“Even chance meetings are the result of karma…Things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Sheer coincidence (?) fated that when visiting Tel Aviv last winter, I stayed not far from the “galleries zone” (Ben Jehuda and Gordon Streets).
It was already night and the galleries were closed. I walked by Tova Osman Art Gallery and a fleeting glance at the wheels and Hebrew letters painted on the rough jute sufficed. I stopped and glued myself to the gallery window in an attempt to gain a clearer view. The blue letters of the phrase “Matching Hour” (Kabbalah for “time of erotic union”) radiated despite the dim light. Those were Kabbalistic symbols.
Over the next few days I kept on returning to the gallery, which for some reason remained closed, and then to my dismay the paintings disappeared.
It was only on my last Friday in Israel that I found the gallery owner, who told me that the exhibit, “Following Sabtai Zvi,” was made by Nadav Bloch and Nechama Levendel, two Israeli artists and partners in life and work. Nadav Bloch, however, had just passed away. The gallery owner offered to connect me to Nechama Levendel. And so two days before my flight back to Toronto, I drove to Ein Hod, the artist village at the foot of Carmel Mountains, to meet with Nechama.
Nechama opened the door and for a few long minutes I couldn’t stop gazing at her hypnotizing black eyes. We stepped into the serene, monastic space of the stone house and studio, which was devoid of most of the standard commodities typical to a living space. The gallery, right at the entrance, presented the works of both artists. Kabbalistic wheels, words and letters in different languages (Hebrew, Arab, Aramaic, Latin), filled the house with timeless presence.
We sat at the long wooden table next to the austere kitchen equipped with a mysterious little coffee machine that produced a most aromatic espresso.
Nechama and Nadav’s Sabbatian “adventures” began when they were invited to work and exhibit in the small Muslim town of Ulcinj in Montengro. They were sent to check out a gallery situated in an archeological site, once a fortress and now a mosque with a minaret, by the sea. Nadav had to struggle with an old iron key (almost 30 cm long) before he managed to unlock the heavy door. They entered a dark room, opened the windows to let in the light, and of all things, saw a Star of David and two trees carved on one of the walls.
After some inquiries, they found out that the exiled Sabbatai Sevi had been imprisoned in this old fortress, and that the tree is the symbol of Sevi, whose feet are on the ground yet head high up in heaven.
Not long after Sevi was exiled to Ulcinj, back then the far end of the Ottoman Empire, his followers joined him, to have their descendants live in the small Muslim town as “others” up to this day.
Determined to dedicate their exhibition to the gallery’s famous prisoner, Nadav and Nechama traveled first to Belgrade to look for materials on Sabbatai Sevi, then back to Israel where Nadav delved into reading anything related to Sevi, from historical works to works of fiction and Kabbalah.
“It was the Sabbatian idea of breaking limits,” says Nechama, “of erasing borders, not taking the given for granted, that appealed to Nadav who in his daring, sometimes naïve way, always questioned things and was open to the different and the other.”
That was their mode of creating. The two traveled all over the world and in each place worked with local materials. Their travels and work around the world took them to the Ambiante Historico Museum in Cuba. As always, Nadav explored the local markets and seeing the rice sacs came up with the idea of using jute for his painting. “Because culture is like merchandise, crossing borders importing ideas…”
The Sabbatai exhibit itself was a work in process and lasted for a month and a half, during which Nechama and Nadav stayed in the gallery in the old fortress and worked everyday to create “Following Shabtai Zvi.” (This YouTube link will take you to a video of Nadav and Nechama in Ulcinj.) The accompanying prayer is an Aramaic text from the Book of Daniel that tells about the coming of the Messiah.
And there were some strange, unexpected moments.
As the exhibition traveled and arrived at the National Gallery in Tirana, Albania, Nadav and Nechama were taking a walk in the local market when they were called back to the gallery to meet two visitors who had arrived to see them. One was a policeman who demanded to know why they had chosen Sevi for the subject of their exhibition. It turned out he was an avid researcher of Sabbatianism and was looking for Sabbatai’s grave. Tradition points at two places, so its whereabouts are uncertain. One is a small Albanian village in the mountains. During the Ottoman empire many intellectuals were exiled to this remote community. Mysteriously, until today, the village’s women instruct the children to put pebbles and light candles (a Jewish tradition) on a certain sacred yet unnamed grave. The encounter with the policeman ended peacefully, yet not without the latter warning the artists not to meddle too much with dangerous subjects like Sabbatai Sevi.
A less dramatic yet no less karmic incident transpired in Israel. Nadav came up with the logo “Esperamos a ti” meaning in Ladino (the Judeo-Spanish language) “We wait for you” and looked for a print house that would print this logo on T-shirts. The printer they finally found was no other than the descendant of Jonathan Eibeschutz, a famous Prague rabbi who still today is the subject of controversy for his Sabbatian tendencies (and who was the inspiration for one of the figures in my Kabbalistic mystery, Gateway of Souls).
Nechama herself is far from believing in coincidences, let alone mystical practices. Apart for having collaborated on the Sabbatian paintings (after all, the theme of erotic union, for instance, is not necessarily Sabbatian), she works with ancient texts and collects old books destined for disposal, which she converts into “book-objects.” It’s an idea very much in line with Walter Benjamin’s aesthetics of redemption: to save the forgotten from oblivion, to reveal that which has been defeated by history and give it a new existence, an idea that can already be found in Kabbalah.
And in Nadav’s mode, seriousness must be questioned and inverted. Nechama told me how when they arrived at Cordova in Spain, Nadav couldn’t resist placing one of his Sevi T-shirts on a sculpture of Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish philosopher who composed a code of Jewish law and is known for his strict rationalism.
Here you can see the photo of Maimonides, the arc rationalist, embracing in his lap the T-shirt printed with the expectation for one of the most mystical figures in Jewish history.