Sunday, December 27, 2015

Embracing the Land of Israel

by Miriam Benjamin, Co-creator of Torah Tweets blogart project with her husband Mel Alexenberg and in the book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life

I embrace the Land of Israel with my fingers hugging its earth.  As an artist, I bestow form to pliant earth responsive to my touch that flows in veins of clay in the Negev desert mountains near Yeroham where I lived for seven years. 

To honor the president of Israel who was coming to visit Yeroham, the town’s mayor commissioned me to make a gift for him.  I wedged air out of Negev clay dug with the aid of a geologist from Ben-Gurion University and centered it on my whirling potter’s wheel.  I shaped earth of Israel into forms for marking the boundaries “between holy and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, and between the seventh day and the six days of creation,” the words of the havdalah ceremony. 

My wet fingers shaped the spinning clay into a goblet for wine, into a spice box, and into a candle holder – three partners for bringing closure to Shabbat through the interplay of the senses of taste, smell, and sight.   I impressed Hebrew letters spelling out the words of havdalah into the clay around the rim of a plate formed to hold the three ceremonial objects.  I fired them in my kiln to harden the fragile earth.  I formulated a glaze from the ashes swept out of the frena, an earthen wood-burning oven for baking pita in the backyards of my neighbors who immigrated to Israel from Morocco.

President Yitzhak Navon visited my ceramics studio at Ramat Hanegev College where I taught ceramics in a program to educate art teachers for community centers throughout Israel.   I explained to him how I had created the havdalah set to link Jewish tradition to the North African immigrants of the town and to the earth of the desert. 

In an interview on the evening television news about the waning pioneering spirit in Israel, President Navon said that he found the pioneering spirit alive and well in Yeroham.  He spoke about how I left the ceramic studio of Columbia University and moved to an isolated town in the Negev desert sight unseen with my husband and three children.


I was born in Paramaribo, Suriname, the capital of the Dutch colony where the Amazon jungle touches the Atlantic Ocean. To my good fortune, I was born in Paramaribo and not in Amsterdam where all of my large extended family there were murdered by the Nazis. 

As a child, I loved to feel earth flow between my fingers in the Suriname synagogue where my father chanted the Torah portion on Shabbat. The entire floor was covered with sand to remind us of the trek of the Israelites across the desert to reach the Promised Land.  I rushed to be the first person in synagogue on Friday evenings after the sand floors were raked smooth so that my footprints would be the first to show. 

I ran my fingers through the earth of Israel for the first time outside my house in Paramaribo when my father's mother had passed away.  It is Jewish tradition to bury our dead in the Diaspora with earth from the Land of Israel.  The feel of this special earth in my hands for the hour before it was taken to the cemetery fascinated me.

In 1950, my family made aliyah along with a prefabricated house from Holland that was erected on my uncle's farm in Hibat Tzion (Affection for Zion).  There my sister and I spent many days with our hands in the earth planting and harvesting potatoes and planting a flower garden and vegetable patch beside our house.  

Our Paramaribo synagogue along with its sand floor followed us on aliyah 60 years later. It was dismantled, transported to Israel and reconstructed on the campus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

In 1959, I met Mel Alexenberg a third-generation American from a Zionist family. We were married on motzei Simhat Torah in New York.  Jews throughout the world danced on the Simchat Torah holiday and our families and friends continued to dance into the night at our wedding after the holiday had ended.  In the first five years of our marriage, we were blessed with three children.  18 years later, our fourth child was born in Yeroham when we already had two granddaughters.   

We went on aliyah with our first three children in 1969.   Being unhappy with the way Israeli schools stifled creativity, Mel and I worked together to create the first open school in Israel – the Center for Creative Learning – the experimental school of the University of Haifa.  All subjects were studied through the arts. We traveled in USA from coast to coast visiting alternative schools that encouraged creativity that we documented for presentation to the Education Committee of the Knesset. 


Living in the Negev desert so strongly shaped my aesthetic consciousness that it followed me into my Pratt Institute studio in New York where I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA). Living in the desert, I fashioned vessels to hold food or to use in Jewish rituals. On leaving the desert, I stopped throwing pots and began to express my connection to my lost desert environment. 
Photograph taken by my talented grandson Or Alexenberg in the Negev where he lives

I had developed a vocabulary of earth forces from my walks in the desert mountains stretching out from my home in Yeroham to the edge of the Great Crater that begins the drop to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on our planet.  The desert is the best place to see the Earth’s skin.  It is there that the shapes created by geological forces from beneath and by erosion of wind and water from above are most apparent.  The desert landscapes that we see are but hardened moments of vast geological time not hidden by grass, by trees, by snow, or by buildings and pavement. 

The vocabulary of earth forces that I developed from my encounters with the desert is the same vocabulary that I express through my clayscapes.  It is an obvious, yet frequently overlooked fact that clay is earth.  My clayscapes are made of earth and their subject matter is earth.  After flash floods in the desert, I watched the wet earth dry out and crack into beautiful patterns like the skin of a giraffe.  On the hillsides, erosion wrinkles the earth like the hide of an aged elephant.  Sometimes the fast-moving water leaves patterns like the feathery frost on winter window panes or like the venation patterns of large tropical leaves. 

When I hold wet clay in my hands, my pushing, pulling, lifting, tearing, pressing, scoring, folding and pinching caused clay to crack, wrinkle, warp, rupture, slump, swell, shear, part, gnarl and burst.  I also used a rolling pin to create flat, smooth, continuous, quiet plains to contrast with active earth.

My clayscapes are living forms documenting my dialogues with pliable slabs of clay fired into stone.  Like a dry river bed shows where water once flowed, my clayscapes record the interactions between my moving hands and the flowing response of wet clay.  They mirror the poetic vision of the Psalms that assign life and motion to the mountains and deserts that inspire my clayscapes.  We read in Psalm 114: "The sea beheld and fled; the Jordan turned backwards; the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.  And in Psalm 97: "The earth beholds and trembles.  The mountains melt like wax."

Artist Yaacov Agam visited my studios in Yeroham and Miami intrigued by my clayscapes.  He arranged a solo exhibition of them at the gallery that shows his work in Honolulu.  Proof that I captured in my clayscapes the geological dynamics of natural systems was my exhibition's failure.  Hawaiians saw my clayscapes as if they were solidified lava rising up from inside the earth in the volcanic eruptions on their islands.  In their tradition, it brought bad luck to remove pieces of frozen lava from their natural resting place to show them in a gallery or have them in their homes.        

Clay in the hands of a creative artist can form earth into expressions of the spiritual. In the Yom Kippur liturgy, clay in the hands of a potter is used a metaphor for humanity in God's hands. The Hebrew word for "clay" khomer is also used to mean "material" in general.  If it is read backwards with the middle letter dropped, the word for "clay" becomes the word for "spirit" ruakh.  In Judaism, the difference between the material world and the spiritual world is one's perception.  We can look at the material world and only see its physical properties.  On the other hand, if we shift our perspective we can see the spiritual emerging.  A perceptual shift can transform the ordinary into something extraordinary and the mundane into the miraculous.


In my studio at the South Florida Art Center on Miami Beach, my clayscapes formed cylinder.  One cylinder climbed atop another until they grew taller than me.  I saw them as branchless trees or limbless bodies.
I was always drawn to the life stories told by the barks of old trees.  My childhood memories of giant Amazon jungle trees casting darkness over the river rapids behind my house in Paramaribo merged with my encounters with gnarled barks of centuries-old olive trees and scared ficus trees in Israel. I marvel at the renewal of life when I see fresh growth sprouting from the scars of damaged trees. 

My human-size sculptures are both like trees stripped of their branches by a forest fire and like helpless limbless Jews like my Dutch family whose lives were cut short by the Holocaust and whose branches were cut off from our family tree.   My sculptures were exhibited at the National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, to commemorate my mother's parents who perished in the fiery hell of Auschwitz.  I shared my mother's grief at the loss of her entire family that stayed behind in Holland. 

What an awesome statement of rebirth I experienced seeing my mother giving a Hanukah piano concert at Beit Juliana Parents Home in Herzliya when she was100. Mel photographed her with me, my daughter Iyrit, my granddaughter Inbal, and my great-grandson Eliad – five generations.  "From generation to generation, they will dwell in the Land of Israel where the wilderness will rejoice over them, the desert will be glad and blossom like a lily.  Her wilderness will be made like Eden and her desert like a Divine garden.  Joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music." (Isaiah 35:1, 51:3)

(This paper was published in The Times of Israel, Dec. 24, 2015, . An expanded version was published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education, Design and Contemporary Art, No. 3, Oct. 2014.) 

About the Artist:  Miriam Benjamin is a ceramic artist who has created Jewish ceremonial objects and clayscapes inspired by the forces of geology and erosion in the Negev desert.  She created “Legacy Thrones,” three monumental artworks made in collaboration with elders from different ethnic communities of Miami. Benjamin collaborated with her husband Mel Alexenberg in a blogart project, "Torah Tweets" celebrating their 52 years together.  Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums in New York, Miami, Washington, Honolulu and Detroit.   

She studied at Columbia University, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Arrowmont School of Crafts in Tennessee, and Massachusetts College of Art, and earned her M.F.A. at Pratt Institute in New York.  Benjamin was artist-in-residence at the South Florida Art Center in Miami Beach and has taught at colleges in Israel and New York and in the Experimental School of the University of Haifa.  

She was born in Suriname, the Dutch colony in South America, the great-granddaughter of the Chief Rabbi of Holland.  She made aliyah with her family in 1950, lived in Hibat Tzion and went to school and was active in the B’nai Akiva Zionist youth movement across the road in K’far Haroeh. She lives in Ra’anana, Israel.               


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