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

Courage

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.


Courage

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.
Reminded 
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 
Inside.

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.

Courage.


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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Our last session began with an artwork by Chagall on the book of Ruth.  We had quickly identified it, drawing on our familiarity with his work, well within the frame of our knowledge. This session, Meryll held up an unfamiliar, but striking work, a papercut of the story of Ruth.  We were at a loss to name the artist (Diane Palley), this was unfamiliar territory, a precursor of our exploration of Judges which would take us outside of the frame of Ruth in order to better understand its meaning.

Meryll guided us to our first clue in the first line of Ruth 1:1 And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. (handout-Ruth & Judges) "Anything unusual?" she asked.  We focused in on the doubling of the words, judges judged. Perhaps this doubling was intended to draw our attention. Was famine a judgment? A punishment?  The Hebrew word vayahi seemed a bit of a lament, much like oy vay, pointing us outside the frame of Ruth to the book of Judges.

We read through Judges 21:5-24, a difficult passage of murder and mayhem, unconscionable behavior. It began with a building of an altar, a violation of the religious rules. Then it progresses to murder and the kidnapping of virgins as wives. At the end of the passage  in Judges 21:25 the author adds his own judgment and our second clue: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

The people of Israel were lacking leadership and immersed in both religious and moral chaos.

In Judges 1 we get yet another clue. The tribe of Judah is presented as a preeminent tribe.  Who is from the tribe of Judah?  Boaz.

Finally we turned to Baba Batra in the Talmud (handout-Ruth & Judges). Through a series of retorts, Rabbi Yohanan underscored the fact that those being judged were judging the judges. This was a time of chaos, a time without leadership.

Clues had been strewn across our path, a trail of breadcrumbs that led us to Bethlehem, where Ruth and Naomi were now housed. In fact, those breadcrumbs led to a house of bread, the meaning of the name Bethlehem. Our solution is implied by the commentator of Judges 21:25. We need  a king to offer strong leadership and of course Ruth birthed the line that led to David. We'd come full circle.  The story of Ruth was a precursor of a future where kindness, loyalty and recognition of the other were underscored. God sat back and let the people find their way, treating each other respectfully, with kindness and generosity. What began in famine led to abundance and sharing.

Still more clues were scattered within the story through the meaning of names. Ruth means friend, Boaz-strength, Naomi- pleasantness.  When Naomi first returns in her grief, she asks to be called Mara which means bitterness.My favorite though was Orpah, the back of the neck, what she turned to Naomi as she returned to her home in Moab.

Chagall's White Crucifixion
Mark Rothko Chapel
The second part of our session was devoted to artist-led sessions. Roslye Ultan led us in an exploration of Jewish artists, particularly as they crossed boundaries into more Christian imagery. We began with the quintessential Jewish artist, Chagall. We described his work as dreamlike, free of gravitational pull, often with animals and most certainly narrative. Roslye also referenced  Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross and Mark Rothko's Chapel. Newman was interested in Kaballistic ideas and avoided "graven images" in his work.

We turned our attention to Chagall's White Crucifixion, one of over 30 crucifixions painted by Chagall. Here a talit is around his waist, perhaps hiding his circumcision  as in Christian iconography, yet here it is slyly covered with yet another Jewish symbol. The Christ figure is surrounded by imagery of the Wandering Jew, a rabbi fleeing with a torah and a burning synagogue. The cross is set in a beam of light. Is this a Christian story or has it perhaps been reclaimed? Chagall himself weighed in with these words, "For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr." Chagall identified with Christ saying "Every day I carry a cross/ They push me and drag me by the hand/ Already the dark of night surrounds me/ You have deserted me, my God? Why? . . .I run upstairs/ To my dry brushes/ And am crucified like Christ/ Fixed with nails to the easel."
Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross



Benito Quinauela Martin
La Boca
And now it was time to tango, or at least explore its history with Vivi Szleifer, assisted by  Rony Szleifer. Vivi took us into the world of the gauchos and Eastern European immigrants who populated Bueno Aires in the La Boca neighborhood, an area of meat packing houses filled with heat and stench. This world was captured by the artist Benito Quinauela Martin whose imagery reflects both the heat and the hard life, but also has a celebratory feel, filled with color and movement. Vivi spoke of the music that was later reflected in the music of tango, the guitar of the gaucho, the drums of African music. Originally the tango was danced by two men as if locked in mortal combat.  Women found their way into tango, often as prostitutes originally, and that mortal combat morphed into something else. In the 1920s and 30s singing was added. If you are interested in the Powerpoint on tango, click here.

As always our session covered a broad swath, from following a trail of clues in Ruth, to exploring the crossing of boundaries by Jewish artists, to entering the multicultural complex world of tango.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Riffing on Fences

 
In our recent lab, we welcomed Rabbi Jeffrey Schein who brought a rich energy into the room. Schein is a Jewish educator and Reconstructionist rabbi who has recently made Minneapolis his home.  He began by noting that he was in mourning for his mother who recently died at age one hundred. Together with Rabbi Davis, he had weighed whether he should be teaching during this period of mourning. Together they concluded that this was acceptable if he dedicated his teaching to his mother. A soul is sped on its journey by Tzedakah and study in their memory, thus our session was doubly fruitful, inspiring thought and helping to speed a soul onward.

Schein began our session by talking about an exhibition he attended at the Weisman Art Museum on the artist-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel prize winner in 1906. The exhibit was on the art of the brain. People used to think of the brain as a classical orchestra, coordinated and even dare we say, orchestrated.  In fact Cajal said, it is more like jazz with variety in how connections form. Neoplasticity implies that our brains are malleable, not always rigid in which part performs what.  As I reflected back on our session, I realized it too was much closer to jazz as we riffed on the topic of fences from a variety of perspectives.

Riff #1: We began by selecting an image of a fence, some with space between, some visually open, others walled in.  Schein asked us to imagine pushing against it. What did it feel like to push on the fence from the outside? from the inside? Some fences allowed interaction and thus altered social relationships in positive ways.  Others acted as true enclosures, shutting out the outside world, perhaps hiding a secret garden.

Riff #2: We then journeyed into the Tanach to revisit our old friend Ruth who Schein termed a fence rider, one who sits atop a fence, choosing which side to join. Ruth, of course, ultimately joined her mother-in-law while her fellow sister-in-law chose to remain in Moab.  

Riff #3: We continued our journey to Bezalel, the first all-round craftsman and the chief artisan of the Tabernacle.  The passage in question, Exodus 36:1, had three interpretations.  One speaks of his skill with his hand, yet another talks of his wise heart while the third talks of his wise mind. We concluded that a wise mind brings together both skill and heart. Each aspect has its place.

Riff #4 builds on Riff #3 : Having set the stage, Schein shifted to artwork and our need to be inside as we work on a piece, outside as we assess it. So too we use both our wise mind and our wise heart.  Inside affords us an emotional connection, outside activates our critical thinking. We often need the perspective of removing ourselves to come back refreshed to create. Mordecai Kaplan notes that "The Sabbath represents those moments when we stop our brush work in order to renew our vision of the canvas."

Riff #5: The Pirke Avot tells us to "Make a Fence Around Your Words." We understood this to mean to be accountable, words are important and we must understand the dynamics of communication and speak with intentionality. "Say Little, but Do a Lot," the Pirke Avot cautions us.

Riff #6:Often we create fences around habits.  We were asked to consider a list of habits. "How is this productive?" he asked. "How is it not?"  I chuckled at one he offered on completing an assignment two days before it is due.  I'm more prone to allow a month. I need lots of fence.

Riff #7: He shared a passage with us from Proverbs 4:14-15. Enter not into the path of the wicked...Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass on. Rabbi Ashi offered this explanatory parable: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected, but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected. (Sefer Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitsky).  We turned to each other and considered the meaning of this passage.  "Bad Feng Shui, " I replied, still not grasping the relationship to the proverb. 

Riff #7 feeds into #8 Another interpretation shortly arose when we closed our discussion with a powerful poem by Amir Gutfreund which raised the question of which way a compass points at the North Pole.  The answer: it goes crazy and points everywhere.  Often we look to a destination from outside and it becomes our North Star.  When we arrive, we need a new set of tools to guide us from within. Israel is such a destination, driving the needle mad. (Handout-Fences). Similarly our man in the orchard sees less clearly when he is too close, better when he takes a step outside to see the bigger picture. 

Riff #8 echoes Riff #6: At the close of our session, the rabbi introduced us to two videos on Tiffany Schlain, Connected, the Trailer and  Technology Shabbat. Together they remind us of the need to create personal fences to manage our dependence on technology. 

Pretty jazzy!