripoli in Libya. “It shows the glory of the synagogue,” Stewart explains. “The gold leaf [on the pillars and holy ark] is the faded glory. That’s the sort of lifestyle outside the synagogue,” she adds, indicating the left-hand side of the scene that depicts an old stonework residential building, and a narrow alleyway with figures walking along it, presumably members of the local Jewish community. 

The objective was to paint as broad a picture as possible of everyday life, in this case, Tripoli, around a century or so ago. “We are concentrating on private space in the synagogue and the public space [in the alley] – the winding lanes, the houses. That gives you some idea of what life was like as a Jew outside the synagogue.”

It is an ode to a world that has been almost completely erased. “Today, places are being destroyed. You can see [in the etching] the broken skeletons of buildings, the broken stones falling in the foreground.” That is reprised in another work called The Faded Glory of Dar Bishi Synagogue, which shows the façade of the building, with the dome, the tablets of stone signifying the Ten Commandments, and various architectural elements embellished with gold. 

That richness provides a striking contrast to the fallen pieces of timber lying in haphazard piles outside, with a mosque minaret towering up in the background. There is a palpable sense of the changing of the guard and the disappearance of a complete culture from the locale.

Stewart created a similar scene with her tribute to Shattered Spirit and Beyond, Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Damascus. The interior of the synagogue is gorgeously decked out, with golden chandeliers and gold trimmings on the wall that faces Jerusalem. The figures of the congregants, complete with kippot and tallitot, portray the once-vibrant life of regular well-attended prayer services and, presumably, lively social dynamics. Here, too, life outside the cloistered ritual and other activities in the synagogue is shown with figures standing in a cobblestone alley next to residential structures.

The Golden Era, Herat Synagogue, Afghanistan is even more emotive, with a large number of congregants praying in the gold-laden interior, echoed by golden domes in the city behind. Interestingly, there were reports that the local authority actually made efforts to restore the synagogue around a decade ago. However, it now serves as an elementary school.

Clearly, Knishta contributes to our knowledge of once-thriving Jewish communities in Islamic countries that have now almost entirely died out. There is, Stewart notes, a wider message to spread. “It is about really appreciating people’s differences. We need to respect, admire and integrate the varieties we have in our societies.”

That multicultural societal structure, naturally, ensues from migration. “That is what my story is really about,” Stewart continues. “It is about the journey, being aware of displacement. It is about rebuilding one’s life and not just for Jews. But, as a Jew, I have been concentrating on that.”

OVER THE years, Stewart has also dug into her own Romanian past, visiting various synagogues there, including in Alba Julia in Transylvania. Later, primarily during the pandemic, she produced visual renditions of synagogues from her grandparents’ homeland that developed into a Romanian synagogue series.

I was delighted, and amazed, to hear from Stewart that the synagogue in Alba Julia has now been restored to its former glory, or possibly, to an even better state. When I visited Transylvania not so many years ago, the synagogue was a total wreck. Decades of dust lay on upturned benches, frayed bits of paper and other faded documents from an all-but-forgotten past were strewn about the hall. At the time, a fundraising venture was in full flow. Happily, it seems to have been successful, and the proceeds were put to good use.

Only time will tell whether that happens at some stage or other to some of the temples Stewart features in her current exhibition. For now, we can enjoy the artist’s deftly crafted vignettes of Jewish life in places many of which currently lie beyond the political pale.

One may wonder how Stewart, with her Ashkenazi English upbringing and Romanian genes, connects with an ostensibly very different way of Jewish community life in Islamic countries. She says the Romanian venture prompted thoughts of Jewish life in other cultural climes. 

“During COVID I worked on the Holocaust, starting with Romania. Then I did work on Eastern Europe, where buildings have been demolished but the spirit of the Jews had survived. It is called Beyond the Ashes. That was about Ashkenazi people and their journey. But many of these Jews from Arab lands, even though their story is not so similar, went through persecution and a period of loss, and loss of identity, too.”

 IT ALSO transpires she has some familial collateral for the current project on display, fittingly, in the former synagogue space of Shaare Zedek. “It made me think about my own family. I had an uncle who came from Egypt, and my daughter married an Iranian rabbi. We should embrace all the different traditions. Society is so much more interesting for that.”

Stewart hopes Knishta – Treasures from the Past gets that message across and that accepting and rejoicing in diversity could do us all good. “This work is about linking people’s history with today, and what they bring with it.”

Several of the interior scenes of the synagogues are elevated, almost as if we are looking down through the eyes of a woman in the women’s ezrat nashim section. “I was a member of a traditional United Synagogue, and the women were upstairs and the men were downstairs. I used to sit with my mum, looking down. I think that resonates in a lot of my artwork.” That gave her a bird’s eye view of prayer service and ritual developments. “I love observing things and watching interaction. That came from my formative years, sitting with my mum, watching.”

She would also like mutual acceptance and respect to extend to something more akin to gender equality in religious practices. “I find it very difficult when people have to go behind a curtain [in synagogues], and they are not allowed to see the glory of the service. I don’t criticize whether women do the service or men do it. But to deprive someone of being able to see the service. I feel that is offensive.” Well put. Perhaps things were different in, say, Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. ❖

Entrance is free. Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The exhibition closes on April 18.

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