Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shade of Wings

by Susan Weinberg

We all face times when life feels overwhelming. It is in these times of brokenness when many turn to prayer. Others may turn inward with meditation or creative acts. Our topic in this discussion was prayer, but we agreed to hold on an important underlying question: “Does the act of prayer require you to believe in God?” So, hold that thought and grab on to the concept of prayer wherever it feels meaningful to you. In small groups we spoke of finding prayerfulness in communal activity, in movement and in the outdoors. 

The Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, became our sourcebook for this discussion as well as the work of both visual and musical artists. We began our discussion with Lab Artist Rani Halpern presenting on her recent work for the Interfaith Artists Circle on the theme of Meditation on Visual Prayer. 

Prayers. . . early stage - R.Halpern

Rani used the prayer from the morning service as her jumping off point for this visual midrash. This prayer addresses the body and soul, the gift of creation and healing. While visually beautiful, Rani’s work also contains layers of meaning, both literally and figuratively. She spoke of how the repetition of the lettering became a kind of meditation. She didn’t want it clearly enunciated, but rather a mumble as group prayers often are. She chose not to be representational as it felt too concrete for the soul and chose to make the letters more abstract in form. The design of her piece is layered and floating, some background, some foreground, both those private prayers of the heart and those offered more publicly. Rani used the cut-out letters floating against the letters written with an acrylic brush marker. It was pointed out that the way in which it was created also represented the progression of a day.


Rimon co-sponsored a virtual artist salon at the Sacred Arts Festival at the University of St. Thomas which also recorded comments on this work. You can find the presentation of three artists, one of which is Rani. All are well worth listening to, but you can specifically find Rani’s work beginning at 22 minutes.

Prayers of the Soul - Rani Halpern
Rani’s was a prayer with both words and visuals. We next turned to wordless prayer in the form of a nigun. A nigun is a wordless melody, a repetition of nonsense words. Sometimes it is slow and meditative, other times fast and jubilant. The nigun grew out of Hassidic tradition. It is a prayer for those times when we lack the words to express what we are going through. An example of a nigun is represented in this short clip by Joey Weisenberg who performs Revelation.

We examined some of the other significant prayers in Jewish tradition and I was struck by the poetry of them (for the full prayers go to handout-Sourcesheet for April). The Hashkevenu is a prayer that seeks peace when afraid. It is said in the evening in communal prayer or before one goes to sleep. The Hebrew contains the repetition of the sound of the Shin. Shh . . . shh . . .shh . . , it calms us into sleep. Hide us in the shade of your wings it urges. Shhh. . .

Prayer even leads us into the present as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (Chief Rabbi of Safed) offers a new prayer of thanks for imbuing humankind with the knowledge and understanding to create a vaccine. And when do you say this prayer? Why before you get the vaccine of course. Certainly a time of thanks.

We closed the lab with a quote shared by Robyn. "We don't see things the way they are, we see them the way we are!" (attributed to the Talmud). Our prayers come filtered through the lens through which we see the world. And yet, that lens is not immutable. The very act of prayer encourages us to view the world through a lens of gratitude.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Making Meaning

Our Framework- Four Glasses of Wine

by Susan Weinberg

As Passover approaches we began our exploration of brokenness by considering Jewish rituals that might incorporate breakage. We had previously discussed the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. While more contemporary meanings have been ascribed to this it is actually based on commemorating the destruction of the temple. As I write that, I realize that it is the first time I’ve thought of the fact that the word commemorating implies community, we Co-memorate, we remember as a community. Hold that thought, we will come back to it. 


Other examples that were suggested including the tearing of a ribbon as a proxy for clothing destruction at a funeral, breaking of routine with a shiva, fasting and then breaking the fast, and the act of circumcision. We talked of tearing apart challah (breaking bread), breaking down a sukkah and the breaking of a marriage through a get. We also talked of the memory of brokenness that is commemorated at Yom HaShoah and the relationship that yahrzeit holds to memory of brokenness. It is in the act of remembering that we create wholeness. Memory is inextricably tied to both brokenness and wholeness, it is the connective tissue.


Dead Sea Scroll Fragments
Breakage creates fragments. Recently there was a discovery of Dead Sea scroll fragments dating back 1900 years. We try to reassemble the pieces of our history. Memory too comes in fragments, each connecting to another, but gaps separate them as well. Memory softens the rough edges of some of those we remember and it allows us to reassemble history with perhaps deeper meaning.

Breaking is also associated with laws as we are commanded to cut off the edges of fields for the poor to glean. Sometimes we require a level of wholeness to proceed such as with a minyan. On a larger scale we talked of the diaspora which broke the Jewish people across nations and how we are reunited through common rituals, if not geography. 


The Exodus itself represented breakage with the parting of the Red Sea. That in turn led us to salt which breaks things down and simultaneously preserves them, turning cucumbers into pickles. And so, we passed through the Red Sea and arrived at Passover and the breaking of the afikomen.


Remember that co-memorating? Passover is a perfect example of how we remember as a community. The Haggadah is based on oral tradition and it invites elaboration, midrash. We are given a framework, four glasses of wine, and we are invited to step into the story with our Pesach gathering, to fill in the framework. That is the work of midrash.


Meryll introduced the role of past, present and future in how we consider the story on which Passover is based. The past is slavery and we commemorate it through the symbolic elements of the meal and with story. The present represents a celebration of freedom. We recline and savor a bounty of food. In the future lies redemption and we do this through the act of remembering. We give charity, we gather food for those less fortunate and we are reminded that we were slaves and are now charged with taking care of those in need.


We turned our attention to the breaking of the afikomen and what it signified to us. Particularly in these unusual times, does it convey a new meaning? It is a pause in the seder, preceded by yachatz, washing of hands. Then we break the matzah in parts, some say half, others note that one portion is smaller. The smaller piece remains and the larger portion is hidden. Later the children go in search of the hidden portion and their reward for its discovery.


We discussed the increased attention on hand washing during this time of covid and the association of each section of the matzah with knowledge. The small perhaps representing what we know or think we know, often the uncertainty of our knowledge, especially in this time of covid. The larger piece represents more complete knowledge in the future, what we are to discover. Children are important to the seder, whether it is in asking the four questions or  in the discovery of the afikomen. We all have played different roles throughout the seders of our lifetime, once children ourselves. What is broken off is not lost, so long as our children remember. The search, memory and ultimate fullness are all connected.


Connectivity seemed to be a theme that many of us discussed. As we face a global pandemic, we appreciate our interrelation to the wholeness of humanity and the need to join together for the benefit of all. Ironically there is a paradox in that we often divide to define who we are, and who we are not. Some group discussions moved from family trees to how trees are connected and communicate through their roots, supporting each other by sending nutrients to those in distress. Trees have a symbiotic relationship with people, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, so are an apt metaphor for connectivity.


We left Egypt in haste. We left our home and broke the bonds of slavery, just as we now break matzah, goodbye home, goodbye slavery. In the seder we reintegrate community, we come home as a people. The eating of matzah brings us back physically. The finding of the afikomen by that next generation allows us to continue to transform our home, to keep it alive for the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart

by Susan Weinberg

What we first learn or discover takes on new meaning as our understanding grows. With some perspective we could now begin to pick out the themes that echoed throughout our prior discussions.

In our earliest session we explored the story of Moses coming down the mountain to discover the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Moses throws down the tablets in anger, breaking them into shards. While the tablets may have been broken, the break we are concerned with is the breaking of trust. All parties, God, Moses, and the Israelites, go through a process of regret and repentance whether for anger or a lack of fidelity. That is followed by repair and then remembering, one of the most important themes in Judaism.

Similarly the story of the Maccabees began with the brokenness of both the temple and the soldiers, in the latter case both physical and emotional brokenness. This too is followed by repair and remembering as each year we honor that rededication in our celebration of Hanukkah.

When we looked at words we considered the fact that wholeness and brokenness exist in relation to each other, living together, not as opposites.

This was the background upon which we revisited a quote that had been introduced as we began this journey. There is nothing more whole than a broken heart. 

This is a saying attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kootzk (1787-1859). Our handout (February Broken-Hearted-Whole-Hearted) shares the commentary by his contemporary Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1875) on this quote. 

So, what is meant by this seemingly paradoxical expression? 

In our discussion we made a distinction between acknowledging brokenness versus denying or suppressing it. We agreed that acknowledging is an important step on the path to healing. Brokenness is often associated with loss, but conversely loss often makes us aware of what we valued. That allows us to incorporate it into our life in different ways. Brokenness offers some unexpected benefits. As we put ourselves back together we also learn the empathy that may allow us to support others. Brokenness unleashes energy which can easily turn into obsessive energy, but can also be re-channeled in a positive direction. We talked of Rep Jamie Raskind who so valiantly managed the house impeachment team. Having just lost his son to suicide, he stepped into another maelstrom and presented his case with an authenticity and humanity that was in part generated by that energy of loss re-channeled into purpose.

To live is to have a broken heart. As we age, things break and tear and we learn how to navigate that brokenness and to own where the breaks are. Just as in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, we embrace our flaws and imperfections. We wear those scars proudly, for they speak to the discovery of empathy and compassion. Our hearts are indeed more whole.

We closed our session with a discussion of the contemporary Hebrew song by Naomi Shemer, Ain Davar (It's nothing). The song incorporates the line "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart." It is a song that seems to speak to the grief of Israeli mothers who risk the lives of their children in the military.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Words Matter

by Susan Weinberg

Words matter. It is a phrase that has great significance at a time when we have experienced the damage injudicious words can create. Today's discussion focused upon words and their meanings. I frequently use the derivation and meanings of English words as a way to step inside of a topic.  For this discussion we looked at words in both English and in Hebrew.

We began with a visual exercise looking at the following two Hebrew words:



We knew one meant broken and the other whole, but which meant which and why? Some of us focused on the closed mem at the end of the second word versus the open resh at the end of the first, thinking of wholeness as intact, a closed loop. Others noted the tall lamed between the two smaller letters of the second word, representing wholeness as a state of balance.

In fact the two words are Shevar and Shalom and as you might guess, Shalom relates to wholeness. It is this word that we use to say many things, hello, goodby and peace. The expression mah shlomcha literally means "What is your peace?" Perhaps another way of saying “Are you at peace? Do you feel complete?” Most Hebrew words have a three letter root out of which we can build a world of meaning. 

Some Hebrew words that include these roots for broken are broken-hearted (שבור לב) and fragile (שָׁבִיר).

Note that fragile in English doesn't contain the word broken, but the Hebrew word does. An expression in Hebrew is "to break one's teeth" (לשבור את השיניים) meaning to work really hard at something, a phrase that reminded me of grinding one's teeth in frustration.

There are differences between how Hebrew and English address the same words. In English we talk about breaking the law while in Hebrew you transgress the law. Do laws break or do people violate them? There is a fine distinction between the two, with Hebrew placing the burden for repair on the individual rather than the law. 

The word for crisis in Hebrew is mashber (משביר). A crisis moves us in some direction. I find myself thinking of that open resh, the last letter in shevar. Breakage is an opening to a next step, a gateway perhaps to wholeness. For additional meanings in Hebrew and related artwork you will find our source sheet for Jan in handouts.

We shifted our focus to the more familiar turf of English and how we use the word "break." A bud breaks open. We use line breaks in poetry to clarify where one line ends and the next begins. We have daybreak, the dawning of a new day and we breakfast, breaking our fast. We say, give me a break and one of my favorites, a jazz break which is an improvised passage or solo. We also take a break, a pause from our existing routine as we have done during covid. Breaking is not necessarily a negative term.

There is a story in Kaballah about the creation of the world starting out of the breakage of vessels. You can read more about it in this article that explores those resulting shards as inspiration in architecture. The Genesis story has God breaking the waters apart to form the firmaments above. Creation seems to be an act that involves breakage.

We came back to the idea of a passage between brokenness and wholeness, a liminal state or suspension that inextricably links the two in the movement back and forth between those poles.

And a few references of interest. . .

I recently read a thoughtful book that provides insights into this topic, exploring how we move from disruptions to wholeness. I recommend it as an exploration of this theme. The book is by Bruce Feiler and titled Life is in the Transitions. You can read more about it at my personal blog.

Alison shared a video that you'll find below on an exhibition of a poem formed from fragmentary words projected on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Erik Jacobs, a Jewish artist of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, collaborated with Porsha Olayiwola, a black woman who is Boston's poet laureate, on the theme of Black as Light. Alison added an additional thought in light of our last meeting’s discussion of menorahs. Just as we are told to place a menorah in the window to celebrate Hanukkah with pride in our heritage, a candle used to be placed in the window to denote a home as part of the underground railroad.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Pulsation of Life

by Susan Weinberg

We are in the midst of Hanukkah so of course we led off with each person sharing a Hanukkah menorah, or several, that they use on this occasion. In my household we used to have a very contemporary one that I replaced with a traditional one that my mother had given me. It had been tucked away in the corner of a cabinet for many years and I remember pulling everything out as I anxiously searched for it that first Hanukkah after her death. She had another just like it that she used to light. In years since, I conjure up her presence each year when I light her gift to me. 

As each person shared their menorah, this seemed to be a common theme, conjuring up the presence and the shared tradition with a mother, a grandmother or a dear friend. Yet others were creating a tradition where none had been. Some menorahs or hanukkiah were unusual in their design or had a long history with a story. Sometimes we created our own story, such as the multipurpose hanukkiah for the wandering Jew on the run. And some represented the coming together of multiple traditions in a family. We pass down our rituals, we build new ones and we celebrate not just the holiday, but those who celebrated it before us and with us.


Before turning to our discussion of the text, I must confess that I always feel a bit overwhelmed when I go into a lab session. We have received text beforehand that I dutifully read and then wait for the synapses to kick in and connect it into something of meaning. It often remains in a bit of a gestational state until we meet as a group. Each person brings their understanding to the discussion and we puzzle through it to something of greater meaning.


We began a discussion of the text out of which the Hanukkah story grew. The text was originally written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, and is not included in the Jewish Bible. Surprisingly it  actually was preserved through the Catholic Bible. The passage we discussed can be found in the handout (Source Sheet for Dec 2020) or at Maccabees 4:36-59. Many of us may recall being asked to tell the Hanukkah story as children in our classroom. If you were like me, you awkwardly stumbled through the fact that there was a battle and the Maccabees won and when they went to the temple they could only find a little bit of oil that miraculously lasted eight nights which is why we light the menorah for eight nights. A lot was lost in the translation.


So, what were the Maccabees fighting for? The existence of Judaism was at stake. The idea of those in power was to have a homogenous culture, diversity was most certainly not desired. They required the Jews to worship Greek gods and assimilate into the dominant culture. And so, a battle ensued. 

The story picked up after the battle when the Maccabees entered the temple and sought to restore it and purify it.  The story is filled with emotion as they observe the destruction. They tear their clothes, much as was the custom upon a death when emotions are torn up. There is a physical manifestation to represent the emotional. 

After lamenting, they cry out to heaven. This is the moment when we expect a booming voice from above. Instead, Judah begins to assign people to tasks, some to guard, others to purify the sanctuary. Human agency takes over. We are responsible for putting things right ourselves. They built a new altar, lit the lamps and rededicated the sanctuary with song. The word "Hanukkah" actually means rededication. The act of rebuilding was done with their hands and required their active engagement to set things right. It is here that eight days of celebration is decreed, but there is no miracle of oil cited. This is not written of until 700 years later when the rabbis elaborated on the story. In yet another story it is told that they found eight spears in the temple and repurposed them into a menorah, taking weaponry which represented brokenness and rededicating it to a new purpose.

So, what does this tell us about the process of moving from brokenness to wholeness?  When we are broken, how do we seek wholeness? If this is to be our roadmap, we do it through our own hands, our own agency. We have a decision point. Do we stay broken or begin to repair our world? It is not that we have one isolated moment of brokenness. The process of falling down and arising once again is ongoing. Ann offered the phrase that became the title of this piece, the pulsation of life. It is what propels us forward,
this steady movement generated out of falling and rising, falling and rising.


We closed with a reading that Robyn shared from the book Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. 

Thomas Merton: There is in all visible things. . . . a hidden wholeness. 

Palmer responds: In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of "hidden wholeness." In a paradox, opposites do not negate each- they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter-the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives. 



Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Writing with White Fire

by Susan Weinberg

When you think of breakage and the Torah, one of the first images that may come to mind is that of Moses flinging the Tablets of the Law to the ground in both despair and anger. Below him were the Israelites, dancing around a golden calf. 

Rembrandt 1659
Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Our lab discussion (handout-Searching the White Space) centered around two passages, Exodus 32:1-19 and Deuteronomy 10: 1-5. Exodus tells the story of Moses going up the mountain to converse with God for forty days. In the meantime, the Israelites become impatient and assume Moses will not return. They gather their gold jewelry to melt down to create an idol,  a golden calf. God observes what transpires and in his anger threatens to destroy the people, but Moses dissuades him, giving new meaning to speaking truth to power. Even better, he was heard and altered the path of potential destruction. Later in Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the steps God then required of him to create a second set of tablets.


In the Talmudic tradition we began with a question, a conundrum of sorts. Moses pleaded with God to still his anger and not destroy the people, yet when Moses came down the mountain to discover the golden calf, he too gave way to anger, flinging the tablets to the ground and breaking them into shards.


We distinguished between destruction and the passion of anger. Anger can be softened while we may not be able to come back from total destruction. Not all breakage is fixable, but anger may allow for a redo, in fact that is what was granted to both Moses and the Israelites.


We moved our attention to a midrash that spoke of the Torah being written in black fire on white fire. It is not just ink on parchment. It is alive and vivid. And that white fire is just as important as the black fire. It is the negative space, what is not spoken, but is created in relation to what is said. As artists we know that concept well in a visual way. It is the subject of much midrash, looking for the story within the story, the unspoken underlying content. It begins with curiosity, with a question and looks carefully at both what is written and what is not. Often the conclusion is evaluated through a metaphoric lens.

It is not coincidental that this process closely resembles the creative process. We are creating visual midrash through our artwork as we explore these topics. We too, begin with a question and our artwork explores the space around the text, the nooks and crannies that frame that black fire.


One of the questions posed was what happened to the shards of the tablets. In Judaism we bury or preserve and store damaged texts that contain the name of God.  It seemed unlikely that Moses left those shards at the foot of Mount Sinai. This was a question which also occupied the rabbis. Rabbi Meir read between the lines of “there was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there” and concluded that it also included the broken pieces of the first set of tablets. They too were sacred in whatever form.


So, what does this all mean for us metaphorically? 


We bring our brokenness along with us as we move forward to wholeness. They are not discrete states, wholeness incorporates brokenness. We build on it as we find our way to wholeness.


Sometimes we can’t replace what is broken, a good reason to respect the fragility of what we value.

We may find that chipped Seder plate with a rich story more valuable for its very brokenness, its near brush with loss.

Perhaps brokenness is a necessary step that must occur to find wholeness. It is in our brokenness that we learn compassion, perhaps something Moses learned from  his own struggle with speech. And quite unexpectedly, at that critical moment he offered that teaching to God, in their own partnership, their hevruta, turning him away from destruction.  

And yet wholeness is not a static state, nor is brokenness. Moses continued to struggle with brokenness, literally breaking all the commandments into shards. He too was given the opportunity to rebuild into a new wholeness. 

We closed our discussion with a visual midrash, a look at the work of Yaron Bob who took the phrase "swords to ploughshares" to heart, repurposing brokenness to wholeness by turning bombs into menorahs and roses. 

A Rose of Her Own by Yaron Bob


A few additional art connections and more on Rembrandt's painting and Yaron Bob . . .

Rembrandt’s painting of Moses breaking the tablets.

Virtual  and Visual Midrash

Raiders of the Lost Ark could be considered a very long midrash about what happened to the Ark of the Covenant

Creative approaches to broken objects

visual of what it takes to put together an archeological find

Mend Piece by Yoko Ono  creative approaches to broken objects

Rockets into Roses:  Yaron Bob.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Beauty out of Breakage: Filling the Cracks

by Susan Weinberg

How to start? We met today to find the answers to that question. We will be partnering with a young adult of a different generation than ourself, to explore the concepts of brokenness and wholeness. We will meet both as a lab, but also separately with our partner. It will culminate in the creation of artwork for a virtual and possibly in-person exhibition. We will be working across generations and often geography. Some of us know our partners or at least have a familial connection. Others do not. How will that affect the result?

Hevruta is a traditional form of Jewish learning, learning in partnership. This was to be a partnership, not a mentorship. We will learn from each other. Meryll reminded us of the confidentiality that we agreed to at the beginning of the lab and to consider establishing ground rules in our partnerships. She cautioned against promoting a point of view. There were questions about whether we created one piece together, two pieces in conversation or separate pieces. All and any of the above was the answer. Technology will allow us to share ideas and potentially incorporate them into one artwork if desired. 

We will meet again November 17th as a lab and meet with our partner(s) by December 14th. You will note partners plural as I am working with two granddaughters who are close in age, 15 and 16. Both are now in California so I have a geographic span as well. We are a bit broken as a family at the moment, at least by geography, as the remaining half of our family recently moved to California joining family members across the country. We look for ways to navigate that distance so I welcome this project as a means to unite us in conversation.


This age group was selected because they would have the ability to go beyond the literal into metaphor, a skill which comes with age. Meryll pointed us to a quote on Noah’s ark and discussed how younger children would understand it in a much more literal way. Then she segued into that metaphorical Noah's ark which we all occupy as  we attempt to evade the covid virus, seeking a place of safety and wondering when we can step out on solid ground again. We await the return of our dove.


To get our wheels spinning, Meryll provided us with a source sheet with four different beginnings. She began with a quote “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” then asked us to share our reactions. Some noted the difference between two states, whole and broken, and the need to experience each to understand them. Others spoke of vulnerability and how it opens us up to a full spectrum of feeling, making us fully present. Some were touched, recalling such experiences within their own lives on a visceral level. The homonym of whole and hole was suggested for contemplation and Leonard Cohen’s lyric was recalled---“the bell is cracked ---That’s how the light gets in.” 


A second pathway to this topic is through word analysis. This is a gateway that I often use as it prods me to think more broadly and begin to build word maps of associated concepts. While I default to English for lack of any fluency in Hebrew, I am always interested in the Hebrew roots. The Hebrew for wholeness is shalam, derived from the same root as sholom, meaning peace. It is an interesting correlation to our expression “peace of mind.”  


The third approach is brainstorming and Meryll presented a number of suggestions in the handout (Brokenness-Wholeness -SourceSheet-4Beginnings) such as Jewish rituals, history, prayers and laws related to breaking and wholeness as well as contemporary issues such as Israeli politics. I was especially intrigued with her comments on the shofar call, one of which is a series of broken notes. The shofar breaks the silence, calling us to attention. Perhaps that is the purpose of brokenness, to get our attention.


A fourth direction is through art forms. Those include mosaic, but also those which have an accompanying philosophical element such as kintsugi and wabi-sabi.  Kintsugi takes broken pottery and emphasizes the break by filling the cracks with resin and powdered gold creating something of beauty out of breakage.  Andrea Mantovani speaks of it as “an art form born from   mottainai — the feeling of regret when something is wasted — and mushin, the need to accept change.”


Wabi-sabi is a related concept that finds beauty in imperfection. It is captured within a piece that Yoko Ono did called Mend Piece, no doubt another homonym with “peace.”

And so we begin . . .