Alena Gomberg '20 reflects on the meaning behind this linocut print, which she started in Commonwealth's studio and finished at home during the early weeks of the pandemic. From preserving a cultural history to honoring mentors at school, here's why she made it:
This print, Shtetl Angels, done in the linocut technique, was created with the intent of preserving a cultural history that is deeply personal to me. In the composition the viewer sees two Jews dressed in the simple, frayed clothing typical for the impoverished residents of an Eastern European town in the Pale of Settlement—a shtetl in Yiddish, or mestechko in Russian, my first language. If one were to "read" the print from right to left—as the Hebrew language is read—the young boy facing left appears to be looking into the future, and the old man faces towards the past. As a viewer with the advantage of hindsight will know, the future conceals the inhuman atrocities of the Holocaust; the past too is filled with grief and poverty.
These two Jews are a representation of the casualties of our cruel history. They suffered so much during their lives, but in this print I tried to give them a respite from pain, fear, and poverty. They are enveloped by a pomegranate tree—a symbol of fertility and a peaceful and sweet future in the Jewish tradition. Wings grow from the old man's back: the boy and the old man are in Heaven, the garden of Eden, perhaps. They may have suffered during their lives, but here they finally find themselves in peace and in safety. The words that surround them are a quotation from the Talmud (a collection of all Rabbinic writings on the Torah)—my favorite quotation, in fact:
"Even every blade of grass has its own angel that bends over it and whispers, 'Grow, grow!'"
This print began as my way of making sure my shtetl ancestors, somewhere in the recesses of time, will find their peace under pomegranate trees, but in the process it became an expression of my enormous gratitude to every mentor-angel who has helped me grow in my years as a student.