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Celebrating Purim, Bezalel-Style: The Hebraic Section Welcomes a New Acquisition

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Figure 1. Megillat Ester (Scroll of Esther). Manuscript on parchment. Jerusalem, Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, ca. 1920. Silver case with filigree borders; etched and repoussé vignette of Haman leading the horse of Mordechai the Jew, with backdrop of Shushan. Bezalel and Jerusalem etched on barrel and on thumbpiece. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

This year, the Hebraic Section celebrates the Jewish holiday of Purim with a splendid new Scroll of Esther, the biblical book retelling the familiar story of palace intrigue in ancient Persia and of the Jewish Queen Esther, who saved her people from destruction. It is a story rich in royal imagery and, at least since the middle of the 17th century, rich in possibilities for the artist and scribe. In many cases these scrolls are some of the most beautiful pieces of Judaica imaginable, decorated with lavish color and skill or encased in specially made holders of silver or wood. Our newly acquired Scroll of Esther is not decorated, but the delicacy of its lacy silver filigree case makes for a striking contrast, both in color and style, with the bold Hebrew text handwritten on parchment, beautifully darkened by age. The silver filigree case was made by master craftsmen in the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, sometime during the early decades of the 20th century.

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Bezalel opened its doors in 1906 thanks to the support of influential public figures in the Jewish world, and with the active assistance of the 7th World Zionist Conference, which took place in Basle in 1905. But it was the brainchild of one man: Boris Schatz (1866-1932), court sculptor to Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria – and a man with a dream. Like many Jewish figures in his day, Schatz was thinking long and hard about Jewish cultural renewal, and his dream was to renew Jewish culture through art; a new style of art blending the best of East and West. More than this, Schatz envisioned a Utopian society in which the arts and crafts would flourish anew in the ancient homeland, and in which artists and artisans were also the tillers of the soil. In his rejection of modern technology and the mechanization of production, Schatz was not unlike such contemporary visionaries as John Ruskin and Walter Crane, both advocates of a kind of Utopian vision for art. Schatz developed many of his ideas in two major writings, one his utopian novel “Yerushalem ha-Benuyah” (Jerusalem Rebuilt); the other an autobiographical essay accompanying images of his artistic oeuvre, published in Jerusalem in 1925 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. “Boris Schatz: Hayav ve-Yetsirato” (Boris Schatz: His Life and Work). Signed and numbered copy (no.5). Jerusalem, 1925. Large Folio. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

When Schatz decided to call his dream-school of art “Bezalel,” it was both a stroke of genius and the natural choice of a man steeped in the Bible. It was Bezalel ben Uri, after all, whom God chose to build the Tabernacle in the desert, and in his writings Schatz notes the way Herzl’s eyes lit up at the choice of the name. And like its biblical predecessor, Bezalel the institution filled its students “with wisdom and understanding and knowledge of every craft, to devise intricate work in gold and silver and copper; in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood” (Exodus: 31:1-5). Not to mention a whole slew of other crafts, such as weaving and ceramics.

Bezalel set an ambitious agenda from the start. It was to be both a school of fine art for students from abroad and a center for local crafts; a night school for adults and a day school for children; the means of Jewish cultural regeneration and the source of livelihood for hard-pressed families; a catalyst for Jewish cultural life and a kind of community center. It even became a school for teaching Hebrew since members of the Bezalel community hailed from all parts of the Jewish world and the use of Hebrew welded them into a single whole.

Figure 3. Artists painting outside Bezalel (today’s Artists’ House in Jerusalem). Boris Schatz stands left center, smiling through his beard at the camera (ca. 1911). Photo taken by Leo Kahn. Palastina im Bild. Vienna, 1912. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

In the early years, Bezalel seemed to go from strength to strength, each year adding new departments, new students, new teachers; some from abroad, others from local Jewish families in and around Jerusalem. Each year, group photographs show more and more people of both sexes and all ages overflowing the steps and open courtyard before the main building of the school, located first in a large Turkish-style house on the Street of Ethiopians, and from 1908, in the walled, crenellated building known to so many today as Beit ha-Omanim (Artists House) in central Jerusalem. In the same year, Schatz launched a department for fine silverwork with two Jewish silversmiths from Yemen; five years later, in 1913, he was proudly reporting 80 employees in the same department and more than 12,000 francs worth of merchandise a year. The “Silver Filigree Department” was largely composed of skilled Jewish silversmiths from Yemen, most of whom had emigrated to the Holy Land in the 1880s, or their descendants. The exquisite silver objects they turned out – filigree cases for scrolls, silver mezuzot for doorways in Jewish households, fine utensils for Sabbath and holidays – were soon sold along with other Bezalel crafts from a shop opened in 1912 just outside the Jaffa Gate of the old walled city of Jerusalem, mostly to tourists visiting the Holy Land, or in the exhibits that Schatz organized in major cities across the Americas and Europe.

Figure 4. Workshop of the Bezalel colony in Ben-Shemen (ca. 1911). Photo by Leo Kahn. Palastina im Bild. Vienna, 1912. The craftsmen dwelled in separate huts with attached plots of land for farming. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Figure 5. Yemenite Jewish silversmiths at work in the Bezalel colony in Ben-Shemen (ca. 1911). Photo by Leo Kahn. Palastina im Bild. Vienna, 1912. Hebraic Section.

Objects of silver filigree sold out of all proportion to other products from the Bezalel workshops, and in 1911 Schatz opened a satellite workshop in the hills of Ben-Shemen, near Lod, hoping to turn his Yemenite employees into farmers as well as craftsmen, thereby giving full reign to his Utopian dreams. But the Ben-Shemen colony was not a success. The artisans did not like being farmers, felt like stepchildren in their relations with Jerusalem, and in 1914 the colony disbanded (Ofrat, p. 149). But in Jerusalem, the work in silver filigree remained one of the most successful departments in Bezalel to the end, which came – at least for a while – in 1929.

Figure 6. Detail of grape-leaf design etched on spindle of the scroll case. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Our newly acquired scroll case has a kind of restrained elegance that makes it one of the finest Bezalel articles of its kind. But in other ways it is highly representative of Bezalel work as a whole. Our silver scroll case exhibits many of the motifs that became synonymous with the Bezalel school of art between 1906-1929: pictorial figures from the Bible (in this case Haman and Mordechai); Hebrew script worked into the design scheme; and flowering nature associated with the Land of Israel (note the grape-leaves etched on the spindle, Figure 6). And like many, if not most of the objects from the early Bezalel canon, it bears the words “Jerusalem” and “Bezalel,” both on the barrel of the piece and again on the thumbpiece. There is no date on the object, making it yet another example of what one scholar has called “the problem of dating many examples of early Bezalel art.” True, the word “Jerusalem” is spelled without the yud (ירושלם), a factor which used to argue for an earlier date, but which has since been shown to be inconclusive as evidence for dating any Bezalel piece (Shilo-Cohen, p. 250). Nor do we know the name of the artist who created the design, nor of the silversmith who translated it into silver. It is tempting to find similarities between our own silver case and those signed by known artists such as Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970), whose designs for silver were always carried out by Yehia Yemeni (1897-1983), a master silversmith who joined Bezalel at the tender age of eleven (Goldman Ida, p. 80). But in the end, perhaps it does not really matter who, precisely, made our silver scroll case or when, exactly, it was created. Our beautiful new acquisition simply breathes “Bezalel,” with all its milestones for modern Jewish culture, and all the aspirations and dreams it implies. And as such, it remains important for us today and intensely, magnificently alive.

Bibliography:

  1. Gideon Ofrat, “Moshavat “Bezalel” in Ben-Shemen, 1910-1913,” Cathedra 20 (1981): 123-164.
  2. Nurit Shilo-Cohen, ed. “Bezalel shel Schatz, 1906-1929.” Jerusalem: Israel Museum of Art, 1983. A magnificent catalogue of an exhibit marking 75 years since the death of Boris Schatz, with important articles by leading scholars and curators.
  3. Batsheva Goldman Ida, “Ze’ev Raban: Simbolist Ivri,” Tel-Aviv Museum of Art and Yad Yitzhak ben-Zvi, Jerusalem, 2001.

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