FIVE “GOUACHE” SCENES FROM ONE OF INDIA’S FORGOTTEN AND MOST BEAUTIFUL RIVERS
A SMALL GROUP OF IMAGES FROM MY OLD SKIING DAYS IN ITALIAN RESORTS – SAUZE D’OULX, BORMIO AND CHIESA VALMALENCO
A GROUP OF OLD MARITIME SUNSET IMAGES, FROM RHODES, SINAI, ISRAEL, CHILE AND FRANCE IN “GOUACHE” FORM…
…more recent ones to follow shortly:
A SMALL SET OF DIGITAL “GOUACHES” AND “WATERCOLOURS” OF CHENNAI, COCHIN AND COIMBATORE
A SMALL GALLERY OF DIGITAL “GOUACHES” OF CROATIA’S CAPITAL
THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY”ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY
At this stage, I should state that I was never your average atheist, either in texture or flavour.
If I tell you that I’ve often found the likes of Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins to be a little too agnostic and lacking in conviction for my liking you get an idea of my feelings about all things ‘divine’, ‘spiritual’ and / or supernatural. In fact, my anti-theism—for that’s what it truly amounts to—came upon me in a sort of revelation and in a synagogue of all places, back in 1975, when I was fifteen years old.
You see, it’s not that I had always been of this mind set.
After eight days of life I’d had the obligatory encounter—for Jewish males—with the small but extremely sharp knife followed by the typical albeit fairly gentle in my case, conditioning of the traditional North London Jewish upbringing.
There was the Jewish education, both at school and at home from my observant grandfather—my ‘Zaida’; the weekly Saturday visits to synagogue (the orthodox type with the ladies sitting upstairs); the Friday night dinners; the candles and; the very many holy-days and holidays.
In fact, for the first ten years or so of my life, seduced as I was by the numerous attractions for a child of my religion, both holiday-wise and culinary-wise, I veered somewhat towards being a rather pious little boy. It probably also had a lot to do with the fact that my “most favourite person in the whole world” was indisputably my gentle, kind and incredibly dignified Zaida and that my greatest fear in those days, was doing anything to upset or disappoint him.
Thus it was, during those long tedious hours on Saturday mornings, sitting next to him in synagogue, I never gave him an inkling of how abjectly bored I was for fear of hurting his feelings.
My mildly burgeoning piety notwithstanding, in retrospect I guess, this was my first taste of what ‘duty’ meant. I suppose now, that this innate sense of duty to my grandfather had a lot to do with the fact my father had abandoned us (my mother, my one—older—brother and I) when I was six months old and that it was to my Zaida that I both looked and found that male authority I naturally craved.
However, in 1970 when I was ten years old my mother took my brother and me to live in Israel. And, although this adventure turned out to be abortive with us returning to London barely six months later, the experience delineated the end of the first and the beginning of the second chapter of my life. Paradoxically, this dalliance with life in the ‘Holy Land’ was the catalyst which began my drift away from ‘belief’.
For starters, my mum was irreligious herself and while she had been happy to ‘keep a kosher home’, with all that that entailed, during the years of our extended family existence, she lapsed almost the moment we arrived at our new home in Israel.
Suddenly, there was no more synagogue, no more Friday night dinners, no more observance of any kind. Even on Yom Kippur, we spent the day on the beach with a large picnic.
Mum felt free from the ‘clutter of observance’ for the first time in many years and her sense of freedom must have been infectious, because it transmitted itself to her two sons.
Hitherto, neither of us had ever thought to question the structure of our lives as Jewish boys. After all, it was all we knew and seemed as natural as breathing or eating.
And all of a sudden, spending Saturday mornings body-surfing on a Mediterranean beach instead of being in a stuffy synagogue surrounded by old men (they all seemed old to me at that time) chanting prayers, was very powerful medicine. And like our mum, we instinctively felt as if we had been liberated from what had been before.
But then, still only in my eleventh year, as suddenly as I had left, I found myself back in North London. And once again on Saturday mornings, I was sitting by the side of my still-adored Zaida―only now, far more dutifully than I ever could have imagined just six months previously.
But the seeds of my atheism were planted and from then on the germination was steady and relentless and it was only around five years later that I found myself on my own in another synagogue—the one belonging to my school where I was then boarding in deepest Oxfordshire.
Unfortunately, I can’t recall exactly the reason why I had decided to go and sit alone in the synagogue, except that it was one of those exquisite and magisterial settings with which my old school was bounteously blessed, both geographically and architecturally (see photo above). It must have seemed a natural place to go for a troubled soul.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the building itself was one of the most remarkable and beautiful modern constructions in England.
It was designed by an inspired local architect called Thomas Hancock and you feel that when he was given the brief for the project he was also given more or less free reign, for what I presume was his one and only Jewish house of worship.
Unkindly nicknamed ‘the ski slope’ by most of the boys, it was a soaring structure of primarily glass and honey coloured timber with a grey metallic roof. At its western end it was only about twelve feet high, with the ceiling arcing upwards until it reached somewhere near sixty feet at the eastern end—hence the ‘ski slope’ analogy.
The roof was a marvel, supported by half a dozen exposed, curved, mighty wooden beams, which at that time were the longest of their kind anywhere in Europe.
Outside and within the eastern wall was formed of bare sand coloured breeze blocks. Set in its centre, an ark (the cupboard that housed the scrolls of the Law—the Torah) marked out by a pair of enormous cedar wood doors constructed of overlapping panels and flanked at its corners, from floor to ceiling by a pair of narrow jazzy, Chagall inspired stained glass windows.
The north and south walls of the synagogue were entirely of glass set in delicate wooden frames, which, especially on the south side, allowed for a broad view of the Mongewell Brook that ran through the school grounds until it spilt, via a willow fringed lake, into the River Thames.
The interior space was so conceived by Hancock, that the worshipper experienced a strong sense of exposure to, and oneness with, the landscape that the synagogue inhabited.
The afternoon in question (it was an afternoon, in case I forgot to mention) was a glorious early summer’s day.
Tall oaks, beech and cascading willows rubbed shoulders with the glazed sides of the synagogue, resplendent in their crisp, young foliage. The brook sparkled like a thousand sapphires through the glass. Assorted waterfowl frolicked, floated and bobbed about on its surface silhouetted against the silvery sheen.
I’d taken a seat on one of the long padded benches, about half way towards the ark, when almost immediately I experienced a most curious sensation.
I remember that I was looking out the south window to my left, at the above mentioned sensual, watery, pastoral idyll beyond when, in a matter of seconds it was as if a great and terrible burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
This sensation of release caused my neck to reflex so that I found myself looking straight up at the highest part of the ceiling where the great timber roof-beams slotted neatly into their steel cradles in the lofty cool shadows.
And at that moment I was overcome with a feeling of the purest joy. I recall that I couldn’t stop smiling. I guess that I was feeling something similar to when you are told you have been cured of a terrible illness.
But, in my case, immersed within a symbiosis of man-made and natural beauty in perfect harmony, I’d come to understand with total certainty, that there was no God.
So that was how atheism came upon me and why I knew that the voice that spoke to me that night in Bossòst was the creation of my own overactive mind.
Nevertheless, despite my non-belief, I had a profound interest in the ancient history of my people. So much so, that had it not been for the fact that my aptitude for drawing and painting led me towards a less academically arduous career in the arts I would have definitely ‘done something’ along the lines of archaeology.
But despite this, by the time of my dream-like event in northern Spain I was steeped in the kind of vast general knowledge of a subject that is the special preserve of the amateur enthusiast.
So, I of course knew that according to various biblical texts the ‘Sons of Kohath’ were a high caste clan of the priestly tribe of Levi, supposedly designated by Moses to take care of—amongst other things—the Holy Ark.
Being a Levite myself I had always found this a thrilling concept.
Back in the ancient day though, being a Levite wasn’t merely a paternally handed down title like it is now with a few synagogue related duties and privileges. Back in the ancient day being a Levite really meant something and it didn’t get any more meaningful than for those of the House of Kohath.
So it was hardly surprising to me, just mere moments after the initial shock of the dream had worn off, that my vanity should have decided that I was of such an esteemed caste.
By the same token, I was equally steeped in the subject of the Ark itself; not you will gather because I believed it to be a ‘transmitter to God’, as the evil Belloq described it so eloquently in Raiders of the Lost Ark but because I agreed with Indiana Jones’ original summation at the beginning of the movie; that if the Ark had really existed and was still around somewhere today, it would be of inestimable archaeological and cultural/historic interest and value.
However, when it came to the history of the Jews of Spain and their synagogues I was far less clued-in. I had no knowledge at all about any architectural heritage they may have left behind, in Toledo―or anywhere else upon the Iberian Peninsula.
I had some sketchy ideas about the great cultural flowering of Iberian Jewry during the middle ages and, I also knew that the whole thing came to a terrible end under the Inquisition of Torquemada during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. But, the shameful truth was, most of what I knew about the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ came from Monty Python rather than from the pages of text books.
That was why, when Dido asked me for the second time that night in very underwhelmed tones, if the word of God had meant anything to me, I replied, somewhat defensively; ‘Well, some of it means something to me.’
‘Some of it’? There’s hardly anything of it!’ she responded mystified.
‘There’s enough to mean something.’
‘You also said it was dreadful. What’s the dreadful part?’
‘Having God speak to you is pretty dreadful I would say…in the dark… in a strange place. When you’re asleep you don’t realise it’s only your own subconscious. And then there’s the Ark, the Ark of the Covenant…’
‘Okay. All very thrilling you say, but so what? Are you telling me that your subconscious mind might truly be onto something? That somehow, somewhere, you picked up the answers to the greatest archaeological mystery in the world without realising it?’
‘I’m not saying anything. I haven’t said anything.’
‘But you’re thinking it, aren’t you? You’re toying with the idea.’
‘Well of course I’m thinking about it. I’ve never encountered anything like this in my life before. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.’
‘Okay then. What do you intend to do about it? Are you going to follow it up?’
‘It’s a question of joining up the dots.’
‘Dots! My dear sweet Adam, there are no dots…’
‘Yes, there are dots. Two bloody-great-big-dots―the Ark and a synagogue in Toledo!’
‘Okay! Two dots! But then how hard can it be to join two measly dots?’
‘Very hard, when the two dots in question are separated by more than two and a half millennia by over two thousand miles. Very, very hard!’
And as things turned out I wasn’t wrong about that strange night in Bossòst.
It took me more than twenty years to join the two dots and come up with a plausible story of the Ark of the Covenant and a synagogue in Toledo.
Two decades of marriage to Dido and nearly as long living in Spain provided me with the confidence and the intellectual mechanics for completing this modern tale:
A tale set in a land of sublime contradictions and insane history;
A tale concerning a venerable building that represents and reflects all of that in a sublime structural form and;
A tale about a legendary artefact with an uncomfortable, not to mention highly inconvenient message.
My novel, ARK is is that story…
I took the original photos for this series on my first camera – a Cannonet 28. A simple little camera but with a terrific lens.
THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY “ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY
It was one of those moments during sleep where “God” speaks to you, in a voice like that bloke in De Milles’s movie of The Ten Commandments. Except in my case, without the American drawl―I suppose because I’m English? God had a decidedly English accent.
It must have been around 1990.
My fiancé Dido and I were en-route from southern Spain back to London and we were spending the night on the Spanish side of the border with France in a one-street mountain town called Bossòst.
Bossòst was a typical Pyrenean set up. Picturesque in a rugged grey sort of way, all slate and stone and wooden shutters built either side of a fast flowing, silver flecked stream. And of course it was raining an icy, relentless mountain rain.
We’d eaten a typically good Catalan dinner; I distinctly remember we had roast wild rabbit with prunes washed down with a moderate amount of the local red, just enough to make us pleasantly dozy, not drunk. We certainly went to bed replete and content and I must have been sleeping for several hours when I had the dream-like event.
As a rule, I’m not great at recalling dreams or dream-like events of any description, even powerful dreams, even waking dreams.
But this was different. There was no forgetting this.
After all, one doesn’t hear from God every day, or every night for that matter. At least not these days―except perhaps if one is an Evangelical Christian. Especially an Evangelical Christian from the American Midwest (they seem to be on regular speed-dial terms with God). But, I’m not an Evangelical anything.
In fact, I am now and was then a non-practising Jew and an atheist to boot. And God hasn’t spoken to any Jews since God-knows-when, and He’s certainly not spoken to lapsed Jewish atheists like me.
So, imagine my surprise―even in sleep―when God announced himself to yours truly in the aforementioned mellifluent tones.
No fanfare, mind you. No heavenly choirs. No winged chariots. Just the blackness of sleep. And that voice, in my right ear.
And He didn’t hang around for long.
It wasn’t some tedious, rambling, revelatory rant. No sublime psalmist prose either. Rather, just a couple of very brief statements.
The first no doubt to grab my attention―which I can tell you now, it did, big time.
And the second―to give me the ‘gen’.
I say the gen but in reality we’re not talking major details here, which would have been so much more helpful in the long run. No, this gen was to information what IKEA assembly instructions are to…well, assembly instructions.
But, for all its minimalism it was still impressive enough to have me wake bolt upright, eyes glazed in terror, cold sweat pouring down my back—the whole cliché.
It will hardly surprise any psychologists reading this that the event coincided with a particularly tumultuous time in my life, both personally and professionally.
Dido and I had become engaged to be married just days before setting out on our drive through France and Spain.
We were also involved in planning an epic journey to Chile early the following year (Dido had won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and the trip was planned for just after our wedding).
In addition to this I was in the midst of the busiest and most lucrative period I’d yet enjoyed since graduating from art school some seven years previously, having just a few months earlier made the momentous decision to shift my artistic direction, from the ostensibly noble but hard-up path of fine art towards a ‘shallower’ but more financially secure future as a commercial illustrator.
By the time of the dream I’d been working as an illustrator for only six months but had already won myself the services of a top agent, who in turn was getting me almost more work than I could comfortably handle, some of which paid extremely handsomely.
So it was that by mid-1990, although I was feeling pretty good about life, I was also going through a period of radical change.
Change, however potentially life enriching and fulfilling can still be emotionally unsettling. And, unsettled emotions, in my case at least, generally lead to disturbed sleep—only this time the disturbance was particularly violent, waking the wife-to-be into the bargain.
Now I don’t know how many other people might have noticed this but as a rule blond people take their sleep far more seriously than do dark-haired people.
In fact, I would say, through personal experience, from sharing dormitories at boarding school with blond-haired schoolmates and then later in life, occasionally sharing my bed with the odd fair-haired lady, that the amount a blond person cherishes their sleep is in direct correlation to the degree of their blondness. It must be that growing blond hair utilises more energy than dark hair or something like that, but whatever, Dido was a very blond person, and her annoyance at having her sleep disturbed was almost more dreadful than the dream itself had been.
Sympathy and concern were in distinctly short supply.
‘What in God’s name is your problem?’ she growled contemptuously from beneath her luxuriant flaxen locks on the pillow next to me.
‘Funny you should ask.’ I muttered nervously in reply.
‘Funny? What’s so fucking funny?’ Dido normally only swore when driving. She really was very angry.
I took a deep breath and braced myself before continuing.
‘It’s just funny that you should have mentioned God. That’s all. You see…that’s what woke me up.’
Still growling but incredulous now, she queried; ‘Did you just say God is what woke you up!? Is that what you just said!?’
‘Yes. I mean…in a sense. You see, I just dreamt that God spoke to me.’
At this point I was relieved it was too dark to see Dido’s face. It was awkward enough trying to tell her about the dream while merely hearing the derision in her voice without having to witness it in her eyes too.
‘I warned you not to have that cheap Spanish brandy just before going to bed. It’s enough to give anyone nightmares.’
‘It wasn’t a nightmare and anyhow, I didn’t have any brandy. That was last night.’
‘It’s even stronger than I thought then!’ She said, only half joking.
‘It wasn’t a nightmare but it was very…very…it was dreadful. Yes, actually dread-full.’
She sighed; ‘Then lets cuddle up and go back to sleep. Nothing like a nice cuddle to make the dread go away and you can tell mummy all about it in the morning…’
‘It was a very short dream. Actually, you couldn’t really describe it as a dream. Not in the usual sense. There was nothing visual…just a ‘voice’ in my ear…a very fleeting voice.’
Dido sighed again, rolled away from me and pulled the duvet up so that it covered most of her head. Realising that this was intended to signal the end of proceedings I sank back down under the duvet and snuggled up against her warm naked back.
Our bodily contact must have mellowed Dido’s mood.
I heard her say; ‘Go on then Joseph. Pharaoh’s all ears. What didst the Lord have to sayeth for himself.’
‘Actually, you’re technically incorrect. It was the baker and the butler who told their dreams to Joseph and then Joseph interp…’
‘Oh Adam! For goodness sake. Just get on with it.’
‘I can’t.’ I replied. ‘It’s too silly.’ Now that she actually wanted to hear what God had said, I was truly embarrassed.
‘Silly and dreadful? Or just dreadfully silly?’ she then paused before adding; ‘Sorry, I wasn’t making fun, it just came out.’
‘I know. It’s bonkers.’
‘Bonkers or not, I’m waiting! You’ve got me all agog now. Or should I say all a-God?’
‘It’s daft, and anyway, it won’t mean anything to you.’
‘But it meant something to you?’
‘When your subconscious tries to tell you things it generally has some kind of resonance.’
‘So it wasn’t really God?’ She said sarcastically.
‘Of course it wasn’t really God!’
‘Well, thank goodness for that. I was getting a bit worried there.’
‘Worried about what? That God was taking time out from the cares of the Universe to whisper sweet nothings into your fiancé’s ear?’
‘No. Worried that my fiancé had suddenly reverted into a believer.’ She then rolled over to face me and I could sense her large grey-blue eyes staring at me through the murk as she said; ‘I’m asking you for the last time, before I go back to sleep, what did Go…what did your subconscious say to you?’
I took a moment to remember exactly what I had heard then I replied; ‘The voice said to me―You, Son of Kohath―My Holy Ark―The synagogue in Toledo.’
A set of 15 digital “gouaches” showing a side of Canada’s great commercial capital you might not have noticed…
I’ve always found that London and Paris are primarily tonal rather than colourful cities. Their light qualities vary only subtly (especially in Autumn and Winter) and so it’s their unique architectural and arboreal textures which create their distinct feels and hugely different respective characters. Firstly, here are a handful of digital “gouaches” of the French capital to illustrate what I mean…London to follow shortly…
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Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.
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British Australian based in Los Angeles and travelling the world
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