Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Crowning Trees with Torah

Rabbi Davis began our session with a niggun and a question. Camping or glamping? Which do you prefer? We seemed to split into two camps. There were those who spoke quite eloquently of camping as a profound experience involving communing with nature. Those of us in the other decidedly less profound “camp” all alluded to the fact that yes, we had once camped in our youth, but now preferred a bed, preferably accompanied by a bathroom.  I must confess, I don’t remember the communing part of my camping days. Rather I remember rubbing pots with soap so they were easier to clean after using them over a campfire. There was no communing in sight. True confession is that I camped when I was younger because it was less expensive and I couldn’t afford the alternative back then. 

Our discussion of camping and its associated communing with nature was the segue to a discussion of Torah versus Teva (nature) (see handout Torah vs Teva)  Rabbi Shimon spoke of someone who interrupts his study by noticing the beauty of nature as committing a mortal sin. In Deuteronomy 16:21 we are told that we should not plant an idolatrous tree near the Altar of God. The Etz Chayim asserts that even though God created nature, nature is not the same thing as God as it is not moral. It may be admired, but not worshipped. 

By now I was feeling uncomfortable with this conversation. Yes, I get the idolatry part, but even as a non-camper, nature feels like an important way that we appreciate the beauty of the world and the amazing logic that underlies it. 

I knew by now that another perspective was coming when the rabbi told us to turn the page. Two rabbis bridged the more severe world of Rabbi Shimon on behalf of nature. Rabbi Yanklowitz spoke on behalf of admiration of nature but urged us not to let ourselves be distracted from the spiritual world by the external world. Still closer to synthesis, Rabbi Greenberg argued that both God and his creation, nature, should each receive their due in their own time.  

We then arrived at Jeremy Bernstein, author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment. Bernstein acknowledges the alienation between Judaism and nature with Torah viewing nature as a competitor of sorts. He speaks on behalf of a synthesis, viewing the beauty of the world as an expansion of study and argues for the interconnectedness of ruchani (spirit) and gashmi (material).

Ironically, the example he offers involves our friend Rabbi Shimon as he gathered with fellow rabbis under trees and exclaimed, “How beautiful is the shade with which these trees protect us. Let us crown them with the words of Torah!”

The synthesis was driven home by a beautiful prayer by Rebbe Nachman set to music by Naomi Shemer in the Song of the Grasses. (listen to song)

The second part of our session was led by Melissa Rappaport Schifman, author of Building a Sustainable Home as she engaged us in the considerations in doing exactly that. She spoke from her own experience in creating a home that was more sustainable than the alternatives.

 “Who lives or works in a building?” she asked noting that we spend the vast majority of our time in a building.  So, what is a sustainable home? She showed us a variety of homes from a yurt to a tiny home to homes complete with solar panels and chickens. Ultimately a sustainable home is more sustainable than the alternatives.  Schifman focuses on LEED certification for existing buildings. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 

Her framework revolves around health, wealth and soul and she sought to present it from the standpoint of a homeowner considering the journey with the value of hindsight. Health included the considerations of clean water, clean air and a clean house. And by clean house, she didn’t mean tidy, but rather the chemicals that you bring into your home.  Notwithstanding the campers in our midst, we spend 90% of our time indoors and our homes have become tighter envelopes, filled with toxins, cleaning supplies and cooking oils. 

By wealth she meant energy, water efficiency and durability. You know those tags on new appliances that tell us how energy efficient they are.  

When she speaks of soul she is talking about our survival on this planet. To survive we need clean air, water and food. That means materials (local, recycled and sustainable), landscape (limiting lawn size, managing storm water and plants for bees and butterflies) and location.

A couple of areas that she emphasized were to filter water, noting that $300 of bottled water can be replaced with less than $1/year of filtered water.  She also emphasized electrifying everything to avoid using fossil fuels, noting key appliances of heaters, water heaters, dryers and stoves.  As we move away from coal, we often find that natural gas is more efficient, but it contributes to carbon monoxide poisoning and creates the problem of methane gas which contributes to global warming.

Melissa shared a kit of items that can help get us started in managing our footprint. Included in them was the low flow faucet aerator which minimizes unnecessary water usage and a seed package for bee and butterfly friendly plants. 

Our homes are our biggest carbon footprint, but we can now create a net zero energy home, turning our footprint into a restorative force.  Several members of the lab suggested solutions they have found to work towards that objective. Metro Blooms is a Minneapolis organization that offers ideas and even funding to help in building rain gardens.  Community Solar is an alternative way those without a good location for solar panels, can still participate in solar energy, investing and getting a credit in exchange. Melissa spoke in favor of the belief that we can each make a difference and the collective force of those efforts can in fact make a significant difference in our world.

Some additional links:

BuildWithRise.com-"turn any home improvement project into a sustainable one"
GreenHomeGuide.com - USGBC's resource
rim.org - RockyMountain Institute
EWG.org- database of cleaning supplies, cosmetics, tap water, sunscreens, produce
RichardsWater.com - Water Filtration

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Peaceful Home

The lab gathered in a cross-generational session with the 7th grade class of the Heilicher Day School.  The lab artists began to arrive first and filled in a portion of the room. Soon the students arrived and gathered at the other end of the room. Liba Zweigbaum Herman, our facilitator, invited us to introduce ourselves, each person sharing some ways that they liked to create. She then introduced the concept of Shalom Bayit, literally peace in the home. 

“What else could this mean beyond that basic definition,” she asked. 

"A Shalom Bayit can be an artists’ lab, a class, a Jewish community," we replied." It can be a sacred space, even our planet." 

“What can we do if our bayit has turbulence, is in need of healing?” Liba asked. “What do we need to create a healthy bayit? How do we create peace within a community?"

It was suggested that we each have to be comfortable with self, before we can expand our home to encompass others.  That includes meeting our core physical needs. I thought of those oxygen masks dropping in planes. “Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others,” we are told. 

With that mask firmly in place we can begin to reach out to others. A healthy self makes for a healthy relationship to others. It was suggested that fear stands in the way so we need to approach others with compassion. 

Liba gave each of us a piece of paper and asked that we write down the most urgent issue in climate change. 

“Crumple it up and throw it,” she urged.

 We rose from our seats and soon students and artists began to mingle as papers flew overhead. We each gathered a crumpled package  as they settled to the floor. We began to share what was written on our “crumble.”

Gathering in groups of four, two artists, two students, we began our discussion by unwrapping our crumpled papers.  Plastic, agreement on climate change and effluence were the thoughts within. 

“Was that effluence or affluence?” we debated.  

The students  chimed in with effluence meaning the flow of sewage, but we also discussed how affluence and economic-driven decisions could contribute to damage to our climate, fostering deforestation and destruction of habitats. The artists had brought articles on the theme of global warming adding some additional threads for discussion.

The latter half of our session was focused on creating an art piece that spoke to the themes we had surfaced. Here are just a few of the creations.

Liba closed with a moving reading from Greta Thunberg as we discussed how to listen well to young people who are attuned to this issue as it is the world in which they will live. Having shared a group with two very astute students, we felt hopeful that the world will someday be in their hands.



Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Creative Destruction

by Susan Weinberg
We gathered tonight in a special Artists’ Lab done in conjunction with eighth-graders from Talmud Torah and led by facilitators from the In(heir)itance Project. The in(heir)itance Project last joined us in 2015 and performed a play that many in our lab attended. Their approach is to engage the community in dialogue and then use that dialogue in the creation of theater. Their theme on this visit is water. A return visit will be made in February in hopes that the seeds that were sowed through this visit might take root.

Teacher Kara Rosenwald and the eighth-grade students came together with a number of lab members in this exploration. Chantal and Ari from the In(heir)itance Project led us through an exercise of creating a word cloud around water. As they went around the room, each person offered up a word that they associated with water. 

Body, Source, Quench, Fluid, Lake, Silk, Trees, A Right, Rising, Flow, Hydration, Health, Clear, Ocean, Drink, Cloud, Wet, Dogs, Rain, Ice, H2O, Turtles, Survival, Ripple, Tea, Waves, Gills, Flood, Memory, Access, Precipitation, Evaporation, Runoff, Filtration, Wash, Fracking, Thirsty, River, Land, Light, Rift, Fish, Shark, Salt, Swamp, Pollution, Waste (water), Glacier, Iceberg, Mayim, Plastic, Reflection, Mermaids, Play, Sea, Well. . .

We began to find the common themes within the words. There were elements of water – fluid, wet, reflective. The forms or characteristics that it might take- ice, steam, rain and then there were the ways we interact with it. Many of the words represented consumers of water, including us as our body is 70% water. Another large consumer, trees.  A thirsty cottonwood tree can consume 200 gallons of water each day. 

“Where does water come from? “ they asked and drew our attention to the first story of creation in Genesis. There the first mention of water is in the second line of the Torah. Remember Ruach? the spirit or breath of God that hovered over the water. While we often think of God anthropomorphically, here the water is given a face as well.  Is it God’s face, reflected within the water?

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 

So, was water primordial?  It seemed to always be there. Nowhere does it speak of its creation. We discussed its presence as elemental, a core element in all things and for God on the second day, a creative element. Just add water. Or perhaps just divide water into firmaments and ocean. Water is both a creative element and a destructive element. Often those two acts are related. Water carved out the Grand Canyon, destroying in order to create that negative space that evokes such wonder. 

Now that our wheels were well lubricated, we broke into groups to choose a descriptor and develop it into an artistic creation. The theme of our group was the cycle of both creation and destruction, often flip sides of each other. The eighth graders led the way without hesitation, drawing a wave and then another wave in reverse echoing the form. We used blue to represent creativity and grey tones to represent destruction. While our image came together in the last five minutes it was a satisfying creation that captured the contrary, yet complementary nature of our subject. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

To Serve and Preserve

Detail -Adam and Eve, 1526, Cranach, Lucas, the Elder
by Susan Weinberg

“What to you is Paradise?” asked Rabbi Davis. 

One person quickly responded, “A world where everybody is treated equally and all needs are fulfilled.”

“No,” replied another. “We really would have to exclude humans who have a tendency to ruin things. “

Yet another spoke of a rainforest she recently visited where animals were not afraid of people and there was a sense of dignity and peace.

“Timelessness,” tossed out someone else. “I don’t have to remember where I have to be!” We chuckled quietly in acknowledgement of the busy lives we all lead. 

Humans were invited back into the garden, as one noted that their Paradise would include not just what God has created, but also human creations such as music. Apparently, we don’t ruin everything.

“If it is a place, what happens there?” asked the rabbi.

I had been wondering the same thing. How would I occupy myself in Paradise? I was quite sure I would be thoroughly bored. I considered painting which can present a state of flow and timelessness, but it too comes out of some unease. If you take away the unease, what kind of art does one create? I wondered.

“I don’t know what happens, but I know what doesn’t,” replied one person.  “There are no cars, no freeways, no jobs, no stress. Things happen organically, conflicts are resolved, there is relaxation and tranquility. “And love,” added another. “A place to love and be loved.”

The conversation turned towards a sense of purpose and whether that was taught or innate in each of us. That was what was lacking from the picture we described and it was that missing piece that I needed. I was to learn that it was not neglected.

To consider a different take on Paradise, we turned our attention to the second creation story in the Torah in  Genesis 2:5-16. There we noted there were two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was only the tree of knowledge of good and evil that was forbidden, a negative rule, just the thing to tempt the then childlike Adam and Eve. In fact, the admonition preceded the creation of Eve, despite the bad rap that was permanently bestowed upon her. What was that tree doing there anyway? God was certainly not childproofing the garden. More like putting it there to create the ensuing action. Also, in this passage God indeed gives Adam a purpose – to dress and keep the garden of Eden. 

Our handout (Serve and Preserve)  presented different perspectives on this task assigned to Adam. Rashi believed that Adam was placed there to till it, enjoy its fruits and keep the animals out. Chizukini notes that Adam was formed elsewhere, a place of thorns and thistles, so by contrast he could fully appreciate the special nature of the garden. Several of the sages speak of the garden metaphorically as representing the Torah, but the Torah was not introduced until much later in the story. Perhaps the garden represented a discipline and a responsibility, something we were to learn from and carry forward to the Torah, approaching it with a sense of reverence as part of a holy relationship. We concluded that Paradise is not a gift, it is something we work on. In fact, we are the soil that we till.

One of the sources we kept coming back to was, The Way Into Judaism and the Environment by Jeremy Benstein. Benstein explains that one of the translations of the Hebrew phrase le’ovdah ulshomrah” is  “to work and to guard.” What exactly are we guarding the garden from?  Benstein posits that we are to protect it from our own avodah, the effect of our own work. He argues for a role of stewardship  with an emphasis on sustainability. One of the other translations from the Hebrew is “to serve and preserve, ” an interpretation that implies a level of humility necessary in the act of stewardship. (More from Jeremey Benstein)

And a few recommendations:

Article on Jonathan Safran Foer's new book We Are the Weather Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.

Rabbi Noah Greenberg's workshop at Beth El on Making Your Own Tefillin

Friday, November 29, 2019

A Fertile Source

by Susan Weinberg

The room rapidly filled with small gatherings as people met in conversation and embraces. All were eager to begin a new year in the Artists Lab after a one-year hiatus. Both community and content drew us in. While we had previously had a small event around a film, this was our first formal meeting.

We had been asked to bring an image related to our topic, Muddy Waters, an exploration of climate change and the environment through the lens of Jewish text. I was intrigued with the new information our group introduced, each person bringing a new perspective to expand upon our topic. A few of them are shared below and remind us that muddy waters can be very fertile. 
Jonathan led off with a flood plain map of his neighborhood commenting that an illustration was a work of art with a purpose that ideally creates an emotional response. He pointed out his house within the map to illustrate the personal aspect of increased flooding.

Several people commented on the floods within Venice. I remembered buying waders on my last visit there as we walked on planks raised above the water during the “aqua alta”. While this is an annual occurrence for this slowly sinking city, this year presents the worst flooding in fifty years.

Human Rights and Sustainability
Alison brought a focus on clothing, building on her work on the Rana Plaza collapse. The clothing industry historically has been a significant polluter. Alison expressed her interest in exploring the relationship between human rights and sustainability.

Teaching the Children
Liba reached behind her to pull out a protest sign designed by her 9-year-old son and  talked of taking her children to their first protest on the environment. Teaching our children is an important tenet of Judaism.

Rain Forests
Others shared their experiences in rain forests in Japan and Costa Rica. Carolyn had recently returned from Costa Rica and reported on the significant action that country had taken in support of the environment. Mining is prohibited and deforestation has been halted, returning the country to 70% of what it once was. I learned that its biodiversity law was a model for the rest of the world. 

Plastic Pollution
Bonnie introduced us to the idea of garbage islands, islands that were constructed out of the plastic debris that polluted our oceans. Ann shared information on the 4oceans bracelet where a purchase of a bracelet for $20 also buys you the extraction of a pound of plastic from the ocean.

The Next Generations
Kris reminded us of the voices that energize others to pursue environmental action with an image of Greta Thornberg. She emphasized that the times have moved beyond climate change to climate crisis. She and others also noted that people are fleeing flooded homelands.  The crises we face are interrelated, with climate change playing a significant role.

My contribution was trees.  I was intrigued with the work of Beth Moon who has spent fourteen years photographing the oldest trees on earth.  Some of these trees are thousands of years old and are indeed a thing of beauty. Having recently read the Overstory about deforestation and the loss of irreplaceable trees, I found myself contemplating the loss of biodiversity that arises from destruction of our forests. Trees absorb huge amounts of water so their loss results in more flooding, increased greenhouse gases and loss of plant and animal species that rely upon them. 

We concluded with a discussion of a passage (see handout Muddy Waters) which is literally on our doorposts, the passage contained in the mezuzah. Meryll Page noted that it was excluded from the Reform siddur because of the linkage between failing to follow the commandments of God and environmental disasters (flooding, tsunamis etc). Reform Judaism took issue with the theme of retribution and an angry God. We broke into small groups to discuss our understanding of this passage and what of it we might find meaningful.  Some focused on the passage which speaks of not being lured away to serve other gods, thinking of the emphasis on money as a false god when sought over the long-term preservation of  the environment. Teaching the children also rang true for many, a responsibility we each carry.

Meryll closed the session offering a few additional areas to explore:

Solar Guerrilla - A Unique Exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum ...

Kris also shared this link on the role one particular teen is playing to confront the climate crisis. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Muddy Waters

by Susan Weinberg

Before I let you make a fool out of me, I’d rather drink muddy water, lay down and sleep in a hollow log. – Lou Rawls

That song was my first thought when I heard the title of this year's lab. Muddy Waters: Climate Change, the Environment and What We Can Learn from Jewish Texts. Several of us were familiar with the blues musician Muddy Waters as well as the fact that there was a song by that name. Actually, there are three songs. Unfortunately none that particularly relate to our theme.

The 2019/2020 Artists' Lab kicked off with an event at the Icon Theater, the film Sustainable Nation, a part of the Jewish Film Festival and a topic that was quite relevant to this year's lab theme. There was a lot of hugging as we reconnected with old friends, learning who would be in the newly constituted lab. We gathered before the film to do some brainstorming on our thoughts relative to this year’s theme.

In contemplating the term “muddy waters” we thought about the meaning of the phrase "to muddy the waters." The figurative use of the term "muddy" means to confuse by making something hard to understand. The analogy relates to stirring up mud from the bottom of a clear body of water. In fact the waters of climate change have frequently been muddied as pseudoscience is introduced to counter the facts presented by the many reputable scientists.

We identified elements that we associated with the broader topic of the environment and climate change. Many elements in the environment are interrelated. We have ecosystems that are composed of interacting organisms. Having just read The Overstory by Richard Powers,  my mind went to trees which can be an independent ecosystem all by themselves. They also mark the stresses of historical climate within their very body.

From trees it is a short leap to water, the theme of the film we watched. Trees and water are inextricably interrelated. Trees are 50% water and a 100-foot tree can absorb 11,000 gallons of water. I thought of my neighbor whose yard is now flooded since another neighbor took down trees to build a sports court. We are interrelated as well. 

Trees absorb carbon better than anything we’ve been able to come up with. That’s why deforestation increases the carbon in our atmosphere. As plant species face extinction, seed banks are often designed to save them, but many seeds don’t survive the process. Goodbye oaks, goodbye horse chestnuts. Goodbye mangos, goodbye avocados.

Water, trees, seed banks, ecosystems, biodiversity. This will be a rich topic. Loamy soil for creativity. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Open the Gates

Our exploration of thresholds has taken us through many gates. As we gathered with the rabbi one last time for this topic, he reminded us of the words for Psalm 24:9  "Lift up your head, oh you gates; lift them up you everlasting doors." Together we sang the words in Hebrew.

The rabbi shared a prayer with us that is said at the close of Shabbat at Havdallah. It identifies all the gates that we hope will open before us as we enter a new week. We each read a gate as the rabbi softly sang.

Gates of light, gates of lengthy days and years, gates of forbearance, gates of blessing, gates of understanding, gates of mirth, gates of greatness, gates of redemption, gates of power, gates of pleasure, gates of knowledge, gates of glory, gates of majesty, gates of relief, gates of a good assembly, gates of perfection, gates of alacrity, gates of song, gates of merits. gates of glow, gates of the splendor of Torah, gates of the splendor of wisdom, gates of the splendor of understanding, gates of knowledge, gates of delight, gates of compassion,gates of grace and kindness. gates of good life, gates of wisdom, (and 35 more! - see handout Gates)

"What gates have you gone through this year? What do you hope to go through?" he asked.

Many shared deeply emotional gates: supporting a friend at the end of their life, allowing the support of others as they dealt with challenges, letting go, moving out, moving on. I offered the gate of the unknown. Letting things unfold in their own way and time and embracing the unknown, always a feature of thresholds, but one we often fight. One lab member noted the range and specificity of the prayer and the fact that we go through gates all the time, but seldom give voice to the occasion. Life is full of gates and our topic forced a kind of mindfulness about each crossing.

The rabbi offered us an interesting perspective on gates through the frontispiece of Jewish books through time (see handout Frontispieces). Many included pillars as an element, forming the entrance into the book, into knowledge. This was not true of the first publishing of the Talmud in 1512, a very simple frontispiece with only text. Several of the books  (#2, #7) indicated the city in which it was published on the front, but we learned this is often misleading as below it is often the statement "in the style of" followed in the noted cases by Amsterdam or Vilna. There were styles unique to respected presses in those cities and the mimicry was designed to raise the stature of the book. Copying the actual imagery is found in #5 done by a non-Jewish artist in 1811 who lifted the design of #4 from 1698 which was done by a convert to Judaism. Image #3, a bible published in Vilna makes use of Jewish imagery including Moses and Aaron, the five books of Moses at the base and at the top, the ark and cherubim as described in Exodus.

There was one puzzling book among them. There stood Venus on the shell, surrounded by cherubim. Apparently the book was published in 1630 by a non-Jewish press which didn't employ a design that was sensitive to its audience. Many tore out the frontispiece making an intact copy quite rare.

The large image noted as being published in 1924 in Poland (Vilna) notes "this is the gate of God, the righteous will pass through it."  Here the gate represents the gate of learning.  The large image with the tree is a Mishnah published in Israel. The two boxes at the top are titled Yachim and Boaz, the names of the two pillars at either side of the temple. I find it interesting that the gates take on such anthropomorphic form. We call on them to lift their heads and we go so far as to name them.

We returned to our Gates Handout where on the second page we found a drawing of the temple complete with the names for the two pillars. Also in this drawing is the Holy of Holies in the back which is called dvir/shrine. Within it rests the two tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Horeb. Devir means "book of the palace."

Prof. Ismar Schorsch proposes that the survival of Jews in exile after the destruction of the Temple was made possible by transforming the holy from a place to a book, making the sacred portable and accessible to all.

We closed our discussion by speaking of the gate of uprightness, one which we all passed through as part of the lab. We each came together as a part of a community to learn and ultimately to present our response both visually and in words. With that we moved into the second part of our session, sharing our artwork with the others in the lab. You can view our work and the related text on our virtual exhibition.