Saturday, December 14, 2019


There is a mezuzah beside the door of my office. This is a piece of parchment contained in a plastic case and inscribed with the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, beginning with the phrase: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
On the outside of the wound scrolled, the Hebrew word שדי (Shaddai) is inscribed.  This means "Almighty," one of the biblical names of God and also serves here as an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, meaning  "Guardian of Israel's doors". The mezuzah is tilted, so that the top slants toward the room into which the door opens. This is done in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, to accommodate the variant opinions of Jewish Talmudic scholars  as to whether it should be placed vertically or horizontally and also to imply that God and the Torah are entering the room.

My mezuzah was placed at my door, by the first occupant of my office, Michael, a man of immense business experience, a leader in his community and possessed of the most generous and inquisitive of spirits. He was a mentor and a friend and passing by my door, he would touch the mezuzah, look in and slowly, settle down for a chat. His eyes would be drawn immediately to the icons handing on my walls and over the years he learned to distinguish between Russian and Greek iconography, asking me how to decode the symbolism of the various scenes depicted on the icons.
Michael’s fascination with the icons was informed by his religious background. The Second Commandment as contained in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 commands that “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” and since his understanding was that these commandments had been incorporated into Christianity, he found the existence of icons incongruous and slightly amusing. As an Askenazi Jew, that is, a Jew whose ancestors lived in Eastern Europe,  he understood the commandment to be absolute and scoffed at my argument that  it did not prohibit absolutely,  any and all artistic representation, and that instead, what was intended was a prohibition against the construction of idols, which were objects of worship in the cultural area in which the Israelites dwelt. When I would point to sections of the Old Testament that seemed to provide evidence for artistic activity, he would throw up his hands and laugh.
Our friendly banter, which would take place usually between 9-10am each day continued over several years. I remember that look of puzzlement on his countenance when I arrived at work, showing him a mosaic depicting a man replete with halo. “A nice depiction of Jesus,” he looked at it appraisingly, for by now he was a connoisseur. “Where is this from, Ravenna?”

“No,” I responded. It is from the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, Tiberias in Israel. And it is not Jesus. It is the Greek sun god, Helios.” Expanding the margins of the picture, Michael gasped. Not only was the pagan god Helios depicted upon the floor of the synagogue, he was surrounded by representations of the Greek signs of the zodiac, each of them labelled in Aramaic.
“I don’t know what to say,” he stuttered falteringly, his mouth contorted as he was recovering from a stroke. “Greek converts to Judaism who are still being weaned off their sun god? Prove me wrong.” I returned the next day, brandishing a photograph of the mosaic floor of the Beit Alpha synagogue, depicting Helios, this time riding his chariot, in particularly Semitic style, again surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. “You guys obviously had a thing for the sun god,” I joked. We then discussed the Hellenisation of the Jewish people during Hellenistic times, culminating in the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, by the Jewish scholars of Alexandria. He was fascinated to learn that it was that text that formed the foundation text of both the New Testament and Christianity itself. Through our discussion he was able to place the conflict between Judaisers and Hellenisers in Hellenistic times, culminating in the revolt of the Maccabees which overthrew Greek rule over Palestine into context. But try as he might, he could not wholly accept the Jewish iconographic tradition. “Floors are floors. People tread on floors so maybe this is a way of showing disrespect to pagan oppressors,” he offered in argument. “But you wouldn’t see any pictures on walls in any Jewish synagogue. No way.”
“Do me a favour,” I grinned as he ambled to his room. “Look up the Dura Europos Synagogue and then come back for a chat.” He shrugged and shuffled away. He returned the next day, animated. “I am shocked,” he said laconically. “I cannot believe it.” For the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, dated at 244 AD and thus, one of the oldest surviving synagogues in the world, was, until its recent destruction by ISIS,  was covered in fifty eight wall paintings depicting biblical scenes, with accompanying Greek and Aramaic inscriptions. Many of these are painted in a style that would not look out of place in an Orthodox church and thus prefigure the development of Byzantine iconography. Others, tending to abstraction and simplification, are in a style all of their own. In discovering the influence of Hellenism upon his own tradition, Michael reveled in the adaptability and versatility of that tradition, its openness to modes of expression shared with the peoples and cultures it encountered, a broadness of perspective that allowed it to evolve but most importantly, survive millenia of persecution.

“I want to hang an icon on my wall,” Michael asked one day. “Which one would you recommend?” I made him a gift of a detail from a Byzantine fresco, depicting musicians engaged in an act of worship as denoted in the Old Testament Psalm 150: “Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp./ Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ./ Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals./ Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord.” Beaming with enthusiasm, he hung it on his far wall, in pride of place, above framed photographs of his prized racehorses. “The guy in the crown holding the psaltery looks like King David,” he said proudly.

In Judaism, a mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes to fulfill the Biblical commandment to "write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house".
When Michael died, I asked his family whether it would be possible for the mezuzah to remain in memory of him. Graciously, they consented and every  day when I walk into the office, see the mezuzah and the Byzantine icon hanging on his wall, I remember him, and not only that God is one but also that all of us, crazy, petty, dysfunctional and brilliant as we are, are also one. And it is this ethos that informs the manner in which I view my own tradition and the broader world.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 December 2019