Welcoming the Shabbat queen

Welcoming the Shabbat queen

Debra Band’s book combines illumination, beauty, art, and science


Kabbalah Shabbat is a celebration of beauty.

It’s many other things as well, of course. It’s the introductory service that ushers in Shabbat and so it marks the beginning of that paradoxical day that exists outside of time, even as its passage is marked by the appearance of stars, and the sun’s passage across the sky, and lengthening shadows, and then more stars.

It’s a mystical welcome of the Sabbath bride, of the feminine in God; it’s ecstatic music, psalm after psalm about God’s glory, until, at its climax, we stand to usher the bride into our presence, into her union with God and with us. It’s a signal that Shabbat dinner, with its vast expanses of food and wine and dessert, wait for us.

Debra Band’s new book, “Kabbalat Shabbat: The Grand Unification,” illuminates and explicates and glories in Kabbalat Shabbat. She’s an illustrator and a writer; her lushly art-filled book, with its intricate designs, deeply symbolic but also surface-level lovely, go through the entire Friday night experience, both at shul and at home. She knows and writes about midrash and kabbalah. And because her late husband, David Band, was an astrophysicist, and because she discovered, to her great surprise, that all those disciplines come together in some ways, all have made their way into her book. It is, in fact, a grand unification.

Her book, like Ms. Band herself, has connections to many parts of the Jewish world. Dr. Raymond P. Scheindlin, a professor of medieval Jewish literature and modern poetry, among other things, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote the translations and literary commentary. (“He is also a beautiful poet, and he channels the medieval Sephardic poets,” Ms. Band said.) His background is particularly appropriate because “the zmirot” — the songs traditionally sung around the Shabbat table — “are medieval, and the whole tradition of Kabbalat Shabbat was invented in Luria’s circle in the 16th century,” Ms. Band said. (Isaac Luria was the mystic and poet who headed the circle of kabbalists in Sfat, and was largely responsible for the movement’s revival and influence.)

“Other than the psalms and kaddish, virtually all of it” — the Friday night liturgy and customs — “is all late medieval and early Renaissance,” Ms. Band said. “Nowadays we sing a lot of other songs beside the traditional zemirot, but the canon is largely 16th century.”

The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote the book’s foreword, and Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College in Boston, wrote the preface.

Ms. Band comes to this project naturally; she’s related to much of the Jewish world, and her history illuminates much of modern Western Jewish life. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and lives in Potomac, Maryland, but she’s from a British rabbinic family.

The Swift family was British, and well known. Ms. Band’s grandfather, the oldest of three brothers, Harris Swift, was a rabbi in London for a very long time; the middle brother, Maurice (also called Moshe), “was an eminent rabbi, and definitely on the right. My grandfather — and I — are on the left; for many years Harris and Moishe had huge doctrinal arguments in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle,” she said.

The Swift brothers — from left, rabbis Isaac, later of Englewood; the author’s grandfather, Harris, and Maurice.
The Swift brothers — from left, rabbis Isaac, later of Englewood; the author’s grandfather, Harris, and Maurice.

Her grandfather’s youngest brother, Rabbi Isaac Swift, was the founder and longtime senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, one of the area’s most prominent modern Orthodox institutions.

Rabbi Harris Swift “was very frum,” extremely observant, despite his political views, Ms. Band said. His story seems horrifying to modern ears, although it worked out well. “He was born in Liverpool in 1904, immediately after his parents immigrated from the Ukraine.

From left, scholar and Swift relative Rabbi Shlomo Fisch, scholar Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, and three Swifts, Harris, Bessie, and Isaac.
From left, scholar and Swift relative Rabbi Shlomo Fisch, scholar Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, and three Swifts, Harris, Bessie, and Isaac.

“When he was 4 years old, he was sent back to Russia to learn. Jews College in London was not frum enough for him. He spent the years between 4 and 17 traveling among different yeshivot, and I don’t know if he saw his parents at all during that time. He came back at 17 with a stack of smichot” — ordination documents — “and he had an illustrious career.”

Harris Swift was the oldest son and second child in a family of seven children, all very close, all very frum. The oldest child, Rivka, moved to Israel and was the matriarch of the Fish clan, well-known scholars now represented by Menachem Fish, a philosopher at the Hartman Institute.

When Harris Swift returned to England, he married a first cousin, Bessie Passman. “They were intensely close,” Ms. Band said. “They had a marriage that I have used as a model all my life.” The family moved around Britain at the start of Rabbi Swift’s career but soon landed at St. John’s Wood Synagogue, a prominent shul in a fashionable London neighborhood, and stayed there for years. Ms. Band’s mother, Josephine, was born in London.

Eventually, Harris and Bessie Swift moved to Durban, South Africa, to take on the challenge of working in a big, wealthy shul in a challenging — which is to say actively immoral — political system, but “he was on the verge of being tossed out of the country because he had been doing too much work with the Zulus. In 1956 he put out word that he would be considering offers, and the first thing that slid under the door was from a tiny place he’d never heard of called Chattanooga.

“Later, amazing offers from fancy shuls all over came pouring in, but he looked at my grandmother and said, ‘Bess, I’ve done the big shuls. It’s the little places that need me.’ He was an extraordinary scholar, but at his heart he was a community builder. So she swallowed hard, and left this glamorous life in South Africa, and they moved to Chattanooga.”

In the end, it didn’t work. The Swifts weren’t happy in the American south. They moved back to London, where Rabbi Swift took on another big shul. When he was 67, he retired, and they moved to California, where one of their sons lived. “He died six months later,” Ms. Band said. “It was a terrible blow to the entire family. He was utterly adored.”

Ms. Band’s father, Daniel Levy, who died 13 years ago, comes from a Polish rabbinic family, although Ms. Band knows less about it. “I do know that between my two grandfathers, they had pulpits in every country the Union Jack ever flew in except Hong Kong and India.” (Her father’s family spent time in Vancouver, so that’s where Canada comes in.)

Ms. Band and her brother went to an Orthodox day school in Atlanta; her parents divorced when she was 17, in 1974, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Ms. Band started college at UCLA, but two years later her mother remarried and moved to Montreal. (The literary scholar Dr. David Roskies of the Jewish Theological seminary and Dr. Ruth Wisse, who specializes in Yiddish at Harvard, are her stepfather Arthur Roskies’ first cousins.) Ms. Band moved with her mother, and transferred to Concordia, “which had the best studio art program in the country.” She thought she wanted to major in art, but soon learned that “I hated it. I realized that I wanted a formal education, so I dropped studio art and majored in medieval and Renaissance history.”

In other words, the disciplines that eventually went into “Kabbalat Shabbat” — art and medieval and Renaissance history — had been part of Ms. Band’s life for decades.

In 1979, Debra Levy married David Band, “who came from a very scholarly Jewish family,” she said. His father, Arnold Band, is “the eminence grise in modern Hebrew literary studies. David was an astrophysicist, and he was phenomenally learned.” The Bands and their two sons moved around, following his rocket-like academic career. “It was not auspicious then to think of a two-career academic family,” Ms. Band said, so she dropped any academic aspirations. But she needed the intellectual rigor of a job, so she found work in HMO management and health policy research. “It was the early years, and it was good and exciting work,” she said. “I got out of it when it became only for profit.”

When David Band was at Berkeley, Debra started studying Hebrew calligraphy and soon discovered paper cutting. Next, she realized that she was very good at it. In the late 1980s, she started taking commissions for paper cuts and hand-lettered and illuminated ketubot. “At some point, I started doing an illuminated book of Shir haShirim” — the Song of Songs. “It was entirely for my own indulgence. I didn’t format it properly for easy display or printing. But when I finished it, several people said, ‘Wait a minute, you have to publish this.’ So, on a lark, I sent a proposal to the Jewish Publication Society, and its editor-in-chief, Ellen Frankel, wrote me back a letter saying yes.

“Each of my books” — “Kabbalat Shabbat” is her third, following one on psalms and another on Deborah, Ruth, and Hannah — “has a particular challenge. The Shir haShirim book’s challenge was to fuse a straight literal erotic reading of the poetry with a midrashic reading of the allegory.” Figuring that out — and figuring out the challenges of her later work — took a few years of research, she said. Her husband, David, did the translation; working with him was a joy.

Seven years ago, Dr. David Band died, killed by a rare spinal cancer. The Bands moved to Maryland in 2001, six weeks before September 11, “for his dream job at Goddard” — that’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Goddard, Maryland — “and he was diagnosed a few months later,” Ms. Band said. “He left a wonderful legacy behind him.”

More recently, Ms. Band — who now is married to Michael Diamond, is a new first-time grandmother, and is happy once again — began work on “Kabbalat Shabbat.” “Since I began to work on books, my mission has been to develop a Jewish iconographic vocabulary,” she said. “I have studied Christian art. There is a very complex, layered Christian vocabulary. You look at a painting and you know exactly what you are seeing. The Jewish world never developed that; it’s not that we don’t have wonderful art, but it tends to be narrative or decorative rather than having a lot of abstract symbolism built into it. Yes, there are some exceptions, but usually those are political rather than religious messages.

“I have been working on building an iconographic vocabulary, based largely on midrash. It’s fun. I do a great deal of learning. You pick up bits of visual symbols and put them together to see if they make legitimate sense to our own eyes.”

Her illustration of Shalom Aleichem, the song that begins Shabbat dinner (and is featured on our cover), “is on the surface a rather sugary image of a young family walking into a dining room,” she said. But look again. “You see images of angels right away, but there is a lot more going on.

The words to Shalom Aleichem are decorated with the gold and blue arabesque pattern that Ms. Band uses to represent the Shechinah.
The words to Shalom Aleichem are decorated with the gold and blue arabesque pattern that Ms. Band uses to represent the Shechinah.

“Look into the room. You see two pillars. They’re modeled on the pillars of the beit hamikdash” — the First Temple in Jerusalem — “in Melachim Alef” — I Kings. “With pomegranates. That’s because on Shabbat, the home is transformed into the family’s beit hamikdash. There’s a starry sky above them, and an olive tree. That’s because, in Psalm 128, the shoots of an olive tree are compared to children gathered around the family dining table. And olive oil is used to anoint kings.”

The starry sky “is one of the things that caught my attention very soon after I started studying kabbalah,” Ms. Band said. “Despite coming from a family that had started out chasidic, I wanted to stay as far away from kaballah as I could, because I didn’t want to do it at all unless I could do it seriously.” Still, given the work she wanted to do, it made sense to approach it. “One of the things that I found as soon as I started studying it was that the central questions in kaballah are the same questions, in different language, that form the core questions at the heart of modern cosmology.” Because of Dr. Band’s work, “I have lived with those questions for my entire adult life.

“I was sure that I was having delusions, and that David was rolling with laughter in his grave. He was a total Litvak. ‘You idiot,’ he would have said! But I started reading it, and it does make sense.

The English words of Shir HaMaalot, just before Birkhat Hamazon, are topped by a tractor and bordered by pomegranates.
The English words of Shir HaMaalot, just before Birkhat Hamazon, are topped by a tractor and bordered by pomegranates.

“There is a well known astrophysicist at Harvard, Howard Smith, who has written a book about it.” (The book is “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah: A New Conversation Between Science and Religion.” Dr. Smith is both a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an observant Jew.)

“Smith takes the ideas even further than I am comfortable taking them,” Ms. Band continued.

“This became a major focus of the book, which answered another problem of mine. I’ve always had a lot of trouble with the idea of checking your rational, scientific mind at the door when you enter the world of religion. I want to make things make sense in both worlds. I don’t like dividing up the brain. I found that I can fuse imagery relating to cosmology and other sciences with religious imagery. You can’t do that with words, but you can do it with pictures. I can make these texts speak to the whole mind. That’s been really powerful for me.”

There is a great deal of star imagery in Ms. Band’s art for her book, including in the Shalom Aleichem piece. “It’s based on the famous Hubble image,” she said. “It’s meaningful because every bit of matter has been processed and reprocessed through the stars. David used to say that we are all stardust. That’s a way of referring to the unity of all the world as coming from the big bang, which could be likened to the shevirat hakeilim” — the kabbalistic notion of the shattering of the vessels that led to the world as we know it, with all its diversity, all its evil, all its hope. “It’s a way of referring to the unity of all matter.

“The palmette border around the pattern is taken from a very small ivory furniture plaque that’s in the Israel Museum. It was found in Shomron, very close to Jerusalem, and it’s exactly contemporaneous with the building of Solomon’s Temple. In Melachim Alef, there is mention of the palm patterns, and this is from very close by at the same time. We know from art historical studies that originality in the decorative arts was not valued, and there were pattern books that traveled around large areas, so it is not unreasonable to suspect that this pattern on this little piece was the same pattern used in the Temple.

“I have been using it in my work for many years to allude to the significance of the Temple.”

The family in the picture is in modern clothing because “I want to focus on real life,” Ms. Band said. “This applies in our day. And I wanted the family to be young.

“The tablecloth has an arabesque pattern that I use on every page in the book, here in pale blue and white but usually in blue and gold. I use it to refer to the Shechinah coming down from heaven, and the divine energy that infuses the universe.”

Each flower has a meaning in the midrash, so each flower that Ms. Band draws carries that meaning as well. The burning bush was a rosebush; a fragrant lily in a ruined building is compared to Torah in a corrupt world. “You see how I can bring in a whole host of associations,” Ms. Band said. And if the viewer doesn’t get them, well, the art still is gorgeous.

“One of the things that the project did for me was that I was never especially keen on the idea of the Shabbat queen,” she added. “It felt puerile to me. Now, seeing where it came from, it has great depth. It’s a way of symbolizing bringing wisdom into the world on Shabbat.

“I find the Kabbalat Shabbat’s use of the feminine in the liturgy to be rather reassuring. It is putting the feminine to the fore in an unusual way, and it is good to see the figure of the woman at full center, in full dignity.”

Almost every piece of art she has drawn includes a honeybee hidden somewhere, not unlike Al Hirschfeld’s Ninas. Nina was Mr. Hirschfeld’s daughter; the name Debra — Devora — means honeybee.

There is some modern imagery in the book. The words of Shir HaMaalot, the song of ascent that begins the after-meal blessing, the benching, are written, as is most of the book, in Hebrew on the right and English on the left. The Hebrew side is illuminated with the mourning woman in the book of Jeremiah (above right), who walks away from her destroyed home. She is sowing seeds behind her. “Things are beginning to germinate behind her, but she can’t see them,” Ms. Band said. “She is walking away from it all.” The English side (it’s on page 22 here) is topped with a tractor. “The lyrics are so poignant,” she said. “It’s about anticipating rebirth from the perspective of already having enjoyed it, looking back at what you were expecting.” So the second image is “modern Israel, the same land. I took the landscape from the photo of a kibbutz. It’s a bright day, with real-life modern-day Israeli agriculture going on. It’s no longer destroyed.”

Each one of Ms. Band’s many pieces of art can be explained in this way; the explanation deepens the viewer’s understanding.

Ms. Band’s work is not denominational in any way. “I’m am de facto modern Orthodox, but I’m not made about labels,” she said. “I would like us all to be one community, and to talk together. I’m not the equivalent of a company man. Where ideas are relevant, I want to share them.”