By Annelise Richardson - Editor-In-Chief
"When you rotate it, it passes through time. I added time."
As I followed my companions down the rickety staircase stained with plaster into the lower level of the workshop, I gripped the wire handrail with careful attention. A soft layer of dust draped the studio in an artist’s fog, floating in the soft fluorescent light of the workshop’s central light fixture. Beyond us, Rione Sant'Angelo shone with the jovial energy of a Wednesday evening in Rome. Well-dressed children chased a ball around an empty piazza that had yet to fill up with the evening’s diners, who would soon occupy the many restaurants to fill their stomachs with fried artichokes and kosher cuts of meat.
In Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, history can be found nestled in every street corner and behind every door. The Jewish Museum of Rome welcomes you to the neighborhood, inviting you inside to learn about the history of Jewish life and identity in Rome. On the streets, small gold plaques are positioned in front of doors that Jewish Holocaust victims were once dragged out of by the Nazi regime, commemorating their lives and the homes they were ripped away from. You can wander the neighborhood with your head down, searching for stories and reflecting on the chilling memory of the deplorable genocide that took place during the Second World War.
This is precisely what my friends and I were doing when we stumbled on the eccentric, unpredictable workshop of Jewish sculptor Gabriele Levy. And that’s how we found ourselves standing in the center of a below-ground workshop, surrounded by incredible sculptures depicting each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Every letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a meaning. Levy’s ALEFBET coordinates the meanings, sounds, and shapes of the letters with motifs from art and culture to create unique models of traditional Hebrew characters.
Levy is a kind-eyed man with a welcoming smile and the calloused hands of a true artist. He leaves the door to his shop wide open, inviting tourists and locals alike to step inside and experience the transforming atmosphere of the studio. When we entered his gallery out of curiosity, he began conversing with us about his work and invited us to descend the stairs to see the studio.
We were greeted with a small cavern of a room, the ideal hideaway for an artist to remove himself from the world and immerse himself into the act of creation. The walls shone with countless sculptures, each one distinct from its neighbors. Every letter was represented as a personified version of itself - from Dalet as Dali to Resh as Rome. Displayed together in such a small room, against the white canvas of the studio walls, the letters formed a multitude of stories that could be read in a thousand different ways.
"You see, a painter works in two dimensions. A sculptor works in three dimensions." he told us. "But Einstein, may his memory be blessed, has demonstrated that there is a fourth dimension: and it is called time."
Placing a hefty model of a letter in my hands, he told me to rotate it. On the back, another piece of art seemed to materialize from thin air.
"When you rotate it, it passes through time," Levy said. "I added time."
When I prompted him as to why time is such an important motif in his work, he recounted his previous profession as a computer science professor at a university, where he taught for 28 years before pursuing art full-time. "We are sitting on a planet that is moving in space, so every second is different from the preceding one," Levy said. "You have to account for time."
Levy repurposes discarded materials to make the 'hidden sides' of his sculptures. "90% of the materials come from trash. I never throw things out," Levy said. "I started with the toys of my sons; when they grew up, they threw away the toys. But they
did not go to the trash, they went to my hands, and I put them in the back of the letters. It’s another story."
Levy explained that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet signifies a different concept, as well as a number. Aleph, the first letter, represents God; Bet represents duality, Gimel is charity, and so on. Each of the 22 total letters is immortalized in Levy's genre-defying pieces of sculptural mastery.
"We are losing the written letters in general. I wanted to put the letter as a monument to the future, to remember that we had letters." Levy said.
As we wrapped up our visit at Levy's studio, he surprised us by saying that he had a gift for us. Levy invited us to each choose an unpainted plaster sculpture of a Hebrew letter. Reflecting on one of his earlier sentiments, I knew exactly which letter to choose.
I had asked Levy where we could still find truth and authenticity in today's world. He looked at me with an aura of sincerity and responded simply; "In the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet."
That letter is Tav: ת. I searched through a stack under the winding staircase leading down to his studio until I held an unpainted model of Tav in my hands, which by that point were covered with a thin glove of white dust.
"Each letter has a meaning. Tav, the last letter, represents the truth," Levy explained. "Why is it the last letter of the alphabet? Because truth has a feature that at the end, it comes out."
Truth is central to humans as we have come to know ourselves. Truth connects us; it reveals our shared interests, our pains, our historical wrongdoings. Sometimes it buries itself beneath slabs of Roman cobblestone streets, or hides behind the words we speak aloud. But as Levy points out, it always reveals itself in the end.
If you follow the street that leads up to Levy's workshop down to the nearby piazza, you'll spot small golden inconsistencies in the cobblestone pavement. In front of doorways in the Ghetto, golden plaques are perched between unassuming gray cobblestones; if you lower yourself to eye-level, you'll discover a whole gallery of misplaced truths that depict the brutal realities of Jewish persecution during World War II.
"I cannot tell you what is truth and what is not, but I can tell you to search for it. Look at the things and study them. Don't just believe what you see, but ask yourself questions."
Each plaque displays a name, often depicting multiple members of one family. In Italian, the plaques outline a date of birth, Nata, on each. The next events unfold in a chilling progression down the plaque: Arresta, Deportata, Auschwitz, Assassinata. They stand in front of the homes of a few of the 1,023 Roman Jews who were stolen from their homes in the Ghetto by the Nazis during the 1940's.
"I cannot tell you where to find truth," Levy said. "But I can tell you to search for it. Look at the things and study them. Don't just believe what you see, but ask yourself questions."
When I returned home from Levy's studio that night, I hung my sculpture of Tav on my wall right away. It's a reminder to remember the importance of truth, even when it's ugly and brutal. Remembering the worst events of our past is essential to human progress; it asks us to reflect on the choices we make in the future. If you find yourself wandering through the Jewish Ghetto, or anywhere else in Rome, I ask that you look around for the hidden truths that lie within every street corner and behind each window. Search for that which is uncomfortable to face. Recognize who has been oppressed to build what is around you, and remember the duty you have to learn from the truths of the past to bring equality, tolerance, and empathy into the future. And be sure to wander into ALEFBET; you never know what stories you may discover amongst its mosaic walls - you may even find a piece of yourself in the message behind a Hebrew letter.
ALEFBET Rome: Via della Reginella, 25, 00186 Roma RM
Special thanks to Gabriele Levy for his hospitality and for sharing his art with a few young journalists!