MURAL of CYCLES | The Jewish Holidays + Seasons
The cycles of the seasons begin on the far left-hand edge of the painting, with an upside-down tree standing for the January festival of Tu B’Shavat. This painted element, derived from the Jewish mystical description of a tree of life with roots in heaven (emerging from the stars) and branches on earth, links the terrestrial and the spiritual realms. Where the branches of the tree end, two new elements emerge: the living waters which nourish the earth and figure prominently in Jewish liturgy, and a moving, scroll-like feature which loops and winds through the rest of the painting, representing both Torah and the way its teachings are manifested in Jewish practice.
Below the tree, a birthday cake represents both the beginning of an individual life cycle, as well as the fact that Tu B’Shavat can be considered the “birthday of the trees”. Next to the birthday cake, a surgical instrument called a Mogen clamp represents the ritual of circumcision performed shortly after a boy’s birth.
As day brightens, the sky goes from cloudy (the rainy season) to clear, and the large branch in the upper portion of the painting loses its snow cover and bursts into bloom, signaling the transition from winter to spring. Spring is the time for the “Jewish Halloween” festival of Purim, represented on the foreground ledge by hamentaschen, a mask, and a grogger. A bit later in the spring is Passover, here depicted by dramatically parted waters which mark the Jew’s escape from Egypt, as well as the Seder plate with its symbolic foods. In the sky, the moon marks the onset of Passover (one of several holidays tied to the full moon), with the gap between the two panels representing the “break” in the normal course of life, when 8 days pass without the eating of any leavened bread.
The image of Spring also evokes adolescence – the Spring of one’s life -and the floating scroll becomes a prayer shawl that represents the Jewish transition from youth to early maturity – the B’nai Mitzvah.
As spring approaches summer, Shavuot is observed, marking the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Here Mt. Sinai is represented by Mt. Rainier, with the mystical clouds that covered Sinai during the Biblical event depicted by the dramatic lenticular clouds that occasionally form over Rainier’s summit. To the right of the mountain, ten smaller peaks represent each of the Ten Commandments.
The central image of summer – a time between major festivals, with puffy clouds early on, and clear skies later – features the gate-like image of the Chuppah, the temporary house under which Jewish couples are married, an island of celebration briefly suspended in the river of time. Here the winding and unwinding scroll transforms itself into the fabric roof of the marriage canopy, creating a structure that also recalls the name of the synagogue where the painting hangs – House of the People, or Temple Beth Am. An usual tree– based on the Umbrella Pine native to the Eastern Mediterranean – helps hold up the Chuppah, while others stand in for dancers in the background.
A clarinet and tambourine in the foreground suggest klezmer accompaniment to the festivities (accompanied by wine), but smoke and flames in the distance – painted using the same colors as the floral garlands winding around the four Chuppah supports – suggest darker times. The background fire is a representation of Tish B’Av, an observance in mid-summer that commemorates the burning of the Temple. The Chuppah frames multiple pathways leading towards adult life, symbolized by the city on the hill.
In the days following summer, Judaism observes back-to-back holidays, including the harvest festival, Sukkot. First and foremost are the High Holidays, here represented in several ways. The foreground still life includes the Shofar which rings in Rosh Hashanah, as well as a round challah, representative of cycles and new beginnings. The cello bow refers to the practice of playing Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur evening services. In the distance, the raised drawbridge symbolizes the break in everyday life that the High Holidays, and particularly Yom Kippur, represent, when normal life stops in its tracks so that deeper things can be contemplated, just as traffic stops when the bridge is raised – like it or not.
As the leaves in the background change to their autumn colors, the symbols of Sukkot appear, with a trellis and greenery framing the festival’s full moon above, and a lemon-like lulav and the wand-like etrog occupying the foreground shelf below. To the right, a silver Torah crown represents the celebration of Simchat Torah, the holiday of the Text. The Torah itself is suggested by faint columns of script on the flowing scroll. In fact, the repeated bends and twists in the scroll throughout the painting represent the opening and closing of the Torah each Shabbat, when the portion for the week is read.
Finally, as the year/life wanes, a Hanukkah Menorah appears in a window, beaconing light out of blackness on the darkest night of the season, where a sliver of a moon marks the first festival night midway between the two full moons. In the farthest corner, a memorial candle marks the end of life’s journey, with the smoke from the candle (and the similarly shaped scroll) spiraling off to the right, to reappear as the candle smoke and scroll in the “Birth” section on the left.
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