Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A Laboratory Lookback

The Jewish Artists' Laboratory came into being in 2012, so 2022 seemed like an appropriate time for a retrospective. Eight of those years involved an exploration of and an exhibition on a specific theme. We each had the difficult task of identifying the work we felt best expressed our time in the lab.  

We also had a change of leadership as Robyn Awend moved out of her role as Twin Cities Cultural Arts Director for the Minnesota JCC. Among her many responsibilities was ushering the lab into being and managing it through its many iterations.  We are pleased that she remains an active part of the Jewish arts community as the new executive director of Rimon. Ben Cohen stepped into the role of Director of Arts, Culture and Enrichment and added the lab to his portfolio. 

So, what exactly is an Artists’ Laboratory?

It is a phrase that speaks to both art and science, two subjects often posed in opposition, although the creative process that underlies them is often quite similar. 

A laboratory is a place for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study. Our laboratory was anchored in community, a diverse and welcoming community composed of those with an interest in Jewish thought and spanning a wide range of religious practice, from secular to observant. We learned from each other as we gathered in community both in shared and virtual space. Our field of study was a series of thought-provoking themes as seen through the lens of Jewish text and commentary as well as a wide variety of contemporary sources. Each session was documented in a blog that captured our explorations, lab notes of a sort, much like scientists record their discoveries.

We began the lab with a multi-year grant from the Covenant Foundation and deeply appreciate their generosity in supporting the birth of this gathering. We were part of the Midwest Jewish Artists’ Lab, a group of six organizations in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Kansas City, Chicago and Cleveland. Periodic retreats united us across groups. Each group engaged in similar programs on a common theme. Minneapolis is the only site that is still actively meeting as a lab, but the artistic community that developed out of this effort has continued to stay connected more informally in other sites.

We brought many artistic disciplines to the group – sculpture, photography, painting, story, poetry, glass, mixed media, paper-cutting, video and many

more. Some began to venture out of their discipline and explore new ones. Others came together in collaboration. 

Our structure also was an experiment. Discussion was always at the core, but we also incorporated artistic exercises. We did a sketchbook exchange, working with a different creative process, once again in partnership, but this time across cities. Each of us became teachers and facilitators, often partnering as we led the lab in topics of personal interest. We also expanded our partnerships to include a younger generation in hevruta, sharing our study of the lab theme, each creating artwork, often together. 

Over a 10 year period more than 60 artists were involved in this lab experiment. Within this exhibit you will find work from over 40 of them exploring eight themes. We hope you will find the work as engaging and thought-provoking as we found the process.

Susan Weinberg

Resident Writer of the Laboratory since 2013

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

A Toast

To joining together in common space, may we find creativity in the quiet of our studios, in the gathering of friends, and embrace the surprises and discoveries that have grown from this time of uncertainty.

Our first maskless gathering to celebrate our completed work and shared experiences


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

On The Road

כמה ערך יש בדרך

kama erekh yesh baderkh 

How much value there is in traveling along the road

We began our final session with the Hebrew phrase noted above. Meryll then provided the context, informing us that it is a bumper sticker that you frequently see in Israel where Israeli drivers are quite impatient. It serves as a reminder to appreciate the journey.  With that introduction she asked us to reflect on what we felt we had learned along the road over this past year.

Some found it a time of looking inward. Our world shrank and we “grew where we were planted.”  Our lives were stripped down to their essence as distractions were removed. We focused on unfinished work, on what was truly meaningful. At the same time, our personal vulnerability was highlighted. While for some an inward dive proved beneficial, we noted that private contemplative time was often a luxury while vulnerability dominated the lives of many. We also realized the sense of connectedness that we had with everyone else who shared this earth and the vulnerability that accompanied it. It was noted that periods of brokenness are not unique to our time while others reflected on the fluidity and motion that accompanies brokenness, it is a season that we flow through, finding our way as water flows through rocks. We put ourselves back together many times in the course of a lifetime and we need to value the seams. For me, it has been a reminder that this is a point in time on a larger journey and it is that very brokenness that often opens us up to new possibilities.  

Meryll closed out our discussion with the prayer for healing as we ask for the healing of both body and soul.The balance of our session was devoted to sharing our work, always the highlight of the year. As it is impossible to devote the time and space to each work that it deserves, I have taken to jotting a word or phrase from each and forming them into a poem or perhaps a prayer as we appreciate the journey through brokenness for the openings it provides for each of us to grow.

On The Road

Photo by Ann Ginsburgh-Hofkin

It spread like a weed.
Like a spiky dandelion head
Innocently born on the wind,
Reshaping our world.

We try to find meaning,

Seeking sense in upheaval,

Parsing ideas and layers, 

Stretching towards shared vision,

artwork by Gloria Cooper

A meandering path of footsteps

Stitches us to memories, 

We seek survival

As she sought survival, 

hidden in plain sight

Later assembling the pieces of her life,
Stitching together a modicum of wholeness.

artwork-Rani Halpern and Maya

Three generations of hands 

touched these papers,

Created separately

But assembled together

In a rich joinery of gold

That celebrates the broken places. 

Book Cover- Who Was My Daddy? for Bowie Light Bell

But some brokenness is too hard to conceive

Until it confronts and tears at us with edges too sharp

To grasp with our bare hands.

We drive through life, 

What happens when it becomes winter?

We plow through, we keep moving.

Artwork by Leah Golberstein

We connect our hearts with band aids

And focus on gratitude.

We sew our past selves together,

It is the whole point.

Artwork by Paula Pergament

We wear a mask, hiding our brokenness.
But brokenness is in the very cells of our being
Breaking and growing to form us.
We come from brokenness and we grow through it.
Wholeness contains a hole, holiness,
A space to allow entry into change.

Artwork by Susan Weinberg

It is out of brokenness that we create new pathways.

Beneath the surface

The healing begins.

The pulsation of life finds its way.

Artwork by Ilene Mojsilov

We have lived through a storm.

A wintery white field from which artifacts poke,

We excavate and dig

In a search for meaning,

Repurposing, reprocessing

Furrows in the soil and in the soul

As we find what constitutes a life.

From video by Meryll Page & partner

Generations gather around a Shabbat table.

This is what wholeness looks like,

A mosaic of individuals forms a whole.

Photo by Sylvia Horwitz

Abandoned farmhouses,

Bookmarks of time 

Remind us of loss 

But also of the love that formed it

Artwork-Alison Morse and Julianne

It is a pathway

A game board on which we journey

Finding the path to who we are,

Sharing that path with others,

We may find a discovery that surprises us

On the road ahead. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A Rebirth: Assembling the Shards

Today is the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. It is a tragedy with a staying power that other such events failed to receive, perhaps because of its clear visual documentation, perhaps because of the time in which it occurred. Several in our group noted the unusual nature of the Star Tribune cover page that quoted a wide variety of people about how it affected each of them, in their thinking and in their subsequent actions. This event represented a break with the past and a new beginning, all arriving in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when social norms of comity have been thrown into quite visible disarray. It caused us to reflect on the fact that our topic of brokenness was indeed crafted for these times.

Meryl spoke to the etymology of the Hebrew word for crisis, mashber. The root is shevar which means broken, but there is another meaning for mashber, a birthing chair. Crisis is an opportunity for a new birth.


Our topic today presented a metaphor from the mystics, first presented by Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria in 1570 and summarized quite clearly by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in our handout (see handout May Source Sheet ). 


 It begins in a bit of a logic problem. If God exists and is infinite, how is there room for anything else? And he’s not talking about something smaller than a bread box, but rather a universe. This assumes a fundamental concept,  two things cannot coexist at a single time in a single space so infinity crowds out everything else. 

Luria answered this question with the concept of tzimtzum which means contraction, withdrawal, concealment.  Under this theory, before the creation of the universe, God had to first withdraw to create space for the universe. Interestingly the Hebrew word for universe, 

olam, comes from a root that means hiding or concealment. 


Lurie then introduced a second idea called shevirat ha-kelim that means “breaking of the vessels”, a catastrophe theory of creation. In order to preserve some of his presence in the universe, God sent forth rays of light that were too powerful to contain and they broke the containers that were to hold them.  Apparently he wasn’t all-knowing under this theory, but still experimenting a bit himself never having done this before. As a result, fragments of light were strewn across the world. Our task is to gather these fragments to reassemble them, to set the world right. Each act we take to set the world right affects the “ecology of creation.”


So yes, for fact-based people this sounds, dare I say mystical. Think of it as metaphor or midrash. Luria was trying to explain the empty spaces, to make sense of the unknowable. And it's a metaphor that actually works.


What do we take from this on a metaphoric level? It’s all about process and it is never done. We can never bring the world back to a state of wholeness, but shard by shard we can make it better. We are in process as is the world. It made me think of the quote from Martin Luther King Jr–– The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We aspire to justice, bending the arc ever so slightly. The death of George Floyd was a crisis, but also a wakeup call that may result in a rebirth. We are each called to gather the shards to set it right.

This story has been reflected in artwork and architecture such as the Shard in London and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Each incorporates discrete elements that may form a larger whole, but are unique in their individuality. Bonnie spoke of the downstairs level beneath the memorial that houses the flickers of light from home movies of those who perished. She also spoke of the Monument to the Burning of the Books which has glass inserts in the plaza that look down on empty bookcases, highlighting what is not there. Also in this conversation we discussed the film Stumbling Stones which is about the largest decentralized memorial in the world, commemorating those who died in the Holocaust at the homes they once lived in. An important part of gathering shards is about remembering.

A question was posed. How do we see our work as collecting shards of light? Some use their artwork to shine a light on what is hidden, others on beauty. My work focuses on story that connects people to shared experiences, speaking to the humanity that we share. Metaphors drawn from nature connect to the human experience, reminding us of our connection to nature, something for which indigenous people hold a much greater awareness than the human-centered perspective that has come to dominate.  We are each shards of light and when we connect to shared experience we reassemble those shards.


Our discussion introduced a number of additional sources and sites that people had found meaningful in this quest or that spoke to the concept of shards.  These included:

A Whisper Across Time - Olga Campbell

To Heal a Fractured World - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


 Braiding Sweetgrass - Robin Wall Kimmerer

God Was Not in the Fire – Daniel Gordes


A Collective Conversation: Observing a Year 


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shade of Wings

by Susan Weinberg

We all face times when life feels overwhelming. It is in these times of brokenness when many turn to prayer. Others may turn inward with meditation or creative acts. Our topic in this discussion was prayer, but we agreed to hold on an important underlying question: “Does the act of prayer require you to believe in God?” So, hold that thought and grab on to the concept of prayer wherever it feels meaningful to you. In small groups we spoke of finding prayerfulness in communal activity, in movement and in the outdoors. 

The Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, became our sourcebook for this discussion as well as the work of both visual and musical artists. We began our discussion with Lab Artist Rani Halpern presenting on her recent work for the Interfaith Artists Circle on the theme of Meditation on Visual Prayer. 

Prayers. . . early stage - R.Halpern

Rani used the prayer from the morning service as her jumping off point for this visual midrash. This prayer addresses the body and soul, the gift of creation and healing. While visually beautiful, Rani’s work also contains layers of meaning, both literally and figuratively. She spoke of how the repetition of the lettering became a kind of meditation. She didn’t want it clearly enunciated, but rather a mumble as group prayers often are. She chose not to be representational as it felt too concrete for the soul and chose to make the letters more abstract in form. The design of her piece is layered and floating, some background, some foreground, both those private prayers of the heart and those offered more publicly. Rani used the cut-out letters floating against the letters written with an acrylic brush marker. It was pointed out that the way in which it was created also represented the progression of a day.


Rimon co-sponsored a virtual artist salon at the Sacred Arts Festival at the University of St. Thomas which also recorded comments on this work. You can find the presentation of three artists, one of which is Rani. All are well worth listening to, but you can specifically find Rani’s work beginning at 22 minutes.

Prayers of the Soul - Rani Halpern
Rani’s was a prayer with both words and visuals. We next turned to wordless prayer in the form of a nigun. A nigun is a wordless melody, a repetition of nonsense words. Sometimes it is slow and meditative, other times fast and jubilant. The nigun grew out of Hassidic tradition. It is a prayer for those times when we lack the words to express what we are going through. An example of a nigun is represented in this short clip by Joey Weisenberg who performs Revelation.

We examined some of the other significant prayers in Jewish tradition and I was struck by the poetry of them (for the full prayers go to handout-Sourcesheet for April). The Hashkevenu is a prayer that seeks peace when afraid. It is said in the evening in communal prayer or before one goes to sleep. The Hebrew contains the repetition of the sound of the Shin. Shh . . . shh . . .shh . . , it calms us into sleep. Hide us in the shade of your wings it urges. Shhh. . .

Prayer even leads us into the present as Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (Chief Rabbi of Safed) offers a new prayer of thanks for imbuing humankind with the knowledge and understanding to create a vaccine. And when do you say this prayer? Why before you get the vaccine of course. Certainly a time of thanks.

We closed the lab with a quote shared by Robyn. "We don't see things the way they are, we see them the way we are!" (attributed to the Talmud). Our prayers come filtered through the lens through which we see the world. And yet, that lens is not immutable. The very act of prayer encourages us to view the world through a lens of gratitude.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Making Meaning

Our Framework- Four Glasses of Wine

by Susan Weinberg

As Passover approaches we began our exploration of brokenness by considering Jewish rituals that might incorporate breakage. We had previously discussed the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. While more contemporary meanings have been ascribed to this it is actually based on commemorating the destruction of the temple. As I write that, I realize that it is the first time I’ve thought of the fact that the word commemorating implies community, we Co-memorate, we remember as a community. Hold that thought, we will come back to it. 


Other examples that were suggested including the tearing of a ribbon as a proxy for clothing destruction at a funeral, breaking of routine with a shiva, fasting and then breaking the fast, and the act of circumcision. We talked of tearing apart challah (breaking bread), breaking down a sukkah and the breaking of a marriage through a get. We also talked of the memory of brokenness that is commemorated at Yom HaShoah and the relationship that yahrzeit holds to memory of brokenness. It is in the act of remembering that we create wholeness. Memory is inextricably tied to both brokenness and wholeness, it is the connective tissue.


Dead Sea Scroll Fragments
Breakage creates fragments. Recently there was a discovery of Dead Sea scroll fragments dating back 1900 years. We try to reassemble the pieces of our history. Memory too comes in fragments, each connecting to another, but gaps separate them as well. Memory softens the rough edges of some of those we remember and it allows us to reassemble history with perhaps deeper meaning.

Breaking is also associated with laws as we are commanded to cut off the edges of fields for the poor to glean. Sometimes we require a level of wholeness to proceed such as with a minyan. On a larger scale we talked of the diaspora which broke the Jewish people across nations and how we are reunited through common rituals, if not geography. 


The Exodus itself represented breakage with the parting of the Red Sea. That in turn led us to salt which breaks things down and simultaneously preserves them, turning cucumbers into pickles. And so, we passed through the Red Sea and arrived at Passover and the breaking of the afikomen.


Remember that co-memorating? Passover is a perfect example of how we remember as a community. The Haggadah is based on oral tradition and it invites elaboration, midrash. We are given a framework, four glasses of wine, and we are invited to step into the story with our Pesach gathering, to fill in the framework. That is the work of midrash.


Meryll introduced the role of past, present and future in how we consider the story on which Passover is based. The past is slavery and we commemorate it through the symbolic elements of the meal and with story. The present represents a celebration of freedom. We recline and savor a bounty of food. In the future lies redemption and we do this through the act of remembering. We give charity, we gather food for those less fortunate and we are reminded that we were slaves and are now charged with taking care of those in need.


We turned our attention to the breaking of the afikomen and what it signified to us. Particularly in these unusual times, does it convey a new meaning? It is a pause in the seder, preceded by yachatz, washing of hands. Then we break the matzah in parts, some say half, others note that one portion is smaller. The smaller piece remains and the larger portion is hidden. Later the children go in search of the hidden portion and their reward for its discovery.


We discussed the increased attention on hand washing during this time of covid and the association of each section of the matzah with knowledge. The small perhaps representing what we know or think we know, often the uncertainty of our knowledge, especially in this time of covid. The larger piece represents more complete knowledge in the future, what we are to discover. Children are important to the seder, whether it is in asking the four questions or  in the discovery of the afikomen. We all have played different roles throughout the seders of our lifetime, once children ourselves. What is broken off is not lost, so long as our children remember. The search, memory and ultimate fullness are all connected.


Connectivity seemed to be a theme that many of us discussed. As we face a global pandemic, we appreciate our interrelation to the wholeness of humanity and the need to join together for the benefit of all. Ironically there is a paradox in that we often divide to define who we are, and who we are not. Some group discussions moved from family trees to how trees are connected and communicate through their roots, supporting each other by sending nutrients to those in distress. Trees have a symbiotic relationship with people, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, so are an apt metaphor for connectivity.


We left Egypt in haste. We left our home and broke the bonds of slavery, just as we now break matzah, goodbye home, goodbye slavery. In the seder we reintegrate community, we come home as a people. The eating of matzah brings us back physically. The finding of the afikomen by that next generation allows us to continue to transform our home, to keep it alive for the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart

by Susan Weinberg

What we first learn or discover takes on new meaning as our understanding grows. With some perspective we could now begin to pick out the themes that echoed throughout our prior discussions.

In our earliest session we explored the story of Moses coming down the mountain to discover the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Moses throws down the tablets in anger, breaking them into shards. While the tablets may have been broken, the break we are concerned with is the breaking of trust. All parties, God, Moses, and the Israelites, go through a process of regret and repentance whether for anger or a lack of fidelity. That is followed by repair and then remembering, one of the most important themes in Judaism.

Similarly the story of the Maccabees began with the brokenness of both the temple and the soldiers, in the latter case both physical and emotional brokenness. This too is followed by repair and remembering as each year we honor that rededication in our celebration of Hanukkah.

When we looked at words we considered the fact that wholeness and brokenness exist in relation to each other, living together, not as opposites.אין-שלם-מלב-שבור/
This was the background upon which we revisited a quote that had been introduced as we began this journey. There is nothing more whole than a broken heart. 

This is a saying attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kootzk (1787-1859). Our handout (February Broken-Hearted-Whole-Hearted) shares the commentary by his contemporary Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1875) on this quote. 

So, what is meant by this seemingly paradoxical expression? 

In our discussion we made a distinction between acknowledging brokenness versus denying or suppressing it. We agreed that acknowledging is an important step on the path to healing. Brokenness is often associated with loss, but conversely loss often makes us aware of what we valued. That allows us to incorporate it into our life in different ways. Brokenness offers some unexpected benefits. As we put ourselves back together we also learn the empathy that may allow us to support others. Brokenness unleashes energy which can easily turn into obsessive energy, but can also be re-channeled in a positive direction. We talked of Rep Jamie Raskind who so valiantly managed the house impeachment team. Having just lost his son to suicide, he stepped into another maelstrom and presented his case with an authenticity and humanity that was in part generated by that energy of loss re-channeled into purpose.

To live is to have a broken heart. As we age, things break and tear and we learn how to navigate that brokenness and to own where the breaks are. Just as in Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, we embrace our flaws and imperfections. We wear those scars proudly, for they speak to the discovery of empathy and compassion. Our hearts are indeed more whole.

We closed our session with a discussion of the contemporary Hebrew song by Naomi Shemer, Ain Davar (It's nothing). The song incorporates the line "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart." It is a song that seems to speak to the grief of Israeli mothers who risk the lives of their children in the military.