Thursday, June 30, 2016

Art Beat - A Closing Event

And don't forget our upcoming Art Beat event with readings and performances - the last day to see the Artists' Lab show...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wisdom is...

"Where do we find wisdom?" asked the Rabbi..."the head, the heart, the hands and in relationship", he replied. 

Tonight we gathered to thank our wonderful guides into wisdom, to share food and company and the meaning of our wisdom piece with the rest of the lab.  The final lab is always one of the most interesting labs, but also one of the most difficult to capture in words.  And no, I am not going to report on the comments of twenty-four individual artists.  You just had to be there.

What I share is a distillation of wisdom  from the perspective of the collective lab.  As I listened to each artist speak, I heard themes emerge, ideas that seemed to weave throughout using many voices.  Here's what they said.  

We have keys to wisdom, pearls of wisdom and words of wisdom.  

Wisdom is in the voices of our people and carried forward through books. It is in art and color and line. It is in poetry and in the process, starting somewhere and arriving somewhere, sometimes unexpected.  Wisdom is layered, veiled.  We find it in unlikely juxtapositions grafted together, forming synergies.  It is reflected, but only found upon searching.  We feel it in our bones and in our blood memory.  We find it in doing things, getting things done.   Wisdom is discovered in experimentation, in letting go, going out and coming in.

Wisdom is ephemeral, hard to grasp, sometimes passed on and sometimes lost.

Animals are metaphors for wisdom, owls and donkeys and snakes shedding skins.  Apples signify wisdom, their growth a maturation into wisdom.  

Wisdom is a gift, made of seeds, patterns, connections, cyclicality, a collection of things, a balance between heart and mind.  It is constantly changing, evolving, renewing.

People can signify wisdom, influencing others, modeling wisdom.  Those of us who witness wisdom honor it and those who carry it.

Wisdom resides in relationship and in nature.  

It is in the spectrum of color, hiding even within the word itself.  Wisdom is the search, the process.   

Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but a lifelong attempt to acquire it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Coming Down the Mountain

June 14, 2016 by Susan Weinberg 

We just concluded Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses went to the mountain top and came down with his face radiant as he clasp those two tablets to his breast, so radiant in fact that others were afraid to approach him.

 Often we see artwork reflecting Moses with horns, a rather puzzling interpretation. In fact it represents a translation error. Rashbam speaks of the radiance of Moses' face as representing "a brilliant light which gives off rays on every side". The word for rays is "karan" which is similar to the word "keren" which means horns. (see handout-Moses Radiance)

"So what makes someone glow?" asked the rabbi.

"Menopause" injected one of our group in humor.   Feeling a connection, when someone is in their element and passionate about something added others. What else makes us glow? Humor, enthusiasm, love, confidence and assurance were offered up.

"So why was Moses shining?" asked the rabbi.

Here we dug a little deeper. Transmission of energy, infused with the light of Torah. Some focused on Moses as conduit between God and the people, you plug in the socket and it glows. The rabbi suggested that some believe the light was coming from the tablets and was reflected light.

 "So why does the face shine and not some other part of the body?"

Our eyes are the window to the soul offered some.  Our eyes are how we make a connection with another person.  Proverbs 20:27 elaborates on that connection when it says  "the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord".

"Do we know of anyone who shines?"

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dali Lama were offered as examples.

We then shifted to a few parables.

We considered a story of Rabbi Abbahu who was believed to have found a treasure because his face was glowing.  When questioned by Rabbi Yochanan as to whether he had heard a new interpretation of Torah he referenced an ancient source that he had discovered.  Rabbi Yochanan noted "A man's wisdom makes his face shine". Wisdom can come from both old and new. (handout-Coming Down the Mountain)

From the Hasidic Parable by Aryeh Wineman we discover Sadness in Finding a Treasure.  The story involves a man discovering a treasure too immense to count and he lacks the containers to take the full extent of the treasure.  He is distressed by what he must leave behind.  What does this mean?

There is too much to fill up the small containers that we are.  Take what is essential.  Don't be arrogant, always leave much behind.  David considered whether we needed to view it from a different perspective and shared with us a story from Jean Cocteau who was asked if his house was on fire, what would he carry out of it.  "The fire", he replied.

The rabbi closed with the question, "What are we taking with us and what do we leave behind as we close out this year of the lab? "

 I'm a "top of the stairs responder".  You know, the kind of person who comes up with her response as she is leaving the room and the topic has changed.  It works fine for writing a blog, but less so in the moment.  So after some thought here is what I take and leave.

I take with me the community of friends I have made through the lab, the ideas and discussions that enrich my artwork, my knowledge that has deepened about Judaism and the many things I have learned from others in the group and our wonderful facilitators.  What I leave behind is a little harder.  When I first entered this group, I carried some unease which I now leave behind.  I felt outside of the community and as a more secular Jew, I wondered if this would be a comfortable place for me. I have found it to be a very embracing community and close the year feeling that this is in fact my community and I am very pleased to be a part of it.

A Still Small Voice

In the second part of the lab we were led by Rabbi Debra Rappaport of Shir Tikvah in a discussion about wisdom and silence.  She began by speaking of the relationship of wisdom to Kaballah. Wisdom is one of the Sephirot, the ten attributes of Kaballah.  It is the seed of a thought. By the time we have created an artwork it has gone through many phases. The root of wisdom is in the potentiality.

We shifted to the subject of silence and its relationship to wisdom.  In the Mishnah Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel speaks of silence as beneficial for the body.  Rabbi Akiva describes it as the fence for wisdom.  The Talmud speaks of spending an hour in meditation as a preparation for prayer. (handout-Wisdom-Presence)

In keeping with the subject of silence, Rabbi Rapport asked us to write about what silence was to us.

As one who embraces silence, I loved this topic and wrote:

"Silence is like a warm bath.  It surrounds me, supports me, uplifts me, but doesn't impinge on me.  I float in its embrace.  it calms me and opens me.  Unexpected thoughts and ideas grow within it."

I related the story of how my husband and I deal with silence in different ways.  He enjoys music and often assumes that if I am in a room silently that it is an invitation to turn on music.  I've taken to playing classical music, my fallback to silence,  to let him know the aural space is occupied. For me silence is a presence, not an absence.  Music, particularly with words, is a distraction from my thoughts. Usually I create in silence.

Others who defined themselves as introverts noted their need for silence and spoke of it as a gift.  Still others offered that silence allows time for the creative process to breath.  Silence is the voice of the unspoken.  Not everything is voiced in language. Some noted that they needed silence for certain parts of the creative process and certain types of music for other parts.

As we closed this discussion the rabbi pointed us to Kings 19:4-12 where Elijah waits through wind, earthquake and fire for the Lord to make his presence known.  When all the pyrotechnics have passed there is a still small voice that emerges.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Spirit of Wisdom

by Susan Weinberg

We are nearing the end of this year's lab and deliver our artwork for the exhibition in just two weeks. This is the period that best identifies our individual work styles. There are those who work best under pressure and are now contemplating what they will do in the next two weeks. Then there are those of us who fold under pressure so prepare well ahead. I am clearly in the latter camp with my painting complete.

Our session this evening began with a wisdom prayer from Isaiah 11:2Touch our lives with the spirit of wisdom and insight. Meryll then asked us several thought-provoking questions as we anticipate taking our artwork from the solitude of our studios to the very public gallery.

What kind of wisdom and insight would you like to imbue in others as they view your work?

The responses began to fly, some rather tongue in cheek.

Has she lost her mind?

I want them to feel struck by lightening!


Many of us have incorporated text and hope to entice the viewer into exploring it after absorbing the overall image.

We had a bit of a debate over accompanying wall text.  Some argue for responding just to the artwork and prefer not to know the artist's perspective.

Others of us consider the text as an integral piece of the work.

I prefer them to first understand my intent and then extrapolate to the meaning it may hold for them.   For my work the text and image are both important elements.

Some added that they wanted the viewer to travel the artist's path and then revisit it alone.

That question was then flipped around.

What kind of wisdom and insight do you need to view others' work?

We asked for receptivity to the ideas we addressed, patience and a willingness to take the time.  We noted that the opening usually doesn't offer the environment for that.  Many of us return to go through the show slowly in quiet.  We recommend that others do that as well.

We wanted questions rather than answers, work that provokes the viewer to contemplate.

I found myself thinking of my work that deals with the wisdom of the mothers, a take off on the text Pirkei Avot: The Ethics of the Fathers.  I would ask a viewer to consider what wisdom they received from their mother.

For the second part of our session we broke into groups of four and discussed our work. It is always fascinating to see the direction that others are going and the mediums they are exploring.  Our group was composed of mixed media, collage, poetry and ceramic, all in various stages of completion.  Some are quite brave, delving into unfamiliar mediums with great success. We especially appreciated Sharon Stillman's maiden voyage into ceramics with intriguing results.

This has been an especially interesting topic, a topic with considerable depth.  That depth provides much room for exploration and sometimes some uncertainty as to how to proceed.  It is that looming deadline that pushes us forward.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cutting Room Floor

by Susan Weinberg

The period from Pesach to Shavuot is a time of reflection and study. This period lasts 49 days and traditionally is a time to study the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. These are the sayings of the rabbis, many of which we know well. Perhaps one of the best known is Hillel's statement "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).

The section that we turned our attention to is called the Kinyan Torah which deals with the acquisition or receiving of Torah. It is from the time of the Mishnah, but was not included in the Mishnah. These are the clippings that ended up on the cutting room floor, but found a new home in the Pirkei Avot and form the last chapter of this section.

The Beraita introduces the passage by asserting that the Torah is greater than the priesthood or the kingship; for the kingship is acquired by 30 qualities and the priesthood by 24, but the Torah tops them all with 48 requirements (handout-Kinyan Torah). Not only do these differ in numeric count, but the nature of the requirements also differs. The priesthood and kingship are hereditary and are methods of political or religious control governing a finite period. The Torah has an infinite time frame, is subject to individual interpretation and represents collective knowledge and values. The priesthood and kingship requirements are relational in nature. The priesthood addresses what the people are required to give. The kingship speaks to the privileges of his office. The Torah by contrast addresses the things we must do to receive Torah.

With that introduction we began to explore this list of 48 criteria and identified some that we found particularly intriguing. We broke the group into two circles, one inside the other and facing each other paired off to discuss a selection of criteria through modern day eyes. Every time the rabbi shook a tambourine we changed partners.

It was only later that I took at look at what the Sages said relative to our understanding and I've included it below. Sometimes we focused on the same concept and sometimes our more contemporary perspective took us in another direction.

Ordering of the Lips - We saw ordering of the lips as choosing one's words with care, diplomatically and not in anger while the rabbis saw it more as practicing one's lessons until they came effortlessly.

Joy - We associated this with an openness and receptive state, one of listening. The rabbis spoke of enjoying one's studies as an incentive to continuing and saw joy as broadening the mind, sharpening the intellect and unlocking the memory. I rather liked the idea that joy precedes learning.

Long-suffering - we saw this as dealing with challenges without complaint and saw challenge and attitude as important attributes of learning with much of our learning coming from discomfort. The Sages saw this as avoiding anger.

One who recognizes his place - We added a caveat to this that it was true if the place was one of choice. Much of life is about finding one's place in the world, recognizing it and choosing it. We are all restricted to some extent, born into a particular body and in a particular country and we can choose to honor our body and seek to encourage wisdom in our country. We felt that recognizing one's place had to do with authenticity. The sages spoke of assessing one's own worth, knowing one's qualities as well as shortcomings.

Makes a fence around his words
- We weren't quite sure where to go with this one, but the rabbis spoke of expressing oneself with caution. We felt that words need to be part of a dialogue so our fence required a gate. Turns out that wasn't their interpretation at all.

Our final attribute was shunning honor which we saw as not being too full of oneself, not too dissimilar from the Sages who added that we should be studying Torah for love of Torah, not for our own reputation.

Rabbi Davis concluded by noting that there are many pathways to the Torah. The Pirkei Avot speaks of three crowns, the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name excels them all. Hmm, three crowns, but the fourth is better? What are we supposed to do with that? It goes on to state that the crown of a good name flows from the Torah, thus wrapping it all together. Rabbi Davis summed it up with the statement that Menschkeit is the foundation for Yiddishkeit. Being a good person, a mensch, is at the core.

The second part of our session was led by Carolyn Light Bell and Leah Golberstein who began their session by distributing chocolate to encourage joy which we understand is a precursor for learning. They began by leading us in some poetic thoughts from the Kohelet and other sources (Poetry-Haiku Instructions handout).

We were particularly intrigued with a quote they provided from Rav Avraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who wrote: "Literature, painting and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul and as long as even one single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, it is the task of art to bring it out."

We explored a number of poetic expressions leading us into haiku and were given some time to explore our own creative talents at haiku. We spent a lot of time counting out the 5-7-5 syllables on our fingers to arrive at our creations. As I looked around the room, many hands were raised as fingers moved in rhythm.

Even as we sought to stay within the required pattern, Ann reminded us with a haiku that it was only a structure.

Forget this structure
It is only a construct
we keep for order

The very interesting expressions that we received can be found on the handouts page at Haiku, but let me close with:
Chocolate brings joy
We rejoice in our portion
And are enlightened

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

by Susan Weinberg

"To everything there is a season." Quick!  Who wrote that?  If you guessed Pete Seeger you're wrong although he did borrow it from a guy known as the Kohelet.  The resulting song Turn, Turn, Turn actually has the distinction of being the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics, no copyright infringement here.  We have in fact appropriated many selections from Kohelet, giving credence to his expression  there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Our lab session began with an examination of Ecclesiastes, also known as the Kohelet.  So who is this Kohelet guy? Chapter 1 introduces him as the son of David implying that Solomon is the author of this rather pessimistic assessment of life. Kohelet means the Convener and its alternate name Ecclesiastes means essentially the same, the Convoker. 

There is some dispute about this proposed source and in fact it is believed to have several authors from a later period due to the nature of the Hebrew.  The more puzzling aspect of these passages in the inconsistency in the message.

In our lab session Meryll led us in an examination of some key sections of the Kohelet.  In Chapter 1 he presents his approach to seeking out wisdom concluding that wisdom is vexation and knowledge increases sorrow.  In Chapter 2 he explores laughter and mirth, wine, great works, wealth, all joys and concludes that while wisdom excels folly, in the end all face a common fate, death. Thus he comes  to the conclusion that one should eat and drink and enjoy life, because in the end it all comes to naught.  Not exactly a message that the rabbis wished to promote.  And yet after this puzzling note he concludes "for to the man who is good in his sight he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy."  Huh?

It is in Chapter 3 that we find the passage that inspired Pete Seeger with its poetry. In Ecclesiastes 3:11-14  he extols the creation of God as beautiful in its time, urges us to do good and suggests that we should eat, drink and enjoy pleasure as the gift of God. 

In  4:9-12 he makes a bid for the belief that two are better than one, asserting that this offers support, warmth and defense. Whether this partner is female is cast in doubt by the aspersions he casts on women in 7:23-29 whose heart is "snares and nets" and yet in 9:9 he urges one to enjoy life with the wife that one loves. Perhaps within his 1000 wives and concubines he had examples of each.

In the midst of pessimism and cries of all is vanity we find such contradictory phrases as 8:5 "Who so keepth the commandment shall know no evil thing; and a wise man's heart discerneth time and judgment. " And yet just a few lines later in 8:10 he bemoans the fact that the sentence against sinners is not carried out expeditiously resulting in sin in the hearts of men.  He concludes with the well-known exhortation to eat, drink and be merry (8:15).

Let's take a look at the conclusion of this debate with himself.  In 12:13-14 we find these final lines: 13 The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. 14 For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.

What are we to make of these contradictions with the exhortations to eat, drink and be merry and the meaninglessness and futility of life?  The rabbis struggled with these writings and are believed to have added the conclusion to make it palatable in its inclusion.  It was also proposed that everything under the sun speaks to the earthly realm distinct from the realm of the Torah which exists above the sun.  Despite its many contradictions, these passages offer much poetry that is reflected in our language.

In the second part of our session we spent some time discussing our work for our upcoming exhibition.  Some themes are beginning to emerge.  Several took an approach to wisdom of many paths and learning from other people.  Others looked at the ancestral wisdom that is passed down through generations.  We concluded that this has proven to be a rich topic that upon exploration has offered many directions from which to approach this theme.

As we closed our session Ann shared a reading titled Daniel's Matzo which can be found at handouts.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Let Go, Reach Out

by Susan Weinberg

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” -Ashile Gorky

Robyn began our local retreat with this quote by Gorky. We closed our eyes while she read it, absorbing its meaning. We were asked to consider a word that might represent our efforts that day. Two phrases lodged in my mind, sequential in nature, first-let go, then reach out.

Letting go is implicit in abstraction. Representational work requires us to fit the pieces together. There is a "right" way no matter how stylistic it may be, knee bones connect to thigh bones. Abstraction has no such "right" answer, rather it requires us to "let go" and feel the essence.

There are different forms of abstraction employed in different mediums and Meryll opted for poetry as a form that doesn't fill in all the blanks. As she described it, poetry can make a word burst its boundaries. Jewish classical text on wisdom offers a how to manual. Proverbs instructs us on how to behave. Poets come at it a bit differently and Meryll chose to explore abstraction through a poem by Yehuda Amichai titled Jerusalem 1967. (See handouts). We each read a section of this lengthy and rich poem that seemed quite prescient, anticipating the divides we experience today in Israel. The poem takes place on Yom Kippur in 1967, the first Yom Kippur after the war, in the year of Forgetting 5728.  The letters which stand for this year actually mean the word forgetting, but on this first Yom Kippur he is remembering and mourning.

Once his name was Ludvig Pfeuffer.  In Israel he took his Hebrew name Yehuda and added the last name Amichai which means "my people lives".  In the poem he references the Yehudean desert, perhaps a reference to his own interior.

Amichai fought in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 and his experience during war colors his perspective and his poetry.

"What wisdom do we see in this poem?" Meryll asked.  A recognition of a duality, multi-layered, an understanding of interrelationships.  It was observed that he is the artist on the bridge.  Others proposed that as an artist we separate ourself from the rest, we view it as an outsider.

We were meeting in the studio of  Sandra Felomovicius and we shifted to learn more about her work.  Born and raised in Mexico City, both of her grandparents came from Russia and Poland.  Ellis Island was closed in the 1920s when they arrived so they ended up going to Veracruz and gradually moved to the larger cities.  While there was a Sephardic community, Eastern European Jews went to Guadalahara, Monterrey and Mexico City.  Her grandmother came from Alabama and New York, married and stayed in Mexico.  Sandra was the second generation born in Mexico.  She also did a stint in Florence, Italy, but moved to Minnesota when she married and attended MCAD.

Sandra introduced us to  Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-5:2) . Bamidbar means "in the desert"and 
we are told that to find wisdom we must embrace the desert by bringing an open mind and  letting go of preconceived ideas and beliefs.

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt says, "Wisdom is all around us – in animals, in nature, in the world and most especially in every single human being. Wisdom is bombarding us at every moment. But we need open minds and open hearts in order to appreciate it, to value it and to take it in. If not, we merely shape what we hear to feed our existing misconceptions rather than develop new understandings.

The key is to make ourselves into deserts – open to the world, allowing the outside to flow into us uninhibitedly.

When our minds and hearts are deserts – freed from personal agenda – then, and only then, will wisdom fill them up."

With that introduction, Sandra led us in an exercise of abstraction.  We each stood before a piece of paper and for a count of five were asked to record a circle, square and triangle without lifting our pen.  We did this several times then moved to our neighbor's paper.  Next we returned to our original page and developed it as we wished.  Many of us discovered crayon resist by combining watercolor and crayon and the results were surprisingly interesting.

At this juncture we broke for a wonderful repast to which each of us had contributed.

Later Rabbi Davis joined us and for his contribution to abstraction offered the niggun, a wordless melody.  He told us a story of a chassid who failed to understand what the Rebbe was teaching until he joined in a niggun.  "What and how does he suddenly understand?" asked the rabbi.  The niggun gave him the space to find the meaning, room to digest. It was suggested that an idea is present before words and focusing too much on the words banishes the idea.  We need to let go before we can find what we seek.

The rabbi quoted from Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement who speaks of music as a training in attentive hearing, a cultivation of the spirit.

For our final portion of the day Lynda and Jay revisited our mind maps on wisdom that we had created at the very beginning of our sessions.  Our task was to update it based on what we had learned about wisdom.  Keeping with my theme of letting go, I felt a resistance to mind mapping,  too much of my typical intellectual exercise. Instead of thinking of how words connect, I approached it as less of a thought exercise and more visually.  I looped all of my prior words together like a circulatory system, flowing in and flowing out.  We take in wisdom and we send it out, I added circles to allow for space, to let ideas emerge, to find quiet for wisdom to take root.  Inter-connectivity, space, interrelationship.  That's what I've learned.  Let go, reach out.