Can a simple and naive object reflect deep ideas and dramatic historical events? In this talk I try to show how such a Judaic object which is commonly put in the garbage shortly after it is briefly used during the holiday does exactly that. The object in question is an ornamental piece of paper designed as a flag that is put on a wooden or plastic stick to be carried by children during a minor, non-biblical holiday in the Jewish year cycle. The idea for the flag, or degel in Hebrew, is derived from the standards carried by the presidents of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Sinai desert. However, this object changed its original function and especially in the culture of East European Jews the military or national flag came to represent the flag of the Torah. That is, as some rabbis explained, while other nations use the flag to fight and shed blood Jews use it as a symbol of piety, learning and doing good deeds. The naive imagery on the early flags highlighted the pious rabbinical concepts. The decoration of the flag however went through a dramatic change when the Zionist movement searched for political and national symbols. The Simchat Torah flag was now designed to express the notion of marching to the Land of Israel with a national flag, like other nations. These ideas were strengthened in the State of Israel, where the flags included more and more “secular” and militaristic imagery. From the 1980′s and on flags were used to advertise political parties and represent different sectors and ideologies of Israeli society. In the last years there are some attempts to produce rather pluralistic and “politically correct” flags. The Simchat Torah flag thus naively and colourfully reflects the attitudes towards power in Judaism and the transformations in Jewish society in the last generations.
JDOV is supported by Pears Foundation