The four prints are large, roughly two feet by two feet, and exquisitely-detailed. The first, "Afghanistan," features Islamic arches and calligraphic detail; the second, " Armenia," shows lush riverbanks and distant Mount Ararat through a kind of round windowpane. The third ("Bangladesh") features lotus blossoms, tigers, masks; the fourth ("Cambodia") evokes its story with faces, dancing figures, a mandala of color. They are the first four in a series of twenty-five proposed pieces exploring genocide, using the text of the kaddish yatom (the mourner's kaddish, Jewish prayer for the dead) as a starting-point. The series is by Amy Fagin, and it's called Beyond Genocide: illuminations for our era.
And indeed, each includes lines from the kaddish, written in classic Hebrew calligraphy. (Fagin has spent decades crafting custom ketubot, and her mastery of Hebrew is clear.) But the Armenian print also features swirling lines in Armenian; the print focusing on Bangladesh (and the violence that mars Indian/Pakistani history) offers script which looks to me like Hindi; the Cambodia print offers text in what I assume is Khmer. Fagin learned the intricacies of three new alphabets in order to make these pieces which simultaneously honor the dead and call us to engage with the living. She writes:
Each illumination is a visual story which represents a culture or civilization which has been threatened or extinguished by the violence of genocide....These penetrating illuminations recognize the greatest achievements of humankind and our most violent crimes. They help the viewer to see a personal and individual reflection of our common legacy of genocide. They inspire us to look deeper into the lessons of our past so that we can free ourselves from perpetrating this massive violence upon one another in the present.
As the globe draws closer to true understanding of our inter-being, we recognize that each individual desires to live in peace, without fear of domination, neglect, or annihilation. Each one of us can live with dignity and honor by cultivating genuine appreciation for each other, respect and awe for the astounding beauty and complexity of the world we live in.
Limited-edition prints of Fagin's work are on display at Congregation Beth Israel for the next four weeks; she will speak about them tonight, after services (service at 7pm; talk around 8:15). Their installation was timed to coincide with Judaism's communal day of mourning, Tisha b'Av, which begins tomorrow night at sundown as soon as Shabbat ends (and which I blogged about earlier this week.)
The rabbis teach that Tisha b'Av can be seen as a counterpart to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we stand before God as individuals, cementing our own process of teshuvah (re/turning or repentance) in order to repair the personal distance we may feel between ourselves and our Source. But before we can do that as individuals, we need to do it as a community, and Tisha b'Av offers the opportunity to stand before God as a group and collectively mourn the loss of connection-with-God which the fall of the Temple represents.
For me, our disconnect with God is manifest in the many ways that we harm each other. And the more violence we create, the more entrenched we become in our separateness from our Source -- and the harder it becomes to remember that things could be, should be, any different. There is no purer or more powerful sign of that disconnect than the kinds of genocide Fagin chronicles and memorializes in her artwork.
If you are near western Massachusetts, or will come here in the coming month, stop in and spend a while gazing at these exquisite and powerful pieces of art...and regardless of where you are geographically, I hope you will join me in taking Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to mourn not only the past suffering of the Jewish people, but also the suffering of everyone wounded by the inhuman violence of genocide, through history and now. May we bring an end to genocide, soon and in our days.