Five years ago, I was invited to attend a fibre art residency at the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils, Latvia. This was the birthplace of Rothko, although in his time it was known as Dvinsk. We artists were expected to create a piece for their collection and I thought about those huge tallitot that hang on either side of the DJC sanctuary. Since I had also recently made my own tallit at a DJC workshop, my thought was that whatever I made would be in the guise of a tallit. I bought my kosher “made in Jerusalem” tzitzit before I left, but my ideas were still unformed.
My first days were spent in Riga, where my grandfather was born, and I should not have been surprised to discover the once large Jewish community decimated. Slowly, parts of the old Jewish quarter were being restored, and I was lucky to be invited to Rosh Hashana services (and to dinner afterwards) at the one remaining synagogue, where a Chasidic rabbi and his wife were valiantly trying to revive the lost community. I learned that the Soviets who moved in after the war treated Jews nearly as badly as the Germans had. In fact, I was told, public recitation of the Kaddish was outlawed. I then knew how my project would unfold.
During the 10 day residency we all worked hard, were fed sparingly, but since we lived right in the museum we could visit any of the beautiful rooms at will (except for the original Rothkos, which required a pass through a metal detector). I had always loved to play with Hebrew letters and imagined a piece with the Kaddish prayer cut out of linen, and strong light projecting the sacred words in a ghostly way on the wall behind. Beside the hanging tapestry, I would place a plinth covered with the names of local Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The prayer was transliterated into Latvian, and I laid some stones found on the ground near the museum to signify my gravesite “visit.”
An amazing side story during that experience involved a journal I was reading, written by a survivor of the war. He had escaped the nearby ghetto where he was imprisoned and stayed alive running through forests at night. One night he found himself near an old fortress, and imagined the many wars those walls must have witnessed. As I read his words, I realized that he was referring to the fortress, renovated by the children of Mark Rothko to honour their father’s birthplace, and which was now the Mark Rothko Art Centre, where I sat! It was very moving to feel part of the circular story, and I left the book for the museum library, from which, in a sense, it had come.
Once back home, I wrote a poem about the story which Bob Bernstein put to music. He sings it here.
The Kaddish hanging is now part of the permanent collection of the Mark Rothko museum, but a couple of years later I decided to create a second one, this time using a linen tablecloth that my grandmother brought when she fled Europe. That is the one that was hanging behind Cantor Lisa during the Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur service this year.
–Susan Avishai / www.susanavishai.com