Every morning, Danielle Chouraqui clears away the clutter of home life and transforms the dining table of her small apartment into her easel. She sets out myriad small glass bottles of Chinese ink whose vivid hues glow in the sunlight, casting colorful shadows over a parchment scroll whose center is covered with flowing Hebrew letters. The next two hours will be spent in intense concentration and utter silence, as Danielle fastidiously dips and re-dips a stylus into the bottles ranged around her, much as a pianist selects the perfect notes to play his melody.
The inspiration does not come from me, but from God.
But first she takes the time to perform an equivalent function within herself, "Before I begin to paint, I study Psalms and Chassidut and pray to be inspired," says Danielle. "I recognize that without God I'm nothing -- everyone has a gift inside them -- and the inspiration does not come from me, but from God. I pray that the design should become intricate and rich, and if it turns out lovely it's because I devoted the first 20 minutes to the holy."
Algerian-born Danielle, 41, was raised in France, and studied the traditional techniques of gold leaf illumination whilst in Strasbourg. Illuminating manuscripts with gold is rare today, primarily because it is an expensive craft and suppliers of the leaves are few and far between. A fine 24-carat gold leaf, half the area of your computer screen, will melt down into just a small blob of gold; to illuminate a Megillat Esther, for instance, requires around 150 gold leaves. Danielle knows of only five artists working with gold leaf in Israel, and there is no local supplier. The technical precision needed to apply the gold leaf requires natural daylight to avoid eyestrain
While Danielle is immersed in the spectrum of colors, her husband, Michael, works solely in monochrome. A certified scribe, proficient in four types of script (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ari and Admor Hazaken), he uses his quill and stylus to write the text around which Danielle will weave her web of delight. Becoming a scribe requires more than a steady hand and calligraphic talent -- the scribe has to be in a spiritually pure state of mind and body before working on a sacred text, preparation which involves bathing in a mikvah (ritual bath).
Michael describes how all four levels of the creation are involved in the production of a Torah scroll, "The mineral world is represented by the ink, the vegetable by the bamboo stylus (used in the Sephardic tradition, Ashkenazim use a quill), the animal is the parchment upon which I inscribe the letters and the human being is the scribe who puts them all together."
The Chouraquis create original religious manuscripts such as ketubot (Jewish Marriage Contracts), megillot (scrolls such as the Book of Esther), traditional blessings and biblical excerpts. The ketubah, (Jewish matrimonial contract), is often drawn up on parchment, though it doesn't have to be. Officially a legal contract, it became traditional to add illuminations to the ketubah in order to bring joy to the young couple; antique ketubot comprise some of the most beautiful exhibition pieces in Jewish museums the world over. In the past 30 years, the art of ketubot has experienced a popular revival, and the Chouraquis have their own collection of exquisitely decorated ketubot in English, French or Hebrew, some of which bear a strong resemblance to those hanging in the Italian Museum in Jerusalem.
Danielle admits that she looks to the past for inspiration and one of her favorite periods has always been the Italian Renaissance, though recently she has turned towards a more oriental feel, using details from Persian and Byzantine art. For designs in gold leaf, she turns to medieval manuscripts, such as a facsimile of the 1482 Lisbon Bible.
Danielle, fluent in English, German, French and Hebrew, never intended to practice art as a profession, choosing instead to study Applied Languages in Bordeaux University. Whilst immersed in student life, the bombing of a synagogue in Paris in 1980 brought her to a halt, "I thought to myself -- I'm a Jew, but I have to know what it is to be a Jew." She made a decision to return to her roots and became connected to a Chasidic community, moving to Paris and meeting Michael, whose family had immigrated to France from Algeria on the very same day as hers, though the families weren't acquainted.
They married in 1986 and moved to Tzefat, in the North of Israel, the following year. Tzefat, home to one of Israel's oldest artists' colonies, provided a turning point, and Michael and Danielle's marriage grew into a professional partnership.
Danielle describes her work as embroidery; building the design up in layers of detail to promote depth. Though hers could be considered the more creative side of their partnership, she says that they work together on the ideas. "Michael has good eyes. He gives me ideas how to lay out the design and choose the colors. In illumination, the hardest thing is not to put too much in, because that can ruin it and damage the design. I always want to add and add, and Michael has to stop me."
Though many of their clientele are happy to trust their creative expression, some have had very specific results in mind when they commissioned their order. Danielle recalls one particular French client, who asked her to illuminate a verse from Eshet Chayil (a Woman of Valor). She received half a dozen letters containing detailed instructions on style and color, in order for the finished work to blend in with the interior design of their living room.
Their commissions come mainly from the US, ordered over their website, or from tourists who consider the spiritual direction of the manuscripts a fitting memento from the Holy Land. A Megillat Esther (priced at $15,000) boasts a vibrant, golden crown, surrounded by a delicately intricate wreath of curlicues and flowers, that continues along the 2.4 meter-long scroll. Smaller items, such as the Doctor's Prayer (attributed to Maimonides), or a "Blessing for the Household," cost around $200. They are also involved in restoration, last year working on an unadorned 200-year-old Megillat Esther, which Danielle subsequently illuminated with a fleur-de-lise motif.