There was no mizrach in my childhood home or, more properly, in any of the three New York apartments that my parents rented during my first sixteen years. We hung no special decoration on whichever wall was closest to Jerusalem. We needed nothing to indicate the direction to face when we prayed, because we did not pray. We were secular Jews whose identity was not based on any form of worship. Instead of the Torah, we revered the history and culture that our ancestors’ religion had engendered. I was an adult before I set eyes on a Mizrach. Now I paint my own, and just finished a mizrach in which I have, in fact, set an eye.
A mizrach can be an elaborate piece of calligraphy or a simple sheet of paper with an appropriate Biblical verse. In Europe, as in The Americas, Jerusalem lies to the east, so references to sunrise are traditional choices. “From the rising of the Sun to its setting”, from Psalm 113, is common. Some include the entire psalm, with the Hebrew lettered to form a seven-branched candelabrum or another significant pattern. Jewish scribal arts flourished during the centuries when representational art did not, discouraged by the Torah’s prohibition of depicting either animals or people.
I have incorporated a hamsa, meaning “five”, into my latest mizrach. (Scroll down to see the Hamsa Mizrach. For others, see my East to Jerusalem gallery on this site.) The protective hand amulet is ubiquitous in the Middle East, and hand prints adorn the earliest human habitations.
Once, Orthodox Jews and collectors of Judaica were the only ones familiar with the mizrach. Now, I reinterpret it as a celebration of the daily solar reappearance as well as a reminder of the site where the Holy Temple stood. Its symbolic power does not come from architectural remains, but from the turning toward the Light.