Netta Ben-Attar: The Language Of Exile

I’ve known Nettayah (Netta) Ben-Attar for a while now. She and her husband Elad Greenvald own El Gamal, a Middle Eastern restaurant here in Taos.

Both came here from Israel. First Elad who worked at the old Sheva Cafe before returning to Israel, meeting Netta and coming back to open El Gamal (in a trailer at the Overland Ranch Complex ) and to start a family with his new bride.

Over the years I’ve seen Netta birth and mother three beautiful kids while helping Elad with their business, but never had an inkling (except for the deft, decorative touches at El Gamal), that Netta was a highly accomplished artist in her own right.

Netta Ben-Attar is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. She served as Director of the Beit Hatzayar Gallery Project promoting art created by at-risk youth in Israel. Ben-Attar was the head designer for the Jerusalem based Multicultural Center for Theater Research including the ensemble, New Faces. She has also been an Alexander Technique instructor since 2004.

I saw Netta, Elad, his mom and their kids at the Taos:1960’s – Present show in NYC, where Elad’s mother (also an artist) has lived for many years. They visit her often and seemed quite at home there as they are here, Netta mentioned she was having a show this month and we made a plan to meet when we were both back in Taos.

Last week, we met for coffee one afternoon at El Gamal, where Elad was cooking (and watching kids off and on) as we talked.

When I staged my play (The Land – about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) at the TCA in 2010, Netta and I had connected over the complex themes the play explores. She is the daughter of Jews who have been in the Land of Israel for generations. 13 on one side, 7 on another. Her ancestors were Kabbalists, mystics and scholars who had left Spain for the eternal dream of Jerusalem that lives in the heart of Jewry.

Few are aware of the Jews in Israel with roots as deep as Netta’s; roots and blood lines that remember Crusaders and Ottoman invaders. Roots that go back to the beginnings of Eretz Israel itself. After all the Spanish Jews who came to Safed in the Galilee seeking redemption and reaffirming their connection with the Land itself, were also making Aliyah (‘going up’ or ascending) as Jews continue to do, generation after generation. Returning to the root of their origin.

In her genetic memory, lingers remnants of these mysteries, discovered, buried, lost and found again.

The esteemed Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson said shortly before he passed, that the Kabbala was given for this time, not just for Jews, and mostly for women.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Netta responded when I told her that. “For so long women were entirely barred from studying it.”

Indeed they were and men under 40 as well, but nowadays the Kabbala has permeated Pop Culture like a song.

Songs too live in Netta’s heart. She tells me that when she met Elad, she’d been doing a daily practice to call in her soulmate.

“I had romances all over the world,” sher laughed, “but I began to recite the Song of Songs, to call in my Beloved.”

They met soon after and the rest is history.

More history whispers through blood memory; the vellum used for Torah scrolls and mezuzahs began calling to her as a medium for her own art. She began working with Klaf (parchment or vellum) in 2003. Using this animal skin (goat or sheep), based media she began to explore light, color, shape and form; while combining illuminated sculptures and writings.

“I use the remnants discarded from the pieces used for the scrolls.” She smiles.

Her work zeros in on religion, sacredness, secularism,  feminism, activism, “violence, morality, and human fragility.”

Through these themes, Ben-Attar “explores and re-interprets the symbolic language of the Torah in a contemporary context.”

Many of her pieces offer prayers written in Hebrew that delve into the paradox of inner and outer reality. Ben-Attar by nature questions everything; “What is “holy” in language?” and “What is the role of letters and words in our lives?”

“You know Hebrew was not a spoken language before Israel revived it.” She tells me.

“I know,” I reply. In my play, the Israeli woman character (Tamara) wonders out loud about the sacred tongue being used for mundane and profane expression, and its effect on the world.

Netta wonders the same thing. “It was a language of prayer,” she notes. “The Kabbala tells us the world was created with these (22) letters, with the numbers, colours and  musical notes/vibrations that correspond to them.”

We sit in silence for a moment. We both share this Sephardic heritage, this language of Exile.

In her choice of Klaf as her main medium, she reveals the mysteries and inner qualities of the vellum by painting, inscribing, stretching in and on frames and sculpting this revered material.

By adding LED lights she illuminates the raw and wild origin of the material creating an art form she calls “a light within leather”. This raw and sacred process is the foundation of her art. Let there be light.

Her life too is one of intention and focus, there are no accidents here. So when she talks to me about the sails she’s making from the vellum, for tiny ships that will never see the sea; land locked like she is here, now, in the High Desert of New Mexico. Here where memory collides with the descendents of Crypto- Jews – possibly family members who came here, on sailing ships like these, fleeing Spain heading West, not East to Jerusalem.

Here too the Language of Exile has been spoken for generations.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

I finish my Turkish coffee. I look at the grounds. They look like a camel; the ship of the desert. Netta holds her baby boy, who is drinking down a bottle of water I find hard to believe will fit in his tiny tummy!

Netta laughs. “He’s like his father,” she smiles. “We call him El Gamal – the Camel – because of the amount of water he drinks.”

“Is there redemption for Israel at the end of the day?” I ask as I get ready to leave.

“I hope so, I pray so.” She nods. “And I hope in some way my work contributes some understanding to it.”

Netta Ben-Attar’s show, The Language of Exile, opens at the TCA on May 21 – July 1, with a reception for the artist on Thursday, May 24th from 4-6pm

For more about Netta and her work, please visit the sites linked below this post.


All images thanks to Netta Ben-Attar, except for the camel in Jerusalem, stock file.

Verse from Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon…)