A student of the history of Vancouver’s Jewish community will note nthat many of its institutions are built along the Oak Street corridor. Driving from Los Angeles to Vancouver on I-5 will bring you past Temple Sholom, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Louis Brier Home for the Aged, the Beth Israel Synagogue, Vancouver Talmud Torah and the Schara Tzedeck synagogue, all without having to wander far from the straight and narrow.
Most of these institutions were built in their present locations after World War II, when the Jewish community doubled in size. Our synagogue, Beth Israel, was dedicated in 1948, although the congregation itself dated from 1932.
Our shul is now an aging structure that has outlived its usefulness in its present form. Therefore, we have embarked on creating a new synagogue with expanded facilities and a very different look from the boxy building we now call home.
That’s a long-winded introduction to my topic, the concept of hiddur mitzvah, making the mitzvah a thing of beauty.
As volunteer custodian of the Beth Israel Judaica museum, initiated by and dedicated to our former rabbi and his wife – Rabbi Wilfred and Phyllis Solomon – I have the task of packing up the some 120 artifacts in that collection and storing them until the new building is ready.
Our museum was created to display the works of many different Jewish communities around the globe – a Mosaic mosaic, if you will. We have items from India, North Africa, western, central and eastern Europe, and communities throughout the Middle East, including Syria, Iran, Mandate Palestine and modern Israel. Each one has a story.
It may be a family heirloom brought from another homeland now desolate of its Jews. It may be an unusual article used by a person whose name remains, even though the story is lost. This is true of a bronze scribal kit that has the name of the scribe engraved on it.
We have a set of circumcision implements, in themselves ordinary, but they came with the journal of the mohel who recorded every circumcision he performed in late-19th-century Europe.
One of my favourites is an enigmatic spice box, shaped like a stork. She – I’m sure it’s a she – stands elegantly and gracefully on one leg, holding a snake in her mouth. Why a stork? Why a snake?
We also have a tzedakah box from Hungary. To look at this lovely box is to recall the vibrant Hungarian community from which it came, and to realize that the community no longer exists.
That same historical awareness is evoked by a chanukiyah from Damascus. The community is no more, yet here is a beautiful remnant of its past.
On the other hand, a delicate egg-shaped carved wooden spice box from the Bezalel school in Jerusalem testifies to the rebirth of the skills associated with Bezalel, builder of the tabernacle. It reminds us that in Israel, there has been a rebirth of the visual and plastic arts.
While the biblical view of making images is very strict – no graven images of anything on, above or below the earth – one needs only to visit the archeological sites of classical synagogues in Israel to see that the people weren’t shy about decorating their synagogue floors with stunning mosaic images of biblical stories, as well as the zodiac and, gasp, even paganish images of the sun.
Not to mention the frescos of the Syrian synagogue at Dura Europos, a visual feast for the eyes.
The other reminder of a long period of portrayal of the human form is the myriad of Haggadot that have survived from Sephardi lands. I’m thinking of the illustrations in the Sarajevo Haggadah in particular. The Rylands and the Ashkenazi Haggadah blaze with colour and animation as well (although it’s theorized that the illustrations may have been done by Christian artisans).
So throughout the 2,000 of Diaspora, Jewish communities and families strove to make the things that embodied ritual and ceremony as beautiful as possible. Had those same communities been free to participate in the flourishing Renaissance of painting as well, who knows what masterpieces would have emerged?
So as I pack away our little museum, I linger to appreciate the beauty each item brings to the mitzvah for which it was created.