Ruth Mergi Ketubah Circles Multilayer

What's a Nice Jewish Girl making Islamic Art for, anyway?

On the heels of my latest design, I’ve received a lot of interest from folks around the globe. And naturally, given the composition -- a Sixteen-Point Islamic Star -- much of that interest has come from Turkey, Morocco, and across the Middle East. Many of my new fans -- welcome! -- are presumably Muslim.

Which I am not. I’m Jewish and Israeli, which in 2015 we can comfortably hashtag as #NotMuslim.

Today, as I was taking my son to school, I mentioned my new friends and fans.

“But Mama, why are you making Islamic art?” he asked.

Why indeed. What's a Nice Jewish Girl doing making Islamic art, anyway?

“Well,” I said, “because it’s beautiful, for one thing.”

And it is. Beauty knows no race, creed, or religion. It’s one of the things that drew me (haha) to art in the first place: the transcendent power of Beautiful.

“And,” I added, “I just really like this kind of geometry. Geometry is a sort of math, right? And this kind of math was developed by Islamic scholars. We call it ‘Islamic geometry’ but I would like it just as much if we called it ‘Star geometry.’”

“Tell me,” I continued, “what are you learning in math right now?”

“The decimal system.”

“Did you know that the decimal system was also developed by Islamic scholars?”

“Uh, no. “

“We don’t call it ‘Islamic Math,’ do we? Or wonder why a Jewish kid is studying Islamic math, right?”

Indeed we don’t. We sort of assume that in mathematics, useful knowledge is to be shared, and truths can be universal. But slap a religious label on it, and that seems to change.

Creating a sixteen-pointed star is no more Islamic for me than it is for my son to convert fractions to decimals. We're both just dipping our toes into a now-universal pool of knowledge, right?

Besides, Islamic patterns feature in just a portion of my work -- I do lots of other stuff, too. And I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure the Chinese and Greeks made their contributions to the maths and geometries far before Islam popularized both in the West anyway. So I'm not going to get too hung up on the point.

Still, I don't want to be disingenuous. Islamic geometry emerged from a specific spiritual tradition. I am drawn to the geometries in part precisely for their visual representation of the sacred. I love the way cosmological understanding flows from drawing as a contemplative practice.

Drawing geometries seems a nice allegory for the wonder of creation itself: You start with nothing, but the moment you do *something* -- draw a point, a line on the page -- the process seems to unfold naturally in a succession of connected and somehow seemingly-inevitable steps towards complexity. The page comes to life.

In Sacred Geometry, a little book by Miranda Lundy, she describes this nicely in the introductory pages:

Begin with a sheet of paper. The point is the first thing that can be done. It is without dimension and not in space. Without an inside or an outside, the point is the source for all which now follows…

The first dimension, the line, comes into being as the One emerges into two principles, active and passive. The point chooses somewhere outside of itself, a direction. Separation has occurred and the line comes into being. A line has no thickness, and it is sometimes said that a line has no end.

Three “ways” now become apparent:

i) With one end of the line stationary, or passive, the other is free to rotate and describe a circle, representing Heaven.

ii) The active point can move to a third position equidistant from the other two, thus describing an equilateral triangle.

iii) The line can produce another which moves away until distances are distances are equal to form a square, representing Earth.

The forms, circles, triangle and square have manifested. All are rich in meaning. Our journey has begun.

This process of emergence is magic to me. This is how I came to geometry: With a blank sheet of paper, and then a point, and then a line, and then a spin of the compass. Along the way I found some wonderful books and teachers, and am still very much an amateur and student. The more I learn, the more I am amazed by the beautiful complexities that emerge -- as if by magic or divine decree -- from such basic and simple principles.

It’s funny, because on some acid trip maybe twenty years ago, I remember thinking about Buddhism and Judaism, and realizing with some excitement that they seemed to be to be two sides of the same coin, sort of a spiritual binary code. Where Buddhism spoke to emptiness, Judaism spoke of fullness. Judaism claimed One to Buddhism’s Zero.

And here is this rich artistic tradition from Islam, developing the patterns and numbers that show the way, that illustrate the mathematical and aesthetic connection between the empty page and the articulated design. Beautiful.

Of course, there’s yet another dimension for me, as an erstwhile Nice Jewish Girl (and an Israeli, to boot) making Islamic art: The human side.

When I make a sixteen-pointed star, I do end up with friends and fans in Turkey, Morocco, and across the Middle East. I get to connect with folks in New York and Los Angeles, Idaho and Tuscaloosa, London, Tokyo, and Berlin. I get to know people in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, Ramallah and Cairo, Ankara and Tel Aviv.

And let me tell you, it’s an honor to share my traditions and experiences with people I might not have otherwise connected with. I love when people ask me what a ketubah is, or about Jewish ritual law, or what life is like in Israel.

Likewise, it’s a privilege to learn from those outside my traditions, and studying Islamic design has been part of that.

In Jewish tradition, we have a saying: Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

I’m hardly wise, but ongoing learning is part and parcel of what I do as an artist in general, and a ketubah artist, in particular. As Jewish art has always borne the influence of the time and place of its creation, even as it makes its own contributions, it makes me happy to know that my designs bear the influence of artisans and art-lovers from around the world.

Because Beauty *is* transcendent. Sharing art reminds us of our own capacity to transcend the narrow confines of our politically mapped, socially constructed, hashtagged and identified selves.

If my studio is a place for Jewish wedding contracts and Islamic stars, and lots of other stuff, too, that's pretty excellent, I think. Grateful, as always, to do what I do.

~ Ruth

* A Ketubah Project Post

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