Of course, all photographs are false memories, synonymous with lies.

    April 2008 Passover Edition            
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The Menorah, the Swastika, You Tube

By Barbara F. Lefcowitz

1. Berlin, ca. 1937. An elaborate menorah is displayed near a window in the dark photograph. From each of its seven branches a candle burns: the room’s only visible source of light, so whoever lived there could look out the window at a shopfront from which there flutters a flag with a swastika. The photo is a key image of a YouTube musical video in which the Swedish singer Zarah Leander, much admired by Josef Goebbels, sings in German a song about broken love, Gebundene Hande. Of course, all photographs are lies.

Swastikas are ambidextrous, their angular arms capable of bending either right or left. To this day, they flourish in a variety of designs all over Asia, especially in India and Tibet. Many have been found in ancient Christian catacombs, on pottery in Celtic Europe, Greece, China and pre-Columbian America, among many other places. Indeed, these widespread sacred symbols long predate the Nazi corruption of their form and meaning; their history goes back to Neolithic times and the genesis of their patterns linked with everything from basket-weaving to the gyrations of comets. Interlaced swastikas, symbolizing fusion of the divine and the infinite were sometimes called Solomon’s Knots. Sometimes two swastikas are interlocked for aesthetic reasons, especially to create negative spaces; in the 1990’s a group of American mystical scientists called the Raelians joined a swastika with a Star of David. The image was banned for a while, but re-emerged in 1997.

In the Book of Exodus, instructions from the Temple Mount for making a menorah begin with the words “And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made, even its base, and its shaft; its cups; its knops [small bulges] and its flowers, shall be of one piece with it.” There should be seven “lamps,” each representing one the five known planets plus the sun and the moon, according to the most popular interpretation. The menorah might also be related to the symbol of the Burning Bush. It is best known, however,in the context of Chanukah, a winter solstice holiday that in the Jewish tradition celebrates the small quantity of olive oil that miraculously illuminated the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days after its desecration.

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2. The swastika also has associations with light; it has been called both the Sun Wheel and the Sun Cross. Its four arms suggest rotation around an axis, thus marking the rotation of the four seasons and the four cardinal directions as well as the radiate wheel of the noonday sun. Later in its history it was associated with the duality of clockwise and counterclockwise measurements of time. It has been linked with the Vedic fire god as well as fire-sticks. But it has no known links with the Winter Solstice.

Though in some interpretations the menorah incorporates one or more dualities--e.g. the upward movement of the candle flame and the simultaneous downward movement of the candle’s wick into oil, the original instructions’ emphasis on the need to shape a menorah from one piece of gold espouses wholeness over fragmentation and may even be related to monotheism itself.

Did anyone actually gaze from that candle-lit window in Berlin at the shopfront with the swastika flag? The more I think about it, the more I believe both menorah and swastika were props, that dark photo itself a clever collocation of scenes made many years later than 1937. And Zarah Leander’s song was added to the YouTube video because whoever uploaded it liked that song despite its schmaltzy lyrics and the questionable reputation of its singer. Even more than still photographs, nearly all videos are carefully shaped and edited lies.

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3. In The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim, a notorious racketeer whom Fitzgerald first describes as a “small, flat-nosed Jew” with hairs protruding from each nostril, has named his business The Swastika Holding Company. Irony? Coincidence? Though Fitzgerald wrote the novel before the official rise of Nazism, the symbol was already known in Europe in a fascist context by 1919, perhaps even far back as the late 19th century. Given the potent anti-Semitism of America’s upper crust in the 1920’s as well as Fitzgerald’s puns on Jewish and other names in the famous catalogue of attendees at Gatsby’s grandiose parties, I’m with those who favor irony--a malicious irony, at that.

A large menorah with curved branches adorns the Arch of Titus in Rome. Allegedly it represents the menorah looted from Jerusalem by the Romans after destruction of the Temple. The original Menorah had straight, not curved branches, so in a literal sense the Titus menorah is a double insult to Hebrew tradition.

Perhaps it is wrong to claim that photographs are false memories. Rather most memories consist of the distorted photographs pasted inside the often randomly arranged scrapbooks of the brain: memories that usually repeat the same images time after time. And the moment recorded by the camera is, of course, likewise frozen, especially in still photographs, less obviously in videos and movies.

Consider the faded family portraits in which parents and children were formally posed inside a studio with garlands and velvet drapes. In one that I was lucky enough to inherit, one set of my great-grandparents sits in the center of a circle, surrounded by their children, including my grandfather Joseph and his seven siblings. Everyone is dressed in his or her best clothes, either purchased or sewn for the occasion or loaned by the studio. My grandfather’s youngest brother, about 5, sits on the far left. He has curly hair, and he’s laughing, it seems, at his black buckled shoes. I never met him and am not sure of his name, but I do know that about 15 years after that photograph he was killed by a German soldier in World War I. So the picture of the Berlin menorah and swastika, whether literal or contrived, was worth taking after all--for the time when no one remembers what happened in the Berlin circa 1937 or knows, despite her many appearances on YouTube, that Zarah Leander sang for the Gestapo.

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4. The menorah has been interpreted as a representation of the Tree of Life, in turn associated with the female divinity Asherah. Though Judaism is based neither on nature worship nor imitation of nature, much less female deities, the original description in The Book of Exodus notes that three of its candle cups on each branch should be shaped “like almond-blossoms” and include a “knop and a flower”; the central candlestick is considered the stem of the menorah. There’s also a theory that the original design was inspired by a shrub called the moriah, or salvia palaestinae, related to sage. which has four branches on each side.

Though usually they have straight lines, some swastikas are curvilinear, especially in India. As good luck symbols, they have been linked with fecundity and the life force itself. The latter include not only symbolic birds and animals but the lotus flower, generative flower par excellance, given its rise from pools of mud.

If both memories and photographs lie, that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten or left to fade and crackle. Agreed: sometimes lies can be good, or at least temporarily necessary. The concealing of potentially upsetting information from a child or a very sick person. Or in the context of battle plans. But in America these days we have become so accustomed to lying politicians that the distinction between lies and truth has been blurred to the point of widespread skepticism and indifference. And photographs, no matter how contrived, are not prophets; they exist in an encapsulated past and must not be confused with any suggestions about what happened after the camera clicked. Did my grandfather’s family start to argue at that moment? Did the Nazis set the Jewish house in Berlin on fire? Was it necessarily a Jewish house; people do collect a variety of artifacts, after all.

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5. Chassidic Judaism, a mystical movement that originated in 18th century Poland, claims that the menorah can be internalized to represent the soul’s dual capacity for Intellect and Emotion. The former stands horizontal to the Sanctuary,. Arrayed on each side of the centrak stem are lamps representing orders of the Mishnah: Seeds, Times, Women, Damages, Sacred Things, and Purities. The emotional torah is placed along the longitude of the Sanctuary, its lamps representing the “ love, restraint, harmony, competitiveness, devortion, bonding and receptiveness.” *

Duality is also implicit in the swastika given its upper and lower sections that form mirror images of each other. The implicit movement of left-facing swastikas is clockwise, of right facing counterclockwise. Direction is thought to be determined by how the upper arm is seen by the observer, though there is considerable ambiguity about this matter. Polarities include the sun in the day sky vs.the night sky’s darkness. Despite the Nazi flag’s use of a right-facing swastika, there are no hard and fast interpretations of direction (or chirality, handedness). Its occasional resemblance to a labyrinth and connotations of both the meandering and the static are the closest equivalents, however, to a swastika of the mind.

Berlin, ca. 1937. An elaborate menorah is displayed near a window in the dark photograph. From each of its seven branches a candle burns: the room’s only visible source of light, so whoever lived there could look out the window at a shopfront from which there flutters a flag with a swastika. Of course, all photographs are false memories, synonymous with lies.

That dark photo: an accident? A double act of defiance, a set arranged for someone’s camera? If the photo were not marked Berlin, 1937, one could take its brief joining of images as a politically correct collage that juxtaposes the brute and his or her victim. A Klansman and a slave, a rifle and a lilac, even a Nazi and a Jew. On the YouTube musical video, the beautiful Zarah Leander is singing “Gebundene Hande” for Josef Goebbels. Did the Swedish born collaborator ever note the marriage of swastika and menorah? If by some unlikely chance she did it strains belief that she would have thought of this strange collocation of Nazi and Jewish symbols. Imagine the future interpretations if someone today took a snapshot of a swastika spray painted onto a synagogue and used it as an image on a YouTube musical video, an Irish or Scottish tenor singing Auld Lang Syne in the background.

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* I quote this information from the sub-category “Spiritual Space” at www. chabad.org.


from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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