Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Mischievous angels: From Jerusalem to Brooklyn

The third portion of Leviticus, Shemini/Eighth, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, April 2, 2016.

See how my wife Miriam and I link this Torah portion to our life together through photographs and tweets that reach out to the world through the blogosphere and twitterverse: and in my newest book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life

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Shemini/Eighth (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

“God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, telling them to speak to the Israelites, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the earth.” (Leviticus 11:1)

Living in Brooklyn, it seemed that mischievous angels had planted kosher shops in our neighborhood uprooted from Jerusalem and Bnai Brak.

Mel made paintings of food shops reflecting a misplaced reality and digitized angels ascended from fragmented images of other shops.

Angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to teach us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.

Jews survived centuries displaced from their homeland by creating discrete communities of kosher food eaters.

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Back home, we photographed a meat restaurant in Bnai Brak, an ice cream shop in Jerusalem, and our favorite pizzeria in Petah Tikva.

This Torah portion provides a lengthy list that separates mammals, birds, fish and insects that Jews can eat from those they cannot eat.

Through discerning what is kosher every time we eat, we develop skills for distinguishing what can add holiness to all our life’s choices.

Restrictions on eating meat are designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life until a time when a vegetarian diet will prevail.

“The wolf will dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and a calf, a young lion and a lamb will walk together, and a little child shall lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young ones will lie down together; and a lion will eat hay like cattle.” (Isaiah 11:6-7)

We end each week with the havdalah (meaning ‘separation’) ceremony honoring the divine act of making distinctions:

“Between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and other nations, between the seventh day and six days of work.”


The text below is from my book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York supplied photographs of etchings and drawings of winged people that Rembrandt had made to represent angels. I digitized them and began to manipulate them with computer graphics programs with the intention of using them in paintings and prints. My sudden interest in computer angels came at a time when I was involved in making a series of paintings of storefronts. I got into storefronts as a result of a discussion with Louise Nevelson on the ugliness of Brooklyn. After living for seven years in the bright light of the Negev mountains, finding myself in Brooklyn gave me aesthetic blues. The Brooklyn sky looked sidewalk gray. The sidewalks were dirty, the buildings drab. I missed the flowers that bloomed beside the Negev streams after the first winter rain: red anemones, poppies with paper-thin petals, black irises with sun-yellow cores, and clusters of bell-shaped flowers named iyrit, my daughter’s name.

I met Louise Nevelson in her elegantly furnished home on Mott Street, where SoHo meets Chinatown and Little Italy. As head of the art department at Pratt Institute, I had come to invite her to speak at commencement. While complaining about my unsightly neighborhood, she pointed to a rocking chair across from where I was sitting. She told me about an art critic who had come to interview her for ARTnews and had the chutzpah to ask her why she owned such an ugly, kitsch rocking chair. Louise lectured me in her deep voice, “I told him that he should see the amazing shadows that the rocker casts each morning when the sun streams in. Mel, you need to be receptive of subtle bits of beauty, and they will jump out at you even on Brooklyn streets.”

They did not quite jump out at me. They floated towards me in slow motion as in a dream. Maybe more like the after-image formed when you stare at a green, black, and orange American flag and see a red, white, and blue one when you look away. It happened early one Sunday morning while I was out on Avenue J buying fresh-baked bagels and the Sunday paper. For some reason, I turned around as I left the bagel shop. I stopped and stared at the storefront as if I had seen it for the first time. Neon Hebrew words danced above the food-filled windows.

I rushed home, ate breakfast, and returned to Avenue J with my camera to photograph the food stores. Next to the bagel shop was Isaac’s kosher bakery topped with the words chalav yisrael (milk under rabbinical supervision all the way from cow to cake). In the three blocks between the train tracks and Coney Island Avenue, there were more bagel shops, kosher meat markets, kosher fish markets, kosher cheese stores, kosher take-out food places, kosher doughnut shops, and fruit and vegetable stands run by Jewish immigrants from Odessa. I photographed two kosher Chinese restaurants with oriental-sounding names: Glatt Chow and Shulchan Low (shulchan means table in Hebrew, glatt is a Yiddish word referring to “unblemished lungs,” a sign of especially kosher meat). I finished my roll of film on three kosher pizza parlors each named for a different city in Israel: Netanya Pizza, Jerusalem Pizza, and Haifa Pizza.

After I finished Avenue J, I went kosher-store hopping throughout Flatbush, Boro Park, and Crown Heights. I photographed more than 100 storefronts. It would seem that Judaism was about food. Kosher food stores were far more conspicuous than synagogues tucked away in what appeared to be private homes. These stores, crowned with Hebrew neon, seemed to me to be strangely out of place. They looked as if they had been plucked up from a street in Israel and plopped down in America by a band of mischievous angels.

I enlarged some of the storefront photographs on a copy machine and then repeated enlarging the enlargements until they were three feet high. Since people do not usually stop and stare at storefronts but walk by them, I cut the images of a row of storefronts in strips, repeated the images to give the feeling of movement, and glued them onto a Masonite panel. I painted over the fragmented storefronts with layers of acrylic paint creating tension between the hand-made quality of the textured surface and images generated by a copy machine. I also made oversized Kodaliths (high-contrast negatives) of other storefronts and silk-screened printed alternating images of negatives and positives on canvas. Two rows of storefronts were printed stacked horizontally as if the viewer was hovering over the street and could see both sides of the street at the same time. I painted over the black printing ink with bright acrylic colors. Although the paintings looked finished, subconscious nagging told me that something was missing, but I had not the slightest idea what it was. I wrapped them and stored them away.

It was a few weeks later, while hearing the Torah reading in Rabbi Rutner’s modest synagogue on the ground floor of his home around the corner from Avenue J, that the hokhmah flash of insight revealed to me that “computer angel” was the masculine form of the biblical term for “art.” Having abandoned my storefront paintings, I began working with digitized images of Rembrandt’s angels. I created the Subway Angel series and lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, and other paintings of angelic activities.

On Simkhat Torah, the holiday celebrating the ending and beginning of the annual Torah-reading cycle, Miriam and our youngest son, Moshe, spent the celebration in Crown Heights with the Hasidic community of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After the evening prayers, Torah scrolls dressed in velvet mantels and capped with silver crowns where removed from the ark. A scroll in a royal blue mantle embroidered with golden lions was placed in my arms. Moshe petted the lions and latched on to the bottom of the mantle as we danced away together. The floor rumbled, as the dancing grew swifter and the singing louder. We were swept away into a line of dancers flowing from the feverish air of the synagogue out into the chill of a Brooklyn night. Meandering through the crowded street, we soon found ourselves back in the synagogue. Moshe and I kissed the Torah as I handed it to a young man who danced away with it in his arms.

As I sat down to rest, a man with an unruly beard and ruddy tan complexion greeted me in Hebrew. He had come from Afula in Israel to be with the Rebbe for the holiday. He asked me what I did. I told him I was an angel-maker, an artist who created spiritual messages. I explained that the term for art in the Torah, MeLAekHeT MakhSheVeT, is the feminine form of computer angel, MaLAkH MakHSheV. He added that the word MAakHL (food) has the same letters as MaLAkH (angel). The biblical words for “angel” and “food” are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life. I immediately knew what was missing in my paintings of food store facades – angels!

The man from Afula continued to explain that the gematriah of the Hebrew words for “angel” and “artist” both equal 91, mystically uniting them. Artists can be vessels to receive angels (divine inspirations). Artists can also be angel-makers, creating artworks that release new angels (spiritual messages) into the world for others to receive. He pointed out that the Hebrew word for “spiritual” is essentially the same word as “material” spelled backwards. If we shift our perspective, we can transform our encounters with the material world into spiritual ones. Judaism’s goal is to make all aspects of our lives holy and our everyday world a dwelling place for God. “Wine, women, and song” is an expression for crass materialism among English speakers. In Jewish life, kiddush (sanctification) is the blessing made on drinking wine, kiddushin (holy vows of matrimony) is the basis for intimacy with a woman, and Song of Songs is called kodesh kodeshim (holy of holies), traditionally regarded as the most sacred book in the Bible. Judaism strives to transform the grossest materialism into the most refined spirituality.

Returning home from our holiday in Crown Heights, I pulled my abandoned storefront paintings out of storage. I understood that bringing computer angels into these paintings would raise them to a new level of significance. They would express Hebrew linguistic connections between food and angel, between artist and angel, and between the material and spiritual realms. I glued printouts of digitized images of angels flying out of the storefronts in my paintings. I cut out large computer angels that had been lithographed on fine hand-made paper and pasted them onto the screen-printed canvases. They appeared to be hovering over the street between the two rows of stores. The paintings moved beyond being mere illustrations to becoming works of art that evoked fresh relationships between material and spiritual worlds. In addition, the playful juxtaposition of the mundane with the holy in Western art, kosher food stores in Brooklyn with Rembrandt drawings, created ambivalence between homage and contempt for art made by the hand of a master on the continent that created the culture of Auschwitz. In Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, with my painting of a cyberangel emerging from a storefront on Coney Island Avenue reproduced as the cover of the book, Ori Soltes writes:

“Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image from the Christian artistic tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, who wrestles with Jacob. But he transforms and distorts it, digitalizing and dismembering it, transforming the normative Western tradition within which he works as he rebels against it.”

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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