Thursday, March 26, 2015

Netilat Yadyim (Hand Washing)

3/24/15 Lab 1.0 by Robyn Awend

We began the Lab with Rabbi Davis leading us in a song based on Psalm 145:16 by Rabbi Shefa Gold: Poteiah et yadekah u-masbiah l’kol hai razon – You open Your Hand, I open my heart to his abundance; and all life, all will is satisfied.  After several rounds of this communal singing, we explored various forms of hand washing – purity vs. spiritual preparation (to serve others and G-d):
We discussed excerpts from the following books:

·       Sefer HaHinnukh, Mitzvah 106

We also looked at Exodus 30:13-19 and discussed the holy vessel, the bronze laver, referencing commentary and shared thoughts.  

“Netilay Yadyim can help you raise up your reason for living each day. Instead of just “getting by”in life, you have the chance to take action for a higher purpose, to experience avodah (being of service) – by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried.

We then set an intention for using our hands and went around the table and completed the following sentence. “My hands are for -----?” Some of the responses included, “creating, giving, lifting, loving, connecting, etc.”

We then read, Bless These Hands by Diann Neu, from EarthPrayers. In closing, Rabbi Davis walked us through the 4 step procedure for washing one’s hands and invited us to join him as we sang the melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold once again.

Following Rabbi Davis, Liba presented us with a table filled with colorful paints and a variety of hand washing vessels. We were invited to take a vessel and begin to make it our own. As the group painted and adorned, we discussed hand washing rituals at our own homes and special traditions that are celebrated during Passover, as it nears. At the end of the session, there was a beautiful variety of hand washing vessels, each one unique with its own story. I look forward to using mine this Shabbat.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Water Rituals

Kos Miriam  sketch by Susan Armington
3/17/2015  Lab 2.0  by Susan Weinberg

What is ritual and why do we do it?

Thus started our latest session of the Artists' Lab led by Rani Halpern and Alison Morse.

It adds structure we replied. It brings things to mind, presents a physical way to tap spirituality. It brings meaning and order to our lives. Ritual marks time, defines our movement from the ordinary to the sacred. It connects us to prior generations, links us to people across the world.

But it can divide too we were reminded.

So what are Jewish rituals that involve water?

Washing hands

Salt water at the Seder

The mikvah

Tashlich-casting our sins on the water at Rosh Hashanah

Tarhara-ritual washing of the dead

Alison led us in a discussion of Tashlich where we cast off the past and start anew at the Jewish New Year. The ritual involves tossing bread in the water to represent our sins. Ideally we go to a river with fish representing that we are caught in a net of divine judgment. Fish have eyes that are always open representing God's eyes always upon us. Sin, like the waters, will move on thus creating a separation, a rupture between past and future.

Alison shared a powerful poem by Peter Cole titled The Song of the Shattering Vessels that speaks to rupture, a theme throughout our discussion.

Building on that theme Rani shared a poem with us from the blog of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi Blog. The poem titled Firmament/Tearing explores a medieval Midrash based on Genesis 1:6-7. While the passage in Genesis speaks of God dividing the water between sky and earth, the Midrash tells of all the waters ascending and refusing to descend. God extended his finger and tore the waters in half forcing half to descend. Two words come into play, Keri'a which means "tear" and Raki'a which means "expanse". Each is an anagram of the other. The Midrash says "God said, let there be an expanse (Raki'a)--do not read expanse, but "tear" (Keri'a)".

This passage presents an analogy between human birth and God's creation. Each involves a tear in the waters to allow space for independent life.

Keri'a is in fact a ritual associated with death. At one time a Jew in mourning would tear their clothing. Now we receive a krea ribbon which we tear. We enter life with a tear and similarly we leave it with a tear.

Rani referenced the Jewish folklore about how the baby in utero can see everything before and to come. A touch by an angel at birth causes the child to forget and creates that indentation above our lips. Thus something is given up for something that is coming.

As a group of artists we recognized the destructive part of the creative act. Disruption is part of the process of creation.

We turned our attention to Miriam's Well. Miriam is the only female figure in the Torah who is not known as someone's wife or mother. When the Israelites left Egypt, God created a well that traveled with them for 40 years. Water went out from the well to the twelve tribes. It was known as Miriam's well and dried up upon her death. At that point Moses struck the rock for water.

A new ritual has begun to develop at Passover around the idea of Miriam's Well. The Kos Miriam, cup of Miriam, is filled with water as a symbol of Miriam's Well. It represents spirituality, nurturing and healing. While not created as a feminist symbol, some have interpreted it to represent the many untold women of the Torah.

We talked of where in the Seder we thought this ritual belonged. Suggestions included using it to fill water glasses and keeping a little bit within it or alternatively having each person pour some water into it.

We then each experimented with creating on paper a Miriam's cup for use at the Seder.

Alison and Rani left us with the following question to contemplate:

What kind of freedom might you want to help bring to others and/or yourself in honor of Passover? What might you have to leave behind, give up, tear or break away from, in order to help create that freedom?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Capturing Faith

3/10/2015. Joint Lab by Robyn Awend, MPLS Artists’ Lab Coordinator

We welcomed visiting artist Jon Adam Ross to our joint Lab on Tuesday night, a renowned performing artist from New York. Jon recently received on a Covenant Foundation signature grant to support his new artistic initiative, the Inheiritance Project. The Covenant Foundation also funds the Regional Jewish Artists’ Laboratory of the Upper Midwest. The essence of this project is to create a series of five performances in five different cities, inspired by the matriarchs and patriarchs of Genesis, that engages Jewish communities around the country at every stage of the process. Minneapolis/St. Paul was chosen to be the first host community for this national project!

Jon began the Lab with an introduction to his project and to the patriarch Abraham that would inspire our evening and serve as the catalyst for his performance this fall. Jon’s infectious enthusiasm permeated the room as he shared with us the details of his project, its many ambitious moving parts, and the important role that the Artists’ Lab would play in the creative process.

We were introduced to Miranda July’s website, Learning to Love You More, and Yoko Ono’s book, Grapefruit, each filled with unusual, creative and interactive assignments open to any and all.For example, assignment #18 on the Learning to Love You More website invites people to recreate a poster from your teenage years and post it. This is just one of several dozen suggested interactive assignments.

You could hear the creative gears churning as we sifted through these various assignments, excited to apply this inspiration to a similar website being created as part of the Inheiritance Project to engage the larger community in interactive experiences leading up to Jon’s performance in the fall. Jon shared with us some of the key themes that emerged from various prior study sessions and conversations with others in the community surrounding the story of Abraham – hospitality, history repeating itself, joining, etc. We broke up into small groups, explored one topic at a time and brainstormed practical, bizarre, humorous and sensitive assignments relating to each topic.

Some of the highlights that were shared in our large group discussion included:

o Spend two hours decorating a helium balloon and then let it go.
o Keep a journal of all of the lies you tell to avoid confrontation
o Create a map without a journey
o Photograph or artistically capture “faith”

Jon was accompanied by his wonderful traveling crew; Director - Chantal, David - Photographer, Glenn - Publicist/writer, and Ilana – filmmaker, each of whom added something special to our evening.

Jon will be in the Twin Cities through March 19 engaging over 700 people, dozens of demographics and exploring a variety of media. This project concludes with a premier performance the weekend of September 9th, 2015.

The Inheiritance Project is made possible through a grant from the Covenant Foundation and the support of FJC: AFoundation of Philanthropic Funds.

To learn more about the Inheiritance Project,

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: