Many years ago, a non-Jewish visiting friend noted after observing Shabbat at our home: “ How wonderful!” – ‘What seemed as wonderful to you?” – I was interested to know on how our tradition is perceived by gentile people. – ‘How wonderful is to have a real, superb holiday at home weekly’, – my friend replied. I knew she meant it. Years passed, and she has become an auntie for wonderful Jewish boy whom she loves enormously and spoils him ever since he was born.
Just a couple of days before beginning of Hanukkah this year, a 35-year old non-Jewish friend popped in with a large wooden box of a top vine: “I have just thought to bring some possibly nice addition to your Hanukkah fest” – he smiled. He is reading deeply into the Old Testament and Jewish spiritual heritage and has become quite versed in it, on his own quest. In our regular conversations on the various topics of Jewish historical and spiritual narrative, recently we have discussed the matter of light.
In my understanding, this is the essential theme of Judaism.
In a natural development, our perception of the matters of our tradition changes during one’s life. It matures, with new angles of our imagination evolves into new spiritual content and different philosophical quest.
The main change in this natural in general and unique for everyone personal process, to me, is a turn from more or less passive perception of a grace of a miracle would it be Pesach or Purim, towards the quest for the essence of these miracles.
With Hanukkah and its resilience of Light, this quest is domineering the expectation of festive illumination. Previously, the joy was produced by the fact that in the darkest period of a year, every year, we, Jewish people are lucky to have a mercy of Hanukkah lights for eight days at our homes and synagogues, a beautiful boost of our spirit. One of my essays on interconnection of art and Judaism from a personal perspective ponders it in more detail ( https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-light-of-the-light-hanukkah-reflections/ ).
Now the stream of my inner thoughts in the wondrous time of Hanukkah is focused on articulated quest for light.
If previously the pleasures of Hannukah were perceived as a given gifts of our heritage – dreidels and Hanukkiahs of all sorts and shapes, sufganiots and latkes in all possible varieties, old and new Hanukkah melodies of so many branches of mighty Tree of Jewish nation – and this is how I tried to reflect it in my art creating the series on Judaica symbolism dedicated to Hanukkah ( http://youtube.com/watch?v=GaFhFeooups&t=8s), after some while my perception and my artistic vision has changed from a passive receiver of my people’s existing spiritual treasures into more pro-active quest.
I am seeing our holidays in a different way now. I realise that not only we are graced with the Light per se, but the joy is also very much in the active mental disposition towards it. I am not taking the Light for granted any longer. I am looking for it.
What can one do in the darkest time of year ( sometimes, metaphorically, too)? To turn his or her innermost senses towards Light. To think about it. To search for it. To aspire it – and to be active in obtaining it. I call it the Lessons of Darkness. It can be called Hanukkah-therapy, too.
These eight days are not only about filling ourselves with spoiling delicacies although latkes is one of my favourite foods, this comes back to my grandma Adel Chigrinsky’s wondrous cooking. Wondrous to the degree that although she is gone for 37 years by now, not only I but some people who are still around and who ever eat at our very hospitable home do remember the exact taste and look of anything she did, from simple latkes to elaborated, unbelievable cakes.
This quest for a life source which light is in Jewish tradition, it is also a process of a conscious effort to value different situations in life, both in theory and in practice, from a historical perspective or on current moment, from that perspective of self-initiated conscious effort of light-searching. Quand meme is the best phrase in French, to me, despite anything.
My second collection of art works on Jewish symbolism on the theme of Hanukkah is not merely registering beauty and attraction of our traditional subjects. It examines the conditions of Light: you will see the works depicting Life of Light, Flight of Light, Solo of Light, Memories of Light, Mark of Light, Wind of Light, and so on. The works examining Solo of Light and Memories of Light comprising the diptych which tells about our attitude to light as to essential characteristic of life: while Solo of Light manifests its might and strength, cascading the living force, Memories of Light is a warning: this is what could happen to us and our lives is from the essence of life light would become just a memories of itself, because of what we do, or not do, and how we live.
In this new collection, I also am asking a lot of questions: what was the essence of Burning Bush? We know the meaning, of course; my question is on the magnetic nature of the prevailing light coming from that bush.
In ever-going wrestling between Gog and Magog, my focus was on how the force of Good which is light in its essence, does keep the other side at bay.
In Sparks of Life I was trying to visualise the dynamics of Jewish Universe populated with sparks of life which are sparks of souls which are also known as sparks of light. Some of them are brighter than the others. Some of them are moving faster. Some of them are more visible. Some of them are kept off orbit.
In the Winds of Light diptych I looked into enlightening our memories and hopes, back and forth in time and destinies.
The collection of these works, Hanukkah Album II can been watched in the musical video-essay Searching For Light, here.
My husband’s first teacher of Judaism was his close relative Ariel Leibel Kotljar, husband of his grandmother’s sister Sura Litowski. That quiet man was profound Jewish scholar at the time and in the place when it was posing a life-danger. He lived extremely difficult, from a material point of view, life. But on our holidays, always, he was a different man, as Michael remembers vividly. Ariel Leibel was beaming light. He was the light.
That light of his sustained the tangible Jewish spirit in Michael’s big family during their long and difficult years in exile. And it kept my husband being quite-essentially Jewish to the inch under the circumstances of life which were not just distant from it or aloof to it, but openly hostile and very much against it.
The light of our heritage kept quiet and subdued Ariel Leibel proud Jew in the midst of spiritual desolation. Despite living in utter poverty, he was always dignified in his outlook and behaviour. Importantly, he was also completely content with what he had, whatever extremely meagre it was, in an organic accord with our sages’ understanding and tradition.
With love and warmth, that quiet self-sufficient dignified man had attached a small boy from an exiled family to our Jewish wisdom and infused the essence of Jewishness and Judaism into him. This thread is still leading my husband in everything he does in his life and art with this non-parading light of belonging.
Perhaps not surprisingly, thoughtful and kind features of Aaron Leibel’s face were imprinted in Michaels’ portrait of Moses, the first work from which he started his now widely known The Patriarchs & the Matriarchs series, the core part of his Forefathers project. It looks as Michael did it sub-consciously, or partially sub-consciously, but absolutely organically in that enduring light of our tradition and his family.
Thinking on the origin and nature of Light manifested during the Hanukkah starting from Hannah and her sons, examining different situations throughout Jewish history and in some certain episodes of personal lives, seeing how the magnetism of Judaism embraces people who are non Jewish, my expectations of Hanukkah seems to intensify with every coming year.
Among many of its soulful attractions, Jewish Miracle has one distinctive feature: it makes any celebrating adult a child, and any celebrating child a sage. All of us searching for that magic light to enter.
© Inna Rogatchi