Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Spring Up O Well

Joint Lab - Feb 24, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

Our discussion in the lab began with a picture (see left).  The picture is from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Damascus.  Uncovered in 1932 it dates back to 244CE and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world.  It’s walls are covered with figurative paintings that can now be found at the National Museum of Damascus.

What do we see in this image?  Twelve tribes, a temple pediment above the menorah.  As we learned more we discovered that the central image was a well and Moses had struck it with his staff to bring forth water.

We then turned our attention to a passage from Numbers 21: 16-18.  In this passage God commands Moses to assemble the Israelites and he will give them water.  A musical interlude occurs as the people of Israel sing" Spring up, O well--sing ye unto it".   According to the Torah the well is dug by the nobles meaning Moses and Aaron with their staffs.  Staffs are considered a symbol of power.  Much is hidden in the meaning of words.  The well was dug with a staff, a mehokek, which can mean both a digging device and law giving.  Metaphorically the well becomes the Torah and it is accessed by the lawgivers, the interpreters of the Torah.

It is this well that is represented in the painting in the Dura Europos synagogue.  The well divides into twelve streams and delivers the water, the knowledge of Torah, to each of the tribes.

We harkened back to yet another passage, Exodus 15: 12-27.  In this passage after crossing the Red Sea, the people again cry out for water.  They are met with the bitter waters of Marah which Moses sweetens upon God's guidance with wood.  That wood which forms the staff of Moses is considered a branch from the tree of life, the Torah.

We were not without our own metaphorical interpretations.  It was noted that with every birth there is rush of water, a connection of water and life.  The streams that come from the well in fact resemble umbilical cords, a life giving source.

We examined a map of the plan of the tabernacle as described in Numbers. The tabernacle stood in the west, the well before it and the tribes formed a circle around it.  The painting which we studied formed a portion of that circle.  We the viewer complete that circle and are invited into the space.  There is a touch of magical realism in the portable tabernacle accompanied by the portable well.  When the Israelites camped in the wilderness, the well was placed opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting and is the source of water that flows as a great river into the desert.

We closed our discussion with an analysis by Norman Cohen in The Song at the Sea and the Well at Be-er.  He notes the passage of thirty-eight years, from the crossing of the Red Sea to the death of Miriam.  Once again they are faced with the dilemma of accessing water.   The initial words from Exodus 15:1, 21 are similar to those of Numbers 21:17.  There is one difference.  Instead of Moses singing, it is now Israel.  The Israelites have learned their own song to God.

With the song celebrating the well fresh in our mind we turned to a musician in our midst, Yoni
Reinharz.  Yoni is a musician and songwriter.  In addition to singing he also works with spoken poetry and rap.  His current project is a Family Portrait, a musical telling of his immediate family history through song and verse.

Yoni introduced us to the very complex story of his family.   His grandfather was a soldier in one of the British battalions that liberated the camps.  His grandmother survived Auschwitz, the sole survivor of her family.  He grew up believing that his father was born in Poland, grew up in Belgium and later met his wife in Israel only to learn that a far more complex story lay beneath.  In truth his father was born in Italy as his parents were on the way to illegally immigrate into Palestine.  The ship was caught by the British and his parents jumped ship with his infant father and swam to shore.  Later they sought a place to rebuild their lives and ended up in Belgium.  His father ultimately lived throughout Europe, learning to speak ten languages fluently. Many challenges faced his family and it is on these stories of sacrifice that his work is built.  Ultimately he hopes to create a multi-media performance.  Yoni brought us into his story by sharing several of his stories through spoken poetry and music.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Praying for Rain

Lab 2.0 2/17/2015 by Susan Weinberg









The Winter Garden at Ameriprise's downtown office in Minneapolis was a perfect place to begin our exploration of water. Within the garden is a sculptural environment created by Maya Lin with a plane of water cascading down the side of the building. Many of you may have driven by the sheath of water and experienced one aspect of it. Rest assured, there are more aspects worth exploring. Lin plays with the relationship between outside and inside space, continuing the exterior space with a curving wooden floor and trees within. We were entranced with the different elements of water; frozen, cascading, flowing, as well as the veil it created through which we could observe the city life, now rendered mysterious through the blur of falling water.

Louise and Kris wove a Jewish context into this exploration, beginning with a reading of the Geshem prayer. Geshem is the Hebrew word for rain and this is a prayer for rain. The prayer begins with the following:

Remember Abraham, his heart poured out to You like water.You blessed him, as a tree planted near water; You saved him when he went through fire and water, For Abraham's sake, do not withhold water.

It then continues through Issac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron all building on the concept of water and its relationship to their individual stories. Until the 20th century most agriculture was fed by rain, not irrigation, thus prayers for water and rain were central to existence.

We then adjourned to a coffee shop nearby where we could observe the wall of water from a somewhat different perspective. There Louise and Kris introduced a basic tenant of Judaism, Bal Tashchit originally found in Deuteronomy 20:19-20. The passage speaks of the obligation to preserve trees when a city is taken in warfare, a practice contrary to the practice of that time of destroying the land. That concept has been elaborated on as a prohibition on being wasteful in that it damages the creation of God.

We discussed how environmental responsibility is found within Jewish texts. A Midrash speaks to the role we hold as stewards of the earth. Acting righteously means treating the world with respect for we are answerable to God. Within the Midrash God shows Adam around the Garden of Eden and notes its beauty and that he created it for him. God then urges him not to spoil or destroy it as there will be no one to repair it. Rambam spoke of the obligation that Jews have to consider carefully our real needs when we consume.


We spoke of the passage in Number 20:1-11 after Miriam dies and her well dries up. The people complain to Moses about the lack of water. He strikes the rock with his staff and water flows forth. The Israelites then pass through the Red Sea and arrive at modern day Jordan where they sing a song about their appreciation to God for water. All these stories reinforce the perspective that water is one of the ways that God supports life.

Kris spoke of the fact that water is now piped in and fields are irrigated, separating us from the awareness of how precious and limited water can be.

In Israel there are two lakes. The northern one is Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. This lake generates most of the water in Israel and is the "giver". Conversely the other lake is the Dead Sea. Filled with salty mineral water it supports no living plants and animals. It is located in the lowest part of the world. These two bodies of water were equated to two types of people, the giver and the taker. The giver allows life to grow around him. The taker keeps everything for himself. This metaphor aptly led us to our role in conserving resources within our environment so it continues to grow and support others.

Kris shared some facts with us about changes in the environment, especially in California which grows much of our produce. California lakes are shrinking as the ocean rises. The last three years have been the hottest and driest on record there. We looked at where domestic water use is the highest and the fact that these are the areas that are growing in population, pointing to a growing challenge.

We closed our discussion with another view of work by Maya Lin, a civil rights memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. Lin based the work on a paraphrase of a quote from Amos in the "I have a dream" speech..."until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Water: An Agent of Transformation

Artist Lab 1.0 February 10, 2015 by Meryl Page

Before the artists could begin to discuss water, they first had to slog their way through water in all its frozen forms from ice and sleet to snow to make their way to the JCC. Once the eight artists arrived they immersed themselves in both the discussion of mikveh and the creation of a "soul collage" in response.

What responses do you have to the term "mikveh?" That was the first question posed to participants who wrote narratives or words that they linked to the term. We read the responses aloud and it was clear each participant was knowledgeable and many of the reactions were common among the participants. The thread of the discussion focused  on the mikveh, its development in response to the Torah’s commandments in Leviticus 15:19 and its role today. Why the very detailed regulations in the Talmudic Tractate Toharot? Is this mikveh misogynous? Is it a special spiritual mitzvah for women? What do the terms "tamei" and "tahor" mean beyond the literal English translation of impure and pure? Why was the mikveh as central an institution in Diaspora Jewish communities as the cemetery?

Liba brought the catalogue from The Mikveh Project, an artistic collaboration between photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax. Participants remembered the exhibit’s arrival at the Sabes JCC and the controversy it stirred. The exhibit made public a ritual that is one of the most private of Jewish rituals.

The artists stayed late as they created soul collages from the materials Liba collected. Each small collage was its own small world. (see photo). The toughest part of the evening—letting go. Each participant viewed the others’ collages in silence. Each seemed to understand the privilege of opening a door into the heart and mind and soul of fellow artists.

Selected bibliography of art works and thoughts:
Adler, Rachel. "Tumah and Tahara: Endings and Beginnings" in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth Koltun. Schocken Books, 1976.
Adler, Rachel. "In Your Blood, Live. Re-visions of a Theology of Purity" in Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, ed. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, 1997.
Lewin, Naamah Batya. The Mikveh. Part of a film cycle.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Wettest Parsha

1/27/2015  Lab 1.0  by Robyn Awend

Yira – (Hebrew word for both Fear and Awe)

Rabbi Davis began our Lab by leading us in several rounds of the beautiful song Ozi V’Zimrat Ya. We then dove into the “wettest parsha,” Exodus 14:15-16/ The Song at the Sea – Shirat ha Yam. We went into great detail about the conversation that was held between the Red Sea and Moses, debating who holds more importance. We then were asked to put ourselves in that moment of the Red Sea parting, to look at ourselves in a mirror, and then decide who are we --either an Israelite, Egyptian, etc. and what our feelings and thoughts were in that very moment --“Fear, faith, trust, questioning, etc….”   And what were we going to do –“Go, flee, etc….” After much discussion and roleplaying we focused the question on our lens as artists. “What would you want to capture as an artist at that moment when the Red Sea parted,” asked Rabbi Davis. It was a difficult question, one that silenced the room for an a brief period of contemplation. Then answers began to emerge and flow…. “the sounds, bravery, the energy, hope, fear, unity, personal confusion, tangible vs. intangible, dualities, etc.” Rabbi Davis closed his session with the same song that we started with, Ozi V’Zimrat Ya, which left a vibrating energy surrounding us.

We then moved into the circular room in the Learning Center and gathered around a round table with a rich blue linen. Liba lead us in a Zentangle exercise. We were each given a small square piece of white drawing paper and a fine point black pen. We were invited to doodle, to meditate, to draw without thinking, to be in the moment, to create a repetitive pattern, to let go and trust ourselves, to SLOW DOWN.  We each created a unique picture and some added a bit of blue watercolor to enhance the theme of water. We shared about our experience and viewed the images together before we parted, feeling considerably more zen then when we started.

Each of us experiences personal “red sea moments” in our lives. Slowing down and trusting yourself is one way to make it through that narrow space.

More about Zentangles can be found here: https://www.zentangle.com/

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Red Sea Time

January 20, 2015  Lab 2.0  by Susan Weinberg

Sylvia Horwitz began our session on the creative process by introducing the concept of "Red Sea time", that period in life where you can't go left or right, you can only plow ahead through challenges.  We all have encountered that time in our work and several of us spoke of how we try to move forward in such times. Some of us just try to do something, anything, until the process engulfs us.

Sylvia is a tango dancer and spoke of those times when one might have an injury and be unable to dance, how even thinking about it activated the muscle memory.   When we try to move past brick walls by moving forward we hope that the movement will trigger that muscle memory drawing us back to a creative state.

As part of our discussion we also explored water as a destructive force as reflected in the stories of Noah and of the Red Sea.

Sylvia shared her work photographing the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared in Argentina and the associations with water.  She talked of the memorial there which is situated by water. This is juxtaposed with the fact that bodies were often dropped from airplanes into the water, essentially an unmarked mass grave. Most were taken to torture centers and of 5000, perhaps 200 survived. Jews were disproportionately represented among the disappeared.

Sylvia spoke of the many roadblocks she encountered in the course of this project and her process in moving through it.  She outlined four steps which echoed some of the discussion of the Kaballah from our prior session, an apt structure for a creative process (noted in parentheses).

Her process begins with Preparation which could be reading, writing, discussion or experimentation with new techniques. (Atzilut-gestation)

From there she moves to Immersion which requires being present and leaving distractions behind.  It is a time where many possibilities exist and boundaries need to be set. (Beriah- boundaries)

Then she moves deeper into Intention becoming one with her concept.  This is the action phase (Yetzirah-action).

Finally she thinks about presentation, curating and fine tuning. (Assiyah-outcome)

 Sylvia closed her portion of the presentation by some discussion of the role of discipline in creativity and shared a passage by Anna Deavere Smith from Letters to a Young Artist Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers and Artists of Every Kind.*

We briefly broke for a water-themed nosh of watercress, lox, water bagels and of course, water.  When we returned Carolyn Light Bell shared her photographic work and then presented some of her poetry which addresses water.  Using her poems as a starting point we broke off from the group and each wrote poetry on the theme of water. We then returned and read our creations, each unique and reflective of the individual creator.

 *For those of you who haven't previously seen Brainpickings, the link for the Anna Deavere Smith quote, it is a great newsletter for artists with relevant and thoughtful information.  You can get it by email.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

One Day, One Gallon

Lab 1.0  - January 13  by Robyn Awend

Lab 1.0 met in the theatre, choose a favorite flavor of popcorn and gathered to watch the film, Watermark. The film features Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky, dedicated to chronicling how man affects the environment, turning his attention from land to water with mesmerizing results. Burtynsky explores our relationship with water through the way we drink, dam, worship and rely on it, not to mention how we take it for granted. Some explanation is provided, but the film withholds both judgment and context. It serves as a survey of where things stand with the world – an invaluable record of our collective hand print for present and future generations.

Following the film, we had a discussion about our immediate thoughts and feelings in reaction to the film. Some relayed feelings of discomfort, others were in awe of its beauty, a few expressed thoughts of possible next steps. Before we departed, Liba gave us a One Day, One Gallon Water Challenge. Each of us received a one gallon jug of water which is to be used during an upcoming 24 hour period as our total consumption of water for that day. This includes cooking, bathing, drinking, etc. We will be sharing our experience at the next Lab, which will make for a most interesting discussion.

The film Watermark is available on Netflix for those who were unable to attend..

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

From Torah to Kaballah

Joint Lab - December 23, 2014 by Susan Weinberg

I must confess that I often take a deep breath before I begin one of these blogs. Our sessions are frequently so rich in content that I consider them much like a mountain climber in search of a foothold. Where to take that first step? Today my trek began with Torah and ended with Kaballah.

Rabbi Davis began our discussion with a simple question about the Torah. What is it? We began with descriptors; laws, values, 5 books, teachings, a cultural repository. Then we began to drill down to what it represents to us; our people's history, how we are unique, who we are and how we treat each other. Rabbi Davis noted that it begins with the story of a family of five generations. Then it follows us into Exodus as we become a nation, a people.

Torah means instruction, teaching. We noted that we are taught to question so it is a conversation starter, a living document that is still applicable today. It presents a model of behavior, choices and pathways.

The rabbi pointed us towards Exodus 15:22, a passage where Moses and the Israelites have emerged for the Red Sea. Miriam and the women have sung their song of praise to the Lord, dancing with timbrels. Now three days have gone by and they are in the wilderness of Marrar where the water is bitter. They cry out for fresh water. God points out some wood which Moses throws into the water and it sweetens it. What does this mean?

Perhaps we need to participate in miracles. They require our active involvement. It is not a remote God, but one who interacts with us. Participation is required.

Interestingly the Hebrew word for wood in this passage translates to the tree of life.

We reviewed Betachot 61b, a story of Rabbi Akiba where the water that fish live within is equated to study of Torah in its essential nature. Water is often used as a metaphor for knowledge. It is vast, much is hidden, offering life and nourishment, but also danger. You can drown in Torah if you fail to apply it to life. A story was shared which noted the importance of "hearing a baby cry", essentially staying connected to the world even in the midst of Torah study.

In the second part of our session Joy Gordon introduced us to Kaballah. Kaballah means "that which has been received" and is part of a lengthy Jewish mystical tradition.

Some of the key concepts in Kaballah are interconnectedness, flow between points of connection, balance, boundaries/containers and multiple levels of reality. The story which embeds many of these concepts begins with "the infinite". God contracts, creating space within the infinite, a withdrawal called the Tzimtzum. Within that vacuum light enters, refracts into ten Sefirot and shatters vessels of light because of its intensity. The breaking of vessels symbolizes the disorder of the world. The shards became sparks of light trapped in the material of creation. Tikkun is our effort to restore the world through good deeds and study of Torah.

The key concepts relate closely to water. Water requires a container and finds it in lakes, river beds, oceans and clouds. It flows from higher to lower. Balance is necessary also lest we have floods or drought. Much of water is hidden as in icebergs or wells.

Joy shared with us the cosmology outlined by Isaac Luria who lived after the expulsion from Spain. The components of this cosmology include the following concepts:

Chochmah-wisdom, can represent the flash of an idea
Binah-understanding, represents building,developing
Da'at -knowledge ( not one of the ten Sephirot, but central none the less)
Gevurah- Judgment, boundaries/containers
Tiferet-Beauty, balance, harmony
Hod-glory, pulling back to make a space, to appreciate something, how does it feel, look, to be in awe of what is there, editor, refinement
Nezach-victory, energy that keeps you moving towards your goal, passion
Yesod-foundation of your work, ego, a secret part of you may be embedded in your work.
Malchut-manifests in everyday world when hanging on wall

With this structure in mind we considered how it applied to the artistic process. To create requires a space, but a space on many levels- a physical space, an emotional space, an intellectual space and a spiritual space. We may use a studio or a room in our home. Perhaps we clear our mind by going for a walk. Many of us struggle to clear our minds of activity and find such mundane tasks as washing the dishes or straightening up make the necessary space for creative ideas to emerge. Some shared that their best ideas arise when they are doing something totally unrelated.

In any case the creative act requires differentiation. We cannot create without first creating space for a dialogue with our emerging artwork. Just as when we lead a discussion, we need to leave space to engage others, to make room for the unknown. And we need something or someone else with whom we create dialogue.

With a flash of an idea (Chochmah) we move into developing it (Binah). Perhaps we temporarily suspend judgment (Gevurah) while we allow our eye for color and form (chesed) to move it forward, only then evaluating it through the more critical eye of Gevurah. Our application of both Chesed and Gevurah hopefully achieves balance and harmony (Tiferet). Then we take a step back and create space (Hod). I think of how I set my painting across the room, positioned by the door so I can see it through fresh eyes when I enter the studio. We are pleased with our result, we've succeeded (Nezach). Perhaps within it lies a part of the artist (Yesod) and ultimately we share it with others (Malchut).

From Torah to Kaballah, quite a mountain for one session.