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Speaking Volumes: 'A Blessing Upon the Face of the Earth'

October 20, 2005 By:
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There's no coffee-table book quite like The Jewish World: 365 Days, published by the incomparable Abrams publishing house, which has given the world some of its most beautiful art books. First, there is the volume's shape, which is shared by all the other "365 Days" titles from the publisher. It measures 91/2x61/2 inches, which makes it wider than it is tall, and is a full 21/2 inches thick.

Within this unconventional format, each two-page spread is given over to a single item taken from the various collections that fill the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, another incomparable institution. These artifacts include the Dead Sea scrolls, antique calendar boxes that keep track of counting the Omer and a multitude of vintage photographs from the early years of Israeli statehood. The left-hand page is devoted to the information about the item - its dimensions, the materials used to create it, the date of its composition. On the right is the item itself, captured in crisp, bright photos on thick, plush paper.

Take, for example, the wimpel that dates from mid-19th century Germany. A wimpel was a Torah binder made from the linen spread upon which a child was circumcised. The cloth was then cut into pieces and sewn together again to form a long strip that was either painted or embroidered with the names of the boy and his father, the boy's birth date, and a portion of the blessing used in the circumcision ceremony: "To the Torah, to the marriage canopy and a life of good deeds." In this particular example, we are told that "the Jewish folk artist humorously intermingled the Hebrew scripts with the illustrations."

The materials used were watercolors on linen, and the detail is particularly fanciful and delicately executed, with a wonderful sense of color and design. But none of this obvious artistry overwhelms the simplicity of the pattern.

Or there's the evocative landscape, "A Passing Cloud," by pioneering Israeli artist Anna Tico, drawn with charcoal and pastels on paper in 1975, five years before her death. According to the accompanying text, Tico was housebound late in life, and had to draw her landscapes of the Jerusalem hills from memory. "In this wintry drawing Tico portrays the dark shadow of a cloud on the ground as it passes by. The demarcation of the cloud is clear, creating a swath of dark scrub while the hillside on either side is of a much lighter hue. The charcoal and pastel were applied quickly, creating a turbulence of lines and color, fitting to such a stormy day."

Or take the photo titled "Praying Minhah at Kfar Etsion, 1947," the work of Dr. Jacob Rosner, who was born in 1902, immigrated to Israel in 1936, and died within three years of snapping the shutter and capturing this image. The photo shows a minyan of nine farmers and one watchman standing on a rocky hilltop praying, according to the photographer's testimony, "for a safe, healthy life and bountiful crops." Drawn together for the afternoon prayers, they beseeched God to "Bless this year unto us, together with every kind of the produce thereof, for our welfare; give a blessing upon the face of the earth."

This is one of those black-and-white images that - in its shading and tonality - is achingly beautiful. If, in fact, the picture had been more artfully rendered, its deep effect would have been undercut immeasurably.

Another 362 images are crammed into this abundant compilation, each a testament to the rich bounty found in the Israel Museum, one of the world's great treasure troves of art and culture.

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