4.20. Uriel Birnbaum, drawing ‘A Great Shofar Sounds’ (1935)

The Viennese writer and artist Uriel Birnbaum (1894-1956) was a deeply religious man, who attached a special meaning to his first name Uriel (“my light is God”) and said about himself: “In one single night, in a strange vision, I became a believer, and since then, I believe literally in God.” *Pack, Uriel Birnbaum 27. Italics original. As an Austrian officer at the eastern front in World War I, he met many Ḥasidic Jews and was inspired by their piety. He was also very principled and persevering: he was decorated two times for bravery, and even after the loss of one leg, he considered the war “God’s order, punishment and mercy.” *Horodisch, Die Exlibris des Uriel Birnbaum 88. The persecution of the Jews in Austria, his exile in the Netherlands, his hiding in World War II, illness, invalidity and lack of success did not keep him from creating an extensive oeuvre with among other things, many drawings and 6,000 poems.

 

Birnbaum

Fig. 5. Uriel Birnbaum, A Great Shofar Sounds. Ink on paper. In Goodman, The Rosh Hashanah Anthology 260.

U-ve-shofar gadol yitaka (“A Great Shofar Sounds”) is a Rosh Ha-Shanah wish, probably for the year 5696 (1935-1936), intended for the Viennese pharmacist and collector of ex libris Mordechai (Marco) Birnholz (1885-1965). *According to Goodman, The Rosh Hashanah Anthology 260, this drawing was made in the Netherlands. Birnbaum fled there only in 1939, but his father, the author Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937), also father of the linguist Solomon Birnbaum (1891-1989), had already fled to the Netherlands in 1933 and Uriel visited him there in 1935. Cf. Horodisch, Die Exlibris des Uriel Birnbaum 97. Both the drawing and the text have a hybrid character, uniting elements from old and modern traditions. Below, a translation of the words, which preserves the division of the words in the seven lines in the drawing:

A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice
is heard, angels
rush forward and are held by trembling, shaking;
they say, “Here is the Day of Judgment -”
But REPENTANCE, PRAYER and CHARITY
avert the evil of the decree.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year, Mordechai Birnholz.

Vv. 1-6 are taken from the U-Netanneh Tokef in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 566-8. V. 1 connects two manifestations of God on Mount Sinai: the blowing of the “great shofar” in the revelation of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 19:16-19) and the “still small voice” addressing Elijah after his conflict with the false prophets (1 Kings 19:12). The judgment, announced in v. 4, is also accompanied by shofar blowing, according to Zeph. 1:14-16: “The great day of the LORD is approaching . . . 15 That day shall be a day of wrath . . . 16 A day of horn blasts and alarms.” Vv. 5-7 give assurance that the judgment can be averted by “Repentance, Prayer and Charity” and if it is favorable, man will be inscribed in the book of life:

Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity –
it is awesome, terrible;
on this day Your Kingship is raised,
Your throne is founded upon love,
and You, with truth, sit upon it.
In truth, it is You: Judge and Accuser, Knowing One and Witness,
writing and sealing, counting, numbering,
remembering all forgotten things,
You open the book of memories –
it is read of itself,
and every man’s name is signed there. *Ibid. 564.

Birnbaum’s drawing represents the Temple Mount with the throne as a substitute for God, because an image of Him would be a violation of the second commandment. The large, dramatically curved wings of the angel have different meanings: the angel protects man; he leads man to the place of judgment; the angel himself will also be judged, which explains his tense facial expression. *Cf. the U-Netanneh Tokef: “A great shofar sounds, . . . angels . . . are held by trembling, shaking; . . . for they are not cleared in Your eyes in judgment.” The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 566. The six white wings above the Temple Mount refer to the vision in Isa. 6:

1 I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. 2 Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly.

3 And one would call to the other,

“Holy, holy, holy!

The LORD of Hosts!

His presence fills all the earth!”

The form of the throne brings to mind associations with a crown given to God in the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book: “May it be Your will, LORD my God and God of my ancestors, that the sound of TaShRaT that we sound may be made into a crown for You by the angel . . . who is assigned to this role, and may rise up and rest upon Your head, my God.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 496. God cleans the prophet Isaiah of his sins and then orders him to go to the Judeans, in order to dull their minds, stop their ears and seal their eyes. This punishment for Judah’s disobedience will last until all houses and the ground are destroyed and turned into a desert. God concludes in Isa. 6:13: “But while a tenth part yet remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its stump shall be a holy seed.” The stumps of the terebinth and the oak can be found in the background of Birnbaum’s drawing, where they symbolize the regrowth after repentance.

The center of the drawing is the Temple Mount with God’s throne. Its holiness is expressed by a frame, by lines and by light. The frame consists of the concentric spheres around the throne and the large wings of the angel; the lines pointing to the shiny center are the seraphs’ six white wings, the procession, the Ḥasid’s shofar and the row of houses, while the light is simply suggested by an empty spot.

The drawing represents the dialogue between the authoritative discourse of the angel’s great shofar and the internally persuasive discourse—half God’s voice, half his own voice—of the small shofar of man. Both shofarot are directed upward, in accordance with the Shulḥan ʿArukh: “The ram’s-horn should be bent, that the children of Israel may bend their hearts toward their Father who is in heaven.” *In Agnon, Days of Awe 68. The shofar-blowing angel dominates the Ḥasid with his small shofar and encloses him and all men, who cannot escape judgment. The buildings, which resemble houses along a canal in a rich and modern city in the Netherlands, are a product of man, threatened by the desert.

Stylistically, A Great Shofar Sounds is a mixture of pictorial languages from different cultures and periods—in Bakhtinian terms, a product of hybridization. The Temple Mount is pictured in the art deco style of the 1930s with its characteristic symmetrical, geometrical and zig zag forms, and with its shading technique by means of very fine dots. The text placing resembles that in a comic strip, whereas the composition resembles the commercial and political photomontages of the Interbellum. The perspectivic distortion of the objects in the left angles of the drawing, which harmonizes the angel’s wing and the building, seems to be inspired by modern, wide-angle lens photography. Paradoxically, the variety of styles stresses the timelessness of the subject of the drawing.

In his drawing of the building on the Holy Mount, Birnbaum goes back to an earlier work of his, Der Kaiser und der Architekt (“The Emperor and the Architect”), completed in 1924. This work, which consists of a parable, followed by a series of 50 colored drawings, *Cf. Zijlmans, “Uriel and Menachem Birnbaum” 153 pictures a visionary emperor, who commissions an architect to build a heavenly city. The architect builds dozens of ideal cities, made of glass, crystal, emerald, silver, or gold, colored red, yellow, or green, or entirely composed of stairs, or pillars, none of which resemble the emperor’s vision of the ideal city. Finally, the emperor understands that the heavenly city cannot be built on earth; the architect, however, perseveres and builds a gigantic tower city. Then, the infinitely more beautiful heavenly city appears and the tower city is struck by God’s lightning and collapses, burying the architect under its ruins. As the literary critic Wim Zaal remarks, Uriel Birnbaum’s work in general is dominated by architecture; “it is intended as a model of a world order, elaborated down to the minutest detail. Birnbaum was . . . the witness of a cosmogony . . . in which everything had its fixed place and function, an attack on which could not be left unpunished.” *Zaal, “Nawoord.” Uriel Birnbaum, De redding van de wereld 87. Quotation translated from the Dutch by KvH. The chronotope of the Temple Mount in A Great Shofar Sounds is not only the beautiful divine city, but also the center of a world order, in which “everything has its fixed place and function;” and while the divine light on the mountain shows man the way to God, the shofar blown by the angel determines the time of the judgment.

The contrast with another work in A Tool of Remembrance, Yehuda Amichai’s poem Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity, could not be greater: “The Temple Mount is a huge ship, a magnificent / luxury liner. From the portholes of her Western Wall / cheerful saints look out, travelers. Hasidim on the pier / wave goodbye, shout hooray, hooray, bon voyage! She is / always arriving, always sailing away.” *Chapter 4.41. In a reaction to religious fanaticism and political chauvinism, the Temple Mount is no longer the static center of a hierarchic world but instead, a dynamic and joyful chronotope.

 

Next Chapter

Contents

Glossary