Updated: Mar 3, 2020
A friend sent me a picture she took in Israel, which quickly took me down the rabbit hole… On love, hope, and motherhood – at the eve of Israeli election
When Obama started his 2008 Hope campaign, leading to the White House, Robert Indiana inaugurated his own Hope. If few know of Indiana, many know of his most famous artwork: “LOVE,” first a print for the MOMA 1965 Christmas card, then the sculpture, amply reproduced, and exuberantly selfied.
I don’t know what to make of LOVE’s tilted O – is it playfulness, fragility or an ominous zero-like destiny? I’d like to go with the first reading, but maybe I’m too hopeful.
The same puzzle applies to Indian’s 2008 HOPE sculpture.
Again, that mischievous O… Indiana himself seemed quite hopeful too, donating all revenues from the sale of reproductions, over one million dollars, to Obama’s presidential campaign, later initiating the International Hope Day. But Indiana was realistic enough, “HOPE will probably never catch up with LOVE,” he predicted and explained: “Love is a message which affects people more than hope.” I wonder if that’s true, but from the current state of his HopeDay website he may well be right.
Whether love trumps hope, or not, both sentiments are presumably universal, and multicultural, and Indiana followed suit, translating his work to Spanish and Hebrew. While AMOR allowed for the O, the Hebrew rendition AHAVA (אהבה) is firm and square – alas, less playfulness, but perhaps a sheltered place to settle. Can’t we have both?
But multiculturalism also means different takes on what love and hope mean.
In the northern Israeli city of Karmiel, in the sculpture garden From Holocaust to Resurrection, one can find such a culturally specific, even ideological, take on hope. The sculptures are the work of Nicky Imber, who fled the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, and pledged to dedicate his art to the memory of the Holocaust. As the site’s name suggests, it depicts a transformation, from the pit of suffering, individual and collective, to the summit of living – by creating life.
Imber’s HOPE (Tikva in Hebrew) is fully figurative: a joyful woman holding onto, and looking up to, her newborn. If Indiana’s signature O is ambiguous, Imber’s idea seems plain: Hope happens when we don’t settle for bettering our own lives, or even that of others, but when we make new lives. It is, perhaps yet more specific, about motherhood and infancy, and the bond between the two.
Is that so? In a letter to his friend, Italo Calvino once admonished, “Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents. If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior... Only those people—a man and a woman—who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate.”
But how can one ever be “a hundred percent convinced” in anything, let alone in such matters? Procreating might be the couple’s act of love; deciding to keep the baby could be coupled by their hope. But it is a wager on someone else’s life – life that you created. Such hope must indulge doubt.
The sculpture garden figures two motherly bonds. Behind the lively mother, her strong arms lifting her baby up, there is another woman, a mother too. She looks older, and much weaker, crouching on the ground, her baby in her left arm, her right arm raised up – in desperation, in protest, in plea, against an unknown other, (a Nazi officer? a Jewish fellow? God almighty?). It reveals no hope, just a heart-wrenching despair. That too might be motherhood.
What then is the shape of hope? I find a partial answer in the space in between the mothers. I can hear the rear mother pleading with the joyful one: "see me, I am here, part of your past." But perhaps that too: "my past is an always present possibility; for some, the current, cruel reality."
Is there truly hope in making new life, while not making the lives of others better? I think not. Whether these “others” belong to “my people” or not, turning my back on them is an act of despair – of humanity, theirs and mine. It is by looking in the eyes of each other, re-cognizing our shared and co-dependent humanity, that hope itself comes to life.
If the rear mother might look at the fortunate one – the latter's baby surely does. Creating new life itself might not mean hope, but their existence command it. To give up hope is giving up on the children already alive. To love them is to hope - doing all we can to make their future better.
This, I would like to think, is the pledge of Israel, partly captured by its national anthem, “The Hope” (HaTikva), written by Naftali Herz Imber, the grand-uncle of Nicky Imber. On the eve of Israel’s third round of election this year, I still believe my people can keep that hope alive.