Flowers take on a special role during Shavuot, which commemorates a central moment in the formation of the Jewish people: the revelation at Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah. During the holiday, synagogues around the world adorn their halls with green branches, plants, and blossoms. The custom dates back to our agrarian ancestors, who would make their holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem with the first of their fruits in baskets decorated with greenery. According to one midrash at the time of the revelation, Mount Sinai suddenly burst into blossom—a desert miraculously flowering.
Bella Meyer, the owner of Fleurs Bella, an elegant flower shop near New York’s Union Square, calls the flower the true miracle. “To discover its essence—opening, life, death—is to experience an unimaginable mystery,” she says. Meyer traces her love of blossoms to her childhood and to time spent in the company of her grandfather, Marc Chagall. The artist is best known for his depictions of the shtetl—shabby houses, sad-eyed musicians, and melancholy goats—but, according to his granddaughter, he loved flowers, and he took great pleasure in capturing them in his art.
Meyer, 55, grew up in Basel, Switzerland, but spent her summers with Chagall in Southern France, where he lived until his death in 1985. The outdoor markets then overflowed in the warm months with great varieties of flowers and produce, and Meyer recalls delighting her grandfather with the bouquets she brought home. He saw in the “upward-reaching motion of each individual flower a symbol,” Meyer says, and for him, painting flowers may have been “the most visual way to express spirituality.”
Meyer earned a doctorate in medieval art history from the Sorbonne and moved to the United States in 1980. She held a smattering of jobs—from designing props for the theater (which she continues to do, on occasion, for productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) to working as a puppeteer—but none have satisfied her as much as floral design, she says. A number of years ago, she designed a blossom-laden chuppah for her friends’ wedding and she realized that flowers—in their variety and richness, she says, they’re natural art supplies—are a particularly powerful medium for her. She started Fleurs Bella in 2003 as a floral design company and set up the shop just under two years ago.
“Cut flowers,” she says, “have no other purpose aside from being given.” She always keeps a stash just outside the shop, with a sign that says “take one please.” About once a month, she ventures out onto the streets with what she calls “flower graffiti,” tucking small bouquets into alleyways or subway stations. Occasionally she’ll thrust her flowers at random strangers. Not everyone is thrilled. She recalls one man who yelled at her: ”’I don’t want to be happy!’”
Traditional Judaism doesn’t place much of a premium on beauty or happiness. And so it is especially heartening that flowers are so much a part of the festivities on Shavuot; more than decoration, they infuse joy and a sense of aesthetics into the holiday, suggesting that these are not, after all, anathema to Jewish beliefs and practices, and that even as we mark a particularly solemn moment in our history we can find room for both beauty and happiness.
Click below to see images of Fleurs Bella, Bella Meyer’s shop.