Illuminating Judah Halevi on Tisha b’Av

We are approaching the Ninth of Av, Tisha b’Av, the fast commemorating the anniversary of the destructions of both Jerusalem Temples in 586 BCE by Babylonia, and in 70 C.E. by Rome. In preparing for Tisha b’Av, I’d like to share with you my illuminations of one of the most poignant poems of Judah Halevi, the vibrant and brilliant 12th century Spanish Jewish courtier, philosopher and poet—and my very first invited guest at the fantasy historical dinner party I’d love to host. Halevi wrote a series of poems while considering and eventually planning the pilgrimage to Israel that he made at the end of his life—and he took his name, Halevi, very seriously, regarded himself as a latter-day Levite, his own poetry as the descendants of the psalms. Raymond Scheindlin translated and explored these poems in his The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage (Oxford, 2008). I’d like to share my illuminations of one of these works, Tsion halo Tishali, or, Jerusalem! Have You No Greeting, a poem that captivates my own heart. The poem has become one of the traditional “kinot” or lamentations sung after the traditional chanting of Lamentations on the eve of Tisha b’Av.

Tsion Halo Tishali1
Jerusalem! Have You No Greeting, illuminations by Debra Band, trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin

Let’s consider the first few verses of the poetry:

Jerusalem! Don’t you have some greeting to return
to your last remaining flocks, your captive hearts,
who send you messages of love?
Here are greetings from the west and east,
from north and south,
from near and far, from every side;
greetings also from a certain man,
a captive of your love,
who pours his tears like dew on Mount Hermón,
and longs to shed them on your slopes.
My voice is like a jackal’s when I mourn your suffering,
but when I dream of how your exiles will return,
I turn into a lyre.
My heart is aching for Bethél, Peníel, Mahanáyim,
every place where saints encountered messengers from God,
where the Shekhina is your neighbor,
where your Maker made you gates that face the gates of heaven;

Halevi shares with us his love song to his lost love, the woman Jerusalem from Lamentations, as he, in twelfth century Andalusia, shares the same dream the Psalmist recounts in Psalm 126, that of returning to Jerusalem. Naomi Shemer, in turn, quoted the Halevi’s words, “I turn into a lyre,” in her beloved song, Jerusalem of Gold. Halevi’s poem has become one of the traditional kinot, laments, sung following the chanting of Lamentations. In my paintings—this poem stretches across 8 Hebrew and English paintings—I imagine the poet as a bereft lover, picking through mementos from joyful times with his lost love, spreading them on his table as he muses over their time together. The micrography that you see across these pages comprises passages from Lamentations. Let’s look at a few of these mementos across the poems, in both the poetry and the paintings.

In the first pair of Hebrew and English illuminations above, we see an imagined fragment of a mosaic showing the skyline of Second Temple Jerusalem. The painted ivory carving lying across the top presents a small ivory carving in the Israel Museum. This small furniture plaque was found in Samaria—today about a four-hour drive from Jerusalem—and is exactly contemporary with the building of Solomon’s Temple and Palace. It shows a palmette motif—one of many variations on this theme across the southern Mediterranean basin for more than 1000 years. Art historical studies indicate that given patterns traveled across wide regions in literal copybooks, with each variant copied faithfully in its region. Palmette motifs are recorded among the decorations of Solomon’s Temple and Palace, and consequently I incorporate this pattern from nearby Samaria when I want to allude, as I do here, to Judaism’s most sacred site.

Tsion Halo Tishali 2

Halevi writes of wishing he could visit all the holy places,

“I wish that I could wander
where the Lord revealed Himself
to visionaries, prophets,
wish that I had wings
so I could fly away to you, so far,
and set the fragments of my broken heart
among your jagged mountains,..”

In these paintings I complement Halevi’s musings with modern snap-shots of sites from across Israel—Nevi Samwel, the Jaffa Gate, The Tower of David, Sinai, a view of Mount Nebo, where Moses died, Rachel’s Tomb, and a pair of ivory lions symbolizing David.

Tsion Halo Tishali3
Jerusalem! Have You No Greeting, illuminations by Debra Band, trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin

Halevi writes:

Cup of sorrow, be gentle now! Let me be!
Long enough have my guts been filled with gall.
…. Jerusalem, most beautiful! You bind your hair
with love and grace
as your true friends have bound their souls to you—
your friends who are in joy when you have peace,
but ache
at your destruction, weep for your disasters,
yearn for you from their captivity,

A ribbon-bound lock of hair, as one might save from a lost lover, a spilled wine cup—the model for this overturned pinecone shaped beaker was made by a famous glass-blower in Second Temple period Sidon, speak of the poet’s loss, beside a handful of the famous Bar-Kokhba period coins (132-135 C.E.), and fragments of a broken column, modeled on one from Ramat Rahel, just outside of Jerusalem, that dates from the First Temple period.

Now, Halevi was planning his own journey to end his days in Jerusalem as he wrote this poem, with no real-world notion that Jews would flood into the Land to resettle, For Halevi, living in the midst of the Crusades when Christians and Muslims fought over control of the Jewish homeland, only the Messiah could restore the Jews to our capitol.

Tsiol Halo Tishali4
Jerusalem! Have You No Greeting, illuminations by Debra Band, trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin

“Happy the man” he wrote, “He chooses to bring near,
who makes his home within your courts.
who waits and lives to see your rising sun,
the new dawn breaking over you,
who lives to see those dear to you in bliss,
rejoicing in your joy,
when you return to what you were
when you were young.”

Now, 900 years after Halevi expressed his longing for the holy city, we indeed can travel to Israel freely, we can live in Israel, reestablish our relationship with that once-mourning woman Jerusalem, whose children again play in her courtyards and streets. These paintings show my United States passport with a State of Israel stamp, a photograph of the shofar being blown at the Kotel at the moment 50 years ago that Israel soldiers had fought their way to regain it, modern Israel grapes and wine, a photo of the Hurva Synagogue—which since I painted this image, has been completely rebuilt—an image of the subterranean stones of the Western Wall Tunnels, a snap of the Knesset, modern Israeli coins, and finally, a flowering almond branch, alluding the Jeremiah’s prophecy of the rebirth of Israel.

Let us end with a prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem, from Psalm 122, that our city might never again be destroyed, that all its peoples might live in mutual respect and serenity.

שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ

“Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;
May those who love you be at peace.”

Shalom and may you have a reflective and meaningful Tisha b’Av.

If you’d like to find out more about my work, please visit my website at www.dbandart.com. At present, as we begin to prepare for the High Holidays and then the winter holidays, I’m offering a 20% on my books, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification and Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah discount. Please visit my distributor’s store, search for the titles and enter promo code HONEYBEE2017 during checkout. Halevi translations by Raymond P. Scheindlin, from The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage (Oxford University Press, 2008). All other materials herein copyright © Debra Band 2017. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Debra Band’s works include illuminated books, ketubot and other artwork. She exhibits and lectures across the English-speaking world. Her celebrated books, fusing scholarship with fine art, illuminate the Song of Songs, Psalms, biblical women’s stories;the Friday night liturgy and customs, and her adaptation of the medieval classic, Perek Shira, All the World Praises You: an illuminated Aleph-Bet book (July 15, 2018).
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