Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Spring Up O Well

Joint Lab - Feb 24, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

Our discussion in the lab began with a picture (see left).  The picture is from the Dura-Europos synagogue in Damascus.  Uncovered in 1932 it dates back to 244CE and is one of the oldest synagogues in the world.  It’s walls are covered with figurative paintings that can now be found at the National Museum of Damascus.

What do we see in this image?  Twelve tribes, a temple pediment above the menorah.  As we learned more we discovered that the central image was a well and Moses had struck it with his staff to bring forth water.

We then turned our attention to a passage from Numbers 21: 16-18.  In this passage God commands Moses to assemble the Israelites and he will give them water.  A musical interlude occurs as the people of Israel sing" Spring up, O well--sing ye unto it".   According to the Torah the well is dug by the nobles meaning Moses and Aaron with their staffs.  Staffs are considered a symbol of power.  Much is hidden in the meaning of words.  The well was dug with a staff, a mehokek, which can mean both a digging device and law giving.  Metaphorically the well becomes the Torah and it is accessed by the lawgivers, the interpreters of the Torah.

It is this well that is represented in the painting in the Dura Europos synagogue.  The well divides into twelve streams and delivers the water, the knowledge of Torah, to each of the tribes.

We harkened back to yet another passage, Exodus 15: 12-27.  In this passage after crossing the Red Sea, the people again cry out for water.  They are met with the bitter waters of Marah which Moses sweetens upon God's guidance with wood.  That wood which forms the staff of Moses is considered a branch from the tree of life, the Torah.

We were not without our own metaphorical interpretations.  It was noted that with every birth there is rush of water, a connection of water and life.  The streams that come from the well in fact resemble umbilical cords, a life giving source.

We examined a map of the plan of the tabernacle as described in Numbers. The tabernacle stood in the west, the well before it and the tribes formed a circle around it.  The painting which we studied formed a portion of that circle.  We the viewer complete that circle and are invited into the space.  There is a touch of magical realism in the portable tabernacle accompanied by the portable well.  When the Israelites camped in the wilderness, the well was placed opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting and is the source of water that flows as a great river into the desert.

We closed our discussion with an analysis by Norman Cohen in The Song at the Sea and the Well at Be-er.  He notes the passage of thirty-eight years, from the crossing of the Red Sea to the death of Miriam.  Once again they are faced with the dilemma of accessing water.   The initial words from Exodus 15:1, 21 are similar to those of Numbers 21:17.  There is one difference.  Instead of Moses singing, it is now Israel.  The Israelites have learned their own song to God.

With the song celebrating the well fresh in our mind we turned to a musician in our midst, Yoni
Reinharz.  Yoni is a musician and songwriter.  In addition to singing he also works with spoken poetry and rap.  His current project is a Family Portrait, a musical telling of his immediate family history through song and verse.

Yoni introduced us to the very complex story of his family.   His grandfather was a soldier in one of the British battalions that liberated the camps.  His grandmother survived Auschwitz, the sole survivor of her family.  He grew up believing that his father was born in Poland, grew up in Belgium and later met his wife in Israel only to learn that a far more complex story lay beneath.  In truth his father was born in Italy as his parents were on the way to illegally immigrate into Palestine.  The ship was caught by the British and his parents jumped ship with his infant father and swam to shore.  Later they sought a place to rebuild their lives and ended up in Belgium.  His father ultimately lived throughout Europe, learning to speak ten languages fluently. Many challenges faced his family and it is on these stories of sacrifice that his work is built.  Ultimately he hopes to create a multi-media performance.  Yoni brought us into his story by sharing several of his stories through spoken poetry and music.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Praying for Rain

Lab 2.0 2/17/2015 by Susan Weinberg









The Winter Garden at Ameriprise's downtown office in Minneapolis was a perfect place to begin our exploration of water. Within the garden is a sculptural environment created by Maya Lin with a plane of water cascading down the side of the building. Many of you may have driven by the sheath of water and experienced one aspect of it. Rest assured, there are more aspects worth exploring. Lin plays with the relationship between outside and inside space, continuing the exterior space with a curving wooden floor and trees within. We were entranced with the different elements of water; frozen, cascading, flowing, as well as the veil it created through which we could observe the city life, now rendered mysterious through the blur of falling water.

Louise and Kris wove a Jewish context into this exploration, beginning with a reading of the Geshem prayer. Geshem is the Hebrew word for rain and this is a prayer for rain. The prayer begins with the following:

Remember Abraham, his heart poured out to You like water.You blessed him, as a tree planted near water; You saved him when he went through fire and water, For Abraham's sake, do not withhold water.

It then continues through Issac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron all building on the concept of water and its relationship to their individual stories. Until the 20th century most agriculture was fed by rain, not irrigation, thus prayers for water and rain were central to existence.

We then adjourned to a coffee shop nearby where we could observe the wall of water from a somewhat different perspective. There Louise and Kris introduced a basic tenant of Judaism, Bal Tashchit originally found in Deuteronomy 20:19-20. The passage speaks of the obligation to preserve trees when a city is taken in warfare, a practice contrary to the practice of that time of destroying the land. That concept has been elaborated on as a prohibition on being wasteful in that it damages the creation of God.

We discussed how environmental responsibility is found within Jewish texts. A Midrash speaks to the role we hold as stewards of the earth. Acting righteously means treating the world with respect for we are answerable to God. Within the Midrash God shows Adam around the Garden of Eden and notes its beauty and that he created it for him. God then urges him not to spoil or destroy it as there will be no one to repair it. Rambam spoke of the obligation that Jews have to consider carefully our real needs when we consume.


We spoke of the passage in Number 20:1-11 after Miriam dies and her well dries up. The people complain to Moses about the lack of water. He strikes the rock with his staff and water flows forth. The Israelites then pass through the Red Sea and arrive at modern day Jordan where they sing a song about their appreciation to God for water. All these stories reinforce the perspective that water is one of the ways that God supports life.

Kris spoke of the fact that water is now piped in and fields are irrigated, separating us from the awareness of how precious and limited water can be.

In Israel there are two lakes. The northern one is Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. This lake generates most of the water in Israel and is the "giver". Conversely the other lake is the Dead Sea. Filled with salty mineral water it supports no living plants and animals. It is located in the lowest part of the world. These two bodies of water were equated to two types of people, the giver and the taker. The giver allows life to grow around him. The taker keeps everything for himself. This metaphor aptly led us to our role in conserving resources within our environment so it continues to grow and support others.

Kris shared some facts with us about changes in the environment, especially in California which grows much of our produce. California lakes are shrinking as the ocean rises. The last three years have been the hottest and driest on record there. We looked at where domestic water use is the highest and the fact that these are the areas that are growing in population, pointing to a growing challenge.

We closed our discussion with another view of work by Maya Lin, a civil rights memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. Lin based the work on a paraphrase of a quote from Amos in the "I have a dream" speech..."until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Water: An Agent of Transformation

Artist Lab 1.0 February 10, 2015 by Meryl Page

Before the artists could begin to discuss water, they first had to slog their way through water in all its frozen forms from ice and sleet to snow to make their way to the JCC. Once the eight artists arrived they immersed themselves in both the discussion of mikveh and the creation of a "soul collage" in response.

What responses do you have to the term "mikveh?" That was the first question posed to participants who wrote narratives or words that they linked to the term. We read the responses aloud and it was clear each participant was knowledgeable and many of the reactions were common among the participants. The thread of the discussion focused  on the mikveh, its development in response to the Torah’s commandments in Leviticus 15:19 and its role today. Why the very detailed regulations in the Talmudic Tractate Toharot? Is this mikveh misogynous? Is it a special spiritual mitzvah for women? What do the terms "tamei" and "tahor" mean beyond the literal English translation of impure and pure? Why was the mikveh as central an institution in Diaspora Jewish communities as the cemetery?

Liba brought the catalogue from The Mikveh Project, an artistic collaboration between photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax. Participants remembered the exhibit’s arrival at the Sabes JCC and the controversy it stirred. The exhibit made public a ritual that is one of the most private of Jewish rituals.

The artists stayed late as they created soul collages from the materials Liba collected. Each small collage was its own small world. (see photo). The toughest part of the evening—letting go. Each participant viewed the others’ collages in silence. Each seemed to understand the privilege of opening a door into the heart and mind and soul of fellow artists.

Selected bibliography of art works and thoughts:
Adler, Rachel. "Tumah and Tahara: Endings and Beginnings" in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth Koltun. Schocken Books, 1976.
Adler, Rachel. "In Your Blood, Live. Re-visions of a Theology of Purity" in Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, ed. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, 1997.
Lewin, Naamah Batya. The Mikveh. Part of a film cycle.