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Catriel on the ‘Seat of Elijah’

I was asked to do a portrait, by an old customer last week. I first started working for him about 25 years ago, and I regard him highly. I have had a photography studio and lab for many years here in Jerusalem. I have worked with museums, industrialists, artists, and private people. I’ve had a number of employees who have worked for me over the years, most of them for long periods of time. And I have tried my best to maintain friendly relations with both customers and workers during all that time. But some of these people have made a lasting impression on me, and Catriel is definitely one of those.

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detail of peacock on the seat

When first I met Catriel, he was a craftsman; a woodworker who made exquisite religious objects out of wood, often employing rare woods from far away places, and embedding silver and gold and mother of pearl in the pieces he made. He designed the pieces himself, and his work was elegant. My job was to photograph the objects for his catalogue. Occasionally, my photographs appeared in magazine articles about his beautiful work.

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mezuzah made to look like a house

I can’t say that the photography itself was a great challenge, or especially interesting work. But I considered it an honor to document these wonderful objects, and when I photographed them in my studio, I felt as if I was handling holy objects. Each of them had a ‘presence’ that I couldn’t ignore. He made all kinds of things, from spinning tops for children to celebrate the Hanukah holiday, to spice holders used in the ceremony in which we mark the end of the Sabbath, and the beginning of the new week. He made the little boxes for the mezuzah, in which the parchment that declares our faith in one god is attached to the doorframe. And since this box is called ‘house’ in Hebrew, he made some that were in the image of a Jerusalem house, complete with solar panels on the roof, and a water tank. But there were bigger projects too. He made a model of the tabernacle in which we live outside the home for a week in the fall, called a sukkah. And likewise, made a model of a synagogue. And eventually, he made the most stirring model of all, a model of the holy temple.

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a little model of a synagogue as seen from the inside

In order to make this model of the holy temple, he had to study quite a bit about how the temple itself was made, and became an expert on the subject, and was invited to lecture in numerous places. In a way, this was the beginning of his turn from wood working to scholarship. He became a regular lecturer. And since then, he has turned his hand to writing, and this recent request for a portrait was because a book he has written is about to be published, and he was asked for a portrait to be included on the cover of his book, by the publishers. It was not the first time I had done a portrait of him.

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chalice for wine

Many years ago, he had built the seat of Elijah, a ceremonial chair that is found in most synagogues. When a baby boy is circumcised, he is placed on the seat of Elijah, or on the knees of his godfather, who sits on the seat. And this seat is usually somewhat ornate. But the seat that Catriel made, was so beautiful, that it couldn’t be compared to any other. On the sides, the images of peacocks were embedded in the wood. It was truly a work of art. I made a portrait of him seated in this chair he had made, and he was dressed in clothing from the time of the holy temple. I loved that chair, and loved the congregation that was so blessed as to have that chair in their synagogue. When I met him last week, I asked him where the chair was these days, expecting to hear that it was now in some synagogue in a wealthy neighborhood of New York, or somewhere else in the west. But to my disappointment, I was informed that it resided in a museum. I would have preferred it, if it was still in use, as a piece of religious furniture.

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spice box for parting from the Sabbath

In any case, when he approached me with the request that I do his portrait, and explained that it was for a book cover, I asked him how he would like others to see him. He answered, ‘genial and benign’. I was amazed. I have done many a portrait in my professional life, and I have often asked what the purpose was, or what the subject wished people to see in the portrait, but I had never been told that he or she wished to be seen as benign. But there is something aristocratic about Catriel. His beautiful work is a testament to his exceptional character.

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Catriel today

And I have to tell you, that I take a certain risk in publishing this post. For he is one of the very few Israeli readers of this blog. Most of my readers reside in foreign countries. And most of my Israeli acquaintances and friends don’t even know that I write in English as well. But Catriel has found my blog and reads it regularly.