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The Bezalel Style

From the very beginnings of the Bezalel enterprise, there was a conscious effort to create a new and unique "Hebrew" style of art. Bezalel students and artisans sought inspiration in the native flora and fauna, notably the palm tree and the camel. They referenced archeological treasures, replicating Judean coins in filigree pieces and utilizing ancient mosaic floor designs in the carpet workshop. Traditional Jewish symbols such as the six-pointed Star of David and the seven-branched menorah were especially popular, as were architectural icons of the Holy Land. Biblical heroes, "exotic" Jewish ethnic types, modern halutzim (pioneers), and Zionist luminaries were also common subjects. Perhaps the most innovative "Hebrew" artistic creation of the Bezalel School was the decorative use of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Influenced both by Art Nouveau European typography and Islamic calligraphy, Hebrew letters served as a distinct decorative motif found on nearly every object created at Bezalel.

Damascene Vase and Plate

Damascening is the art of inlaying different metals into one another to produce intricate patterns. Though the name for this process is frequently assumed to derive from the city of Damascus—one of many cities in which this art form was practiced—it likely emanates from the similarity to the rich tapestry patterns of damask silk. Bezalel's damascened objects usually display a brass ground with inlays of copper or silver. Schatz distinguished damascene products to be exported to the United States or Great Britain from those destined for Russian or German markets. The latter, noted Schatz, should avoid using silver for the inlaying, as they would then be subject to higher customs fees.

The date of manufacture of this vase and plate is incorporated in the piece itself, as part of the inlaid damascene work. Rather than using either the secular date (1913 CE) or the traditional Jewish date (5673), the artisans who crafted this piece imitated an ancient dating convention that commemorated the loss of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. This dating method had regained popularity among early Zionists in Palestine when Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the father of modern Hebrew, began to date his writings by counting the years since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.
Brass, silver, and copper
Jerusalem, 1913
Moldovan Family Collection

Coffee Service and Candlesticks

The metalworking technique known as filigree makes use of twisted wire, usually made from fine metals like gold or silver, to create delicate, lacy, openwork jewelry or decorative accents. Because so many of the Bezalel silversmiths were originally from Yemen, an important center of filigree work, the technique was widely used in the pieces they created. Silver etching, a process referred to at Bezalel as batik, was also common, and both etching and filigree can be found on the coffee service seen here. Another technique frequently used by Bezalel artisans was repoussé, the ornamentation of metal in relief by pressing or hammering on the reverse side. This technique was used to create the animal figures on the base of the candlesticks seen here.
Jerusalem, ca. 1910

Private Collection

Group of Hanukkah Lamps and Menorah

The seven-branched candelabrum known as the menorah is the oldest and most enduring symbol of Judaism. Images of it are found on ancient Jewish tombs, floor mosaics, and household items dating back thousands of years. As was the case with the Ark of the Covenant, the original menorah was the work of the biblical artisan Bezalel ben Uri. A large menorah, designed by Ze'ev Raban, was erected on the roof of the Bezalel building, making it recognizable from miles away. Menorahs were also featured as a main motif on carpets and other decorative and ritual objects produced by the Bezalel School and workshops. It was the menorah, rather than the more modern and more secular Magen David (six-pointed Star of David) that was the predominant Jewish symbol in Bezalel art.

The other lamps seen here are technically not menorahs at all, but rather Hanukkah lamps, used for celebrating the festival that commemorates the Maccabean rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE. In the centuries since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the two distinct types of candelabra, the Hanukkah lamp and the menorah, have, to a great extent, become synonymous in the popular imagination and, much to the chagrin of historians and rabbis alike, are both frequently referred to by the older term, menorah.
Jerusalem, 1910–1920's
Collection of Congregation Emanu-El,
New York

Tik (Portable Torah Ark)

During the First World War, work was begun on many of the monumental ritual pieces that would be prominently featured at Bezalel exhibitions around the world—most notably, the Ark of the Covenant and Elijah's chair designed by Ze'ev Raban. Smaller and less elaborate ritual objects were also created during these years, such as this Torah case. It is customary among Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews to house a Torah Scroll within a hard case called a tik. The symbols girdling this tik are the emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel. The predominant decorative motif (after a design by E. M. Lilien) is a pair of hands with fingers splayed in the traditional manner of the Priestly Blessing. It has been suggested that a Kohen (a descendant of the Israelite priestly caste) may have commissioned this tik.
Brass, silver, and wood
Jerusalem, ca. 1915

Moldovan Family Collection

Artillery-Shell Vase

For the students of the Bezalel School, the numerous hardships that attended life in Jerusalem during and immediately after the First World War were slightly attenuated by a surprising discovery. The fields around Jerusalem were littered with spent Turkish artillery shells, widely scavenged for their brass content. Many Bezalel students used these shells to create decorative vases and containers using engraving, damascene, and other techniques. The students' amassing of shell casings had an unintended consequence: the British authorities, fearing that the school and its workshops were being used as an arms depot, raided the campus.
Jerusalem, after 1918

Collection of Congregation Emanu-El,
New York
Gift of Reva Godlove Kirschberg, 1988

Bible with Bezalel Binding

This elaborate silver binding is the work of the two most renowned artists of the Bezalel School, Ze'ev Raban and Meir Gur-Arie. In addition to teaching at Bezalel, the two founded the Industrial Art Studio in 1923, which continued to operate after the closing of the school in 1929.

Three ivory medallions are set into the binding. On the front cover is an ivory plaque of the Tablets of the Law, guarded by the cherubim, here depicted as winged lions. On the back cover, four winged creatures, representing Ezekiel's vision of the Chariot of God, encircle an ivory roundel that portrays Jews praying at the Western Wall, the last standing remnant of the Temple. On the spine, a vertical plaque bears the Hebrew word TaNaKH, the acronym for Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings), the three sections of the Hebrew Bible.
Ze'ev Raban with Meir Gur-Arie
Silver and ivory
Jerusalem, after 1923

Collection of Congregation Emanu-El,
New York
Bequest of Judge Irving Lehman, 1945