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