Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Md., proudly installed two magnificent tapestries in its Sanctuary in September 1997. These tapestries, created by local artist Tamar Fishman and executed by British weaver Pat Jones, are located on our bimah and add measurably to the warmth of our synagogue. This web page describes these wonderful works of art. However, if you are in the Bethesda region, please don’t hesitate to call Beth El and arrange to see the tapestries in person.
In Jewish tradition, the synagogue is described as mikdash me’at, “the small sanctuary,” evoking the memory of Bet Hamikdash, the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. A chain of sacred history, beginning in antiquity, links the consecrated settings in which the Jewish people have expressed their spiritual aspirations. In our contemporary synagogue, the Holy Ark, Torah scrolls, and Eternal Light are visible symbols of this unbroken bond. Our worship service echoes the age-old contributions of psalmists and prophets, poets and teachers, priestly officiants and Levite choirs.
The Beth El tapestries, inspired by two narratives from the Book of Genesis, introduce the dimension of visual expression to our synagogue surroundings. This is most appropriate, for the biblical tradition is a literary tapestry in which threads appear, disappear, weave, and intertwine to convey complex meanings. Each thread is unique, yet no single thread is sufficient to convey the full texture of the message.
The tapestries envision two episodes in the life of the patriarch Jacob. The names of the tapestries, Beth El and Israel, reflect their principal themes.
Beth El (Genesis 28:10-19)
Jacob has contrived, with Rebecca’s involvement, to gain from Isaac the irrevocable patriarchal blessing. Fearful of the wrath of Esau, the older brother and presumptive heir, Jacob, with his mother’s encouragement, flees to the family of her brother Laban in distant Haran.
As Jacob leaves Beer Sheba and night falls, he reaches an unfamiliar place. Setting a stone for his pillow, Jacob falls asleep. In his dream he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending. God then appears and renews His promise to Abraham and Isaac, assuring Jacob that he would inherit the land and be father of a great and numerous people.
When Jacob awakes, he realizes that the ground on which he slept is holy and that God may be experienced at any time or place. To mark the site of his dreams, Jacob anoints the stone with oil. Vowing to dedicate his life to God and assured of His protection, Jacob calls the place Beth El—the House of God.
Jacob left Beer Sheba and set out for Haran.
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
He had a dream; a ladder set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
And the Lord was standing beside him, and He said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying, I will give to you and your offspring.
Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth bless themselves by you and your descendants.
Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said: “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.”
Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.
He named that place Beth El.
Israel (Genesis 32:25-32)
Jacob lived in Haran for twenty years, married Leah and Rachel, and raised a large family. When Laban’s sons grew jealous of Jacob’s prosperity, he determined to return to the Promised Land. Still fearful of Esau, Jacob sent his family, servants, and flocks ahead to cross the Jabbok stream.
Left alone at night, Jacob wrestles until dawn with a nameless being. When the stranger sees that he cannot prevail, he strikes a crippling blow on Jacob’s thigh. At daybreak, the antagonist beseeches Jacob to let him go. As the price of his release, Jacob demands a blessing. Asking Jacob’s name but refusing to give his own, the angel foretells: “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with [the angel of] God and with men, and have prevailed.” Jacob’s past has been overtaken by a new reality. Across the river, in the land of his fathers, the future of the children of Israel will unfold.
Shortly thereafter, upon Jacob’s return to Beth El, God confirms the blessing: “Your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10).
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh so that the hollow of his thigh was strained as he wrestled with him.
Then he said: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Said the other: “What is your name?” He replied: “Jacob.”
Said he: ‘Your name shall be no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said:
“You must not ask my name” And he blessed him there.
So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen divinity face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping upon his thigh.
Commentary and Interpretation
The Jacob narratives have been studied by generations of rabbis and teachers whose interpretations—based on nuances of language, biblical cross-reference and their own creativity—are known collectively as midrash. Rabbinic commentary is generally derived from a word, phrase or verse that suggests a significance beyond the literal meaning of the text. The interpretation is best understood by returning to the point of departure in the original story. Midrashic teachings, some of which are presented here, offer starting points to contemplate the meaning of Jacob’s experiences.
As Jacob began his journey, he came upon Hamakom, “the place.” This place, the rabbis taught, was none other than Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac to the altar and the Temple was destined to be built. Sometimes God is called Hamakom, The Place, the ultimate locus of all prayer. Jacob’s encounter with The Place, according to the midrash, marked the institution of evening prayer, just as Abraham had initiated the morning prayer and Isaac the afternoon prayer.
The stones that Jacob took for protection came from the altar on Mount Moriah. There were twelve in all, one for each of the future tribes. Then, by a miracle, they were joined into a single stone, just as Israel would become a single people. Afterwards, to assure the patriarch’s well-being, the stone was turned into a comfortable pillow.
In his dream, Jacob sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending in the opposite order of what one might expect. The midrash explains that the angels who accompanied Jacob to the border of the Holy Land had completed their mission and were going up. Then a new band of angels, who would protect Jacob in exile, came down to assume their duties.
Other commentators see a more profound meaning. Jacob’s dream, they teach, depicts the rise and fall of nations in the world arena. The ladder is the ladder of history, where the ascent of one power decrees the descent of another. Above all worldly powers is God, who assures Israel that tyrants and despots will ultimately be brought down.
What was meant by God’s promise to give Jacob “the land” on which he lay? Read literally, the land was only a small plot of earth. The rabbis resolved this semantic difficulty most creatively. God folded up the Holy Land, they taught, like a ledger, condensed it into a small packet, and placed it under Jacob. Therefore, “the land” on which he lay was, indeed, the entire Promised Land.
The principal question about the second narrative concerns the nature of Jacob’s mysterious opponent. Was Jacob’s struggle an external event in the physical world or an internal experience in the form of a dream? Was it a turning point in the life of the patriarch or a portent for the future of Israel? These possibilities lend themselves to various interpretations. One school of thought explains that Jacob was wrestling with Esau’s guardian angel. Jacob’s struggle embodied his dread as he anticipated the next day’s meeting with his estranged brother. The crippling blow to Jacob’s thigh not only afflicted Jacob personally but also foretold the pain that Israel was destined to endure at the hand of powerful nations, symbolized by Esau. Israel would be injured, sometimes gravely, but would always survive the ordeal. And, in the end, Israel will receive his adversary’s blessing.
Tamar Fishman: The Artist and Her Work
Tamar Fishman is an Israeli-born artist whose works celebrate the Jewish heritage and the Jewish people. Her inspiration is derived from traditional Jewish texts and the artistic qualities of the Hebrew alphabet. Tamar and her family are members of Congregation Beth El.
The Beth El tapestries are the shared creation of Tamar and English weaver Pat Johns. Tamar’s concept and design contemplate the spiritual significance of two powerful episodes in the life of Jacob. The compositions portray God’s presence and promise on the eve of Jacob’s hasty departure from his homeland and, 20 years later, at the dawn of his return.
The expressive character of the Hebrew letters are an important dimension of Tamar’s art. The words prominent in the tapestries share the letters aleph-lamed, “El,” lamed permits it to be extended without changing its character. This flexibility allows the letter to serve as the framework of the composition, with each lamed guiding the eye toward the Ark, the focal point of the bimah. Beth El and Israel, meaning God. The distinctive shape of the
On the first tapestry, Beth El represents the House of God, the setting of our communal worship. Israel, on the second tapestry, is more personal, suggesting a wrestling with our conscience, our humanity, and our God. Beth El directs the vision inward, toward the Ark, whereas Israel takes it out and around before bringing the viewer, with the other lamed.
The lower sections of the tapestries convey the defined and tangible elements of Jacob’s encounters: the land, the stones, and the rush of the waters. The upper scenes project ethereal and diffuse qualities: the angels, the ladder, and the coming of daybreak.
“My encounters with these biblical texts,” says Tamar, “have been enriching and creative. I hope the visual interpretations on the tapestries will inspire others as well. These dreams—Jacob’s and my own—would have remained as concepts and drawings were it not for Pat Johns, whose creative and dedicated labors turned them into reality. I want to thank Pat, my co-worker and friend, for her loving collaboration.”
Pat Johns: Tapestry Weaver
Pat Johns is an artist and teacher from Exeter in the Southwest of England. Born in London and trained as a painter and lithographer, she is now a full-time weaver. Pat has exhibited widely in England, Europe, and the United States. She shares with Tamar a fascination with letterforms, which she frequently uses in her designs. The Beth El tapestries are her first major work with Hebrew calligraphy.
Pat’s tapestries are woven primarily with specially selected worsted threads that she dyes in her own studio. She sometimes adds threads of fine silk or a few strands of rayon, which give glitter to features such as the sky or the angels’ wings. Her subtle hues and textures are created by blending several threads of different colors, dropping some and picking up others as the work progresses.
When making defined shapes, such as the stones and letters, Pat first weaves the outline, firmly beating down on the threads. She then fills the inner space, which gives the stones and letters sharp edges and relief. To achieve a softer effect, such as the sky, she weaves straight across, carefully blending the colors and yarns. This yields the softness of a brush stroke on canvas. Pat characterizes her work in these words:
“I am fascinated by landscape and place, the atmosphere and energy underlying what we see. I try to capture these by the use of richly blended color and movement. Loving the shapes of letters and the challenge of weaving them, my response is often in the form of words, worked as an integral part of the design. I weave a flat Gobelin-type tapestry. The wool wefts I use are dyed with light-fast dyes so as to obtain the range and subtlety of colors for the painterly effects I like to use. I find that weaving gives the luminosity and richness to colors that I search for.
“I am grateful to Tamar and the benefactors for the unique opportunity to participate in the creation of the Beth El tapestries.”
Congregation Beth El expresses appreciation to Tamar Fishman for her contribution of the original concept and design of the Beth El tapestries.
Congregation Beth El recognizes with gratitude the generous donors whose sponsorship made possible the creation of the Beth El tapestries.
“Beth El” – Jacob’s Ladder
Dedicated in honor of Edith Levenson Arnheim and in loving memory of Richard Arnheim, Ruth Lieber Rehns, and Fred Rehns by Walter Arnheim, Marsha Rehns, and Ethan and Phillip Arnheim.
“Israel” – Jacob and the Angel
Dedicated in loving memory of Audrey Ruth Frey Resnik by Harvey, Rebecca, Seth, and Jessica Resnik.