Before we joined, our synagogue near Boston had hired an Israeli scribe to write a Torah. It took months, maybe years, becoming legend: inked sections of skin flown across the Atlantic one by one when they were done. Then, the scribe also flew. People crowded into the library to watch him write the final words, Moses' farewell speech. Parents held small children. Cameras flashed. Each letter, someone said, stood for one of us.
I was captivated by The Book of Letters, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the congregation's rabbi, and, like me, an artist; the volume looking both like a picture book and a Talmud, with blocks of text surrounding a large Hebrew letter on each page, each letter somehow friendly, swaying in place. I had grown up with Jewish prayer, but hadn't thought Hebrew was art until I saw those pages.
During services I leafed through our siddur, and found: "Let me not be afraid of Your letters, all fire, all brimstone." The lines sunk into me with a mysterious weight. I still return to that page, letting my mind go, moved by the words: "Give me the power of a first aleph."
I wondered about the power of letters. Since they come from breath and take us to spirit, are they our icons?–– more holy than those other Jewish symbols, the star of David, the menorah, the Western Wall?
I'm an artist who searches for his subject. For years, Christian iconography held sway, Jesus on the cross made beautiful and, for me, hard to look away from. Most compelling was the Isenheim Altarpiece, in France. I borrowed, created my own crucifixions, fulfilling some kind of need as I drew, erased, drew, erased.
And on Rosh Hoshanah, the story of Rabbi Hanina's martyrdom called to me. His mortal crime, too, was teaching, so a Torah scroll was bound to his body, set aflame. At the end, as he died, what I saw was not the teacher suffering in a cloud of smoke, but what he saw: the letters ascending to the sky, dark as birds.
But are they shadows? The souls of wandering ancestors? Are they icons?
Certainly they're the bones of words, but shaped like flames. I studied the aleph bet, wrote the scribe's prayer, "Blessed is the One who guides my hand…" But I'm an artist, not a scribe. Alongside the prayer I portrayed some of my drafting tools: a scissors, a brush, a razor.
Now I return to Hebrew letters; but how can I make them relevant? I want to look outward now, at others with whom we share the planet. All my life, I've been searching. Now I feel I know myself, more or less, but I don't know my neighbors. This week I will start Beginning Arabic, an adult education class at a nearby mosque. At my age, I don't expect to learn fast, to speak fluent Arabic, but to taste the language of Islam, their language.
I have a chart of Arabic letters. I've been thinking about coexistence, about brothers and sisters. This year in my studio, I've been copying the letters, juxtaposing their letters with ours, a haa with a hey, an alif with an aleph, a laam with a lamed. There are great differences and similarities. The letters are lovely, side by side, on the same page.
Joel's art has ranged in style, subject and medium, including illustrations of Hebrew blessings, and discarded library catalog cards. His current work blending Hebrew and Arabic letters will be displayed in "Traditions in Translation: Two Artists Explore Their Legacies," at Fountain Street Fine Art, in Framingham, from June 12 through July 12.