I could hear the rushing flow of water long before I saw the striking sculpture from which it flowed, its white tile surface gleaming in the Jerusalem sunshine.
Several weeks ago, I returned from my first journey to Israel where I walked among archaeological sites representing thousands of years of social, political and religious history. With direction from enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides Gideon Har-Hermon and Ziv Cohen, my colleagues from the American Jewish Press Association and I traced the steps of ancestors whose influences remain though their bones have faded into dust.
The sculpture was on the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. At that moment, I did not realize that it was an integral piece of the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Descending into the darkness of the underground chamber where the Scrolls are displayed, our chatty group fell silent. A Torah-like pillar glowed from the center. I looked up and realized that the ceiling was the underside of the fountain, its shape symbolic of the jars in which the nearly 2,000-year-old Scrolls had been preserved and found.
The artistic display connected these ancient objects to their original context while creating a bridge to the present. For me, this is the essence of art: communicating thoughts, emotions, experiences, and yes, even history.
The purpose of my visit was to understand Israel in a way that I could not through other people's descriptions. It is tempting to define Israel simply in terms of the ancient because historically significant sites permeate the landscape. However, focusing solely on relics of the past misses the point. Israel is a living, breathing entity. Her complex political, social and religious structures, like those of our own country, beg for analysis, for context. Israel's art overcame language, cultural and generational barriers, and enhanced my appreciation for this geographically small but globally significant nation.
How many is 1.5 million?
The Children's Memorial at Yad Vashem was designed to help students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust in which 1.5 million children under age 18 were killed.
"How do you show that large of a number? It's too big for a child to comprehend," said Yad Vashem guide Dr. Edna Wilchfort. A line of broken pillars of different heights, an image reminiscent of a family portrait, topped the hill toward which we walked.
"How many is 1.5 million?" she asked. Her question hung in the air as we entered the cave-like opening below the pillars and then surrounded by darkness, haunting music and a somber voice that called names, one by one. Slowly, from the oppressive black appeared a single, far-away light. Then 10. Then 1,000. Then tens of thousands-more than eyes could see, more than anyone could count. Like stars in the clearest night sky, they softly brightened the room with a dim light. We understood the depth and breadth of 1.5 million lives lost. I felt the painful impact of that message for many hours afterward.
Israel's art, in the form of the memorial, told the story that words could not.
Ancient history lights the night
Days later, we experienced the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, located in the Old City. The story of Jerusalem is detailed in the permanent exhibits housed throughout this archeological site, where visitors can get a 360-degree view of Jerusalem from the top of The Citadel's towers. After dusk, the museum came to life with The Night Spectacular. Light, music, and sound were projected from and onto every surface of the courtyard in a multimedia telling of Jerusalem's history. Who would have thought to use The Citadel as a mega movie screen? Modern technology creatively connected past to present.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art offered art in a more traditional sense. We visited the one-year-old Herta and Paul Amir wing that houses "The Museum Presents Itself: Israeli Art from the Museum Collection." Selected works wove a framework of viewpoints regarding modern Israel from the early 1900s through today. A colleague and I searched for connections between the words and phrases painted on the surfaces of the museum's walls. We debated the meaning of the texts and wondered whether artist Douglas Gordon had some kind of hidden message within the work as a whole.
Our conversation was appropriate. We were in Israel, after all - a place of history with a level of mystery that, like art, leaves interpretation and understanding up to the beholder.
Whether you are interested in traveling to Israel, the Former Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Latin America, you can find a trip to take you there. Destinations change from year to year, but wherever there is Jewish community, there are JUF Missions. Visit www.juf.org/missions or call (312) 357-6260 for more information.