By Howie Stier / Special to the BJV
One night on an empty industrial street down by the Brooklyn waterfront I found myself looking at a jumper. That’s newspaper jargon for the guy on the pavement who landed there after stepping off a factory rooftop an hour earlier. A scrum of reporters held hope of getting a name for the spread-eagled corpse by deadline, and there was nothing to do but wait. Conversation turns to loshen harah – one TV talking head comments on the departed’s filthy socks, a New York Post hack pines for a nearby bar, and then a cop buttonholes me. “You know it wasn’t the fall that killed him,” he says in earnest." It was the sudden stop.”
As I try to parse this, the David Lynch-like tableau is heightened by a swell of familiar music. Barreling towards us, a Ford LTD station wagon is blasting Chanukah tunes; strapped to the roof, an out-of-all-proportion menorah, its PVC pipe branches dynamically angled skyward. In passing, a Chabadnik’s fist is pumping out the passenger window in time to “Al Hanissim” and I catch his face turned back to yell “We want Moshiach now!” And I respond: “No, tonight is not the night.”
Now what, you might wonder, does any of this decades-old megillah have to do with an exhibition currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum? Well, a most remarkable artifact on display in “The Golden Path Maimonides Across Eight Centuries” is a manuscript of the 12th-century philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or the Rambam, on loan from The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. The manuscript features the Rambam’s drawing of the gold beit hamikdash menorah. And it is this drawing which inspired that giant, highly mobile Chabad menorah I encountered back in the day.
Moshe Rabeinu may have been baffled by Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu’s instructions about how to fabricate a six-branched lamp out of solid gold, but Rambam is confident about its appearance, presenting his interpretation in an ink drawing dating from 1168. Measuring only about five inches square and shoehorned into a small patch of a single daf (page) of his Commentary on the Mishnah, it remarkably conveys a huge amount of information. No mechanical rendering from which a modern-day Bezalel (the chief artisan of the Tabernacle from the Book of Exodus) could fabricate a menorah, it is rather a loosely crafted image casually placed on the page, as ruled lines of calligraphy are obscured by lush sepia marks. This is all very un-Rambam-like. His multi-volume Mishne Torah (study a chapter a day and you’ll be done in three years) is nothing less than a comprehensive operating manual for Judaism, and the menorah drawing serves as a rich aesthetic counterpoint to Rambam’s precise text.
Indeed there is no mention in the Tanakh, Talmud, or other early sources as to the proper shape of the menorah’s branches. Ironically, the design source for the one graphic symbol unique to Judaism, the curved branched menorah displayed in every synagogue and Jewish home for the past 2,000 years, and for the emblem of the State of Israel has been culturally appropriated from a non-Jewish aesthetic, specifically a pagan Roman artist’s depiction on the 1st century CE Arch of Titus. Rambam shows us we’ve all been played.
Citing mesorah, an oral Torah tradition, as the source for his design choice, Rambam notes his geometric shapes along the branches are placeholders for flowers, knobs, and cups, the original forms of which are lost. But the most profound element here is Rambam’s depiction of the six branches diagonally attached to the central lamp holder, a medieval vision that evokes light traveling as both beam and particle that reflects the contemporary understanding of the physics of his time. Leaving the gallery, I’m left with two take-aways. Foremost, the sensibility that standing before the Rambam’s handiwork is the closest one can get ba olam hazeh (in this world) to encountering the living tzadik, and second, I’m awed by the power of an intimately scaled drawing, which can leave you forever ambivalent about that other depiction of the menorah, and pulls the rug from under that monument vis-a-vis the Coliseum in Rome.
The rounded vs. straight branch debate is detailed in the article ‘Why Insist on Depicting a Straight-Branched Menorah?’ on Chabad.org. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, felt that the rounded menorah branches derived from the Arch of Titus carving, whether historically accurate or not, evoked the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel, and insisted that Chabad menorahs, like that atop the “Mitzvah Mobile” encountered many years ago in Brooklyn be straight branched. The Talmud states that the menorah was a “testimony to all the inhabitants of the world that the Divine Presence rests within Israel” (Menachot 86b) – a symbol of connection between God and the Jewish People that should not carry the taint of defeat and exile.
The son of a survivor of the Lvov Ghetto and Janowska concentration camp, Howie Stier is a longtime journalist who reported on crime and mayhem in the five boroughs for the New York Times, covered celebrity news from the red carpet and back alleys of Hollywood Boulevard for Entertainment Tonight, and has relocated to the Berkshires where he’s focused on two considerations: literature and learning Torah – as havel havalim hakol havel (breath, breath, all is breath).
“The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries” remains on view through December 31 at Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street in New York City. The exhibit “tracks Maimonides and his thought through a study of materiality. It focuses on visual material, such as depictions of Maimonides, and on manuscripts and rare printed books from collections around the world, exploring specific items within their varied historical, cultural, and Maimonidean contexts.