Jewish Meaning Seen in ‘Gates’

By Gabriel Sanders

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On Saturday, thousands of people watched as miles of orange-hued fabric were unfurled, adorning the 7,500 “Gates” that artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had arrayed along the serpentine byways of New York City’s Central Park.

To some observers, though, the launch of the art project, the largest in New York’s history, hinted at deeper and more ancient meaning. A few hours after the installation’s inauguration, Michael Strassfeld, a rabbi whose congregation meets just a few short steps from the celebrated 16-day installation, brought together a group of some 70 of his congregants for a Sabbath-afternoon talk on the place of the gate in Jewish thought.

Traditionally, explained the rabbi, the city gate is where the action is: where one goes for news, for trade. It is where justice is administered. The gate is no less central in the relationship between man and God. One need think only of the gates of prayer, the gates of repentance. The closing portion of the Yom Kippur liturgy, the Ne’ilah service, which centers on the closing of the heavenly gates, is regarded as the penitent’s last chance at redemption. The gate is the threshold between the known and the unknown, past and future. It’s a place of risk, where demons lurk; it’s where one hangs the mezuzah.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are playing with this doubleness, the rabbi said. “They’re clearly focusing on the intersection of nature and art.” And they’re creating a space for reflection, introspection. “The affect of the installation is to make people look at Central Park again, the shape and the flow and the frame of it.”

Strassfeld, co-author of the celebrated “Jewish Catalogue,” is hardly the first to draw parallels between Judaism and the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In 1994, when the German Parliament was debating whether or not to allow the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, Konrad Weiss, a Green Party lawmaker, used a Jewish argument to endorse the project.

“In the Jewish faith,” he said, “the Torah rolls are wrapped in order to remind us of the preciousness of what they contain. The Reichstag will not be desecrated by Christo’s wrapping, it will be ennobled.”

Wrappings and coverings constitute an astounding number of Judaism’s ritual objects: the curtain for the Holy Ark, the prayer shawl, the wedding canopy, the kittel prayer robe — each endowing what it covers with ceremonial uniqueness. And such, some say, has been the effect of the Gates’ billowing fabric on visitors in Central Park.

“Now one no longer ambles through the park,” wrote New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, “but rather saunters below the flapping nylon. Paths have become like processionals, boulevards decked out as if with flags for a holiday. Everyone is suddenly a dignitary on parade.”

Strassfeld concluded his lesson with a pair of songs: first the psalm Pitchu Li Shaarei Tzedek (“Open to me, O you gateways of justice”), and then the spiritual “Twelve Gates to the City” (Rich and the poor welcome to the city/Young and the old welcome to the city).

“There was something very nice about being a Jewish community together in the park, experiencing the gates,” Strassfeld said afterward. “There were lots of people walking by, some people stopping. We were singing, and some joined in. It just all came together in a very natural way.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.