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Flower Shop Owner Traces Her Passion to Time Spent With Her Grandfather, Marc Chagall

As the owner of a Manhattan store, Fleurs Bella, Bella Meyer is creating her own art with blossoms as her medium

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Bella Meyer in her store. (Allison Michael Orenstein)

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.



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Roberta Elliott says:

Lovely article, but disagree with the concluding sentiment about traditional Jews not placing value on beauty….hiddur mitzvah is indeed the commandment to make your actions (specifically commandments) beautiful! I’m not a Torah expert, but seems to me, as Jews, we do value beauty in our midst.

Susan Shmalo says:

I disagree that traditional Judaism doesn’t place a premium on beauty
in our home on Shabbat , there have always been flowers adorning the Shabbat table as well as every other Jewish holiday
This beautiful Jewish custom was true in my grandparents home,parent’s home, and now in my children’s homes, as well as most of our Hewish neighbor’s homes
Also consider the beautiful decorated sukkot often adorned not just with seasonal vegetables but also with beautiful flowers too.

Just ask any florist in towns where there are Jews living.
Jews buy flowers and support the florist industry in a big way
Jews have always appreciated beauty in all forms

Realitygal says:

No she’s right. Traditional Jews do not make much of objects as it borders on idol worship. Less religious Jews may behave differently.

I too like the story but strongly disagree that traditional Judaism doesn’t include the appreciation of beauty. In fact, the beauty of the Torah’s garments as I witnessed them in early childhood, became the foundation of my aesthetic sensibility.

Berta Calechman says:

As an admirer of the works of Chagall, I really enjoyed reading about Bella Meyer, and Fleurs Bella. And the act of leaving fresh flowers outside her store for people to take, is, to me, a mitzvah. The next time I’m in NYC, I’m going to venture down to see Fleurs Bella. By the way, two of Chagall’s most beautiful paintings adorn the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera, at Lincoln Center. Titled “The Triumph of Music,” and “The Sources of Music,” they were commissioned for the 1966 opening of the new Met building. At night, when the lobby is lit up, one can see the Chagalls, and they are breathtaking. Coupled with the music at the opera, this is beauty to be appreciated.

Peggy Walt says:

lovely!

A lovely slice of life piece. Thanks.

Now, onto the high horse; apologies in advance.

While I do think it overstates the case to claim that “traditional Judaism doesn’t place much of a premium on beauty or happiness,” there are some less traditional (indeed, very contemporary) “Jewish reasons” to reduce our use of cut flowers.

Unless you can source your cut flowers, they’re likely bad for the environment and bad for the people growing them. Approximately 79% of cut flowers sold in US cities are grown in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia in climate-controlled greenhouses that make abundant use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, including some chemicals which are banned in the States. Recent studies have shown that many of the people working in the greenhouses, like those working in our nation’s industrial agricultural fields, are suffering from problems that doctors and scientists trace to the chemicals used in growing the flowers. The non-human environmental effects of the flower greenhouses are also negative.

In short, unless you know where and how your flowers were grown, the ethical choice is to not buy them. But that doesn’t mean not buying them for Shabbat or for Shavuot! Just buy a potted, blooming plant from a reliable or trusted source, preferably one that offers locally grown, “organic” flowers. If that’s too expensive, though, beautify Shabbat and Shavuot some other way.

Having said my peace, I think Bella Meyer’s appreciation of and for flowers is laudable and adds a little color to everyone’s day….I just hope her flowers are sourced ethically!

karen b gordon says:

have a great love of flowers, nature, and beauty. i am orthodox, parents from germany where nature and beauty was as natural as breathing. your article was so interesting. i would like to visiy your shop. i live in riverdale ny. thank you. wow ,grand daughter of marc chagall.

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Flower Shop Owner Traces Her Passion to Time Spent With Her Grandfather, Marc Chagall

As the owner of a Manhattan store, Fleurs Bella, Bella Meyer is creating her own art with blossoms as her medium

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