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  • In New York a few years back, I found in the gift shop of the Morgan Library a facsimile of an illuminated Hebrew Bible of the 15th century, from the Iberian Peninsula. This Bible was written in Spain, and part of the decoration was done in southern Spain, in Andalusia. It was carried to Portugal, where further decoration was added. It was then carried to Italy by a Portuguese family, who followed a familiar route of the time,----expelled from Portugal, on to Fez, Morocco, and then on to Pisa, Italy, a newly free port.

    It is from the realm of the Sephardic Jews, and it is beautiful. They call it a Peninsular Bible. It is from the collection of the Hispanic Society of America.

    It is the beginning of Exodus.

    It is simply exquisite. Art, illumination, the focus and presentation of the scribe, who transcribed using gold on the brush, the encrustation of the letters themselves like jewels, gold dromedaries travelling the pink and gold sand right to left, the tiny micro-marks under the letters, which are the old familiar vowel sounds I know so well from my days as a child going to cheder (Hebrew School) after my regular schooling, five days a week forever.

    The sense is so present on the page of how art and the word is a tradition handed down to me. To write is to decorate the world. To be in the word is to be in the world. To make the page fine, as fine as a woman or a home for your enscribing heart, that letters, each letter is a calligraphic object, that when you write you make a collection, you collect your attention and your tradition, you make macro and micro marks, that vowels sounds are things, all this was handed down to me, my Jewish tradition.

    That words are symbols, for sure, but that words are in and of themselves objects. I have had dreams at night asleep in which I climbed letters of the alphabet like they were hillsides or berms or mountains or towers, letters made giant and I was the small one.

    I am reminded today on the first day of Passover (the first Pesach seder was last night), that in a mysterious way I am connected to this Spanish scribe of the 1400s, who used his wrist and forearm to shape the words and my eyes see them, too, as the shape of the musical notes to the ancient Hebrew tunes.

    And then the scribe passes the golden text on to the illuminator. We eye this in awe, surely.

    Those blue swirls, the blue feathered avian decorative margins, the gold, red, pink, more birds, this time golden, the peacock anchor at the bottom of the page, the lion, the serpent. This was worship of the text. You feel the artists at work.

    Exodus old. Exodus new.

    The bitter and the sweet.
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