Photo Essay: Reflecting on the Tree of Life (in Jewish symbolism) after the horrific attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue

Menorah as stylized Tree of Life in the floor decoration of the Kazinczy St. synagogue in Budapest. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

With the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we have been reflecting on this potent Jewish symbol, often used to refer to the Torah, and often used in Jewish ritual art.

The Etz Hayim Hi, sung in synagogue when placing the Torah back in the Ark, goes like this:

It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. And all who cling to it find happiness.
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

Many congregations, Jewish schools, and synagogues, like the one in Pittsburgh, are named Etz Hayim (or Chaim), and the Tree of Life is a frequent motif in Judaica objects; the Etz Hayim verses have been set to music by many composers and performers.

The motif figures, too, in ritual art – including on gravestones. (The motif is also used in non-Jewish funerary art.)

Jewish cemeteries are often called the “House of Life.”

On gravestones, the Tree may be shown fully formed, and in leaf.

An example is the carved decoration on the gravestone of our dear friend, the writer, critic, translator, and Jewish activist in Krakow Henryk Halkowski, which was designed by his close friend Marta Golab, an acclaimed paper cut artist.

The carved decoration on Henryk Halkowski’s gravestone was designed by his close friend Marta Golab, an acclaimed paper cut artist. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Or here, in Brody, Ukraine.

A tree of life on a gravestone in Brody, Ukraine. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

But many gravestones make use of elaborate death metaphors.

Some take the form of broken tree stumps.

Gravestones shaped like stylized tree stumps with branches cut off, in Sharhorod, Ukraine. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.
In the ruined Brodno Jewish cemetery, Warsaw. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

And the often elaborate carving on many gravestones shows the Tree of Life being felled – or branches being broken from it.

Gravestone in Szydlowiec, Poland showing felled tree. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Radauti, Romania; a felled Tree of Life. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Radauti, Romania. The Hand of God breaks a branch from the Tree of Life. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

In parts of Eastern Europe, the elaborately carved candlesticks that are frequently used in the decoration on the graves of Jewish women sometimes appear to be emerging from – or be branches of – Trees of Life.

Radauti, Romania. The Busk, Ukraine. Candelabra on a gravestone shows it as an outgrowth of the Tree of Life. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Busk, Ukraine – another gravestone showing the candelabra as the Tree of Life. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

In her ground-breaking book about Jewish cemeteries, A Tribe of Stone, which came out in Poland in 1994, Monika Krajewska writes:

Candelabra made of floral ornaments derive from the mystical concept of the menorah as a Tree of Life, even though the stone masons who rendered such carvings might have been unaware of the association.

On the left, a menorah seems to be growing from a Tree of lIfe. Botosani, Romania. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.
Botosani, Romania. Candlesticks seem to be part of a Tree of Life. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber.

Ruth Ellen Gruber is an award-winning journalist, author and researcher who has documented Jewish heritage and chronicled Jewish cultural developments and contemporary Jewish issues in Europe for more than 25 years.

Ruth is the author of several books, including National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, whose first edition came out in 1992; Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today; and Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.

Originally published on Jewish Heritage Europe; reposted with permission.