“I was always interested in the gap between the image of a place and how it really was – the thin line separating memory from fantasy. During the Gulf War, when CNN showed conflagrations in Iraq, my Iraqi-Jewish family in Israel kept telling nostalgic stories about rivers and date orchards. And it seems I still have a desire to visit those forbidden places for me as an Israeli.”
The speaker is artist Dor Zlekha Levy, 29. In his new exhibition “Hashomer” ("The Guard") at Tel Aviv's Hamidrasha Gallery that runs until October 19, he recreates one of those lost and forbidden places – the Magen Avraham Synagogue in Beirut.
Unlike synagogues that remained in destroyed Eastern Europe that are visited by Israeli tourists, in Arab countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, many synagogues have been abandoned and forgotten. In his latest effort, Zlekha's multilayered projection installation simulates the Beirut synagogue that he first learned about when he saw a 1975 picture of two armed masked men standing in front of the building.
These were members of PLO militias that during the Lebanese Civil War entrenched themselves in the Jewish quarter and took the synagogue and the Jewish community under their wing. Next to the guards is a sign with the names of donors who helped build the shul.
This picture appears on the entry floor of Zlekha’s exhibition (curated by Avi Lubin), and gave it its name. Zlekha hopes that the guards were acting out of respect for the cultural heritage and values of Judaism, but assumes that it was also a PR decision.
“I discovered that in the period when Yasser Arafat was in Lebanon, Torah scrolls were smuggled out of the synagogue – to Israel too,” he says. “The place was guarded and there were also other activities that helped the Jewish community.”
A few years later, during the first Lebanon war, the synagogue was bombed by Israel, apparently by mistake. For over 20 years it stood abandoned and in ruins, and only in recent years has it been renovated. In the absence of a Jewish community in Beirut, it functions as a kind of museum, and entry is restricted and requires an appointment. After discovering the photo, Zlekha took it further with his 3D study.
“When I took part in an exhibition in Paris at the Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture, I encountered Lebanese artists who had photographed the synagogue,” he says. “They gave me a flash drive with photos that documented the building.”
But he says he failed to make contact with government agencies in Lebanon that would provide him with photos showing the synagogue’s current incarnation. “I realized that there was a Jewish community organization in Lebanon that raised money to renovate the place,” he says.
The building was put up in the 1920s and is similar to other synagogues in the Middle East. “Since I’m not allowed to go to the site, all the work was done via stories I heard and pictures I collected,” Zlekha says. “The 3D model we created is more faithful to the stories and the pictures than to the actual dimensions of the structure.”
When you visit the exhibition, you’re actually visiting a virtual synagogue whose walls, columns, entrances and furniture are only sketched. “The building that now stands in the center of Beirut, as revamped and renovated as it may be, is a kind of museum,” Zlekha says. “The works in the exhibition give the building a different kind of life.”
Judging by the pictures online, it’s a beautiful synagogue. The facade is symmetrical, the central part is covered with a triple roof, and at the top are the Ten Commandments with rectangular additions on both sides.
The building is coated with grooved cement in shades of cream. The central space includes interior facades in the shape of the Hebrew letter het, with two floors of arches; on the first floor round arches and on the second pointed arches. At the platform and ark there’s a large and high arch. The interior comes in shades of blue, light blue, orange and cream.
On the gallery’s entry floor, alongside a simulation of the synagogue’s facades, there are pictures from the life of the community that lived in Beirut. With earphones, you can listen to an actor reading the text of Zlekha’s interviews with Isaac Balaila.
Balaila was born in Lebanon in 1960, immigrated to Israel as a child and served in the first Lebanon war, when as a soldier he also visited the synagogue.
“When you walk on the neighborhood’s main street you come to a wall with a large iron gate,” Balaila says. “When you enter via the gate, you come to the Jews’ central courtyard …. Right in front of you stands the large and magnificent building of the Magen Avraham Synagogue, with a slanted tiled roof.”
As for the visitors to the synagogue, he says: “In the large square at the entrance all the Jews would meet on Shabbat. The religious ones would pray and the rest would gather and talk. I remember the synagogue as a huge building with a very high ceiling. At least as a child it looked very high to me.”
Balaila also describes windows “covered in colored glass in happy colors,” and an ark that contained dozens of Torah scrolls, maybe hundreds. “It wasn’t just a small ark, it was really huge, big enough to walk around in, even to run from side to side.” While you listen to Balaila’s descriptions, the projection in the gallery changes; for example, you see items in the synagogue such as chairs and the platform, the bima.
Another level of the exhibition describes the destruction suffered by the building during the first Lebanon war. During the war, Balaila asked to be sent to the northern sector. “I joined the first force that arrived at the Jewish quarter, but because we were sent in without warning, I didn’t have time to take a camera with me. That’s something I regret to this day,” he says.
When he and fellow soldiers arrived at Wadi Abu Jamil Street in the neighborhood, he says, “Suddenly everything looked smaller to me, the streets were narrower than I had imagined. And when I reached the gates of the synagogue it looked forlorn and neglected. The entrance square suddenly looked small. I approached the entrance door and saw that the building was closed. I wanted to go inside, and they told me: ‘We don’t open, it isn’t safe.’ It turned out that during the war a missile had hit the tile roof and made a hole in it.”
But Balaila managed to peer inside. “The place was totally deserted,” he says. “The floor was full of tiles that had fallen off the roof, and broken decorative tiles. Here, that’s the destruction, you can see it here in the picture. I remember precisely these chairs that you can see in the picture at the exhibition; they also looked very high to me as a child, and now I see that they’re low.”
An Israeli photographer in Lebanon
The projection includes photos by photographer Micha Bar-Am, who documented the synagogue as part of his project on Jewish sites in Lebanon that he conducted during the war. Bar-Am’s photos, which Zlekha found at the Oster Visual Documentation Center of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, helped prepare the 3D simulation.
In these photos one can see the synagogue’s magnificence despite the destruction: The chandeliers are in place and the illustrations aren’t damaged, but the building looks chaotic and abandoned.
In another part of the exhibition, Zelkha shows photos of the synagogue sent him by Lebanese artists. In them too the place is abandoned and surrounded by weeds and the like. The photos were also shown in 2016 at Tel Aviv’s Braverman Gallery.
Zlekha often addresses the subject of “Jewish Arab memory.” In recent years he has received prizes including the Culture Ministry’s young artist prize and the Zoom prize for young Israeli artists. In the current exhibition he demonstrates the complex tension between the way an enemy Arab country is seen through Israeli eyes and the way the people who were born there remember it.
Zlekha says that technically the simulation was done “in cooperation with the artist and model creator David Chaki. At first he used pictures I had collected to create a proposal for a 3D model, and then we made changes in the model based on Isaac Balaila’s memories and those of other people I interviewed.
“As I said, we didn’t take measurements in the field. This is a model based on memory and created from a subjective point of view. We recorded the process of David creating the model, and I used the recordings for the main video work.”
Regarding the gaps between the photos of the synagogue that can be seen online – showing a magnificent and beautiful place – and the complex and somewhat melancholy picture elsewhere, Zlekha says this was deliberate.
“I let myself take a zoom-out from the specific narratives and choose my own path,” he says. “I wasn’t born there, nor was I a soldier there during that war. I simply heard one story and wanted to hear more, so I decided to process the stories into something new. It’s an experienced-based artistic installation that’s displayed as an exhibition.”
So is there anything he sought access to but couldn’t get?
“I wasn’t able to get up-to-date pictures of the synagogue after the renovation, or make direct contact with someone in charge of it. Every conversation with someone who had visited the building created a sense of something blocked; that they didn’t quite remember or didn’t want me to see the full picture. At some point I realized that that’s part of it, a story of pursuit of an object that will remain virtual for me.”