Continuation and Promise: Yizhak and Jacob Story Cycles
June 2005 I participated in the Yitzhak International Arts Gathering that took place in Akko, Israel. The opportunity for my participation came about through colleagues at UNO who had traveled to Israel, in part, as an effort to forge a stronger relationship with Western Galilee College. I wanted to contribute to the development of that relationship and was inspired by the potential of pictorial ideas based on the theme of Yitzhak.
The project came into being through a consortium of Jewish Federation chapters called Partnership 2000 of Western Galilee of which Omaha is a member. The purpose of the consortium has been to support and foster professional, cultural, social and economic relationships that establish and preserve ties with Jewish communities in Israel, the partner cities and around the globe. When the idea for an arts gathering began to take form several years ago, it was decided to adopt the theme of Yitzhak (Hebrew for Isaac) as the creative center that artists would contemplate and explore in making their contributions. This was a multi-disciplinary gathering that included visual art, dance, theater, music, performance art and arts projects of elementary schools from the consortium cities. In addition to the artist participants, there were also many Jewish Federation members who came as supporters of the arts and delegates from their communities. Western Galilee College played a key role in the Yitzhak Gathering in terms of organization and hosting the 100 plus participants and was the locus for many of the contributions from Israeli artists. Participating artists were invited to explore the theme of Yitzhak in very diverse ways. I decided to take a metaphorical narrative approach and developed five large digital prints based on the Yitzhak/Isaac stories in Genesis: Sarah discovering she was pregnant with Isaac, the sacrifice of Isaac, Isaac settling near the Well of Living Sight, the arrival of Rebecca to be his wife and Isaac's betrayal by Rebecca and Jacob. I used digital photographs I took while on a Fulbright in Lithuania in 2004 for much of the landscape imagery. The dunes of the Curonian Spit of coastal Lithuania have an uncanny resemblance to aspects of Mediterranean land formations and the warm colors used on much of the Baroque architecture of Vilnius worked into my visual ideas very well. Other imagery from a side trip to Croatia also worked their way into the prints. Finally, I invited one of my students to be a model for the Sarah/Rebecca figures I used in four of the five prints and a niece to model for the figure of Rachel.
The experience of working on the Yitzhak/Isaac stories was very satisfying and I had in mind to continue working with narratives from Genesis. The exhibition included the Jacob cycle of stories. In developing my pictorial ideas I proceeded in a manner similar to that which I employed for the original Yitzhak/Isaac stories. This time, however, I had a very large body of photographic sources taken in Israel from which to work. I selected six stories: Jacob's first encounter with Rachel, God showing favor to Leah by ‘opening her womb', Rachel asking for the mandrake found by Leah's son – the mandrake being a symbol of fertility, Jacob wrestling with God/God's angel before meeting Esau (with a visual reference to Jacob's ‘ladder'), Rachel concealing the household gods from her father, Laban, and finally the return to Canaan, the promised land.
Yitzhak and Jacob Stories as Metaphor
I have been an informal student of the Bible and the world of the ancient Middle East for many years. The opportunity to wed this interest directly to my art making practice opened up a very rich world of imagery and meaning while at the same time posing new visual problems to solve. These pieces are continuous with the work I have done for many years, specifically in terms of how I construct and design the pictorial space.
My basic method has been and continues to be to work from multiple photographic sources, constructing pieces with spaces that could not really exist in the real world but have the feel of being real. My intention was to create images that are about psychological and spiritual realities and in that sense are always meant to function primarily as metaphor, not illustration of narrative. When I went to work on the Isaac and Jacob pieces, however, I was faced with the need to be more directly tied to narrative.
To that end, I went to the source. The primary biblical text I worked from is the Book of J , a translation by David Rosenberg. "J" is the oldest narrative strand in the Torah and stands for "the author, the Yahwist, named for Yahweh (Jahweh, in the German spelling…), God of Jews, Christians and Muslims." The other strands are "E, or the Elhoist, for ‘Elohim,' the plural name used for Yahweh;P, for the Priestly Author or School that wrote nearly all of Leviticus; D, for the author…of Deuteronomy; and R for the Redactor, who performed the final revision after the Return from Babylonian Exile." (Page 5 from 1990 edition).
Originally I wanted to work exclusively with "J" stories because of their antiquity. However, there are two stories from the "E" strand that are so well known that I had to include them. The first is the sacrifice of Yitzhak. The other is the story of Jacob's ladder. I have conflated that story with Jacob wrestling with God/God's angel before meeting with Esau. The ladder is referenced by what appears to be a jagged shadow of a tree on the brick wall and the ziggurats in the landscape. Many Biblical archaeologists think that the Mesopotamian stepped ziggurat was the actual model for the image of Jacob's ladder.
Another aspect of these pieces that needs to be made is the point of view I take. Female figures are dominant. While these narratives from Genesis have at their core the covenant God made with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they are fully dependent on the principle female personae: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. And it is from their perspective that I developed my pictorial ideas. The early stories of the Patriarchs have their origin in the second millennium BCE, and have the religious ideas and imagery from Mesopotamia as an undercurrent. Those gods were competition of the God of the Hebrew Patriarchs and the tension between those influences provides a rich subtext throughout these stories.
The notion of Continuation and Promise has been a significant contribution of Jewish religion and culture to the world. The faith and covenant of the ancient Hebrews still resonates in our contemporary world and matters deeply. Being in Israel made these stories more real for me and has made my personal interest in and love of them that much more profound.