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.