The Art of Hope

Imagine someone who lived a century ago receiving a postcard from Jerusalem. She would probably receive that card with all the delight of one who has touched on the exotic, as one who has come as close as she may ever to Jerusalem.  In that moment, the postcard represents the extent of her closeness to the place that that postcard has come from, and she longs for her distant homeland.  This postcard becomes a taunt; in her hands she closely clutches the Western Wall or the city gates, yet no distance was ever as great.  Perhaps through some miracle, she might see the real thing, but most likely, this postcard, slide, or photograph, will be the closest she will ever come to being in  Jerusalem.  For this person, living in the early part of the 20th century, the difficulty, dangers, and expense of travel are almost insurmountable. She understands that it may be impossible to ever see Jerusalem.

Old postcards and glass lantern slides  (premade slides used to project photos) from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jerusalem are particularly interesting because they represent the limited but increasing travel that occurred before the creation of the State of Israel.  These postcards and slides were commercial keepsakes of travel, relatively mundane as far as artwork goes.  Nonetheless, through the passage of time, these commercially produced items came to be looked at as artifacts that illuminate how a city was presented and viewed by the people who had travelled there.

The messianic hopes that were conjured with the increasing travel to Israel seem similar to ideas developed by Gershom Scholem, Jewish theorist and philosopher of the 20th century, in his essay “The Messianic Idea in Judaism”.  In this essay, Scholem discusses differing opinions on the fundamental Jewish messianic belief. Scholem concludes with a discussion about the effects of Messianism, and how it relates to the 20th century return to Israel and the formation of the State.  He writes:

“[…] For the Messianic idea is not only consolation and hope.  Every attempt to realize it tears open the abysses which lead each of its manifestations ad absurdum.  There is something grand about living in hope, but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it […] Thus in Judaism the Messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished […] Precisely understood, there is nothing concrete which can be accomplished by the unredeemed […]Jewish so called Existenz possesses a tension that never finds true release; it never burns itself out[…] Little wonder that overtones of Messianism have accompanied the modern Jewish readiness for irrevocable action […] when it set out on the utopian return to Zion […]. ” [i]

 

According to Scholem, Jewish Messianism, though consolatory, also represents the unrealized redemption.  Because Jewish Messianism centers on hope, it suggests the despair that breeds the hope for messianism.  Therefore, Jewish Messianic hope is accompanied by the despair of exile, constantly reminiscent of the lack which pervades Jewish existence.

Furthermore, Messianic hope does not merely taunt the hopeful with visions of redemption, but to a certain degree, diminishes the value of the life spent in that hopeful, unredeemed state, because, as Scholem says, “there is nothing concrete which can be accomplished by the unredeemed.”[ii] That is to say, Jewish existence places its aspirations on life post-redemption, and in the interim between exile and redemption, there is a lack of completeness or accomplishment.

While Jewish reality possesses all the pains of the existence of the individual, the Jewish hope possesses all the grandness of the visions of redemption that man believes in.  In that sense, the life of the unredeemed is a life on the edges of reality and grandness, between hope and despair.  The divide between the reality and hope creates a tension that time does not mitigate.  The longer history progresses without some redemption, the more highly stacked are those hopes, extending farther and farther from reality.

This relationship between hope and despair is apparent in a collection of 20th century postcards and glass lantern slides in the YU museum collection.  These works depict Jerusalem during the early part of the 20th century, and reflect the contradictory elements of hope’s grandness and reality’s despair discussed by Scholem. Included within this collection is a glass lantern slide “Jerusalem”, ca. 1934, which projects a monochrome, photographic image of the mountains around the old city, the city walls, and the Mosque above the western wall. Above the cityscape, the sky is vast, both luminous and dark, rolling forward in anticipation.

In looking at this image, one sees the encapsulation of Scholem’s concept of the unrealized life of the unredeemed and the tension that “does not burn itself out.”[iii]  In this image, the old city is nestled in the very center of the picture.  It is separated from the viewer by the ledge that continues off the frame, and by the valley that is placed between that ledge and the mountaintop on which the city is settled.  The wide scope of the image shows the sunlit structures of the city continuing to the upper right of the frame.  The cityscape continues to stretch beyond the edges of the picture, disappearing at the horizon. The city is illuminated, and rests in the center of the image.  It is as grand as anyone’s hopes, and also as distant.

The image is framed so that the viewer is standing upon the cliff in the foremost of the frame, placed on the edge of reality and the phantom of his hopes.  Standing upon that ledge, the viewer is possessed by the sight of the city, yet the viewer remains an outsider, only able to capture the walls and the shadows cast.  Furthermore, the plane that the viewer stands on, which is so separated from the city, becomes the reality of the viewer, so that the viewer’s very purpose becomes entangled in the hope of reaching the city.  He is wrapped up in the grandness of its sight, yet his distance from the city expresses the reality of his situation.  It is the great distance between the viewer and his city that projects the haunting want that Jerusalem has represented in the past millennium.

This longing is further reflected in the large cloud that overtakes the frame.  This ominous sky competes with the cityscape at the centermost of the image, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the darkest corner of the cloud, which hangs directly over the brightest part of the city.  It reflects the distance between the viewer and the city, by competing for the viewer’s attention.  This cloud becomes the representation of the tension of hope, the anticipation of redemption and realization.  At the same time, the cloud holds the history of Jewish suffering within it, and hangs over the vision of a gleaming city, as if to remind one that visions of hope are borne in suffering.  In that cloud all the fears and painful wants condense the way they do in the unrealized life of the unredeemed.

In the postcard titled “The Western Wall”, ca. 1908, the picture’s unique visual perspective also reflects the polemic between hope and reality.  The scene is a colored depiction of the women’s area of the Western Wall.  The viewer is placed on the same level as all the other figures, in such a way that one feels as though she is entering the scene depicted.  There is no gulf between the viewer and the city.  Yet despite that, the postcard alludes to a psychological distance.  Instead of the focus being the Western Wall, which is the title of the card, or of the multitude of figures standing there, there is an open space filled only with the cobblestone ground.  Most of the figures there are curtained away by their robes, and have their backs to the viewer.  The only figures facing the viewer are so far away their faces are indiscernible.  The viewer has no interaction with either the place or the people, as all the figures and the Western Wall itself is at the periphery of the image.  In fact, Western Wall is only given a sliver of space on the card.  In this way, the postcard has enabled one to see the object of desire, the Western Wall, surrounded by people, while also narrating the unfulfilled hope that it represents.  Despite its proximity, despite the fact that the viewer has entered the scene, there is no connection between the viewer and the place.  One is just as distant from the Wall as when she started.  The illustrated quality of the image adds to unreal characteristic of the scene, reminding one, that the picture is an artificial construction of a scene that she longs for.

The collection’s monochrome postcard, titled “Interior of the Golden Gate” published in 1921, shares a similar striking attitude with the previously mentioned pieces.  The picture shows another outsider’s view of the gates of Jerusalem.  To the left, an olive tree stands, its branches obscuring part of the city; the shadows extend to the far left, into the city limits, carrying with them stillness and relief.   In this picture Jerusalem is the focal point; there are no looming clouds or distracting perspectives.  The sky is still and clear, and the image retains a calmness that the other pictures lack.  In this image, the viewer feels positioned nearby, perhaps on a low hill or mount near the tree.  The scape in view is close, a few more steps and he will reach it. One feels immersed in the picture, more so than in the others, as he is not gapingly distant from the city walls, nor is his destination in the periphery.  Instead, the destination is only a few yards away, separated by a grassy area and abundant shade.  His closeness, the feasibility of reaching that place, creates a pleasantness that is lacking in the other images.  This postcard expresses relief. All the tension that might have been has dissipated on the peaceful day depicted. One can almost envision oneself standing there, in the pleasant shade, so close the place he has sought for so long.  The traveler who sees this scene is neither arriving nor leaving, but leisurely taking in the sight of the Interior of the Golden Gate.

In a way, this image is the purest expression of hope’s grandness, in that is mounts no tension against the hope—within the image.  But, because it is merely an image, one becomes immersed in hope, and then acutely aware of the reality that surrounds him.   The viewer is not standing in the shade with his beloved city in sight.  Perhaps he is standing in his kitchen, or at the post office, or even in a museum, looking at this mere postcard, seeing in it, the representation of hope, suddenly aware of how unrealized that hope is.  This is also true of the glass lantern slide, “Jerusalem”, and of the postcard “The Western Wall.”  All these images are well-depicted reminders of what people wish they had and where they long to be.  They all give glimpses of the city that stirred so many to think of what they might one day reach.    The hopes and despairs that are conjured by these pieces are difficult to understand today, when travel is so accessible to most people. Yet, what does remain in our own generation, is the tenuous hope and despair that exists within the unrealized redemption that haunts our beloved city.

 

Miriam Rubin is a sophomore at SCW.

 


[i]                Gershom Scholem, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” in Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism And Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 35-36.

[ii]               Ibid, 35.

[iii]              Ibid, 35.