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BEARING WITNESS The Stories Behind the Images


1. One of the earliest known uses of the Star of David is this decorative stone carving from the synagogue in Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), an ancient fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel around the 2nd to 3rd century. The ruins of this building are among the oldest synagogues in the world and were built almost entirely of white limestone blocks brought from distant quarries. These large, ornately carved stones stood out prominently among the smaller, plain blocks of local black basalt used for the town's other buildings, almost all residential. It is interesting to note that at this point in time the Star of David was not an exclusively Jewish symbol.
2. Above the entrance of the synagogue in the small German village of Heinsheim, this engraved chuppa stone (wedding stone) shows the Star of David along with the year of construction (1796) and Hebrew letters. The two letters in the center of the Star of David stand for “mazel tov,” the other letters for a biblical quote from Jeremiah 7:34: “The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.” Chuppa stones were engraved stones or tiles placed in the interior or exterior of a synagogue and were traditionally used in Jewish wedding ceremonies when the groom would smash his glass of wine against this stone in order to wish the couple good luck.
3. Design by Theodor Herzl for the Jewish Colonial Trust in 1898, as sketched in his diaries. The proposed design features the Star of David with the Lion of King David in the middle and seven stars around it, which represent perfection or the seven days of the week. The Jewish Colonial Trust was the first Zionist bank and was intended to be the financial instrument of the Zionist Organization, and was to obtain capital and credit to help attain a charter for Palestine. It was incorporated in London in 1899. The bank opened its first branch in Jaffa, Israel in 1903 and quickly made a name for itself as a reliable and trustworthy institution. In 1950, the bank's registration was transferred from Britain to Israel, and it was renamed Bank Leumi Le-Israel. When the Bank of Israel was founded as Israel's central bank in 1954, Bank Leumi became a commercial bank. Theodor Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist and writer. He is considered to have been the father of modern political Zionism. Herzl formed the World Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish migration to Israel in an effort to form a Jewish state.
4. The seal of the Jewish community in Amsterdam from the 17th century. Often incorporating the Star of David, these designs were created by small engraved instruments or devices that made an impression upon wax or some other tenacious substance. They were employed both to give authentication to an official document with or without a signature, and as seals. Amsterdam has historically been the center of the Dutch Jewish community and has had a continuing Jewish community for the last 377 years. Although the Holocaust brutally affected them, exterminating 80% of the 80,000 Jews living there at the time (including diarist Anne Frank), the community has since managed to rebuild a vibrant Jewish life for its approximately 15,000 present members.
5. Detail from the engraving of the printer Isaac Foà, Venice, Italy, from 1731-1798. The Foàs were a well-known family run printing company of Hebrew prayer books, schoolbooks, and biblical literature. Their family mark shows the Star of David over a palm tree flanked by two lions. Lions often refer to the Tribe of Judah and the palm tree often symbolized water, around which they grew, fertility, Judea and eventually a symbol for all of Palestine, and later, Israel. Successive members of the Foà family used this as their distinctive printer’s mark on the many books they printed. Printing had a revolutionary influence on the religious and cultural life of Jewish communities everywhere: on books and their distribution, on learning and education, and on synagogal rites.
6. Carpet page from the Leningrad Codex, which was written in Cairo, Egypt in 1009, and is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible still in existence. This is one of the most magnificent and influential Hebrew documents known and is a spiritual treasure that is the basis for most modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. The Leningrad Codex (a codex is a hand-written book) was named because it lives at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg (formally known as Leningrad). In addition to the full biblical text, the Leningrad Codex, in extraordinarily pristine condition after more than a millennium, also contains sixteen stunning color pages of illustrations called carpet pages (named because of their graphic resemblance to oriental carpets). These carpet pages provide stunning examples of medieval Jewish art that illuminates passages from the text by blending geometric shapes with micrography (a uniquely Jewish art form where very small Hebrew letters are utilized to form representational and abstract designs). This carpet page shows a Star of David with the names of the scribes on the edges and a blessing written in the middle.
7. Detail of the chuppa stone (wedding stone) from the simple but beautiful baroque synagogue in the town of Altenkunstadt, Germany (1726). Many chuppa stones were engraved with the Star of David and the Hebrew letters standing for “mazel tov.” For over 200 years the synagogue in Altenkunstadt was the cultural and religious center of the Jewish municipality until “Kristallnacht” (also referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass”) when a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938 left broken glass littering the streets after Jewish homes, stores, hospitals, schools and synagogues had their windows smashed and were either ransacked, demolished or burned. In 1988, five decades after “Kristallnacht,” the wedding stone of the Altenkunstadt synagogue was replaced with the hope of keeping the memory of Jewish culture alive.
8. Silk challah cover decorated with the Star of David and symbolic images of the twelve constellations often thought to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. The cover is a traditional decorative and ceremonial cloth used to cover the two braided loaves of “challah” (bread) set out on the dinner table at the beginning of a Shabbat or holiday meal. The challah cover is an ancient tradition in both Judaism and Judaica art.
9. As far back at the 17th century, the Star of David has been used to adorn Jewish cemeteries, tombstones, mausoleums, and special grave monuments. The care bestowed upon the cemetery in Talmudic times is reflected in the saying: "The Jewish tombstones are fairer than royal palaces." Known in Hebrew as "house of eternity," the land of the cemetery is considered holy. The study of Jewish tombstones and mausoleums is a rich source of material for the study of Jewish art from ancient times to the present. From plain and simple designs to the most exquisite carvings and architectural adornments, Jewish tombstone carving developed into a highly stylized art that was characterized by the craftsman’s desire for originality combined with a strong emphasis on Jewish tradition. There are few areas of Jewish art that are distinguished by such richness of decoration, and by such a variety of symbolism, as tombstone art.
10. Detail of an illuminated initial-word panel from a Hebrew Bible featuring the Star of David. An initial-word panel begins each of the five books in this beautifully illuminated Pentateuch from Germany from around 1300. These panels also feature architectural and biblical motifs, and as seen here, symbolic animal imagery. The decoration found in Jewish manuscripts was often inspired by biblical scenes or by legendary episodes based on Midrashic commentaries on the Bible. Throughout its history, the style of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts was dependent on contemporary schools of illumination in each region in which they were produced. Most Hebrew manuscripts were written on parchment, which was made from various animal skins, the finest and most expensive being from calf skin.
11. Tallit clasps decorated with the Star of David from the 19th century. The “tallit” is a prayer shawl worn by Jewish people and is made from a white rectangular piece of fabric, usually wool, but sometimes cotton, polyester or silk. On each of the four corners of the tallit are special knots called “tzitzit” (tassels). The function of the tallit clasps is to hold the pray shawl in place and keep it from falling off the shoulder. The growing popularity of using the Star of David on Judaica items such as the tallit clasps was an example of the symbol expressing Jewish self-consciousness, pride and tradition.
12. The yellow badge, also referred to as a Jewish badge, (“Judenstern”in German meaning Jewish star), was a cloth patch that Jews were ordered to sew on their outer garments to identify them as Jews when in public in Nazi Germany, Poland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where this badge is from (1942). At its center is written the Dutch word “Jood” (Jew). It was intended to be the ultimate badge of shame and was associated with rampant anti-Semitism. The Jews of Europe were legally compelled to wear badges or distinguishing garments as far back as the 14th century. The Nazis resurrected this practice as part of their persecutions during the Holocaust. It subsequently enabled the German government to identify, imprison, deport and ultimately annihilate six million Jews throughout Europe. Few symbols throughout history have experienced such heights and depths as the Star of David as observed by the historian and scholar Gershom Scholem in 1947: “Before ascending, the path led down into the abyss; there the symbol received its ultimate humiliation and there it won its greatness.”
13. Detail of a delegate’s card from the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland (1898) featuring the Star of David with a lion at its center. The World Zionist Organization is a Jewish organization founded by Theodor Herzl to implement the goals of Zionism and promote Jewish migration to Palestine in an effort to form a publicly recognized, legally secured Jewish state. It was attended by Jews from all parts of the world, its purpose being to consider how best to relieve the misery of the Jews, particularly those of eastern Europe, Russia, Rumania, and Galicia, who had suffered so much, both morally and materially, through the anti-Semitic movement. The Second Zionist Congress also laid the foundation for the creation of the Jewish Colonial Trust, which would serve as the main financial arm of the movement in the development of Palestine. The Zionist movement’s use of the Star of David as their chosen emblem beginning in the 1880’s to it being incorporated into design of the Israeli flag in 1948 accelerated it in becoming a worldwide Jewish symbol.
14. Detail of an ex libris (bookplate) of Martin Buber designed by Ephraim Moses Lilien from the early 20th century. Ephraim Moses Lilien was an Art Nouveau illustrator and print-maker particularly noted for his art on Jewish and Zionist themes. He is sometimes called the "first Zionist artist" and the “father of Zionist iconography.” He was the master of the Jewish motif and fashioned a national Jewish art by incorporating traditional Jewish symbols within contemporary styles. Martin Buber was a noted Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher, writer, professor, and at one time, editor of the weekly Die Welt, the central publication of the Zionist movement. In this illustration a fortified stonewall, on what seems to be an island, forms the Star of David as waves rise up along its shores.
15. Detail of a porcelain Passover plate, made by Joseph Wetter, Vienna (1900). The design of this Passover plate has six heart-shaped spaces for the symbolic foods of the seder meal and a Star of David in the center. Each of the six items arranged on the plate have special significance to the retelling of the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt, which is the focus of this ritual meal. Judaism has a long tradition of commissioning Jewish ceremonial art and ritual objects from talented craftsmen and artists. It is believed to enhance a mitzvah by performing these rituals with an especially beautiful object.
16. The logo from The Simon Wiesenthal Center that boldly incorporates the Star of David into its design. Founded in 1977 by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center is named in honor of Simon Wiesenthal (1908 to 2005) who was an Austrian writer and Nazi hunter as well as being an instrumental figure in Holocaust remembrance, education, and fighting anti-Semitism. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a global Jewish human rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. The Museum of Tolerance, the center’s educational arm, founded in 1993 in Los Angeles challenges visitors to confront bigotry and racism, and to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts. Moriah Films, the film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was created to produce theatrical documentaries to educate both national and international audiences. To date, two of the films they have produced have received the Academy Award for best feature documentary.
17. Monument erected for the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981. The monument features the Star of David outlined in barbed wire, an olive branch and the words “From Holocaust to Rebirth” in Hebrew. Thousands of Holocaust survivors and second generation representatives from all over the world attended this monumental and emotional event to participate in the four-day program of remembrance, testimony and rededication that history will never repeat a Jewish Holocaust. The convention expressed the understanding on the part of the survivors that Jewish survival nowadays is an all-Jewish responsibility and that the basic element ensuring such survival is the State of Israel.
18. Israeli flag during the Six-Day War, Israel, 1967. The official flag of Israel was adopted on October 28, 1948, five months after the establishment of the State of Israel. It depicts a blue Star of David on a white background, between two horizontal blue stripes. The Flag was originally designed for the Zionist movement in 1891 and accepted as their official flag in 1898. The basic design symbolizes the traditional Jewish prayer shawl, which is white with blue stripes. David Ben-Gurion, one of the heads of the world Zionist movement, wrote about the Israeli flag: “... Every country, every nation must have a vital base that links its generations and bonds its people at each and every moment, that is independent of time and place and unaffected by the turn of events. Without this historical unity and continuity, no nation can exist. The flag of our country symbolizes this historical unity and marks our renewed identity.” Here we witness the true birth of a symbol as we see the same six-pointed star that once was a sign of exclusion, humiliation and murder becoming a symbol of national rebirth, unity and the essence of Jewish history.