At the busy intersection of St-Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Avenue in Montreal, passersby in the frigid cold are happening upon the inviting warmth of candlelight and gentle hands.
Every evening, from the fall of darkness until midnight, the public can pause for a moment at the intersection and let the serenity of the traditional Jewish ceremony ushering in Shabbat imbue their busy lives.
Scintillements/1001 Lights is a video art installation at the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) that was created by filmmakers Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer and opened on Jan. 28.
The duo captured 100 members of the Montreal Jewish community lighting their Shabbat candles and have interspersed fragments of that footage with choreographed hand movements performed by professional dancers.
The 15-minute creative synthesis is projected continuously onto two large windows at a perpendicular angle.
In Scintillements (which means “sparkling” or “twinkling” in French), hands methodically light the candles and circle over the flickering flame before they cover the face of the person performing the timeless ritual. No face is actually seen and all the participants are anonymous.
In the choreography, pairs of hands emerging from shadows reflect the grace and mystery of gestures that have been performed in Jewish homes for generations.
The installation has a third side, which is only accessible from inside the MJM, where viewers enter an intimate, closed-off space and immerse themselves in sights and sounds. Through headphones, they hear prayers recited, the crack of matches being struck and the wafting of air.
The overall effect is hypnotic, and that’s what Szporer and Millar, who have been artistic collaborators for 20 years, were going for. There’s no religious or political message – just the sharing of a sense of peace with everyone, regardless of background, they say.
Szporer was always mesmerized by his mother’s candlelighting ritual, which she performed every Friday night without fail, even though the family was not especially religious.
“It was a transcendent moment that marked me in such a fundamental way; it’s almost indefinable, connecting past, present and future,” said Szporer.
After she died five years ago, Szporer went through her belongings and came across her candelabra.
“I was going to give it away to someone who could enjoy the same depth of experience, but my partner, Bruce, said, ‘No, keep it and carry on the tradition,’ ” he said.
If no post-bat mitzvah female is in the home, men are not only permitted, but obliged, to conduct the ritual, according to Jewish tradition. Szporer was as captivated by the act of performing the ritual, as he was of watching it.
This was the germ of the idea for Scintillements. Szporer and Millar co-direct Mouvement Perpétuel, which specializes in the creation of dance works specifically for film.
They sought a cross-section of the community – Ashkenazic, Sephardic, different denominations and ethnic origins, varying candelabra styles, a range of ages. They initially went to people they knew.
With an ease that surprised them, they soon found the 100 participants (including three men). Congregations Dorshei Emet and Shaar Hashomayim, as well as the Akiva School, were especially helpful in recruiting people.
It was choreographed by Ami Shulman, who, with five others, performs the hand artistry.
The MJM exhibition, which continues until mid-April, is the Canadian premiere of Scintillements, a French word meaning “sparkling” or “twinkling” that the producers say felt more alluring than a simple translation of the English original.
The work was previously shown in, of all places, rural Finland in 2016, and later in Shanghai. Both venues were physically different than the challenging setting the MJM provides, with three regular screens serving as the canvas.
The pair did not attend the show in China, but were in Finland. Millar was impressed with how local people identified with the ritual, even though they had little knowledge of Jewish culture. She is not Jewish herself, yet is equally drawn to it.
Candlelighting, of course, is common to many faiths and cultures, and people have always gathered around contained fire.
MJM’s first physical space, at 4040 St-Laurent Blvd., in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood, opened just over 1½ years ago. This season, it is holding its first exhibition series on the theme of rituals and fragments, and Millar and Szporer’s installation was a natural fit.
Executive director Zev Moses said the MJM was attracted to Scintillements for that very reason. “We are here to explore and share Jewish culture,” he said. “The exhibition hits all the right notes: telling diverse Jewish stories, art, technology, outreach. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what we are all about.”
Exhibition manager Lauren Laframboise said the exhibition is especially uplifting in the winter: “We hope people walking by, who may not know who we are, will be enticed to come inside.”