Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Miracles of Survival

by Susan Weinberg

With Hanukkah fast approaching we turned our attention to the menorah (also known as the hanukiya).

"Where do you place your hanukiya?" asked the rabbi. This was a question that had never occurred to me.

"Somewhere that won't start a fire or drip wax in hard to clean places, " I thought.  Apparently this is a question that has drawn considerable thought.

Living rooms by windows seemed to be the most common place with one placed outdoors on a rock next to the door, actually the closest to the recommended location.  Mine sits on a table in my kitchen before a bay window.

Those of us who were asked to describe Hanukkah to our grade school classes knew well that Hanukkah was a minor holiday, elevated to balance the scales with Christmas.  The reality is that of sixty-three volumes from the rabbis, Hanukkah warranted a paragraph.

So let's take a look at what we do know. Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem. It celebrates a miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight nights. The Hanukkah menorah derived from the menorah in the Temple which had seven branches, but the one used for Hanukkah has eight and the Shamash, used to light the other candles. In the tent of the tabernacle it was placed on the southern wall (Exodus 40:24). I quickly considered the direction my menorah faced - south! -quite by accident.

The first Temple had ten candelabras. Perhaps one of the best known images of the menorah from the second Temple is the image on the
Arch of Titus in Rome.

We  get a few more instructions (see handout- Windows on the World). We are to place the menorah near the the entrance, but outside or in a window that can be seen by the public.  Anticipating dangerous times when one might not wish to be so public,  we are told that it is sufficient to place it on a table. The menorah should be arranged from east to west and was to be opposite the mezuzah. An unresolved debate ensued between the rabbis as to whether it should be to the right or the left of the door. We are to light the menorah at home instead of only at the synagogue and we are to light it at the threshold of the house.

Why do we light it at home? This isn't a religious holiday so we may not go to synagogue and the home is the center of Jewish life.  We light it at the threshold or place it near a window to publicize the miracle. And why opposite the mezuzah?  So we are surrounded by mitzvot. According to Kabbalah, on the right we have chesed, God's kindness. On the left we have the sign of strength, the Maccabees. When we walk across the threshold we are surrounded with each mirroring the other in a balance of opposites.

The second part of our session was an artist-led session by David Sherman on the Transfer of Memory project.  David photographed forty-four survivors and paired his photographs with a brief text of their story written by Lili Chester. The project has traveled widely and was designed with portable walls that lend themselves to that concept. David took us through the dictionary definition of survival, continuing to live despite difficult circumstances. He then turned his attention to the people he photographed noting the different ways that they defined survival from fighting back to finding a safe haven, to the kindness of a friend to being saved by a stranger.  He did both color and black and white photographs, but decided to go with color as it created a sense of the people as being part of society. He noted that the black and white photographs seemed to freeze them in time and create a more documentary feeling. The photographs were done in their homes and he sought to keep the nuances that created a sense of the person. For example, in the image of George Sirosi (left) he left his glasses hanging from his shirt, no doubt a common habit.

David still hopes to publish the black and white images which offer a different artistic quality.  There are some upcoming exhibitions at the Lindbergh and Humphrey airports if you would like to see the work.

David closed by talking about the 2017 [Re] Telling exhibition at the Tychman-Shapiro Gallery which was a response to the artwork of Holocaust artist Fritz Hirschberger. Hirschberger worked from an original Auschwitz photograph that he turned into a painting. David then retold it by converting it back to a different kind of photograph.

It occurs to me as I write this, that David's topic of survival is a very appropriate partner to our discussion of the Maccabees. To survive extreme hardship and keep one's spirit intact is certainly something to celebrate, whether it is the Maccabees or survivors of the Shoah.