Born into a secular Jewish family in 1950, I remained the only family member who had never visited the Holy Land until conditions aligned themselves in June, 2011. Although I respect those with faith, I personally adhere to no formal religious practice and, in fact, fear religious fanaticism’s impact on the fate on the world. And yet I readily identify myself as Jewish and take pride in my cultural heritage. At the same time, because of my progressive political perspective, the Palestinians’ plight, though far from blameless, has made it impossible for me to support Israel’s policies of building separation walls and settlements in the occupied territories. Criticism of these matters has been discouraged in the US, especially amongst Jews, who fear being labeled anti-Semitic. Although I freely discussed my confusion about the conflict in closed circles, I had avoided visiting Israel until this trip.
However, once in Israel and inside the Old City of Jerusalem, camera in hand, I was mesmerized and spent days walking the back alleys, tunnels and stairways, where endless stonewalls seemed to hold centuries of turmoil, as well as religious fervor. Although I’d heard Jerusalem repeatedly described as holy, spiritual and sacred; for me, raw unresolved conflict was evident on every surface and in every face.
When I touched the Western Wall for the first time, unexpectedly, waves of emotion flooded me. The grief, the ghosts, the memories and deep scars held within these walls were palpable.
“Irreconcilable” permeated the passageways and I felt the need to question why so many were rushing to the mosques, churches and synagogues to pray. What are they praying for? Are their prayers being answered? What exactly have monotheism’s three major religions accomplished in the way of finding real peace in this area? And why, when empathy could heal so much, do insularity, fear, anger, blame and defensiveness abound?
Upon returning home, I searched for a way to artfully communicate my impressions to those who have never been to Israel, those who remember well their own experience there and those who, like myself, have kept silent about our conflicted feelings concerning the situation. I researched and then edited thousands of original and archival photographs and this led to the concept of creating an interactive stonewall installation focused on empathy and shared grief. Each “narrative stone” is carved from wooden panels, then painted and embedded with digitally collaged images of present day cohabitants of the Old City (color photos) crossing paths with one another, while co-mingling with the ghosts (sepia photos) that continue to haunt and separate them.
At the Western Wall visitors routinely leave a prayer in the crevices between stones. These are intended to honor the departed or to express personal hopes for the future. This wall provides viewers an opportunity to reflect deeply and offer their own ideas, reactions or prayers for traversing this seemingly hopeless situation. Perhaps, together, we can imagine new ways to open a more compassionate dialogue in order to bridge this impasse.
This is the latest project Sara has developed incorporating mixed media (photography and paint); other work focused on subways, Chinese women with bound feet, architectural icons and blurred landscapes.