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Yads, Torahs, history’s pointing hand

By Bob Hicks
January 12, 2016
Culture, Visual Art

It’s a little stick, a stylus, a pointer. Usually long and thin, often elegant and decorative, it’s enlivened by a tiny hand at the end with a slim index finger pointing forward, leading the way. Called a yad, the Hebrew word for hand, it’s used as a place-keeper and guide while reading the Torah, the foundational stories of the Jewish faith.

A small but striking exhibition of these instruments of practicality and beauty, Pointing the Way: The Art of the Torah Pointer, is being featured through February 28 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, along with the photo exhibit Surviving Remnants, images of Torah scrolls rescued from the Crimean city of Simferopol after the city’s Nazi occupation, but tattered beyond repair. Together these two small exhibits tell a story of creation, destruction, and reclamation, which in a way summarizes what history and culture are all about.

A relatively simple yad, pointing the way.

A relatively simple yad, pointing the way.

The yads are objects of ritual meant to protect the parchment Torah scrolls, which can be fragile, from the oils and other impurities of human touch. Their origin is obscure. Daniel Belasco, consulting curator for Pointing the Way, cites a bronze object created in the 1100s in northeastern Afghanistan as a possible starting point, or perhaps an ornate silver pointer from Ferrara, Italy, from about 1488. Examples become more numerous after about 1600.

The pointers at the Jewish Museum, on loan from the Barr Foundation in Virginia, are for the most part decoratively tooled: gorgeous small works of craftsmanship, suggesting the almost infinite variety of design that can be brought to a common form. They vary in size from obviously personal pieces meant for regular tracking, to grandly scaled yads that a reader of less than Samsonian strength might have to lean against his or her shoulder to manipulate across the scroll. Some are elegantly restrained, almost like art deco pieces. Some look a bit like ornate spinning tops. Some are bejeweled. Some are made of wood or even polyurethane; many are made of silver, which is usually richly tooled.

A panoply of ads on view from the Barr Foundation: one idea, many forms.

A panoply of yads at the Jewish Museum: one idea, many forms.

To read where they come from, how they are dated (sometimes precisely; sometimes with as much as a century’s window) and how, sometimes, they are inscribed (“Menasseh, son of Moses”; “Dedicated to Rev Leib Shaier and the Rebetzen Hindkha”) is to be reminded of the breadth of the Jewish diaspora and the fragility of record-keeping because of the Holocaust and other traumatic disruptions. Italy, Vienna, Germany, Holland, Iran, India, Palestine, Poland, Russia, India, Romania, the United States, Afghanistan, the more generic “Europe” or “Eastern Europe” – they are gathered from many corners, many households, many times, no doubt cherished by their owners but lost or passed along, one way or another, over the years. Collectively, they are strands of historical and aesthetic information that might be woven into a common cloth, evidences reminiscent of the scattered tales in Geraldine Brooks’s 2008 novel People of the Book, about the unlikely survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The symbol of the tiny hand, meanwhile, ripples with possible meanings.

An improvised had by an unknown soldier in World War II, made from spent bullet cases.

Yaakov Greenvurul, b. 1952 Israel, 1999 anodized aluminum.

A few pieces stand out, some aesthetically, some for the fascinating questions they raise. One yad, fashioned by an unknown American soldier in the South Pacific near the end of World War II, is improvised from empty bullet cases.

An improvised yad by an unknown soldier in World War II, made from spent bullet cases.

An improvised yad by an unknown soldier in World War II, made from spent bullet cases.

Among the more contemporary pieces, Finnish artist Janna Syvanoja’s 2002 yad made of intricately cut paper and steel pins is very white, very delicate, very elegant. And JoAnne Russo’s 2011 pointer made of basketweave, beads, fishbone, various threads, and porcupine quill borrows the materials and methods of traditional Native American artistry: What, one wonders, is the story behind that? She is, it turns out, an accomplished basketmaker and fiber artist with works in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and elsewhere.

“As an object and a symbol,” Belasco writes, “the yad insists that focusing on what is directly before us may lead to the divine.” To which I can only add: sometimes, all of us need a helping hand.

JoAnne Russo's 2011 yad (in red) of basketweave, beads, and other materials.

JoAnne Russo’s 2011 yad (in red) of basketweave, beads, and other materials.



The yads in Pointing the Way are bordered on the gallery walls by the photographs of Surviving Remnants, a quiet yet eloquent record of creativity, trauma, loss, and reclamation that lends weight and crucial context to the gathering of pointers, and is a rewarding exhibition in its own right. Photographed with beautiful clarity by Elizabeth Collings in 1990, they represent what remains of a treasure trove of Torah scrolls that were rescued from a war zone, wound their way improbably to Portland, and, having suffered beyond reconstruction, were buried in 1995 by religious school children in the synagogue cemetery at Congregation Beth Israel.

The scrolls have a history that reads like yet another familiar chapter in the story of civilization’s seemingly endless attempts to defeat itself. We live in a time when knowledge and history are not just disposable, in that casual pop-cultural who-cares way, they are also actively and intentionally destroyed. Ancient cities turned to rubble by ISIS raiders; giant Buddha statues blown up in Afghanistan; shrines smashed in Timbuktu; cartoonists massacred to keep their pens from scratching out blasphemies.

"Bereshit – In a Beginning ...," the first word from Genesis, the first book of the Torah, photographed by Elizabeth Collings.

“Bereshit – In a Beginning …,” the first word from Genesis, the first book of the Torah, photographed by Elizabeth Collings.

It was so in the time of the scrolls, too. They come from Simferopol, a city on the Crimean peninsula, in the territory that is now in dispute between Ukraine and Russia. Simferopol had been a center of Jewish life in the Crimea for centuries, and at the beginning of the second world war about 23,000 Jews lived there. In 1941 the Nazis captured the city, and by a year later had slaughtered 14,000 inhabitants – mostly Jews, Russians, Krymchaks, and Roma. By 1944, when the Russian army liberated the city, the number murdered had risen to more than 22,000.

Somehow, the scrolls survived, and were hidden away under difficult conditions in which they began to deteriorate. In 1990, Dr. Joe and Cathy Thaler returned to Portland from a visit as part of a medical delegation to Simferopol, bringing with them two large paper bags stuffed with fragments of Torah scrolls, given to them by the man who had been safeguarding them for years. They hoped the scrolls could be repaired, but it was simply too late.

And so, the remnants were prepared for eventual burial. But first, Collings and educator Jan Rabinowich spent many hours cataloguing and documenting them, and these remarkable photographs are the result of that effort to save at least a fragment from the fragments. The result is quietly devastating, and surprisingly beautiful.

“When I was given the opportunity to photograph these scrolls,” Collings writes in her moving exhibition notes, “I was shocked at the extensive damage and felt as if I was witnessing the result of the battlefields of war. I had never seen Torah scrolls in such condition. They seemed shrouded in darkness and mystery. The task ahead seemed enormous and I worried that my time with them was short because they would soon be buried.

“I proceeded cautiously, documenting the scrolls as they presented themselves to me with gashes, patches, spider webs and bits of coal from their years in hiding. I strove not to capture each word, as the words of Torah have not altered for millennia. Instead, I wished to have a portrait of the look and feel of each scroll. Their inherent beauty and dignity began to emerge. I came to recognize the hand of each sofer (scribe) and the edge and curl of each scroll. I said a prayer before I began my work each day with the scrolls and said a prayer as I finished.

“Each scroll had a unique story to tell if I could but listen and then capture it on film. Silent though they were, in my head I heard their music and saw the letters dance. My thoughts were with those individuals of Simferopol whose hands had once touched these scrolls and held them high in the glory of Simchat Torah. My days became filled with the scrolls and they followed me into my dreams at night. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to work with these scrolls and their effects remain with me.”

Remnants of survival. Photograph by Elizabeth Collings.

Remnants of survival. Photograph by Elizabeth Collings.

The photographs – all that remains – are in themselves things of great beauty; documents of destruction and survival and the rescue, by the skin of its teeth, of an idea. Reading the wall transcriptions of what the fragments say can be humbling and deeply edifying: the words are evidences of a history deeply embedded. “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and with our herds we will go.” “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back.” “Even the darkness is not too dark for You.” “And the people shall say, Amen.”

As some of the photos make clear, the line between language and visual art is very thin indeed: these lovingly crafted letters, these signifiers of story, are visual dazzlers, curved and rounded with craft and dignity. Art is a keeper of the flame, and is to be found in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances.


"Sailor and Date," ca. 1945, Florence Saltzman, woodblock print.

“Sailor and Date,” ca. 1945, Florence Saltzman, woodblock print.

Also on view through February 28 at the Jewish Museum is a small exhibition of work by Florence Saltzman (1917-1972), who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and lived and worked in Long Beach, California, before moving to Portland in the early 1950s with her husband, Fred Heidel, who became chairman of the department of art and architecture at what is now Portland State University.

Saltzman, like Heidel, is one of those interesting Northwest figures whose work tends to be known mainly in specialized circles now. The show at the Jewish Museum includes a few bigger, colorful pieces from her Portland years, but I found myself most taken with her several black & white woodblock prints from the 1940s in Long Beach. They are from wartime, when the town was abuzz with sailors and the whole country was upended in ways often bad and sometimes good: for one thing, women suddenly had a lot more freedom and opportunity. These prints reflect some of that crisis-time craziness, the strange liberation that can come with trauma. At the same time, they reflect the vigor of a strain of American art in the 1930s and ’40s when the country and its art were at a crossroads, a fertile mixing ground of influences: the populist realism of people like Thomas Hart Benton and the Ash Can School; the democratic urges of Roosevelt and the WPA; the little corners of  abstraction and impressionism imported from Europe; the coming wave of pure, brash abstraction preparing to break over the land. It was a moment when art was stuff that regular people knew and liked – something on the order of jazz and swing, sophisticated yet for most anyone. These prints have some of that verve and openness and crucible-forged optimism. Not a bad moment in time to revisit now and again.

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