As the long siege of 2020 continues, we enter the darkest time of year.
It’s also, traditionally, the season of miracles, such as this one, the Hanukkah story:
More than two millennia ago, an army sent by a Syrian king plundered Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism, and defiled the temple there. The Jews revolted, beat back the invading army, and rededicated the temple.
For that celebration, the temple’s menorah was to burn through every night, but there was only enough oil on hand to keep it lit for one.
It kept burning, though, for eight.
Jewish Arts Collaborative’s “Brighter Connected,” a series of eight public art installations, illuminates windows in Greater Boston this Hanukkah, bringing light fashioned by local artists to anyone who needs it.
For the past seven years, JArts has celebrated the season with installations at the Museum of Fine Arts. That celebration goes virtual this year (on Dec. 9) but JArts is also taking its holiday art public.
“We thought it would be more impactful where people are living, not in traditionally high-traffic areas like Newbury Street,” said Laura Conrad Mandel, JArt’s executive director. “We want to bring art and light to as many communities as possible.”
“Brighter Connected” isn’t just about putting up art. It’s about weaving it into neighborhoods with community help.
Hanukkah “is significant on a spiritual and on a call-to-action level,” said artist Caron Tabb, who is Jewish. “It’s not just COVID. It’s all the racial injustices. The hunger and poverty. When all is said and done and everyone is vaccinated, there will still be so much work to do.”
For her installation at Dorchester’s Bowdoin Street Health Center, Tabb interviewed health care workers there and enlisted help from nonprofit Artists for Humanity’s teen artists. Her piece, “The Light From Within,” fills 34 of the medical facility’s windows.
Some windows feature Mylar silhouettes of Bowdoin Street staff and AFH teens that glint in the sunlight and are backlit at night, surrounded by colored gels to create a stained-glass effect. Others contain messages of hope in languages of the neighborhood, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.
Bowdoin Street has been a hub for COVID-19 testing.
“The people inside the building are doing God’s work, day in and day out, caring for an underserved community in many languages,” said Tabb. “They are unsung heroes who deserve to be celebrated.”
“The Light From Within,” she said, “is a celebration of what we can be, if we can just get it together.”
Before creating his installation “Bough” at Chelsea’s Gallery 456, artist Clint Baclawski learned about the city’s Jewish history from cultural anthropologist and Chelsea historian Ellen Rovner.
“Chelsea was the destination where the Jewish people first settled in Boston,” Baclawski said.
Mandel’s family was among them. “In the early 1900s, it was called ‘little Jerusalem,’ ” she said.
“Bough” features a large-scale photograph of a eucalyptus forest — a tree common in Israel. A center panel coated in deep black paint provides a stark backdrop for nine lights wrapped in photographic transparencies of the trees.
“There will be a deep void in the middle of this forest,” Baclawski said, “and then these floating bulbs.”
The meaning is for the viewer to make. “One could surmise this black void could be from the past of the Jewish people,” Baclawski said. Or there’s today.
JArts hosts a Zoom conversation about Chelsea culture with Baclawski and Rovner on Wednesday, Dec. 16.
Back at the MFA, “Black as Light,” a poem by Boston’s poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola, is being illuminated by artist Erik Jacobs in a video projection on the museum’s facade. The poem considers the radiant light of Black identity. It begins
“we stay lit. beacon
doomed to this brunet burning,
body a lighthouse”
“Brighter Connected” is, in the end, about light.
“We were looking for artists who have created art rooted in light to show the universality of these Jewish stories and values so we can connect to each other better,” Mandel said.
And unlike at the MFA, there’s no entry fee.
“We knew it would be a cold, dark, and difficult season,” Mandel said. “This is a community service. We want nothing from you but your participation.”
“Enough with Zoom,” she added. “Let’s get out and see the art.”
Jewish Arts Collaborative’s art installations in eight windows around Greater Boston. Dec. 9-18. www.jartsboston.org/hanukkah-2020/