Last month, New York media artist Ben Rubin got the go-ahead to produce an LED light sculpture to be placed atop the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall, set to open in November.
Conceived by architect James Polshek as an 8-foot-high flame emerging from an opening in the building's glass envelope, the sculpture uses a series of lights that will gently flicker five stories above the southeast corner of Fifth and Market Streets.
Polshek, 80, of Ennead Architects (until recently Polshek Partnership Architects), came up with the idea for an illuminated exterior feature while looking at a photo of the Statue of Liberty's torch.
"It was like 'Eureka!' " the architect said in a phone interview this week. "I simultaneously thought that it must have two meanings: the eternal light that hangs in every synagogue, and Liberty's torch. It represented the continuity of Judaism through thick and thin; the Statue of Liberty, of course, represents the coming to America and finding shelter and encouragement."
Polshek said the dual symbolism was fundamental to the museum's mission, which is to be a destination institution appealing to and connecting with visitors of all faiths and backgrounds.
But over time, said Michael Rosenzweig, president of the museum, the original term planners had used for the feature - beacon - was scrapped for a more straightforward description.
"We're calling it an LED light sculpture, because that's what it is," he said. "We're resisting calling it any one thing, because the truth is, it's derived from a number of different sources and is evocative of a number of different sources - some religious, some secular."
For his part, Rosenzweig said, the sculpture encapsulates the tension between tradition and modernity.
Into this metaphoric fray came Rubin, 46, hired by the museum on Polshek's recommendation and charged with representing the eternal flame as well as Liberty's torch, plus the past, the present, and the future.
In many ways he seems an obvious choice - a secular Jew from a spiritual family, with knowledge of tradition and comfort with technology. He speaks the digital language unaffectedly; his studio, a third-floor walk-up in Manhattan's Chinatown, is anything but sleek.
Last Friday, as casually dressed assistants sauntered from computer screen to computer screen chatting about Laurie Anderson, Shakespeare, the Talmud, and trail hiking, Rubin quietly addressed the day's issues. The traffic hum of the Bowery provided a background sound track.
A father of two, he talked a bit about Philadelphia. He grew up outside Boston but his wife, Julie Rottenberg, was a Center City kid, and he said he appreciated the human scale of both cities.
He then explained how his new sculpture came to be.
"This piece is supposed to work on a couple of levels," he said, echoing Polshek and Rosenzweig. "I tried to abstract this, visually and conceptually, away from a literal representation of flame - something that embodies certain qualities of a flame but also has other conceptual components behind it."
Rubin was always aware of the need for a multifaceted interpretation, but his own approach remained steeped in Judaism - more precisely in the Talmud, the ancient rabbinic writings on Judaic law. He decided to transform the laws central to the Talmud into a "light matrix."
High above North Fifth Street, seven layers of LED emitters will condense Talmud pages down to their graphic essences. A string of inch-wide emitters will hang on a flexible mesh made of thin steel cable. The emitters plug into intersections four inches apart. Each "page" of the sculpture has 16 lights across and 24 from top to bottom. The entire sculpture is approximately 5 feet wide by 8 feet tall and about 8 feet deep. The "pages" face out toward the mall.
Each of the Talmud's more than 5,000 pages has a distinct graphic architecture - a sort of Talmudic fingerprint. The center of each page is anchored, in varying shapes, by an excerpt from the law known as the core text. Arrayed around the core texts are centuries-old discussions, arguments, and debates about it.
"I've always been fascinated by this layout: You have the text in the center, which is the legal case law. . . . My father could tell you more," said Rubin, whose father, a professor of English, meets weekly with rabbinic scholars for Talmudic discussion. "Some of them are ambiguous situations, Seinfeldian, sometimes - 'Whaddaya do in this case?' "
Parallels to the 18th-century debates that took place in nearby Independence Hall might strike a chord with some viewers, though they did not figure into Rubin's initial inspiration.
(Nor did they occur to museum president Rosenzweig. "I never really thought about" the Founding Fathers connection, he said Tuesday. "It's a very interesting and attractive interpretation.")
Each panel will represent the shape of the central legal passage with a corresponding series of brightly lit emitters, while the emitters corresponding to the debates will be dimmed. The effect might be described as a kind of digital pointillism. As currently designed, each page will fade to the background at regular intervals, to be replaced with a fresh image. Page 1 becomes Page 2, 2 becomes 3, and so forth.
"There is a visual aspect of it that can look like a flame," Rubin said. "The movement of it is calibrated to give it a slightly flamelike undulation, flicker, irregularity."
Directly beneath the sculpture, at sidewalk level, Sir Moses Jacob Ezekiel's sculpture Religious Liberty will anchor the site with a parallel set of metaphors. The sculpture, commissioned by B'nai B'rith for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, harks back to a time when allegorical meanings were handled in a far more overt manner.
A female figure, arm outstretched, protects a young boy, the so-called Genius of Faith. Her Phrygian cap is bordered with the 13 stars of the original colonies, and her left hand clutches a copy of the Constitution. At her feet, a ferocious eagle sinks its claws into the serpent of Intolerance, while the little Genius holds up a beacon of his own, the burning lamp of Religion.EndText