Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Making It Our Own

I just returned from a trip to the West Coast where I had an opportunity to visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. With Passover approaching, they had a timely exhibition on the beautiful Haggadah illustrations of Arthur Szyk. Szyk created his Haggadah in the 1930s as Hitler came to power and often incorporated imagery related to the troubled state of the Jews of Europe. His work represented the preservation of the Pesach story, but adapted to the times in which he lived.

My return to the Artists' Lab picked up on that exploration with another dive into the Haggadah. To set the stage our facilitator Meryll Page shared several stories with us to illustrate the assumptions that we carry that may not be universal. She related a story of a local rabbi who was a chaplain in Morocco in the 1950s. When Passover was approaching the local people offered to cook a Pesach meal for them. All they needed to do was to share the recipes. Their assumptions were obviously not universal. They ended up with gefilte fish floating in the matzo ball soup.

The Pesach story has been handed down to us and with its passage through time incorporates issues that modern day eyes may find challenging. The assumptions that may have been the norm in earlier times may no longer be as shared by today's world. We were asked to consider how we approach parts of the story that may be repugnant to us. For example plagues were visited upon the Egyptians, plagues that ultimately destroyed their first-born child. How can we rejoice in that destruction? 

Over time we have created adaptations that seek to acknowledge that discomfort. As we count off the plagues, we dip our finger in the wine and spill a drop. This reminds us that our cup of joy is not complete because people had to die for our freedom. 

The Seder has developed in response to such issues. Each of us can make it our own. Meryll noted that there are five approaches that are often taken when we encounter a conflict with modern day sensibilities.

1 Study the word more.
2 Think of alternatives. For example there are actually two beginnings, one which deals with physical slavery and one which addresses spiritual slavery.
3 Replace something real with symbol. Today we use a lamb bone instead of slaughtering a lamb.
4 Avoid it. We don't paint blood on our door posts.
5 Make it child friendly.

In the spirit of adaptation, Anat led us in an exercise to add two additional commandments to the original ten. The exercise was inspired by a section of a poem by Yehuda Amichai that begins with My Father Was a God and Didn't Know It (#4 of My Parent's Motel). We debated the meaning of the additional commandments in the poem. Our translation differed slightly from this link with #11 Thou shall not change and #12 Thou must surely change. I understand this to mean one is to preserve the essence of who one is, but continue to grow and develop in response to one's environment, an interpretation quite consistent with our treatment of the Pesach story.

So what were our additions? Caring for the environment loomed large as well as kindness and not being passive or silent in the face of injustice. There were fewer "thou shalt nots", reflecting a call to action, less focus on sins of commission, more on those of omission. One spoke to me personally in encompassing all of the issues we raised, "Seek out and treat all of creation with an eye to its divine origins".

As we concluded our exploration of adaption, Anat shared a site with us created by Madonna on the theme of freedom. The focus is especially timely with Pesach approaching as its purpose is to encourage creative expressions that bring attention to human rights violations.

 To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 25 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

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