Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Exploring the Technicalities

“What do you think of when I say Halakhah (Jewish law)?” asked the rabbi. Discipline, focus, rules, guidelines were the more neutral responses.  “Restrictions,” offered another.  We began to expand on the idea of “restrictions,” with its negative overtones.  “It segregates you from the world around you.  It requires accommodation.”  

One lab member who recently returned from a trip noted how much she had to plan ahead to allow for keeping kosher while traveling. Suddenly we did a u-turn to a more positive coloration.  It was suggested that “It takes a lot of thought to live intentionally, mindfully.”   

It should be noted that our group is mixed in our practice. Some keep kosher, restrict their use of cellphones on Shabbat, pay attention to the restrictions within Halakhah. Others of us find those practices quite foreign and not part of our everyday life. Being in this latter category, I was curious how we were going to address this topic.

The rabbi introduced us to Hayyim Nahman Bialik, a Jewish poet who was a pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry. Bialik examined the distinction between ‘‘Halakhah and Aggadah (story, folklore).’’ The halakhah is ‘‘severe, strict, hard as iron’’ and the aggadah ‘‘compliant, merciful, softer than oil.’’ The halakhah is ‘‘piety, fossilized, duty and yoke,’’ wearing a ‘‘stern face,’’ whereas aggadah is ‘‘eternal renewal, freedom, leniency,’’ wearing a joyous face (handout-"Revealment and Concealment")

These two aspects work in tandem with Halakhah laying down the foundation, the scaffolding on which the law is structured, while Aggadah interprets the meaning and the values.

With that introduction, we began to explore the distinction by way of two elements of Halakhah (handout- "How Hot").  The rule is that on Shabbat we are not to heat either oil or water to the point where the hand spontaneously recoils. The question that then arises is when is that?  The Gemara considers that not all hands are equally sensitive to heat, thus the conclusion was that any water that could scald a baby’s stomach would cause a hand to recoil.   The sages then arrive at a range of heat ranging from 104 degrees Fahrenheit to 176 degrees while I contemplate how many babies were scalded in arriving at these degrees of precision.

And yet another element of Halakhah. As cooking is prohibited on Shabbat eve, what can one do earlier in the day that may not yet be completed by Shabbat eve?  But first we considered why cooking is prohibited.  It is considered a creative act in that it is a transformative process. Similarly, heating water also meets this test and hence this prohibition.  A niggling inconsistency was raised: “Having sex on Shabbat is considered a mitzvah. How is that not a creative act?” Obviously, men wrote the rules we retorted. (A bit of exploration post-lab and I came up with the explanation that the creative acts that were forbidden were those involved with the building of the tabernacle or their derivatives.)

But enough of sex, let’s return to food. The Mishna establishes that the meal must be at least mostly completed while it is still day.  And how do we define completion? If a cake or bread, it must form a crust while still day. A more entertaining criteria was established based on the bandit, Ben Drosai, who was always on the run, hence only cooked his food one-third through. Ben Drosai is immortalized by Rashi who codifies this, noting that we can keep food on the stove if it is already cooked one-third through, like Ben Drosai. Rambam sets a more conservative standard at half-cooked.  I am beginning to understand why there are so many Jewish attorneys.

With a surfeit of attorneys, Hayyim Nahman Bialik proposes that what we need are more creative artists to bring Hallakhah to life. 

For the second part of our session, Jonathan Gross focused upon the details that often trip us up with the black box of digital imaging. From raster graphics to pixels, from RGB to CMYK, he introduced us to the underlying elements that we seldom deal with directly even though we often struggle with their result.  He explained mysteries such as why digital may seem over-exposed relative to film (the chemical reaction stops at some point and resists over-exposure) and the distinction between additive color (RGB) and subtractive color (CMYK). Those of us with I-phones have HDR, high dynamic range. It actually takes three images at different settings and combines them. I always wondered what HDR meant! He also suggested we might want to explore gimp.org, free software relatively comparable to Photoshop. If you use raw files you will need to download a free add-in.   For those who would like to more carefully consider this content you can find the presentation here.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Miracles of Survival

With Hanukkah fast approaching we turned our attention to the menorah (also known as the hanukiya).

"Where do you place your hanukiya?" asked the rabbi. This was a question that had never occurred to me.

"Somewhere that won't start a fire or drip wax in hard to clean places, " I thought.  Apparently this is a question that has drawn considerable thought.

Living rooms by windows seemed to be the most common place with one placed outdoors on a rock next to the door, actually the closest to the recommended location.  Mine sits on a table in my kitchen before a bay window.

Those of us who were asked to describe Hanukkah to our grade school classes knew well that Hanukkah was a minor holiday, elevated to balance the scales with Christmas.  The reality is that of sixty-three volumes from the rabbis, Hanukkah warranted a paragraph.

So let's take a look at what we do know. Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem. It celebrates a miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight nights. The Hanukkah menorah derived from the menorah in the Temple which had seven branches, but the one used for Hanukkah has eight and the Shamash, used to light the other candles. In the tent of the tabernacle it was placed on the southern wall (Exodus 40:24). I quickly considered the direction my menorah faced - south! -quite by accident.

The first Temple had ten candelabras. Perhaps one of the best known images of the menorah from the second Temple is the image on the
Arch of Titus in Rome.

We  get a few more instructions (see handout- Windows on the World). We are to place the menorah near the the entrance, but outside or in a window that can be seen by the public.  Anticipating dangerous times when one might not wish to be so public,  we are told that it is sufficient to place it on a table. The menorah should be arranged from east to west and was to be opposite the mezuzah. An unresolved debate ensued between the rabbis as to whether it should be to the right or the left of the door. We are to light the menorah at home instead of only at the synagogue and we are to light it at the threshold of the house.

Why do we light it at home? This isn't a religious holiday so we may not go to synagogue and the home is the center of Jewish life.  We light it at the threshold or place it near a window to publicize the miracle. And why opposite the mezuzah?  So we are surrounded by mitzvot. According to Kabbalah, on the right we have chesed, God's kindness. On the left we have the sign of strength, the Maccabees. When we walk across the threshold we are surrounded with each mirroring the other in a balance of opposites.

The second part of our session was an artist-led session by David Sherman on the Transfer of Memory project.  David photographed forty-four survivors and paired his photographs with a brief text of their story written by Lili Chester. The project has traveled widely and was designed with portable walls that lend themselves to that concept. David took us through the dictionary definition of survival, continuing to live despite difficult circumstances. He then turned his attention to the people he photographed noting the different ways that they defined survival from fighting back to finding a safe haven, to the kindness of a friend to being saved by a stranger.  He did both color and black and white photographs, but decided to go with color as it created a sense of the people as being part of society. He noted that the black and white photographs seemed to freeze them in time and create a more documentary feeling. The photographs were done in their homes and he sought to keep the nuances that created a sense of the person. For example, in the image of George Sirosi (left) he left his glasses hanging from his shirt, no doubt a common habit.

David still hopes to publish the black and white images which offer a different artistic quality.  There are some upcoming exhibitions at the Lindbergh and Humphrey airports if you would like to see the work.

David closed by talking about the 2017 [Re] Telling exhibition at the Tychman-Shapiro Gallery which was a response to the artwork of Holocaust artist Fritz Hirschberger. Hirschberger worked from an original Auschwitz photograph that he turned into a painting. David then retold it by converting it back to a different kind of photograph.

It occurs to me as I write this, that David's topic of survival is a very appropriate partner to our discussion of the Maccabees. To survive extreme hardship and keep one's spirit intact is certainly something to celebrate, whether it is the Maccabees or survivors of the Shoah.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lift Up Your Heads, O Gates

At our recent Artists' Lab gathering we continued our exploration of door images. All brought a thoughtful approach, considering the significance both visually and symbolically.  After sharing an image  from Santa Fe which was thoroughly covered with artwork surrounding the door, Toni cautioned that we need to consider what surrounds us before being enticed by what lies behind the door. 

For Sylvia, the door to a tango club in Argentina had significance as the place where she met her husband. Tango represented not only her relationship, but the ability to be in the moment.

A strong design sense was central to Jon's door which he altered by adding door nails from Lisbon and changing the shape of the portals to better integrate inside and outside. An important part of his door was the view within.

Several viewed a door as the entry to the next chapter in their life, a new beginning as they embarked on their life with a partner or a change in which they took control of their life in response to the limitations of aging. 

A mezuzah gracing a San Miguel door felt welcoming to Sandra while Judy was drawn to contradictions between formal signage and graffiti. She was especially captivated by a sign that said “stop behind the white line” while the graffiti reports “crossing the threshold.”

David offered a rather unorthodox door, a ladder. It took on special significance when surgery affected his balance. He took the picture of the ladder the day he recovered sufficient balance to climb it.

Aaron reminded us of the whimsy of the Wild Rumpus bookstore which has a child door within the full-sized door, a special invitation to children.  In addition to his door which was set into a wall in Morocco, Noam introduced us to the writings of Marie Howe in her poem My Dead Friends. Marie consults her dead friends for advice which is always "yes." She pays close heed as they have already gone through "the frightening door." 

Of David, a psalm
Our exploration of doors continued with Rabbi Davis taking us into Psalm 24 with its "everlasting doors" and the concept of parallelism (see handout- Standing at the Gates). Parallelism involves two passages in which the second part is parallel, but not exactly. A new concept is introduced that amplifies or alters what was laid out in the initial passage. The technique allows an artist to realize new possibilities within a formal structure.  The rabbi posited that Psalm 24 may actually be a combination of two separate psalms. Our tip off is the use of selah in the middle of the passage as well as the end. Selah has no translation so is used as is and is often found at the end of a verse.

The earth is the Lord and the fullness there of
So what is the significance of Psalm 24?  The psalm is
associated with the high holidays and the concept of blessings is derived from this passage for "the earth is the Lord's." It is a psalm for Sunday, the first day of the week, the first day of creation.  The psalm begins with a procession of pilgrims ascending the steps of the temple. It notes that anyone can come into the temple, but blessings are only received by those with "clean hands and a pure heart."  There is a dialogue between the rather anthropomorphic gates that lift up their heads and Solomon who is only allowed entrance after calling out three times, ultimately humbling himself, reminding them of his father David, their servant.  

Clean hands, pure heart
Also introduced was the concept of etnachta which is a symmetrical Hebrew comma that separates two parts of a verse that make it parallel. This rounded form of the notation resembles the arch of a doorway with a protrusion atop and appears in work by David Moss in his artistic creation of Psalm 24.  His work is laid out in parallel form with the gutter separating the two parallel sections that address each line of the psalm. We studied each side examining the differences between the two. The slight variations focused our attention on the meaning of those changes.  This richly colored and patterned creation raised many questions within our group as we sought to relate it back to the original passage.

And then it was time for an artist-led session led by me. Originally I intended just to speak of my newly released book,  We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories, a book that combines oral history and artwork on the three groups of Jewish immigrants of the 20th century.  While immigration is a clear example of threshold crossing, I realized there was yet another threshold crossing to address, my own. I deconstructed the steps that led to the book, finding that there were many thresholds to cross long before the creation of the book.  Becoming a public person through exhibiting artwork, writing publicly and speaking publicly about my work was a necessary step in this progression.  This is a challenge that faces every artist and many find it far more challenging than creating artwork. For me  the process of threshold crossing began with an assessment of my talents and my passions as I left my career to pursue the arts. I started by  stating an intention and then finding a like-minded community through volunteering or taking classes.  The lab has also offered that like-minded community. Then came the hard part, at least for me, setting the table for beshert.  Beshert, fate, happens when we least expect it, but we can set the table and invite it in.  That entails embracing the unknown, saying yes and then figuring out how to do what we've agreed to, starting where we are and abandoning perfectionism. Then we act and interact, moving forward to new thresholds. For me, beshert was more challenging because it called on me to let go of the skills that aided me in my career and let things unfold in their own time and place. It also was quite magical. When we bring our energies to what we are passionate about and open ourselves to the unknown, surprising things can happen. More information on the book and how it came about can be found at wespokejewish.com.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Arrive Early, Stay Late

* source
What does your doorbell sound like?  

How do you knock on a door?  Do you knock differently if it is a friend’s door?  Perhaps a friendly rhythmic knock with a touch of whimsy in its refrain?  

Are you a knocker or a ringer?

These were some of the questions posed to us as we milled around with our lab partners, stopping when signaled to address the questions with our nearest partner.

Gradually Rabbi Davis moved us to a more difficult question.

What doors are hard to open?

Thus we began our exploration of thresholds, their meaning and the journey across them as we considered the doors that we tug at unsuccessfully or enter uneasily.  For some of us it was our studio door during one of those periods where creativity eludes us.  

Rabbi Davis introduced a passage from Proverbs 8:34.  (Handout -What's Behind Door#2)

Happy is the person who listens to me, who comes quickly to my doors every day, to guard the door posts of my entrance ways.

What doors does this reference and what doors do we guard?  We concluded this was a spiritual door and considered how we guard doors for our own peace of mind against disturbing intrusions, sometimes as simple as shutting off the news.

We turned our attention to the interpretations of this passage.  It has been proposed that the verse describes Wisdom, sitting in her holy sanctuary.  Rashi weighed in with an interpretation of  “my doors” meaning that we should be the first to enter the hall of study and the shul and the last to leave.  Perhaps we are to arrive early in childhood and stay late into old age. Nor should we sit too close to the exit.  We are to commit fully to being present, not be preparing for exit. The Gemara goes yet a step further and proposes that we must enter through two doors in the synagogue.  So what if there is only one door? Well we are to walk into the synagogue the distance of the width of two doors.  There is a process of preparation which this allows, one door to enter, one door to transition and prepare our mind.  Some propose that there are many entries to wisdom, hence the significance of more than one door.

We had been asked to bring a picture of a door to the lab and to speak of its significance to us.  My door was to my ancestral home in Poland, a door I arrived at through my exploration of family history which took me over the threshold into a relationship with the Jewish community.  It occurred to me that I would not be in the lab were it not for this journey.  Others also saw significance in doors that represented an exploration of Judaism. 

Some spoke of inscriptions on doors. In Rome Alison visited the Garden of Monsters which has a door called the Orcus Mouth and is inscribed “Cast away every thought, you who enter" or "All thoughts fly.”  Perhaps this is not too unlike Rashi’s guidance to commit to this place we are entering, to cleanse our mind and leave the outer world behind. 

Rani presented the door to a place that they had stayed at in Israel that had an entry that deceived, small and modest, but revealing a much larger and dramatic place than it would appear to be.  We noted that a door is like a blank canvas, we never know where it will lead.  

Some saw doors as similar to bridges, connecting a passageway to something new.  Others preferred round doors that were perpetually open. Robyn shared her cheerful red door in a color that has meaning to her family. Rabbi Davis shared the back door of his home where family comes in through the mudroom and expressed the hope that over time we would arrive at sufficient comfort together to go through the back door, getting to know each other on a deeper level.

Our session concluded with some journaling about the theme of thresholds.  We were asked if there were aspects we hoped to cover in our upcoming sessions. An animated discussion followed where questions were raised about what we leave behind when we cross a threshold. Is there ever a turning back? How do we mark thresholds and how and why do we cross a threshold? 

Many of us are fascinated by word derivation so we closed with some thoughts about the word "threshold" which contains the words hold, old and thresh. Are we to not hold onto the old? Does thresh relate to the turmoil often associated with change? Threshing involves beating the plant to separate the seeds and grain, an apt metaphor for a process of change and transformation. A little exploration after the meeting turned up the fact that there was no clear derivation of the word although that didn't stop experts from writing extensively on the topic. One theory related to the idea of people putting thresh on the dirt floor to keep it dry and hence needing a threshold to keep it within the room when shutting the door. With no clear derivation I am rather partial to the idea of threshing to separate the germ of what is valuable from our past as we carry it forward, crossing the threshold into the future.

*photo by Jusben from Morguefile

Thursday, August 17, 2017


We met for our last lab of the season, gathering one last time to share the stories that enrich our artwork. There were rich stories behind each piece, personal stories that resonated. We came at our topic from many angles – Inside, Outside, Boundaries, Otherness.  

Many were disturbed by the events in our political environment, dividing our country and families. Suddenly otherness felt very real as we struggled to reconcile differences. What is real? We longed for a time when core facts were not up for debate, when we didn't perch on an anxious edge.

Others spoke of death, an impermeable barrier of loss, the ultimate boundary.  Many of us lost parents over the past year.  The loss thrust us into a liminal state, new territory to navigate with uncertain tools.

We talked of feelings of otherness. They were generated by many things; parental protection from unpleasant truths, feeling outside because we weren't raised Jewish,  feeling outside because we were raised Jewish, being called upon to kill in a war.  All were different facets of otherness, all deeply-felt.

And we talked of our artistic process, sometimes working together to find new ways to tell stories, an iterative process that took us deeper into our subject. Our work was often layered with doorways, folds and multiple planes. We applied lessons from our teachers, finding material in the leftover elements of past work.

We talked of reconciliation, loving through our differences, having the courage to reach out to one another.

So what to do with all of that?  I jotted words from each of us. Many of them felt poetic, so I have taken the liberty of assembling them below.


A cardinal chirps,
Speaking of Grief, our common muse,
Story lives between life and death.
It is a liminal space, this life,
A Minoan maze,
A twisting labyrinth to wander,
Using our compass 
To find our way.
We choke back tears.

Death is part of the cycle of life,
Killing is not.
That war looks different 
From inside.
Dividing us
In experience, 
And understanding.

Wear your emotions, 
Wrap yourself in them,
Throw off your veil,
Let your dark hair flow.
You can’t always tell from the outside,
What someone
Is going through 

The prophet as outsider,
Child as outsider,
Warrior as outsider.
Jew as outsider,
Non-Jew among Jews,
Feeling incognito,
Not belonging anywhere.

Teetering on an anxious edge.
Nostalgia for a time
of agreed upon facts.
Puzzling contents 
wrapped in noisy cellophane,
Is it real because I say it is?

Seven steps take us to the edge,
Occupying space in memory.
Doorways open,
Working together, we find a way in,
Transformation awaits
in the liminal spaces,
A new story out of process.
Reclaim the residue 
of past work,
Organic forms spiral,
Don’t worry, 
It will be what it will be.

You will find inspiration 
When not looking.
It will surprise,
A glimpse out the window
Discovers beauty,
A garden blooms.
Be a beauty maker,
Love through our differences,
Always changing,
Reach out, reach across.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Folding the Corners

Our last lab discussion!  It is always a little bittersweet as we prepare for our ending show and the close of the lab. We have become attached to our fellow artists and enjoy the regular contact the lab provides and the ideas it introduces. The lab has a five-year history during which it was generously funded by the Covenant Foundation.  As we wind down that grant we look to a future that will sustain these important connections in a slightly different form. 

For the final lab on this topic, Meryll Page began with an exercise.  We each were given a sheet of paper and asked to fold the corners.  Some of us did fancy folds, some tiny corners to preserve a writing surface. Still others had generous folds that left little room at all.  Meryll asked us to imagine the paper as a field of grain as we discussed the Law of Peah.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.

The law is about generosity, to the land, to animals and to the poor. It is about regeneration of the field and of those in need. It is a faith statement that is a requirement of a belief in God.

So how much of the corner?  What is the minimum?  The law specified one sixtieth of the crop, but inserts a little flexibility tying it to the size of the field, the number of the poor and the abundance of the crop (see handout-Megillat Hesed-The Book of Loving Kindness).  Interestingly, the passage is tied to the concept of stealing, for to not be generous in this manner is in fact stealing from a stranger.

With this introduction, we turned to the Book of Ruth and explored the role of Boaz who was far more generous (Ruth 2:8) than the law required. He offered food, safety and extra gleanings to Ruth, topping it off with a blessing (Ruth 2:12).

In the next act, Ruth returns to Naomi with her generous gleanings.  Hearing that it is Boaz who was the source of such kindness, she too offers a blessing: Blessed be he of the Lord who hath not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead. This blessing has an element of foreshadowing as it anticipates the fact that a child from a marriage of Boaz and Ruth carries on the name of Ruth’s dead husband. The child is considered the son of the dead man and ultimately it is yet another act of generosity as Boaz gives up his own patrimony.

So, what is the lesson of this passage? Be open to otherness. Be present in the act of giving by recognizing and valuing the other. All of this sets the stage for what David will be, descended from two people infused with loving kindness.

The second part of our session took place in the studio of Toni Dachis. When we entered her studio, we were asked to take a place at a table. There we found a variety of instruments. Before me was a toothbrush while other posts had paints, pastels, a plastic template, scissors, hole punches and other marking implements.  Each station had ten small squares of paper printed with a variety of words that we had explored in our labs, words such as Connection, Ostracize, Change, Limits, Frame, Refugee, Crossing and Inside.  We were given a short time to respond to the words using whatever tools were before us. Then we passed our creation to the person next to us and they added to it with their implement.  Boundaries were fluid as we shared with our neighbors in a collaborative effort.  At its conclusion, we were given an accordion folded strip of black paper on which to affix the images, creating a small book that memorialized our year of crossing boundaries.