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Mira Zelechower-Aleksiun, Poland
The Torah chapter titled Devarim shares its name with the first reading in the fifth book of the Torah. It is also the name of the first reading in this Book. I decided to use oil pastels to create the image for this parsha (Torah portion), although I generally prefer using acrylics.
It was a very emotional and surprising experience to draw on real parchment. The columns surrounding the “flying” Torah are the text from parshat Devarim. The first column is the beginning of the chapter and the last column is text from the end of the book of Devarim. The fifth book of the Torah is the record of Moses’s reiteration of the lessons contained in Covenant. His fear that the nation will not honor the rules of the Law given at Sinai is evident. That is the reason a symbolic Mount Sinai is included in my rendering. In reality, this mount is no different than any other, but in my drawing it is special. The mountain is ablaze with embers and, Moses, arms uplifted, is visible on the real mountain as well as the one that is a living description in the Torah scroll. The story repeats itself — it exists not only within reality, on earth, but in the heavens as well.
Mira Zelechower-Aleksiun graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław, Poland in 1966. She has held over 80 individual and group exhibitions. Some of her paintings are included in collections in the Vatican Museum and the museums of Warsaw, Wrocław and Ludvigshaffen as well as private collections both in Poland, Europe and the US. View Mira’s work at: www.mira.q.pl/MOpen.htm
Reflections on Being a Jewish Woman Artist
To be a Jewish woman and an artist in Poland after World War II is an exceptionally paradoxical challenge. To be Jewish means to be a part of a community, but today, the Jewish community in my city is sparse. The elder generation doesn’t have enough strength to attend services and the young have a limited Jewish education. Often, we don’t have a minyan (traditionally, a group of 10 men) for Shabbat Shaharit (morning services).
I learned about the existence of a Jewish religious life in my hometown only after my first trip to Israel, for which I was invited by my father’s family. I didn’t know my father. He was killed by the Nazis when I was an infant. My mother and I were left alone and returned to Poland after the War. My father’s sisters and brother miraculously survived life in a German labor camp. I never learned about their lives after the War because every time I began asking questions my cousin forbade more curiosity-driven questioning of the elders. What I did know is that they survived and were in Israel. When they found me and invited me to visit in Israel, communism still reigned in Poland. Israel was a completely different world. The most striking part was the feel of the Land, its touch. I felt as if I had entered into the Book, to which I still referred as the Old Testament. The Psalms were palpable. I was fortunate to visit Mount Sinai. It was there that I experienced the closeness of the the “Presence”. This encounter became the source of my renewed energy. I felt the call to exist in my Jewishness.
Once I returned to Poland, I began the journey of discovering my Jewish heritage. The titles of my collections following that experience spoke to my travels. My first collection was titled: “Through the Holy Land to the Promised Land.” I had the opportunity to display these paintings at the Artist’s House the following year in Israel. During the opening, a woman asked me: “If you’re from Poland, how come there is nothing about the Holocaust in your works?” I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to look behind me, I didn’t want to identify myself with that experience. I didn’t think it needed to be addressed.
After returning to Poland, this conversation influenced a completely new consciousness which opened a gateway in my mind. I could no longer hold back the series of paintings in my mind. They were wiser than my collected imaginings. They led me. The collection “Let’s not wait — Let’s sit down” was created. My message was that Poles and Jews need to stop arguing about who is the greater martyr. They need to look one another in the face and raise a toast: Lechaim! Na zdrowie! More paintings came forth. The next collection was titled “Heritage” and I exhibited it in my hometown – Wroclaw. And at the same time I organized a historical seminar at City Hall: “Jewish Contributions to Poland’s Heritage.” I thought then that I was finished with the subject.
I took this collection to New York where it was shown at the Polish Consulate. My hope was to find Jews who would join Poles at a shared table. But there I found grievances toward Poland and Poles. I now know more about where those biases came from. In New York I had my first opportunity to enter a synagogue and to meet Rabbi Chaskiel Besser. I started learning Hebrew. I was deeply moved by the essays of the French philosopher Levinas. Once I returned to Poland, I began lighting Shabbat candles as a way of connecting with the Jewish world and the rhythms of Jewish life and traditions. I went to the Lauder Foundation’s Jewish Summer Camp led by Rabbi Schudrich. There I met a group of young Jewish intellectuals and thus began my Jewish education. These were small steps but they made a huge impression.
In Poland one couldn’t get a siddur (prayer book) — you could only find Xeroxed copies of a prayer book published in the times of Tsar Alexander. There were no books about Jewish traditions. The Christian translation of the Torah, all I had previously known, was merely the Old Testament stripped of all the Jewish commentaries and Midrashim (interpretive teachings). What I discovered in my new Jewish learning was so different from the Christian interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. It filled me with great excitement. I uncovered new way of thinking. While learning, I felt I had to share my discoveries. This was the source of my next series of paintings and also of the courage to discuss them at shows. Fact is, I met and continue to meet with great curiosity from the audiences.
I've collaborated with the Gardzienice Theatre Association for many years and with them I planned a gathering — “Taste of the Shabbat.” I set the space up in the shape of a synagogue with a huge table nearby. Our cook prepared a kosher meal for over 70 guests. The following day a display of my paintings titled “Taste of the Shabbat” was arranged at a neighboring house in Gardzienice. One of the paintings was of a long table surround by people I know. And so it happened: here in this place, these very people found themselves together. The collection was shown many times in Poland in vast rebuilt synagogues that doubled as museums and I had the opportunity to dialogue with the audiences.
The most recent collection of paintings dear to my heart are called “A Calendar of Memories According to Bruno Schultz.” Originally, I showed the works as part of the scenery for a performance by the Double Edge Theatre near Boston. It was a chance to let American viewers encounter the most beloved Polish Jewish writer of the 20th century. An author who was brutally murdered in the Polish town of Drohobycz.
Today I’m occupied with a series of paintings titled “Holy Day.” It will be about the single holiday that has a shared source and even a similar meaning: Pesach (Passover) and Easter. Herein lies the source of the age-long conflict between the two religions. But I believe that it is possible to shed some light on it. This will be accompanied by a children’s workshop for kids from Four Faiths Quarter. It is the oldest part of our city and is also called Mutual Respect District. It has been an active area in Wroclaw for many years. The exhibition will be accompanied by a panel discussion attended by a representatives from the Four Religions District and several other prominent secular artists, psychologists, and anthropologists.