After having made the trip to Hebron and the tomb of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs I thought it would be a good idea to cross the city to see the wonderful windows by Marc Chagall that are the glory of the synagogue at the Hadassah Hospital. There are in fact two Hadassah Hospitals in Jerusalem, one on Mount Scopus and one in the hills above Ein Karem (the birthplace of John the Baptist). If you want to see the windows don’t go to Mount Scopus but get the tram to Mount Herzl and where that terminates you can catch the #27 bus which goes right into the hospital. It couldn’t be easier.
As I was on the bus I had the great opening number from ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ running through my head. It’s one way of remembering the names of Jacob’s twelve sons!
Reuben was the eldest of the children of Israel
With Simeon and Levi the next in line
Napthali and Isaachar with Asher and Dan
Zebulon and Gad took the total to nine
Jacob. Jacob and sons
Benjamin and Judah, which leaves only one
Jacob. Jacob and sons Joseph –
Jacob’s favourite son.
As you walk through the hospital towards the Synagogue you first of all see the arched windows in which the glass is set. Then comes the task of trying to find how to get in. None of the signs were actually up-to-date but a member of staff really helpfully took me to where I paid my 10 NIS to be admitted.
The synagogue and its famous stained glass windows date from 1962. Chagall decided to use the fact of the Twelve Tribes as the inspiration for his work. On each side of the synagogue are three windows and the whole thing forms a crown above the prayer space below. The rest of the building is colourless so that the eye is constantly drawn to the blaze of colour above.
By all accounts Chagall was delighted to be asked to do this work. He said at the dedication of the windows
‘This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years ago among the other Semitic people.’
I love that statement because it places the tribes of Israel and Israel itself in that wider Semitic community, something which seems so often ignored in the modern politics of the place.
In Genesis 49 we read of the blessing that Jacob bestowed upon each of his sons. It is the imagery in each of the blessings that Chagall picks up as his inspiration for the window. So, for instance, the first blessing, Reuben, says this
‘Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigour,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.
Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up on to your father’s bed;
then you defiled it—you went up on to my couch!’ (Genesis 49.3-4)
The window is consequently full of water imagery and is blue as ‘unstable water’.
The recorded commentary played for visitors is really helpful in drawing out the complex images in the glass and though you may not remember every fish, or sphere, or beast yet the impact of the colours remains with you.
Joseph’s window is the most gloriously bright and colourful as befits the dreamer in his coat!
One final note. The hospital is named Hadassah after Queen Esther. In the Book of Esther it says this
Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. (Esther 2.7)
The name is derived from the Hebrew hadas, the myrtle tree. Ester, Hadassah, is one of the inspirational female figures in Jewish history and in the Old Testament and is one of those who is pictured in the mosaic dome above the statue of Our Lady in the Dormition Abbey. A Jewish Midrash about her name says
Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman.
So the hospital, dealing daily with the sweetness and bitterness of life, rightly celebrates not just the sons but all the daughters.
bless all your sons and daughters
that we may display your glory in our lives
and reveal your goodness.