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. 

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