In 1941, Bracha Avigad-Gutmann was a student of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and was preparing her graduation project. Avigad-Gutmann, today 94 years old and living in Kiryat Tivon, wanted to create a combination of graphic arts and writing and hit upon a handmade Megillat Esther [Scroll of Esther] as the ideal endeavor. She would create it in traditional tribal style, and illustrate it.
The project was, in many ways, an homage to her great-grandfather, a traditional scribe. But while the writing style was pulled from the past, Avigad-Gutmann kept the illustrations looking forward, with modern, avant-garde style. At the time there were, of course, ill winds blowing across Europe, which Avigad-Gutmann took heed of, drawing Haman as a contemporary German soldier who resembled Hitler. In one painting, showing the feet of a hanged Haman, Avigad-Gutmann's husband Meir can be seen amidst the cheering crowd.
The final product caused a stir, and the academy wanted to hang on to it. "I was told to leave the scroll at Bezalel, but I couldn't part with it," says Avigad-Gutmann. “I was warned that I wouldn’t receive my diploma and I said it was all right, the diploma wasn’t all that important to me anyway. I kept the scroll and that was it. The fact that I didn’t get a diploma didn’t affect my life.”
Already in 1941, Avigad-Gutmann had learned to stick up for herself. In 1935, she was among the thousands of young people brought from Germany by Henrietta Szold in the Youth Aliyah movement. Together with fellow rescued children and teens, she helped build Kibbutz Hulata in northern Israel.
She also served as a young documentarian. At the age of 15, Avigad-Gutmann came to Tel Hai with a Kodak mini-camera and a determination to archive life there in black-and-white photographs and caricatures. Avigad-Gutmann also painted the flowers in the area, putting brush to canvas for the first time in her life in order to document the caper blossom of the region.
Her work caught the eye of Szold herself, who was impressed enough to arrange a scholarship for the budding artist to study painting at Bezalel. Szold's knack for sniffing out talent was spot-on; Avigad-Gutmann would go on to become the principal painter of Israeli flora, with her paintings adorning well-known posters urging wildflower conservation. But while her fame for painting flowers was on the rise, the Megillat Esther that kept her from her diploma remained tucked away in a cabinet in her home. No one outside of her family was even aware of its existence.
Several years ago, Avigad-Gutmann told her friend Mira Reuter, a member of the Jewish Renewal congregation Nigun Halev in the Jordan Valley, about the scroll.
Two years ago on Purim, she was asked to bring the scroll for a reading of the Book of Esther, the Purim story, to the congregation. She did so, and in presenting the artwork also told the congregants of how the scroll had kept her from earning her diploma at Bezalel. Those in the audience decided to do something about it.
“They promised to help her,” said Bini Talmi, one of the leaders of Nigun Halev. After congregants contacted Bezalel and received confirmation of the story, they invited Avigad-Gutmann to Nigun Halev’s Megillah reading last year – where, to her surprise, she was finally awarded her diploma.
“It was a complete surprise,” she says. “I never believed I’d get my diploma after 70 years. I was very touched.” Since discovering that people were interested in her scroll, she had several prints of it made which she gave to members of her family, Nigun Halev and Bezalel. “It amazes me anew every time – how the scroll that sat in the cabinet for 70 years got a new life,” she says.
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