Twelve Tribes Artwork: in Honor of the 60th Anniversary of Temple Emanu-El’s Sanctuary

Text, Images, and Artwork by Alice Flitter

In 2018, as hurricane Lane threatened Hawaiʻi, Temple Emanu-El removed the jalousie windows from their sanctuary and boarded up the 12 openings. When my husband, Marc, and I saw that raw plywood, in December of that year, I thought of Chagall’s stained-glass windows that we have visited in the Hadassah chapel in Jerusalem. I had recently been reflecting on an essay by Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum: “Each and every one of us has a set of talents, experiences and blessings that are uniquely ours. Our task is to figure out how to use the tools that we are given. (The) Aleinu allows us to connect our unique being back to the very nature of creation, as it says in the prayer’s opening line, Aleinu le-shabei-ach la-adon ha-kol, la-tet gedulah l’yotzer bereshit— ”It is our obligation to praise the Master of it all, to ascribe greatness to the author of creation.” For all of these skills and talents that we possess, we are obligated to praise. But how? I knew I could fill those spaces with art. The theme was obvious, not just to me, and after approval by the Temple president and Board, and precarious measurements of the nearly 20-foot high spaces, I began the mental planning with the intention to paint the work at my studio in New Mexico, where we would return in April. While visiting our daughter in Florida that month, and counting over 90 Jewish houses of worship in the greater Miami area, many adorned with depictions of the 12 tribes, I suffered a hand injury. HaShem then gave me six months of contemplative time to work out my project. Finally, in October, after my recovery I began 21 days of non-stop painting of 36 canvases, three canvases comprising each of the total 12 panels. We shipped the work to Honolulu in December of 2019.

These 12 tribes panels are a gift from myself and my husband Marc, whose love and support I enjoy every day, in everything I do. For which I feel blessed beyond measure. The panels are in honor of this year (2020) being the 60th year of Temple Emanu-El‘s building. Chagall’s windows were done in honor of Hadassah’s 40th anniversary, in 1962. These are the only 12 tribes panels in a Jewish house of worship in the state of Hawaii. I chose colors to reflect the vibrancy of Hawaii’s nature, with softened shapes to complement Edward Sullam’s geometric design of the Temple sanctuary. The images and colors derive from Jacob’s blessings to his sons (Genesis 49), Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33), and Midrash Rabah Bamidbar 2.

“Aleinu concludes with a vision of sacred unity, Bayom ha-hu yih-yeh Adonai echad u’shemo echad —“On that day, G-d will be one and His name will be one.” This vision sees a world where we will all come to prioritize the connections between us, to serve in a way that benefits the greater good and others even if it does not appear to immediately benefit us. On that day, G-d’s name will be one. The service of all religions, all who wrestle with G-d, will then be complete and all will come to know that we’ve truly been serving the same purpose…But to bring us to that day, we must first each discover where we are being called into service.”

For me, as an artist, I could do this through the gift of these panels. I am so grateful to Temple Emanu-El for letting me share my gift.