September 2010 / Elul 5770
Alabaster, sterling silver, steel, silk
My synagogue in Arlington, Congregation Etz Hayim, underwent major renovations to the building during 2009 and 2010. As part of the redesign of the sanctuary, I was asked to create a new ner tamid to hang over the Ark. A ner tamid, or eternal flame, is a lamp that is found above the Ark in the sanctuary of all synagogues and is evocative of the ever-burning censers of incense in the Temple in Jerusalem. The constancy of the lamp (which is never extinguished) is also a symbol of God's eternal presence in the lives of the community. To be asked to make it was a tremendous honor, made even more exciting by the fact that this was my first installation piece. The entire thing measures two feet from the bottom of the base to the tip of the flame, and the base is approximately 11 inches wide.
The flame is sculpted from a solid piece of pink and white alabaster and hollowed out to accommodate a bulb. The combination of the internal light and the changing angle of the sunlight shining though the window and skylight above the Ark create shadows and highlights that change the appearance of the flame through every hour of the day. One congregant pointed out that the relative opacity during the day makes the carving of the flame look like clouds, and that the change between day and night views reminded him of the theophanic pillar of cloud/pillar of fire that led the Jews out of Egypt during the Exodus.
The spiraling text cut into the base of the piece is the entire Hebrew text of the third chapter of the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 3:18 is the famous phrase "it is a tree of life (etz hayim) to those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy" (עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותמכיה מאשר), whence the congregation derives its name. My original concept was to at least incorporate the relevant verse into the piece, but as the design grew I decided that it would be even more meaningful to include the context around that core thought. The text starts at the outer edge of the bottom of the base and circles inward, drawing the reader in towards the center. A piece of silk on the inside of the base diffuses the light of the ner tamid through the letters, literally illuminating the verses. The piece is positioned so that the actual words "עץ חיים" face directly forward toward the congregation, in the fourth row from the outer edge.
Even before the construction, the congregation had been making practical changes to go green. To contribute to that effort, I sourced as eco-friendly materials for the ner tamid as possible. The alabaster was quarried in Colorado to minimize the carbon footprint it took to obtain it, instead of using Italian alabaster. The silver sheet for the two domes of the lamp base was purchased from a company that only sells recycled metals and conflict-free gems. A low-draw, long-lasting LED bulb illuminates both the flame and the base.
The Lubavitch synagogue of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania found the ner tamid online while they were planning renovations of their own a few years later, and the rabbi there honored me with the request to make a reproduction of it for their synagogue. There were minor differences: instead of a silver base I made one of steel which I then gilded with 23-karat gold leaf, and the chain we used also had a gold tone to match. The ner tamid was installed there in February 2013 (Adar 5773). The final photo on this page is the second ner tamid hanging in their space.