A few weeks ago I was went on a street art tour in the Florentine neighborhood in South Tel Aviv. I found some of the works to be really beautiful and interesting. Many of the street artists deal with the complexities of modern day Israel with a special focus on religious intricacies. One particular work stood out to me (sorry for the poor image quality)
This work was done by a famous Tel Avivian street artist and the whole door is being auctioned right now. In it you see a young man in traditional Hasidic clothing with earlocks. Behind him are street signs indicating that he is praying while facing the direction of Tel Aviv. It is tradition that all Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem, in particular the western wall which is the holiest site in Judaism. That this young beardless Hassidic man is facing Tel Aviv while praying sends a strong message. Tel Aviv is like New York in many ways. It is big, noisy, progressive, open, and inclusive. In Israel Tel Aviv is the symbol of wild youth, liberalism, and progressivism. The very opposite of the communities in which most Hasids live. It is also interesting to note that the Hasidic community was furiously opposed to the establishment of Israel. In Jewish tradition it is interpreted that the Jewish people will not return to Israel until the coming of the Messiah. As such, the premature establishment of a secular state in the promised land where Hebrew, the holy language of the Torah, is spoken colloquially was infuriating heresy to many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Tel Aviv is an embodiment of all that is anathema to them. The artist paints this to symbolize the changing times and the growing secularization of the nation. For while the youth is still dressed traditionally and praying, his heart and spirit are in Tel Aviv.
Another interesting point is in the street signs behind the young man. Most street signs in Israel have Hebrew, English, and Arabic. On street signs in Israel the Hebrew word for Jerusalem is transliterated into English and Arabic. This is extremely offensive to Palestinian Arabs because their name for the holy city we call Jerusalem is “Al-Quds”. This is what the artist writes in parenthesis next to “Jerusalem” in Arabic script. Here the artist reminds us of the complexities of culture and tradition and how Israel deals with them. Whichever Israeli designs these street signs uses Arabic thus acknowledging Arabic speakers, but deliberately does not use their terminology.
The wooden scrabble cubes also make an interesting statement—they translate to “It’s written on the map that…” This is much more up to the viewer’s interpretation but I think the artist’s intent was to play with the complex history of the land and the different groups of people who all claim sections of it. Depending on who makes the maps you get vastly different results and I believe that’s why he trailed off in the ellipses. This is something that will always be debated over and to date, remains unsettled.
I want to also note that when I had first drafted this essay I had not yet visited Bethlehem. This is a city in the West Bank through which the wall passes, and there is tons of street art on the Palestinian side including famous Banksy works. Many of those works also deal with the complex history and trauma of this land, and each really deserve their own essay too.