Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Geography Lesson

by Susan Weinberg 

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

What boundaries do you live with? she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Finding Passage

By Susan Weinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Crossing Boundaries

by Susan Weinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Schedule: Outside/Inside

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

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

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

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

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

2016 – 17 Lab Dates:

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

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

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

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

December 27: NO LAB *Holiday Season*

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 11: NO LAB *Passover*

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

Keeping One's Stripes

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

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Haggadah and the Talush

While several of us had done a preview of the Nelson-Atkins Museum prior to the conference, we were pleased to have another opportunity to explore it within the retreat.  We headed to the museum to see one of its treasures: the Barcelona Haggadah.  The original of the Barcelona Haggadah  is housed in the British Library, but there are 500 copies of which the Nelson-Atkins holds one.  Rabbi Mark Levin reviewed the history of haggadahs noting that prayer books were originally all one book. The haggadah became a separate book in 1100 C.E. and artwork was added in 1300.

The haggadah does the very important work of telling the children of the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt.  There are many passages in Exodus (13:3, 13:14, 12:26-27) as well as in Deuteronomy 6:20-23 that exhort us to do so.

The Birds' Head  (or Griffin Head) Haggadah was from around 1300 and was Ashkenaz from Mainz, Germany.  Because of the second commandment against representation of faces, human faces were disguised as bird heads.  Only Jews have facial features while non-Jews have blank, oval faces representing idolators.  Heads are a combination of lions and eagles, representing strength and speed.  Our theme of disguise continues with official Jewish endorsement.

Levin shared images of Sephardic haggadot that were illuminated with biblical picture cycles.  The entire text was read at the Seder, often with commentary. The forms of art were often borrowed from Catholics and adapted to eliminate Christological subject matter.  Syncretism was used, a form of cultural borrowing and cooperation.  The same model books were employed but symbols were reinterpreted. Matzah became a symbol of gaining access to God's presence.  It was a manifestation of shekhinah and illuminated in gold in the Barcelona Haggadah.

At the conclusion of our visit, we had an opportunity to study the Haggadah closely and then to tour the museum with a guide.  We then arrived at the nearby Kansas City Art Institute housed in the striking Vanderslice Mansion. As we awaited our next event we savored an impromptu dance exercise led by Kate Mann of Milwaukee.  We all welcomed that opportunity to revive both physically and mentally for our next talk.

Refreshed, we gathered to hear Dr Milton Katz share the art created by artists during the Holocaust.  Their efforts represented spiritual, cultural and psychological resistance. Their goals were survival and to record and tell their story.  Creation was just one part of the story.  They then had to find a place to hide it.  One rather clever artist hid their work in a hollowed-out copy of Mein Kampf.   Thirty thousand works have been uncovered and it is estimated that one out of ten survived.

We closed our day with a meal at the Buddhist Center where Rabbi Waldoks discussed his experience with the Dali Lama who has an approach of pulling together experts on a call when he wants to learn about a subject. Waldoks noted that Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism have several things in common:   chanting, commentary and dialectic study.

The following day we began with a discussion by Jody Hirsch and Marc Tasman on the Artist as Other.  Jody began with some word meanings, always one of my favorite concepts.  He advised us that Hitnakrut means "Alienation" and the root "nakr" means "a foreigner".  Yet another variation means "a foreign land".  "Talush" means uprooted.  He noted the oft-told theme of a Jewish artist or intellectual who doesn't fit into either the Jewish or non-Jewish world.   Such a person is called a "talush". He offered some examples from Overture to Glory, a 1939 movie that tells the story of a talush that ends in tragedy.

We then shifted to Arnold Schoenberg who was born in Vienna and studied with Mahler, a Jewish convert to Christianity.  Schoenberg followed Mahler's lead and also converted.  He was later hired at the Prussian Academy of Art until the rise of Hitler when he was fired for being Jewish and then returned to Judaism.  He immigrated to America in 1934 and is known for creating a new form of music that doesn't focus on Western tonalities.  His ability to create something new arose in large part because he didn't fit in.

Mark spoke of the work of R.B. Kitaj who was an outsider on many levels. He was Jewish and his step-father was a survivor.  Although he was born in Ohio he moved to London and was part of the London School.   He was hard of hearing and suffered from Parkinson's.  Many of his artworks dealt with themes related to Jewish history as hiding, transport or refugees.

Other artists who focused on outsider themes were Diane Arbus who photographed those on the margins and Art Spiegelman who serialized Maus to tell his father's story.

We then broke into groups and were given an interesting challenge.  We were to list five groups in which we were insiders and five in which we were outsiders and then discuss those choices with another person.  We were asked whether those labels motivate, create barriers, enrich or detract.  It was an interesting topic to explore and also to share as I suspect many of our choices echoed those of others in the room.  There was something comforting about my discussion with a fellow lab participant as we agreed that we felt like outsiders in certain work circles and with drinkers and sports fans.  I found myself feeling very much like an insider with fellow outsiders. 

Masquerades and Humor

We recently convened over seventy artists representing six cities for our 4th Jewish Artists’ Lab retreat.  Having previously met in Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, we now had the opportunity to expand to one of our newer labs in Kansas City.  One of my favorite aspects of the retreat is the opportunity to interact with artists from other labs. We welcomed many familiar faces and introduced ourselves to new ones.  We also enjoyed getting to know the city better and Kansas City proved to be a place filled with interesting museums that could easily have occupied more of our time.

We began our gathering at the JCC where we visited with our fellow artists and viewed the Kansas City lab show. It was a bit of a preview for the Pecha Kucha yet to come.

Our keynote began that evening with Arlene Goldbard, author of The Culture of Possibility.  Goldbard's focus is on the importance of culture and art in America and she addressed ten reasons art plays a critical role in our society.  She had a receptive audience in a room of artists for a perspective that advocates the role of art in opening us up to possibilities.  She told me that she hoped to write an essay on this topic and will share it with us when it is available, stay tuned.

After her talk we broke for Story Circles.  We were each asked to tell our group a story that spoke to topics about the role of creativity in our life.  Those of us in the listening role were asked to focus on listening rather than engaging directly.  I found that early interaction made a number of attendees memorable to me by sharing something that mattered to them.

Then it was time for the Pecha Kucha, one of the highlights of this retreat. The Pecha Kucha was an opportunity to share six images in 90 seconds to introduce ourselves and our work to the group.  While nervously approached by many, it received rave reviews as this was something which we hadn’t fully addressed in past gatherings.  I found that I appreciated learning more about those in other labs, but also those within my own city.  While we often know the work artists present in the lab, it was a valuable opportunity to learn more about their work outside of it.

Retreats are always jammed with activities and our one full day was no exception. If I were to characterize it, I would say it was devoted in large part to the performing rabbis.  I am beginning to appreciate the range of talents that rabbis bring to their role, it seems they have to be able to carry a tune and a bit of theatrics also proves useful.  Rabbi Glickman of Beth Shalom spoke to us on American acting that originated in the Yiddish theater and was influenced by the Moscow Arts Theater and the Group Theater (Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg).  Rabbi Glickman trained in theater before joining the rabbinate.  He began the discussion by referencing "Umanute" which means "art" and "Emonai" which means "faith".  Both come from the same root as "Amen" and are about deep emotional truths, having a belief that is not provable.

He shared a number of passages from the Tanach that involved disguise and deception through costume.  These included such favorites as Joseph when he is in the employ of the Pharaoh and is incognito when he encounters his brothers (Genesis 41:41-46, 45:1-3), Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38:14-25), Saul and the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:6-14) and the Jacob/Esau narrative (Genesis 27:15-27).  We discussed the reasons behind disguise.  Joseph's rather theatrical presentation echoed Pharaoh's masquerade of God. Pharoah needed his advisors to be "gift-wrapped" to promote that belief.  Joseph was given the name Zaphenath; Zaphenath means "a hidden thing".  The wife he was given was named Asenath which means "something that has to be deciphered".  There were many layers of masquerade in this text.  I found myself considering that masquerade is very much a part of being an outsider passing as an insider.  In the vein of theater I thought of the many actors who report they are shy, but not on stage.  That external shift through costuming can begin to cause an internal shift.

The take away that I found fascinating is that disguise was so integral to the flow of Jewish history.  The child of Judah and Tamar became the ancestor of Ruth and David and had it not been for disguise we'd be speaking of Abraham, Issac and Esau. 

Glickman concluded with the very thought-provoking statement that written Torah is to oral Torah as a book is to a story.  Transmission of story is done person to person.  Story is the virus and we are its host.  When there are no people, there is no story. 

One of our other presenting rabbis was Rabbi Moshe Waldoks who talked of Jewish humor as a response to injustice and as a vehicle of breaking barriers that divide communities. He rejected the idea that Jewish humor is laughter through tears and argued that it is also more than we suffered and then we moved.  Neither did he feel that it was based on self-deprecation.  Rather it was the art of parody, of taking an established known entity and turning it on its head to find a deeper truth.

He related humor to the art of Midrash where we seek something in the text, pull it out and make it our own to arrive at a different understanding.  Humor is to awaken us and is by its nature anti-authoritarian.  He noted that you can't have a sense of humor and be a fanatic as you must hold two different thoughts at the same time. You have to be able to understand someone else's perspective.  Humor is also used to create social cohesiveness in a group by scapegoating. He took us through the evolution from Jewish mother (and mother-in-law) jokes to Jewish American Princess jokes.  Once they moved outside of Jewish groups, they began to die out.  Such jokes can only be told by insiders lest they carry an anti-Semitic tinge.

Many Jewish people were the foundation of radio and television even if the content wasn't Jewish.  There was word play and fast talking that began to create a comfort with a Jewish style.   This allowed us to acculturate and allowed others to accept us without even being conscious of the underpinnings that made that possible.

I found myself contemplating our theme of Outside: Inside.  While the discussions were often not tied back to the underlying theme, they did address the theme of otherness through masquerades and humor. Masquerades create boundaries and bridge boundaries, humor can create boundaries or dissolve them.  We've begun to circle around our topic.

Coming next.... the Barcelona Haggadah and Artist as Other