Art in the press

Mysticism and Microcalligraphy: the artists of Tzfat, Israel

Create pictures composed of Biblical texts whose letterforms are minutely rendered--a calling as spiritual as it is demanding.

It takes the Jewish world a whole year to read the Torah.

Containing the first five books of the Bible--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--a Torah scroll, hand-lettered in Hebrew according to a strictly prescribed format, is about 250 feet long when unrolled. It is read in 52 weekly portions, beginning with the creation of the universe and concluding with the Israelites' preparations to enter the Promised Land. The typical bound edition in Hebrew and English, with commentaries, is well over a thousand pages.

Now imagine the entire Torah rendered in a single 36-by-24-inch work of graphic art. All 79,976 words, in minuscule script, form an image of the roads, the trees, the surrounding buildings, the walls and the bricks of the Bet Hamikdash, the temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. With a magnifying glass, every letter is clearly legible.

This is microcalligraphy: the letterforms of the Bible as art.

The picture is the work of Moshe Dadoun, one of the microcalligraphers of Joseph Caro Street in Tzfat, Israel. Here, microcalligraphy postcards and prints fill racks that extend the open-air shops and galleries into the narrow cobblestone passageway. Few of the images are as complex as the Bet Hamikdash, nor are their texts as weighty. Most contain the text of one book of the Bible. The Psalms become King David's harpstrings. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), with its "Time to be born, time to die" text, is shaped like an hourglass. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) coils itself into outlines of Chassidim (pious ones) dancing on Simchat Torah, the holiday when the year's cycle of readings ends and begins anew with "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

Tzfat is a city of graphic artists, silversmiths, jewelry designers, potters, glassblowers. It is also the birthplace of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, in which each letter of a holy text takes on a spiritual, symbolic significance. It is no accident that the Kabbalah and the art form of microcalligraphy have converged here. In the Old City, or Synagogue Quarter, of which Joseph Caro Street is the main thoroughfare, shop after shop displays works of microcalligraphy, as well as handcrafted mezzuzot (holders for the Bibllcal verses to be affixed to the doorposts of one's house), kippot (skullcaps or yarmulkes), tallitot (prayer shawls), kiddush cups (for the blessings over the wine), havdalah sets (for the ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat), chanukiyot (Hanukah menorabs), and seder plates (for the ceremonial foods of Passover). It takes a lot of chazzerai (stuff) to be an observant Jew. Most of the ritual objects made or sold in Tzfat, a virtual handicraft bazaar, are of exceptionally high quality. There are also scarves, jewelry, pottery, candles, and the ubiquitous hamsa, the hand-shaped amulet of Arabic origin that is said to ward off the evil eye. The hamsa motif is incorporated into key chains, earrings, and every sort of tchotchke (knickknack).

Down a steep flight of steps is the Artists' Quarter, where, since World War II, a more secular group of painters, printmakers, and sculptors have made their homes and studios. Their work bears the stamp of the Bauhaus, of post-Impressionist and Expressionist Europe; it is as if, in mid-brushstroke, the Jewish disciples of Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, et al., were forced to flee Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and resettled here. Those who have survived into their 70s and 80s continue to exhibit in galleries filled with potted plants, sleeping cats, and stained-glass trinkets. If anything, the artists of Tzfat are resourceful and versatile. Whatever subject matter and style you like, they can paint and will sell you. Do you favor street scenes? A romantic Tzfat (or Parisian) scene in the style of Utrillo hangs next to a Picasso-like collage. Interested in mother-and-child pictures? A Kathe Kollwitz--style portrait hangs next to a Matisse-like still life with fruit, a Chagall-like violinist of the sht etl (Eastern European ghetto), and a Kandinsky-esque abstraction. All done by the same artist.

Today, with the ever-present threat of suicide bombers and with Israeli forces battering Arafat's compound, dollar-laden Americans are scarce, and the artists seem somewhat desperate--especially the younger, newer immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "Ninety shekels" (about $20), they might cry as you walk by, rushing out to show you a small print or painting. If you ignore the invitation, "Eighty shekels" might be the next bid. As you turn the corner, you can hear, "Seventy-five, seventy-five."

It's not easy being an artist anywhere these days, and Israeli artists are having a rougher time than most. Should you stop, however, and express interest, you will find yourself getting a studio tour, a glass of tea, a personal philosophy, a political opinion or two, a resume listing gallery shows around the world, and an invitation to the artist's booth at the next Judaica fair in New York or Cleveland.

Built high on a hillside in the Galilee, Tzfat (also spelled Safed) is about four hours north of Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport, about 30 minutes south of the Lebanese border. During these days of the Palestinian intifada, most travelers take the Ayalon highway along the Mediterranean. Although Tzfat is more than an hour from the coast, the direct route passes through the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin, and numerous Israeli checkpoints. Cut east at the Akko Junction and it's a beautiful drive through lush hills and farmlands dotted with red-tile-roofed new housing developments and dusty Arab villages. Hotel accommodations are scarce in Tzfat, especially during Jewish holidays and the summer klezmer music festival. Many visitors make day trips from Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee, less than an hour to the south. Popular with Christian pilgrims, Tiberius is a lakeside resort and the site of the Church of St. Peter and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount.

At 3000 feet, Tzfat is Israel's highest city. Some have said that its proximity to heaven makes it Israel's holiest city. As in Jerusalem, historians and archeologists have unearthed layers of conquest. First settled by Crusaders and Ottomans, Tzfat was subsequently populated by the Jews, who came after the 1492 expulsion from Spain. Intellectuals, poets, and notable rabbis like Joseph Caro, the 16th-century author of the Shulchan Aruch--still an authoritative guide to Orthodox law and practice--founded religious schools and Kabbalah centers. Here, tzaddiks (righteous ones) learned to read between, behind, and all around the lines of the sacred books in order to gain enlightenment.

And as readers of People magazine know, more recent devotees of Kabbalah include Madonna, various other celebrities, and the thousands who attend weekend spirituality workshops. According to Vanessa Lampert, author of Practical Kabbalah for Magic and Protection, "Kabbalah is not a theoretical study, but a very practical one. It is a simple and accurate method that examines and defines our place in the universe. The wisdom found in Kabbalah teaches us how to connect to our higher selves, maximize our intuition, and most of all, protect ourselves from negative influences." Each page in Lampert's book has an illustration of a Hebrew letter, number, symbol or motif (such as the magen David, six-pointed star, or etz chaim, tree of life) and an explanation of what the symbol represents and how it can help one attain wholeness and guard against misfortune. For example, the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, represents creativity, and the second letter, bet, represents peace. Both, writes Lampert, are symbols of d ivine protection against the witches, demons, and dybbuks who cause mischief and against the people who wish us harm. With meditations, intonations of various names for God, and pathways to healing energies, practical Kabbalah is much like a yogi's study of the chakras.

Tzfat, for all its arty spirituality, also exhibits the ironies of modern Israel. There are bus fumes, traffic jams, and not enough parking places. A mobile phone is attached to every ear or belt loop. The streets are elbow-to-elbow with Chassidim (black-hatted, bearded men, and women and girls in long dresses); large, modern Orthodox families (men in crocheted kippot, women and girls in ankle-length denim skirts); secular Israelis (men in T-shirts with American-brand logos, women in tank tops and belly-button-baring capris); tourists (both sexes in khaki shorts, with backpacks and water bottles); and groups of uniformed Israeli soldiers (the young men and women with M16's swung over their shoulders who are present in every public place in the country--here, they are eating ice cream cones against the heat). A whole book, an encyclopedia, could be written about the fine points of wardrobing in Israel and what each style of hat, kippah, stocking, sandal, skirt length, etc., says about one's degree of religiou s observance and group affiliation. Suffice it to say that all creeds--born into families of the deepest faith, or recently enlightened, or just looking around and taking it all in--brush elbows in Tzfat. As the guidebooks attest, for every genuine devotee there are a dozen students at the Lubavitch-run Ascent Institute who just yesterday were agnostic real estate agents or Buddhist backpackers.

The first shop on Joseph Caro Street, packed with brass vessels and bead jewelry, is run by Chaim Yair, 65, who displays a series of pictures of joyful Chassidim singing and dancing with the Torah, formed from beautifully legible, sixteenth-of-an-inch-high letterforms. Describing himself as an elder of the seventh generation of an old Tzfat family of microcalligraphers, he then surprises a visitor by warning, "Don't listen to any of the others! The guy next door, he used to be a bartender."

Next door is the gallery and shop of Morris Dahan, 42, a self-taught, Tzfat-born artist. In addition to microcalligraphy, Dahan exhibits his semi-abstract, color-block paintings, collages, and limited-edition prints. "Kabbalah means 'to receive,"' he explains. "Not all of us can receive. First you have to search." Yes, Dahan admits, he was formerly a bartender. And he ran a restaurant. And worked for the Jewish National Forest. And was a set designer for films. "But it's not like one day I woke up and said, I'm going to be a microcalligrapher," he says. "I'm a jumpy soul. This art is coming from my soul. One day I saw something that changed my perspective. I was able to read the subject, to feel the texts as they are coming from the Bible."

A bit farther up, across the street, is the studio of Moshe Dadoun, 60, who emigrated from Casablanca, Morocco in 1962. In addition to his Bet Hamikdash, Dadoun has created a composition of each of the five books of Moses, each of which took ten months to two years to complete. "My uncle was a rabbi and a sofer (scribe) who wrote Torahs and mezzuzot. I started learning from him when I was 17, 18 years old," he says. "First I was a policeman, an investigator, but I began painting to give expression to my strong feelings about Judaism."

The shop of Moshe Yair, 43, son of Chaim, is right next door to Dadoun's. "I am the eighth generation of our family here. After I got out of the air force, baruch Hashem (thank God), I began by learning to write very small letters for mezzuzot. My grandfather was the originator of all of this," he claims, with a circular wave of the hand that seems to encompass his family's art and dismiss all the others. "He learned everything from the mystics."

And in Tzfat, one can find a mystic on just about every corner. As a case in point, on the steps of the bright blue-painted shop on the next corner--blue being the color of el, the highest level of godliness and sort of the theme color of Tzfat--stands a man with a long white beard, black fur hat, gleaming black brocade coat, knickers, white stockings. In a friendly French accent, he introduces himself as Yaacov Kaszemacher, photographer, painter of mystical compositions, and computer artist. It is Succot (the weeklong holiday commemorating the booths in which the Israelites lived for 40 years in the desert), and Kaszemacher, in the yom tov (holiday) garb of the Chassidim, takes visitors inside to see his geometric compositions based on Kabbalistic numerology--for example, a ring of 18 cubes represents chai, or life--and to demonstrate the video-editing capabilities of his computer. "I have all the software," he says, clicking on a slide show of images of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) celebration that few would g ain access to photograph. Has he always done this? No. He formerly ran light shows at the Open Light Circus in Paris and at the Fillmore East in New York's East Village. Did he wear the same outfit then? No. But after his spiritual awakening in 1971, he emigrated to Tzfat and made the transition from hippie to Torah-observant Chassid.

Kaszemacher credits the revival of microcalligraphy in Tzfat to Nechama Weiss, a Chassidic woman who, he says, rarely leaves the house. "She has done all the classics for 40 years. She did not make any money," he asserts. "Everybody copied her." Other denizens of Tzfat claim that the originator was Arkady Drasnin, a Russian who died in 2002, but whose graceful compositions with grapes and wine bottles are displayed everywhere. Some credit Malka Ben Shimon, wife of the caretaker of the Joseph Caro Synagogue, where postcards for sale bear her charming black-and-white depictions of the Psalms in the form of an Old World water carrier and the book of Jonah rendered as an undersea composition of a man inside a fish.

According to art historians, microcalligraphy has been practiced for much longer than 40 years, or even eight generations. Inspired by the Islamic tradition in which the written word was transformed into elaborate decorative patterns, Jews around the world have used minuscule script to create abstract or figurative designs for more than a thousand years. Scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York have identified works from Egypt and Israel that date from the 10th century. A recent JTS exhibit entitled "Micrography: Hebrew Word as Art" featured pieces from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, England, and Israel that included a 1204 machzor (High Holy Day prayer book), an 1824 calendar for counting the omer (days between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai), illuminated pages from 19th-century Bibles, and portraits of rabbinical, political, and literary personalities fashioned from the words of their own writings. The exhibition catalog states that microcalligraphy was most commonly created to illustrate Biblical codices, which were ornamented with elaborate images of synagogue implements, human figures, and animals: "Unlike Torah scrolls, these Bibles in book form were not subject to stringent rabbinical rules that stipulated the arrangement of the text and the design of the letters. These books offered the scribe considerable latitude in arranging and decorating the text."

Today, the tradition is kept alive on Joseph Caro Street. Rivalries aside, the artists employ similar techniques. Morris Dahan typically hand-letters with an .05 Rapidograph and India ink after sketching his composition in pencil. All the artists agree that microcalligraphy cannot be done for more than two or three hours a day. "It's too hard on your health. It's not good for the eyes," explains Dahan. "You have to be very concentrated. Doing this is not as exacting as being a sofer, but every letter has to be correct." Dahan starts with a basic idea, say, Genesis or Creation, and begins working with the shapes of a globe, creatures, Eden, Noah. For Exodus, he goes beyond the obvious story of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds and uses the metaphors of darkness to light, slavery to freedom. He works with one eye on his composition, using a magnifying glass to see the tiny letters he is writing, and one eye on the Tanach, the Biblical text.

"I could teach you in five seconds to write so small," says Dahan. "So small you can hardly believe it. But that is not art. Art is inspiration. I am inspired by Tzfat, by the mysticism. I work on a microcalligraphy picture a few hours every day. At the same time I am working on two or three paintings, landscapes or abstractions, which are really about sell-expression."

"People think art is easy," he continues, as customers come in to look, to bargain, to complete transactions, to commission new works. "But behind each painting is a small story. And many decisions. What am I going to say? What color? What perspective? And it is work, work, work, work. You have to really love it to do this. I am lucky I can combine my art and my spirituality with making a living this way."

Ellen Shapiro is a New York-based graphic designer, writer, and design educator. Last September she visited Israel for the second time, with this article as a focus. Her new book, The Graphic Designer's Guide to Clients, will be published by Allowrth Press in June.

Print; 3/1/2003; Shapiro, Ellen, Copyright 2003 RC Publications, Inc