Four Wings of America

From Mel Alexenberg, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)

 In Numbers we read, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of (kanfai) their garments, throughout their generations….  I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Before the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, God tells Moses, “Tell the Israelites: ‘You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on wings of (kanfai) eagles and bringing you to me” (Exodus, 19:4).  Forty years later standing on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses reviews the laws of the Torah for the generation born in the desert before they enter the Promised Land.  He said, “Make yourself fringes on the four corners (kanfot) of the garment with which you cover yourself” (Deuteronomy 22:12). Before donning his prayer shawl each morning, a Jew says, “May the talit spread its wings (kanfav)…like an eagle rousing his nest, fluttering over its eaglets.”  The biblical prophesy, “He will ingather the dispersed ones of Judah from the four corners (kanfot) of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12), is being realized in our day. The biblical Hebrew word used for the four “corners” of one’s garment and metaphorically as the four “corners” of the earth is the same word that is used for “wings.”   The foremost biblical commentator Rashi (11th century France) points out the links between corners and wings, “The tzitzit are placed ‘on the corners (kanfot) of their garments,” alluding to God having freed the Israelites from Egypt, as it states, ‘and I carried you on the wings (kanfot) of eagles.’”61 

Four Wings of America is a visual midrash that conceptually links corners of a garment to corners of the land to wings.  It was one of twenty artworks that my wife, the artist Miriam Benjamin, and I created as part of the official celebration of Miami’s centennial. When we moved to Miami from New York, we sensed that we had moved to one of the four corners of America.  These artworks explored relationships between the four corners of continental United States and its geographic center.  We made large white rope tzitzit with a sky blue thread with the thought of attaching them to the four corners of America.  Since corners are wings in biblical Hebrew, we invited American Airlines, the largest U.S. corporation in the wing business, to sponsor our artwork.  We placed large rope tzitzit on the boardroom table to explain to the airline executives their ritual significance and why we wanted to create a visual midrash by placing them at the four corner/wings of America.  It became apparent our proposal was appreciated, when one of them said, “It is as if the United States is spiritually lifted up by its four corners as the blue thread of the fringes links the sea to the sky.”  They agreed to sponsor the project and flew Miriam and me to the four corners of America to physically realize our spiritual metaphor.  Since American Airlines is the only airline with non-stop flights from Miami to Seattle, its public relations people were pleased with the concept.

We drove from Seattle to Neah Bay, an Indian reservation at the end of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington State, attached the tzitzit to a tree at the shoreline.  The tzitzit flowing outward into the Pacific Ocean transformed the northwest corner of continental United States by their presence.  At the southwest corner, the tzitzit shuddered in the wind hanging from to the steel wall that separates San Diego from Tijuana at the Pacific Ocean.  Tzitzit flowed into the Atlantic Ocean from huge barnacle-encrusted boulders on the Maine coast and from swaying palms shading the beach of a balmy Florida bay. 

Biblical passages on tzitzit linking them to the exodus from Egyptian bondage invite us to appreciate our freedom.  The sky blue strands of tzitzit flowing freely from the four corners of America also tell America’s story that links the heavenly blessing of freedom to the oceans crossed by those yearning to be free in the New World.  At the request of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams proposed a seal for the newly independent United States of America that shows the Israelites escaping to freedom from Egyptian bondage through the divided waters of the Red Sea while Moses stood on the shore with his hand held high over the sea.   President George Washington repeated the same biblical message of freedom in his letter to the Jewish community of Savannah.  His letter quoted in the introductory chapter, draws the parallel between God’s delivering the Hebrews from oppression in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land and the providential agency in establishing the United States separated from European oppression by a vast sea. He prays that the same wonder-working Deity that freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt would “still continue to water them with the dews of heaven” as a Jewish community living in freedom in America.

In synagogue in each of the four corner cities – Miami, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland (Maine) – I participated in the weekday morning services wearing tzitzit flowing out of the four corners of my talit, a white woolen rectangular shawl with a series of stripes on both ends like giant bar codes.  The stripes are parallel to call attention to the multiple paths of the twelve Israelite tribes, each representing different personality traits and alternative viewpoints.  I photographed the spontaneous groupings of men in striped shawls as they gathered around the Torah scroll to kiss it as it was carried from the ark to the reading table.  It brought to mind the herds of zebras in a National Geographic film I had seen.  The zebras gathered together for protection.  However, when a zebra was about to give birth she separated herself from the herd so that her unique stripe pattern would be imprinted on the newborn’s mind.  If the newborn zebra were to first see the patterns on other zebras, it would be unable to identify its mother in the herd for nursing and would die of starvation.  Like a bar code that identifies a product, zebra stripes serve a biological survival function of imprinting the identity of a particular zebra as mother.  Perhaps those Jews who come together each morning donning a striped talit and seeing the tzitzit will never forget their identity.  I photographed zebras in the zoos of each of the four corner cities and juxtaposed them with the photographs of the men in striped shawls.