Nate Levine’s vision comes to life in Beit Aryeh art installation
By Nancy Cohen Israel
Which came first, David’s slaying of Goliath or Solomon’s most famous verdict? When exactly did these events take place and how many years separated them? For Nate Levine, the ability to recall key dates in Jewish history is a critical though often bewildering piece of Jewish literacy. As a result, he envisioned a timeline of key Jewish dates, to be accompanied by original artwork, for the school bearing the names of him and his wife, Ann & Nate Levine Academy. Citing the difficulty many Jews have in dating some of the most seminal events in our history, he said at the installation’s opening, “I wondered if somehow I could help change this at Levine.”
A committee, including Levine, the school’s rabbis and Judaic teachers, convened and narrowed millennia of history to a manageable handful. They conceived the project to include, as Levine notes, “18 important events in Jewish history. Some would come directly from the Bible and others could represent important post-Biblical times,” adding, “The display will serve not only as a piece of art, but also as a learning tool.”
Yael Twito, the school’s director of advancement, began working with the committee on the project; the initial steps included finding an artist. As an alumna of the school’s earliest days as Solomon Schechter Academy, Erin Beckstrand was the perfect choice to illustrate this narrative, which begins with the earliest history during creation and ends in 1948 with the founding of the modern State of Israel.
With her own depth of Jewish learning, Beckstrand did extensive research for each panel. “Everything was thought out,” Twito says. She adds that it was a collaborative process between Beckstrand and the committee from start to finish, with Beckstrand editing and altering her work as she progressed. Twito notes that Beckstrand made deliberate decisions, often citing Biblical passages to support her artistic choices. While she works in acrylic paint, she uses a layering technique more typical of watercolor, giving the work a shimmering depth.
Beckstrand rendered these stories from the distant past into accessible images for the students of today. As she says, “These kids will be able to look at these paintings, that are so bright, so friendly and so detailed, that they will get lost in them.” For example, In “Noah’s Ark: After the Flood,” c. 2300 BCE, relatable pairs of animals — horses, chickens, tigers and bears, among others — emerge from the ark into a rocky landscape. In “Miriam Watching Over Baby Moshe,” 1392 BCE, the young Miriam bears a striking resemblance to a large portion of the school’s student body. In fact, Beckstrand’s family served as models for several of the Biblical characters portrayed.
The panels are installed in Beit Aryeh, which serves as worship space, performance hall and lunchroom. “Within Beit Aryeh, being Jewish comes alive and there is no better place that I could think of to be able to see our history come alive than within that space,” says Chana Ben-Avraham, dean of Jewish innovation and engagement. The works are installed at eye level so that even the youngest students can see them and learn from them. According to Rabbi Michael Katzman, dean of Judaic standards and benchmarks, “They will see a quote, they will see an idea, they will see an image and it will inspire them.” The paintings’ presence, however, goes beyond this space. “Different classes and different teachers are using them. We are looking at making booklets with them that teachers can use in classrooms,” Twito adds.
While the timeline and its accompanying artwork fulfill Levine’s vision of imprinting these dates on the school’s students, Beckstrand sees an additional layer of purpose. As she says, “Our hope with these paintings is that we can depict these moments in history, these holidays and these traditions and the ceremony that we do so that [the students] can ask ‘Why?’”
As head of school, Tom Elieff embraces this installation into the school’s DNA, stating, “It’s going to be a focal point for teaching and learning and this is really what is at the center of Ann and Nate’s heart. They want to see our mission come alive in vibrant and captivating ways.”