Ascent from the Tzin Wilderness


Excerpts from The Future of Art in a Postigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, pp. 134-141.


Mel Alexenberg


The weeklong holiday of sukkot ended with a star-filled Bavarian sky.  As my sky art event for "Sky Art '83", I had planned to release 5-foot high Styrofoam Hebrew letters into the sky lifted by helium-filled weather balloons. Searchlights would illuminate them as they ascended over Munich.  This visual midrash is based upon a midrash that relates to the seven Hebrew letters in the Torah scroll that are written by the scribe with little three-pronged crowns on them called tagin.  They are letters in heavy words like sinah “hate” that are too heavy to ascend to heaven when the Torah text is chanted.  The tagin provide extra lift heavenward to letters weighed down by their connection to conflict.  I painted each letter one of the seven colors of the rainbow and attached three balloons to each one as giant tagin.  I consulted with the Bavarian meteorological services to determine the size of weather balloons that would lift the letters into the jet stream so that they would fly eastward into the Soviet Union where the Iron Curtain was slammed shut on Jews who wished to escape from anti-Semitic harassment.  I enthusiastically envisioned MIG’s scrambling to intercept Hebrew letters invading Soviet airspace. 


However, it didn’t happen.  As I was leaving the hotel that night, American artist Lowry Burgess, creator of the first art satellite placed in orbit by NASA, intercepted me looking distraught.  He was holding a steel-gray plastic bag in one hand and a smashed etrog cradled in his other hand.  In a distressed voice, he told me how a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang had attacked my sukkah.  They tried to destroy the sukkah with crowbars and steel chains.  Thanks to Hiroi’s help, the sukkah was strong enough to survive their blows.  However, they succeeded in destroying the table, smashing the etrog and scattering the earth over the ground.  They tied hangmen’s nooses in the rope of the tzitzit.  Lowry said, “I didn’t think that you would want to have holy land thrown out in the garbage in Germany.  So, I swept it up for you and put it in this plastic bag.”  Realizing that Hebrew letters could not fly free in Germany, I cancelled the event.  Instead, I descended into the depths of the earth with the letters.  The seven Hebrew letters rode the escalators between rush-hour commuters at the subway stop shared by the BMW museum and the Olympic Village where Arab terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes in cold blood. 


The rainbow of seven human-size Styrofoam Hebrew letters that were slated to announce themselves in the Bavarian sky and pierce the Iron Curtain could not fly free on the European continent drenched in Jewish blood.  They would fly free in the Tzin Wilderness separated from the Dead Sea by the Negev desert that drops down to the lowest place on the planet through two colossal craters.  This was the entry point into the Promised Land taken by the spiritual leaders of the twelve Israelite tribes to spy out the land.  “The men headed north and explored the land from the Tzin Wilderness all the way to Rehov” (Numbers 13:21).  At the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the Tzin Wilderness, my art students worked with me to tie weather balloon tagin on the tops of each of the letters.  The large red balloons were filled from a tank of hydrogen.  Helium, only made in United States, was unavailable. We tethered the letters to rocks planned to release them simultaneously.  Unexpectedly, before we were ready to release the letters, a sudden gust of wind ripped the letter zayin loose, setting it free.  As it ascended over the Tzin Wilderness, an eagle spiraled around it escorting it up into a cloud.