Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Softening the Sharp Divides

We began our lab with one of my favorite activities, word analysis.  The rabbi fired words at us, one after another, asking if we knew what they meant.

Maariv -evening service
        Maarav -from the west
                 Arov  -wild beasts
                      Erev rav - the mixed multitude
                            Erev - woof (as in weaving)
                                     and finally to our theme...

Eruv - a boundary

"What do they have in common?" he asked.

All share the same root. Each contains these three letters:  ayin raish vet.

What an odd mixture of words, and rather appropriate. The word from which they are derived actually means "mixture."

So let's take a look at what an Eruv is and how it relates to this common root.  The rabbi beckoned us to the window with a view outside of Beth El.  "There is the Eruv, " he said, pointing.  I looked around trying to figure out what I should be looking at.  Barely visible, a thin string blended into the grey sky.  

The rabbi directed our attention to Exodus 16:29-30, that first instruction to rest and "let no man go out of his place" on Shabbat.  We are told that we are not supposed to do any malachot, any kind of creative work on Shabbat.  The rabbis spell out 39 categories of work that fall within this. We get a few more specifics in Jeremiah 17:21-23 where we are told not to carry burdens through the gates or from our homes on Shabbat (see Eruv handout).

Hence the Eruv.

The Eruv is a device that allows Jews to observe Shabbat more freely.  If we are not supposed to leave our homes carrying something on our person, transferring it from one place to the other, then why can't we just expand our homes? And so we did.  We created a boundary, a string or perhaps a wall, that makes a public domain a larger private domain.  There are some rules that govern the Eruv.  You can't have more than 6000 people passing through the area for it to qualify. Now it isn't the string that is the Eruv. It is a shared meal, what could be more Jewish? To define an Eruv you must set aside food for a public meal.  The rabbi reminded us that in a synagogue some of us visited in Israel, the Eruv was defined by a container holding matzo. There is a blessing that is said by the rabbi to establish the Eruv.

The Eruv is composed of two poles and a lintel over a figurative doorway. It is a permeable border which allows the light of holiness to flow forth to the larger community. (Besht 18th century Poland).

The concept of the Eruv is linked by King Salomon to Netilat Yadaim, handwashing.  Together these two concepts mean conjoined, but spiritually clean.  When we grasp our hands for hand washing the right hand is above representing loving kindness.

So how does the Eruv relate to the concept of a mixture?  By expanding our private space to include our neighbors, we are joined with them, an inclusion, rather than an exclusion.  How do some of those words similarly derived relate to this concept? Well evening conjoins day and night.  It is that space in between.  The sun sets in the west so that also links to evening.  We conjoin to form a weaving. Mixed multitudes speak for themselves, in many voices no doubt and wild beasts, well let's assume we have quite a mixture of them.

Jonathan Sacks speaks of the Eruv as softening the sharp divides of boundaries.

Now the Eruv is somewhat controversial in the real world. The modern Orthodox want the Eruv, the Lubavitchers feel it creates confusion as to where they can carry on Shabbat.  This division has become so heated that it broke out in Seussian rhyme.  Even Jon Stewart joined in on the divide over the Eruv in Long Island.

The second part of our session was led by Simone Williams. Simone had purple dreadlocks and an energy that immediately filled the room and pulled us into their orbit.  Oh, the pronouns Simone goes by include they, them, theirs.Simone is a spoken word poet, organizer, educator, artist, actor, playwright, queer, trans, black, white, Jew.   There are a lot of people in there doing a lot of interesting things. The boundaries that most of us use to define ourselves are much broader for Simone. They shared some of their visual artwork with us, collages with text and image.  They also read some spoken word poems which were exceptional in both content and delivery. 

Simone Williams
Simone took us through some interesting exercises in movement.  We were asked to walk as if we were late for something, through peanut butter, as if we were in love and as if we dreaded where we were going. The differences were fascinating, from pulling our feet out of peanut butter up to our knees to being frozen in dread.  I was a bit concerned that the late for something movement felt so familiar, not so the peanut butter.

by Simone Williams
Simone then broke us into groups of two where we took turns mirroring the movements of our partner, ultimately with neither leading.  That exercise actually felt natural with movement flowing from one to the other. Boundaries began to blur. Then it got a bit more complicated with groups of three.  We realized we had to pay much closer attention that we were used to doing.

If you'd like to continue to follow Simone's work you can find them performing at Intermedia Arts Open Mic 5:30-8 bi-monthly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Navigating an Unpaved Road

Where or when have you felt God’s presence?  That was the question with which we began our Lab.  Our assignment was to have that discussion with another person starting ten feet away and then gradually closing the distance.  I  began by considering what “God’s presence” meant to me. In fact I often find that sense of something beyond myself in the act of creation, when a kind of magic takes over and results in a creation that surprises me, leaving me somewhat amazed that it was done by my hand.  When we reconvened we were asked how it felt as we closed the distance.

Some reported that they felt God’s presence getting thicker as they got closer, some preferred closeness, others a more comfortable distance. For many physical closeness felt more appropriate for an intimate topic.

With that warm up we entered the gate of our topic, that of fences. We began with a passage on our handout (Four Cubits of the Law) from the Berakhot 8a which talks of how since the Temple was destroyed, God’s presence is only revealed in the four cubits of Halakha.  Halakha is Jewish law and represents a house of learning or the teachings of Judaism.  Four cubits is about six feet. Not a very large house.  

But wait a minute, we don’t follow all of those laws anymore.  What about sacrifice? The rabbi suggested with some bemusement that some would claim that is only on pause until the temple is rebuilt.  What about additions to the Seder service, a glass of wine for Israel?  Perhaps it is a distinction between Halakha and traditions offered another of our group.

Halakha is pretty restrictive.  A rather entertaining spoof imagined Xmas as a Jewish holiday and what restrictions might surround it.  Are we to be bound by countless rules? And what happened to Jews questioning, isn’t that in our DNA? Rabbi Marc Angel noted that Judaism respects and encourages dissent within the boundaries of normative Judaism, but not outside of it.  So what does that mean?  To be within it must evidence respect for sages, substantiated positions and a commitment to the Divine origin of Torah. 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2 specifies that we are not to add or delete anything from God’s word. Sounds like God was a strict constructionist.  Rashi chimes in and say, “Not to worry, that means you shouldn’t add a fifth text to tefillin or a fifth species to your lulav and etrog.”

Rambam says, “Not so fast Rashi, it also means you can’t make up a brand-new commandment.” No more innovation by the prophets.  He goes on to say that fences are permissible if they allow us to preserve the Torah.

So what about those fences?  In the Pirkei Avot 1:1 after the Torah was transferred, the “Men of the Great Assembly” noted we should “make a fence for the Torah”.

What do we mean by a fence?  Rabbi Irving Greenberg described it as cordoning off a broader area so people will stop before they enter forbidden territory.  Hmm, perhaps filling up the gas tank when it is down to one bar rather than beeping at me.   In a more religious vein we are to light Shabbat candles at sundown, but we create a fence of 18 minutes before sundown in which we light the candles.

Up until this point, I must confess that this all felt rather foreign to me as a secular Jew.  I don’t concern myself with Halakha and I don’t live in a world of absolutes.  Then we entered the world of practicality where I live.  In 1 Macabees 2 after Jews were murdered while refusing to fight on Shabbat, Mattathias and his friends considered the value placed on living as overriding Shabbat observance. Those beliefs were drawn on during the Holocaust when practice was not always possible. 

Rabbi David Hartman in A Living Covenant wrapped it up by noting that the Torah is not a complete finished system. We were given an arrow sign at Sinai. Halakha translates to "walking". It is an unpaved road and does not expect passive obedience to the wisdom of the past. It is through the oral tradition that we become a partner and divine Word was only a beginning point to be elaborated on through analysis and interpretation. Ah, this I can live with.

 It occurred to me as we had this discussion that I come to this from the background of a secular Jew. When grappling with material that is outside my experience and orientation, I often try to find a framework that makes sense to me. That may be a different perspective than someone who lives in that world. In many ways I am a bridge between the world of secularism and my heritage, finding points of connection where possible and considering ideas that frame the values of Judaism. And a bridge between worlds seems quite appropriate to our theme.

The second half of our session was led by Artist Lab member Jonathan Gross who brings us a marriage of science and art.  With his interests spanning both realms it was a natural attraction between him and the work of Joseph Cornell who studied science and created art with scientific concepts interwoven. The theme Jon explored was crossing boundaries and focused around Cornell's work in a series on Celestial Navigation and specifically the piece called the Celestial Navigation by Birds.  This glass fronted box contained a number of objects related to the concept of navigation.  Jon introduced us to wind roses which line the background of the box. A wind rose chart looks at the direction of the wind, the probability that it would be blowing in a given direction and its intensity.  At one time these were much valued and highly guarded charts and few survived.  

Cornell was a bit of a punster and created puns both visually and with words.  Many of his artworks make use of the word "Rose", some are called Roses des Vents, literally wind roses and a painting of his friend Marcel Duchamp dressed as a woman named Rose Selavy (Rose C'est la vie -it's life).  Cornell made visual puns by using a rose with a spiderweb within it to power a boat in one of his images.  The rose was a probabilistic symbol and was about navigating one's way through life.  

Jon shared the concept behind the Celestial Navigation by Birds which was documented in a 1958 Scientific American magazine with which Jon was coincidentally familiar. The experiment was to show that birds navigate by stars at night.  To test this, birds were placed in a cage with blotter paper and the cage was in a planetarium.  An ink pad was on the bottom so the birds would get ink on their feet when they jumped in the direction they wanted to fly.  By changing the stars above in the planetarium and seeing how the birds followed this change,  they were able to document that birds do in fact navigate by the stars. 

On the back of this piece is a celestial map with someone with a telescope and another person with binoculars.  Jon noted that we impose patterns on the stars, not unlike the way we view artwork. Cornell signed his work backwards, signifying that it was in code, much as Leonardo da Vinci wrote his scientific work backwards. 

In closing Jon shared with us a quote from a letter to the editor of a German magazine that noted we engage in art when we communicate "through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful."  (click for Jon's presentation)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Geography Lesson

by Susan Weinberg 

Tonight began with a geography lesson.  The Torah is quite specific about the boundaries of our covenant with God.  First we are promised in Genesis 28:14 that "thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth and spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north and to the south." Meryll pointed out that the Hebrew word doesn't actually mean"spread", but rather "to break through," a much more incendiary interpretation.

What boundaries do you live with? she asked.

"A house, our body, our city, our counties, our states" we replied.

Our attention was drawn to a very specific passage in Numbers 34:3-12
which lays out the boundaries of Israel. We were directed to the handout (The Covenantal Promise) where we found a map (p4).  As we traced the parameters outlined in this passage we noted the promised border and how it related to the real border. It encompassed a much larger section than the actual Israeli border reaching as high as Damascus. The borders of the covenant are defined by where people lived  ( Genesis: 15:18-25 ) and by a triangular relationship between God, Abraham and the land (Genesis 12:7).  So why this variance between promised and actual?  Perhaps the Israelites didn't deliver what they were supposed to?  Or perhaps it does match more closely than we acknowledge for Ishmael was Abraham's seed also.  Rabbi Benjamin Segal attempts to answer this question noting that because of this triangular bargain with God it always straddles "the real and the ideal".

We began to trace the history of modern day Israel beginning with the UN's partition plan in 1947 on the handout (p8).  It was an odd way to shape a country with Palestinians in the middle dividing the country into many separate segments, an untenable structure from the standpoint of security.  Apparently this division reflected concentrations of where particular people already lived.  I found myself thinking of our recent election with divisions between cities and rural.  If we were to divide our country by those divisions it would look quite similar to the Israeli partition.  This same pattern is found in Africa, India and Pakistan, also areas that were once under colonial rule.

Maps, maps and more maps.  We turned to the map of the separation barrier (p11)  Meryll noted that sheep are not bound by the wall, for there are  underground passageways for sheep to graze. We zoomed in even deeper to look at Jerusalem (p12) and the mishmash of neighborhoods that composes it.

Prior to our session we had been asked to observe the live cam of the Wall.  What were the divisions we witnessed?  The wall itself, the plaza, the wall between the men and women, the tunnel by the wall by which Arabs can go to the Temple Mount.  Many boundaries are defined by gender and religious identity.

Now it was time to imagine our own map of Israel.  how should it be divided, mapped and bordered? This was to be a dream map, but we struggled with the impracticability of dreams. What would we want?  "Peace and safety," we replied.   Then we shifted to city planning mode and decided on a pinwheel structure much like Paris.  We would put the core services, green space and religious buildings in the center, serving the branches that surrounded them.  Layers, we needed layers that would allow us to keep our differences, our culture and history, but overlap with our neighbors.  Soon we had a multilayered structure rising into the sky.

Our neighbors had a different approach to this project replete with rivers, oceans, native land and music.  Palestine and Israel were mirror images of each other. Still others opted for no borders with Lake Minnetonka in the middle.

Or perhaps fresh water on the borders and access to water routes to create an island.  Even in this island of coexistence there were battlements, convinced we couldn't depend on the rest of the world to leave us in our bubble.

And then of course there were the post-minimalists, lost in discussion, who didn't breach that white surface that taunted them.

We began the first of our artist led discussions with Rony Szleifer taking us into an exploration of passages that remind us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and thus should not torment a stranger nor oppress him  (Exodus 22:20-21)  We are further reminded of why that is, for we know the soul of a stranger because of our experience in being an outsider, a stranger in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)  Finally we are exhorted to love him as ourself, once again because we were strangers. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)  It is in our otherness that we learn empathy. Roni asked us to consider where we draw borders in life and in art.  Where do we erect our personal walls that move with us? How much are they values, how much stereotypes? (You can find his presentation here)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Finding Passage

By Susan Weinberg

When I entered the lab I was struck with the profusion of red "I voted" stickers.  It was election day and our group was well represented at the polls.  Our theme of Insider-Outsider seemed very relevant although which was which remained in question.

We began our discussion with the personal, the place where most of us live.  Have you ever felt like an outsider? As a Jew or as an artist?  How did it make you feel?

Several of us talked about feeling like an outsider as a solitary Jew among non-Jews, representing our ethnicity to those who often had little exposure to Jews.  Some of us also spoke about feeling like an outsider even among other Jews.  The local Jewish community, where everyone knew each other from growing up here, wasn't always felt to be as accessible to "outsider" Jews, an outsider within outsiders. With that brief discussion to get us immersed in our theme, we moved into our text study.

As someone with only enough Hebrew proficiency to read tombstones, I have often wished I had the ability to dissect words.  So often the clues to deeper meaning lie in their derivation. Understanding Hebrew passages has often rested on looking to the origin and use of specific words so I  appreciate the guidance of our facilitators in this skill which I sadly lack.  

Rabbi Davis led us in an exploration of the Biblical term Ivri (עברי) which means to traverse.  (handout-Jews as Insiders-Outsiders)  The word "Ivri" comes from the word "ever" which means "the other side".

One of the ways we explore the meaning of a word is to look to the context in which it is used. There are several meanings that are implied,  geographic,  theological and genealogical.  The first relates to
Abraham's origin in Ur and his subsequent travels into Canaan.  He literally came from the "other side" of the Jordan River.  This is best illustrated in Genesis 11:31 which speaks of this movement from Ur to Canaan.  Rashi makes the distinction that Abraham actually went "inside"the land referencing Genesis 12:5-6. He didn't just pass through.

It is in Genesis 14:13 that we find the first mention of the word Ivri where it references Abram the Hebrew (Ivri). The word means the wanderer, the one from beyond, and is used thirty times.  In Genesis 40:15 we find the word again, also as a geographic reference to the land of the Hebrews.

The theological use of the word is found in Jonah 1:8-9 when he describes himself as a Hebrew who worships the Lord, the God of heaven who made both sea and land.  Here he is distinct from his neighbors, a non-conformist. Midrash notes "all the world was on one side (eiver) and he on the other side."

The genealogical perspective is based on Abraham being descended from Ever, grandson of Noah.

We gathered in our small groups once again to wrestle with the question of the positive and negative aspects of being an outsider and to share our responses to readings in a handout -Readings on Ivri.

As outsiders we are not sucked into group think and are skeptics by nature. Conversely we can easily become the target.  It was suggested that we could become overly committed to a contrarian position particularly on such issues as the politics of Israel. The reading by Jonathan Sacks that spoke to many of us was his discussion of sacred discontent, the contradiction between order and chaos. He notes that "Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be."

For our closing exercise we had been asked to bring an image that spoke to boundaries.  Our group included work by Joseph Cornell on the Celestial Navigation by Birds, bounded by the box that contained this construction. Stars offered both sailors and birds touch points to guide their navigation.   Other work included poetry that spoke of a mezuzah at the entry to a doorway, marking a boundary and inviting entrance.  A Sephardic song  spoke of leaving one place and going to another where the singer was unknown.  Others brought individual work addressing the boundaries that separate Israel from the lands that surround it. David Jordan Harris knit these images together, noting that the common thread that connected much of this work was the theme of passage between two places.  The artistic act brings attention to this movement.  As artists we take an experience and find a way to convey it artistically, creating a passage that allows others to also gain entrance.

We closed our session with a different sticker than those "I voted" ones with which we had entered.  Robyn gave each of us a red sticker with a flame.  In light of subsequent national events I found myself thinking back to Sacks' commentary of Judaism protesting that the world is not as it should be. I would suggest that we keep that image of the flame in mind as we seek to keep the flame of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, alive.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Crossing Boundaries

by Susan Weinberg

We began our new year in the Artists' Lab greeting friends and introducing ourselves to new faces.  We deposited our offerings of food to a community table, for what would be a kickoff gathering without food? With forty people in the lab, it is a large group to manage.  Each year is a bit of an experiment and this year because of our large group we are foregoing an arts facilitator  and instead focusing on artist-led discussions to supplement our text leaders.   We've experimented with these in the past two years and they have worked well, leveraging off the resources within our very talented group.  We were also broken into smaller groups within which we will engage in more focused discussions within the larger group.  After we said our hellos we went in search of the table with our name and joined the small group with whom we will work throughout this year.

Robyn Awend, Meryll Page and Rabbi Alexander Davis will continue to lead our lab this year.  We are fortunate to have had such continuity over the past four years.  Each of them told us about themselves, often through a personal story where they crossed a boundary and how it made them feel.  They mapped out what we could expect as we progress through the year beginning with geographic boundaries, an exploration through Torah of boundaries as they relate to ancestors and to Israel. We will then move into boundaries we create or which may be imposed upon us  (eg. a ghetto).  In our third segment we will focus on thought-based boundaries.  We will also explore the book of Ruth through this lens.

Outside: Inside: Exploring Boundaries and Otherness. This is the very robust topic we are addressing this year,  somewhat daunting in its scope.   In our first session of  the new lab we began to peel back the many layers of this rich topic with a focus on boundaries.  A boundary is a dividing line.  One can stay within it or cross it to step into another space.  There are actually three segments, here, there and in between, inside, outside and the boundary itself.

When have you crossed a geographic boundary, an artistic border?  We were asked to contemplate these questions and then share our responses within a small group. We talked of moves and of travels, journeys that moved us from one place to another, changes in artistic direction or bridging into a new way of creating.

Within the larger group we were asked if there were themes that connected our stories.  Change points we said, stepping into the unknown, feeling alone, moving out of our comfort zone with fear, sometimes anger and a sense of mystery.

Having discussed our past experience with boundaries we were invited to consider the future.  Rabbi Davis introduced the subject with a story, the Munkatcher Passport.  In this story a hassid comes to Rebbe Levi Yizchak of Berditchev seeking a passport to return to his family. It would risk his life to seek it from the authorities, so he turned to the rebbe.  The rebbe stepped into his study and returned with a blank piece of paper and the assurance that God had assured him it would be OK.  With great faith the hassid presented it to guard who offered his assistance and all went well.

One hundred and fifty years later in 1935, this story replayed itself when a hassid posed a similar request to his rebbe so he could return to Germany to rescue his family.  The rebbe went to his study and three hours later emerged with a blank piece of paper soaked with his tears.  When the hassid handed the paper to the guard he was also greeted with a personal escort and safe passage.  It is said that he asked his family to place the passport in his hand when he died because if it was sufficient to get him safely into Germany it should certainly help him elsewhere.

If you could have a passport to anywhere, where would it take you, what would it enable you to do?  We wrote our thoughts and then regrouped. Mine was a personal objective that I am circling around, trying to find the pathway to enter new and unfamiliar territory, but I much preferred the rather fanciful proposals of my table mates who sought to step back in time to the lives of ancestors or parents.  It occurred to me that I already have passports to do some of that in the form of books that open up worlds outside of my own. As I recently went through correspondence of my late parents I had a glimpse into their lives as well.  There are many ways to cross those boundaries.

We closed our session with a discussion of this week's parsha led by Meryll with the Tower of Babel Genesis 11:1-9.  We explored the way in which the people used the technology of bricks versus stone to break a technological boundary along the way to breaking a much bigger boundary, that between heaven and earth.  By building a tower high into the sky, they sought to "make us a name".  Instead the boundary of languages was introduced, scattering the people and deterring them from this task.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Schedule: Outside/Inside

This year’s theme is: Insider/Outsider: Exploring Boundaries and Otherness

•    The Lab year runs from October 2016 – June 2017 with a culminating group exhibition and closing presentation June – August 2017.

Labs will meet on the following Tuesdays (November 2016 – June 2017):

•     2nd Tuesday of each month from 11 am – 1 pm at Beth El Synagogue’s Learning Center: (5225 Barry St W, St Louis Park, MN 55416) &

•     4th Tuesday of each month from 7 – 9 pm at the Sabes JCC’s Tychman Shapiro Gallery: (4330 S. Cedar Lake Road, St. Louis Park, MN 5516)

2016 – 17 Lab Dates:

Kick off Lab: SUNDAY, Oct 30: 5 – 7 pm, Beth El Learning Center

November 8: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

November 22: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

December 13: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

December 27: NO LAB *Holiday Season*

January 10: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

January 24: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

February 14: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

February 28: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

March 14: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

March 28: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

April 11: NO LAB *Passover*

April 25: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

May 9: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Social Hall (Note room change)

May 23: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

June 13: 11 am – 1 pm, Beth El Learning Center

June 27: 7 – 9 pm, Sabes JCC Tychman Shapiro Gallery

Friday, September 23, 2016

Keeping One's Stripes

Meryl Page recently shared with me a very interesting post on one of the Holocaust paintings that Professor Milton Katz discussed at the recent retreat.  She was intrigued enough to research the story behind the artist.  You can find her post at Keeping One's Stripes and if you'd like to read her other blogs go to More Jewish Luck.