Images of Exile
Mine are superficial roots, along the railroad tracks of Europe, through the paths of emigration and deportation. Our roots are diasporic. They do not go underground. They are not attached to any particular land or soil. Nor do they lie at the bottom of a well in Jerusalem. -Henry Raczymow, “Memory Shot with Holes”
Impasse: A Collective Refusal of Memory | 2009-2010
I WAS RAISED WITH THE IDEA of Israel as a refuge state for Jews. My only trip there occurred in 1995, the era of the Oslo accords. I fell in love with Jerusalem, despite my ambivalence about the occupied territories. My father was anti-Zionist, and a lifelong atheist; my mother was a Zionist from her adolescence forward, and had hoped to emigrate to Palestine before the war, but would not leave my grandmother alone in Europe. She gave herself permission to visit Israel immediately after my father’s death. “Impasse” is a body of work born of extreme frustration with the futility of the word (or the Word) as a means of communication about the Israel/Palestine question.
In January of 2009, I read an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times, “Hamas Speaks,” written by the propaganda minister of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzouk. The day, January 6th, was my father’s birthday, as well as my maternal grandmother’s, so I was thinking about them as I read the paper. Mr. Marzouk stated: “Without debating here the fictive, existential right of the Zionist state, which Israel, precisely, would the West have us recognize? […] Is it the Israel that illegally settles its citizens on other peoples’ land, seizes water sources and uproots olive trees?”
Something in the sentence structure made me feel like I was being waterboarded. Unable to find words, other than “No, No, and NO!” I began to make a series of digital collages, using my original monotypes as backgrounds, and incorporating historical maps, text from newspaper articles, and altered family photographs. Prominent in many of the pieces in the series is a childhood photo of my uncle, Fritz, holding a toy gun, circa 1916. He was last recorded alive at Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.
By putting Fritz into work about Palestine, and later, about Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th century (knowns as the Sepharad), I think I was trying to pull his spirit out of the miserable end in Buchenwald/Sachsenhausen/Bergen-Belsen. Or, perhaps, it was the fact that his face represents a child of Semitic origin, who could have been an Arab just as easily as a Jew. Fritz’s son, Peter, was born after Fritz’s arrest, in the transit camp at Sered. He spent the first six months of his life in Terezín. Following the war, in 1949, Peter emigrated from Kromeriz to Haifa. in 1965, he traveled to California to study, and never went back.
The Hamas challenge to identify the Israel that I need to have recognized became the foundational question of the “Impasse” series. As the images asserted themselves, my investigation expanded to include the notions of Exile and Return as affected by space, time and memory. I was surprised, for example, that my first response to Marzouk’s ‘which Israel’ question was to produce a map of Palestine in the reign of King Saul, ca.1000 B.C.E, in “The Kingdom of Israel Colored Thus.”
It took the post-Holocaust remnant of the refugees from Zion 2000 years to return “en masse” to rejoin their kin in Palestine. Yet, our inherited memory of the founding of the State of Israel ignores some inconvenient facts about those other Semites unhappily sharing the land with the Palestinian Jews. The stories of those advocating for Palestinian statehood and a right to return, despite their relative nearness in time to the initial shock of dispossession, are not dissimilar in their essential psychic truths (and contradictions and ambiguities) to the Jewish story throughout history.
When I was a child, in the 1950’s, I believed that Palestine had been an empty desert, which the Jews made bloom. The history I learned was from Leon Uris’, “Exodus”. I thought all sabras looked like Paul Newman. I put my coins into the little blue tzedakah box at the synagogue, just like the other Jewish children in Montreal, thinking about the trees that would be planted. At the start of the ’67 war, I was in San Diego, and eight months pregnant. For the first time, I remember, I felt extremely vulnerable as a Jew. In San Diego.
In “Peel Commission Map: Two Boys,” I incorporated the 1937 Peel Commission Partition Map, which was rejected by the Zionists. The 1947 UN partition map was rejected by the Arab States.
The statistics in “Deir Hanna/Ein Gev 1948. Winner takes all” were taken from a website called Palestineremembered.org. The site had published a series of statistics on all the Arab villages in Palestine that were taken over by the Israelis in the 1948 war, with numbers of Jews, numbers of Arabs, numbers of hectares and so forth. I found these statistics interesting because they acknowledge that this particular village had a large (majority Jewish) population before 1948. For me this was an illustration of how complex the history really is: both sides want to deny the other’s personhood and attachment to the land.
In the end, there are harsh truths to be faced on both sides of this conflict, and perhaps the greatest obstacle to moving forward is the fact that the political agenda of both peoples depends on continuing to deny the narrative, experience, and memory of the Other. My work suggests some of the ways this denial manifests. How to create acceptance is another project.
Diaspora: The Sepharad and My Jewish Problem | 2011
I prepared the images in the “Sepharad” series for a private vernissage and an artists’ book entitled, “Collaboration,” after a trip to Portugal and North Africa, in the fall of 2010. “Sepharad” refers to the descendants of 15th-century Jews expelled from their homes by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, and King Manuel I of Portugal. This collection evolved from an ill-defined desire to study and express something in my artwork about the Diaspora, as specifically reflected in images from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.
The images in my art began as snapshots in time, and were intended to document individual losses. Over the course of the months during which I worked on this project with artist, Sharon Marcus, they yielded to ribbons of a constant flow of peoples, the lost and the saved, speaking to multiple exiles and returns, swirling back and forth and around the Mediterranean, like an image of seaweed that appears to be detached, floating randomly on a watery surface, but which, like kelp, has roots deep in the sea bottom.
My use of images from Portugal and North Africa evolved to incorporate symbols emblematic of three aspects of history: exile, responsibility, and memory. In “Boy,” (below) I used the azulejo, a quintessentially Portuguese tile, to wrap a “tallit” about the shoulders of the boyhood photo of my uncle, Fritz. The17th-century azulejo that I selected depicts three Jews in a boat, holding a Torah scroll (and, I think, referencing the traveler’s prayer, although I could not get my rabbi to agree). I also integrated the words of Aristides Mendes de Sousa, “the Portuguese Schindler” (“Meo Objectivo Salvar Toda”–My Objective to Save Them All).
I found further inspiration from a receipt card, depicting the wartime aid work of Renée Reichmann. A Hungarian Jew, Reichmann escaped to Tangier, then sent aid packages to Jews in Europe’s camps and ghettos. My mother received a package of chocolates from Tangier while in Terezín, without knowing who had sent them. In 1995, she read a book that I had given her called The Mezuzzah in the Madonna’s Foot, by Trudy Alexy, which told Reichmann’s story. Like my parents, Reichmann had immigrated to Canada, where her husband was a competitor of my father’s in the Montreal tile business. Reading the book, fifty years later, my mother realized that she and my father had actually met socially with the Reichmanns in the 1950’s–Czech and Hungarian emigrés. Since no one was talking about the war yet, they did not learn of their previous connection. The Möbius strip, again.
When I first heard the story of the chocolates, I made this assemblage, using Lindt chocolates:
And later, a digital collage, integrating the Reichmann receipt:
During the Portugal trip, I gained a more visceral understanding of the ferocity of the Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula. Upon returning home, I created an assemblage, depicting the false piety of Queen Isabella, in my take on the theme of the “Cage Doll”, for an invitational exhibit at Indigo, Santa Barbara. The colors and “Amsterdam/Delft” style of the Portuguese tile reflect our family Seder plate, from a 1983 Prague exhibit entitled, “Precious Legacy”. The reproductions for the exhibit were made by Villeroy & Boch, my father’s employer in Montreal from 1949-63. Another odd connection.
My questions still remain. Is there but one root, spiritual and physical, and is it Zion? And/or, is Diaspora necessarily the same as Galut/Exile? Is it possible to be a Jew where one happens to live, as my father, the anti-Zionist always claimed–even after Auschwitz? The 2017 Neo-Nazi marches in the U.S. provoke a lifelong anxiety about this.