Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Navigating an Unpaved Road

by Susan Weinberg

Where or when have you felt God’s presence?  That was the question with which we began our Lab.  Our assignment was to have that discussion with another person starting ten feet away and then gradually closing the distance.  I  began by considering what “God’s presence” meant to me. In fact I often find that sense of something beyond myself in the act of creation, when a kind of magic takes over and results in a creation that surprises me, leaving me somewhat amazed that it was done by my hand.  When we reconvened we were asked how it felt as we closed the distance.

Some reported that they felt God’s presence getting thicker as they got closer, some preferred closeness, others a more comfortable distance. For many physical closeness felt more appropriate for an intimate topic.

With that warm up we entered the gate of our topic, that of fences. We began with a passage on our handout (Four Cubits of the Law) from the Berakhot 8a which talks of how since the Temple was destroyed, God’s presence is only revealed in the four cubits of Halakha.  Halakha is Jewish law and represents a house of learning or the teachings of Judaism.  Four cubits is about six feet. Not a very large house.  

But wait a minute, we don’t follow all of those laws anymore.  What about sacrifice? The rabbi suggested with some bemusement that some would claim that is only on pause until the temple is rebuilt.  What about additions to the Seder service, a glass of wine for Israel?  Perhaps it is a distinction between Halakha and traditions offered another of our group.

Halakha is pretty restrictive.  A rather entertaining spoof imagined Xmas as a Jewish holiday and what restrictions might surround it.  Are we to be bound by countless rules? And what happened to Jews questioning, isn’t that in our DNA? Rabbi Marc Angel noted that Judaism respects and encourages dissent within the boundaries of normative Judaism, but not outside of it.  So what does that mean?  To be within it must evidence respect for sages, substantiated positions and a commitment to the Divine origin of Torah. 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2 specifies that we are not to add or delete anything from God’s word. Sounds like God was a strict constructionist.  Rashi chimes in and say, “Not to worry, that means you shouldn’t add a fifth text to tefillin or a fifth species to your lulav and etrog.”

Rambam says, “Not so fast Rashi, it also means you can’t make up a brand-new commandment.” No more innovation by the prophets.  He goes on to say that fences are permissible if they allow us to preserve the Torah.

So what about those fences?  In the Pirkei Avot 1:1 after the Torah was transferred, the “Men of the Great Assembly” noted we should “make a fence for the Torah”.

What do we mean by a fence?  Rabbi Irving Greenberg described it as cordoning off a broader area so people will stop before they enter forbidden territory.  Hmm, perhaps filling up the gas tank when it is down to one bar rather than beeping at me.   In a more religious vein we are to light Shabbat candles at sundown, but we create a fence of 18 minutes before sundown in which we light the candles.

Up until this point, I must confess that this all felt rather foreign to me as a secular Jew.  I don’t concern myself with Halakha and I don’t live in a world of absolutes.  Then we entered the world of practicality where I live.  In 1 Macabees 2 after Jews were murdered while refusing to fight on Shabbat, Mattathias and his friends considered the value placed on living as overriding Shabbat observance. Those beliefs were drawn on during the Holocaust when practice was not always possible. 

Rabbi David Hartman in A Living Covenant wrapped it up by noting that the Torah is not a complete finished system. We were given an arrow sign at Sinai. Halakha translates to "walking". It is an unpaved road and does not expect passive obedience to the wisdom of the past. It is through the oral tradition that we become a partner and divine Word was only a beginning point to be elaborated on through analysis and interpretation. Ah, this I can live with.

 It occurred to me as we had this discussion that I come to this from the background of a secular Jew. When grappling with material that is outside my experience and orientation, I often try to find a framework that makes sense to me. That may be a different perspective than someone who lives in that world. In many ways I am a bridge between the world of secularism and my heritage, finding points of connection where possible and considering ideas that frame the values of Judaism. And a bridge between worlds seems quite appropriate to our theme.

The second half of our session was led by Artist Lab member Jonathan Gross who brings us a marriage of science and art.  With his interests spanning both realms it was a natural attraction between him and the work of Joseph Cornell who studied science and created art with scientific concepts interwoven. The theme Jon explored was crossing boundaries and focused around Cornell's work in a series on Celestial Navigation and specifically the piece called the Celestial Navigation by Birds.  This glass fronted box contained a number of objects related to the concept of navigation.  Jon introduced us to wind roses which line the background of the box. A wind rose chart looks at the direction of the wind, the probability that it would be blowing in a given direction and its intensity.  At one time these were much valued and highly guarded charts and few survived.  

Cornell was a bit of a punster and created puns both visually and with words.  Many of his artworks make use of the word "Rose", some are called Roses des Vents, literally wind roses and a painting of his friend Marcel Duchamp dressed as a woman named Rose Selavy (Rose C'est la vie -it's life).  Cornell made visual puns by using a rose with a spiderweb within it to power a boat in one of his images.  The rose was a probabilistic symbol and was about navigating one's way through life.  

Jon shared the concept behind the Celestial Navigation by Birds which was documented in a 1958 Scientific American magazine with which Jon was coincidentally familiar. The experiment was to show that birds navigate by stars at night.  To test this, birds were placed in a cage with blotter paper and the cage was in a planetarium.  An ink pad was on the bottom so the birds would get ink on their feet when they jumped in the direction they wanted to fly.  By changing the stars above in the planetarium and seeing how the birds followed this change,  they were able to document that birds do in fact navigate by the stars. 

On the back of this piece is a celestial map with someone with a telescope and another person with binoculars.  Jon noted that we impose patterns on the stars, not unlike the way we view artwork. Cornell signed his work backwards, signifying that it was in code, much as Leonardo da Vinci wrote his scientific work backwards. 

In closing Jon shared with us a quote from a letter to the editor of a German magazine that noted we engage in art when we communicate "through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful."  (click for Jon's presentation)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Geography Lesson

by Susan Weinberg 

Tonight began with a geography lesson.  The Torah is quite specific about the boundaries of our covenant with God.  First we are promised in Genesis 28:14 that "thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth and spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north and to the south." Meryll pointed out that the Hebrew word doesn't actually mean"spread", but rather "to break through," a much more incendiary interpretation.

What boundaries do you live with? she asked.

"A house, our body, our city, our counties, our states" we replied.

Our attention was drawn to a very specific passage in Numbers 34:3-12
which lays out the boundaries of Israel. We were directed to the handout (The Covenantal Promise) where we found a map (p4).  As we traced the parameters outlined in this passage we noted the promised border and how it related to the real border. It encompassed a much larger section than the actual Israeli border reaching as high as Damascus. The borders of the covenant are defined by where people lived  ( Genesis: 15:18-25 ) and by a triangular relationship between God, Abraham and the land (Genesis 12:7).  So why this variance between promised and actual?  Perhaps the Israelites didn't deliver what they were supposed to?  Or perhaps it does match more closely than we acknowledge for Ishmael was Abraham's seed also.  Rabbi Benjamin Segal attempts to answer this question noting that because of this triangular bargain with God it always straddles "the real and the ideal".

We began to trace the history of modern day Israel beginning with the UN's partition plan in 1947 on the handout (p8).  It was an odd way to shape a country with Palestinians in the middle dividing the country into many separate segments, an untenable structure from the standpoint of security.  Apparently this division reflected concentrations of where particular people already lived.  I found myself thinking of our recent election with divisions between cities and rural.  If we were to divide our country by those divisions it would look quite similar to the Israeli partition.  This same pattern is found in Africa, India and Pakistan, also areas that were once under colonial rule.

Maps, maps and more maps.  We turned to the map of the separation barrier (p11)  Meryll noted that sheep are not bound by the wall, for there are  underground passageways for sheep to graze. We zoomed in even deeper to look at Jerusalem (p12) and the mishmash of neighborhoods that composes it.

Prior to our session we had been asked to observe the live cam of the Wall.  What were the divisions we witnessed?  The wall itself, the plaza, the wall between the men and women, the tunnel by the wall by which Arabs can go to the Temple Mount.  Many boundaries are defined by gender and religious identity.

Now it was time to imagine our own map of Israel.  how should it be divided, mapped and bordered? This was to be a dream map, but we struggled with the impracticability of dreams. What would we want?  "Peace and safety," we replied.   Then we shifted to city planning mode and decided on a pinwheel structure much like Paris.  We would put the core services, green space and religious buildings in the center, serving the branches that surrounded them.  Layers, we needed layers that would allow us to keep our differences, our culture and history, but overlap with our neighbors.  Soon we had a multilayered structure rising into the sky.

Our neighbors had a different approach to this project replete with rivers, oceans, native land and music.  Palestine and Israel were mirror images of each other. Still others opted for no borders with Lake Minnetonka in the middle.

Or perhaps fresh water on the borders and access to water routes to create an island.  Even in this island of coexistence there were battlements, convinced we couldn't depend on the rest of the world to leave us in our bubble.

And then of course there were the post-minimalists, lost in discussion, who didn't breach that white surface that taunted them.

We began the first of our artist led discussions with Rony Szleifer taking us into an exploration of passages that remind us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and thus should not torment a stranger nor oppress him  (Exodus 22:20-21)  We are further reminded of why that is, for we know the soul of a stranger because of our experience in being an outsider, a stranger in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)  Finally we are exhorted to love him as ourself, once again because we were strangers. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)  It is in our otherness that we learn empathy. Roni asked us to consider where we draw borders in life and in art.  Where do we erect our personal walls that move with us? How much are they values, how much stereotypes? (You can find his presentation here)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Finding Passage

By Susan Weinberg

When I entered the lab I was struck with the profusion of red "I voted" stickers.  It was election day and our group was well represented at the polls.  Our theme of Insider-Outsider seemed very relevant although which was which remained in question.

We began our discussion with the personal, the place where most of us live.  Have you ever felt like an outsider? As a Jew or as an artist?  How did it make you feel?

Several of us talked about feeling like an outsider as a solitary Jew among non-Jews, representing our ethnicity to those who often had little exposure to Jews.  Some of us also spoke about feeling like an outsider even among other Jews.  The local Jewish community, where everyone knew each other from growing up here, wasn't always felt to be as accessible to "outsider" Jews, an outsider within outsiders. With that brief discussion to get us immersed in our theme, we moved into our text study.

As someone with only enough Hebrew proficiency to read tombstones, I have often wished I had the ability to dissect words.  So often the clues to deeper meaning lie in their derivation. Understanding Hebrew passages has often rested on looking to the origin and use of specific words so I  appreciate the guidance of our facilitators in this skill which I sadly lack.  

Rabbi Davis led us in an exploration of the Biblical term Ivri (עברי) which means to traverse.  (handout-Jews as Insiders-Outsiders)  The word "Ivri" comes from the word "ever" which means "the other side".

One of the ways we explore the meaning of a word is to look to the context in which it is used. There are several meanings that are implied,  geographic,  theological and genealogical.  The first relates to
Abraham's origin in Ur and his subsequent travels into Canaan.  He literally came from the "other side" of the Jordan River.  This is best illustrated in Genesis 11:31 which speaks of this movement from Ur to Canaan.  Rashi makes the distinction that Abraham actually went "inside"the land referencing Genesis 12:5-6. He didn't just pass through.

It is in Genesis 14:13 that we find the first mention of the word Ivri where it references Abram the Hebrew (Ivri). The word means the wanderer, the one from beyond, and is used thirty times.  In Genesis 40:15 we find the word again, also as a geographic reference to the land of the Hebrews.

The theological use of the word is found in Jonah 1:8-9 when he describes himself as a Hebrew who worships the Lord, the God of heaven who made both sea and land.  Here he is distinct from his neighbors, a non-conformist. Midrash notes "all the world was on one side (eiver) and he on the other side."

The genealogical perspective is based on Abraham being descended from Ever, grandson of Noah.

We gathered in our small groups once again to wrestle with the question of the positive and negative aspects of being an outsider and to share our responses to readings in a handout -Readings on Ivri.

As outsiders we are not sucked into group think and are skeptics by nature. Conversely we can easily become the target.  It was suggested that we could become overly committed to a contrarian position particularly on such issues as the politics of Israel. The reading by Jonathan Sacks that spoke to many of us was his discussion of sacred discontent, the contradiction between order and chaos. He notes that "Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be."

For our closing exercise we had been asked to bring an image that spoke to boundaries.  Our group included work by Joseph Cornell on the Celestial Navigation by Birds, bounded by the box that contained this construction. Stars offered both sailors and birds touch points to guide their navigation.   Other work included poetry that spoke of a mezuzah at the entry to a doorway, marking a boundary and inviting entrance.  A Sephardic song  spoke of leaving one place and going to another where the singer was unknown.  Others brought individual work addressing the boundaries that separate Israel from the lands that surround it. David Jordan Harris knit these images together, noting that the common thread that connected much of this work was the theme of passage between two places.  The artistic act brings attention to this movement.  As artists we take an experience and find a way to convey it artistically, creating a passage that allows others to also gain entrance.

We closed our session with a different sticker than those "I voted" ones with which we had entered.  Robyn gave each of us a red sticker with a flame.  In light of subsequent national events I found myself thinking back to Sacks' commentary of Judaism protesting that the world is not as it should be. I would suggest that we keep that image of the flame in mind as we seek to keep the flame of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, alive.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Crossing Boundaries

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.

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

by Susan Weinberg

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Art Beat - A Closing Event

And don't forget our upcoming Art Beat event with readings and performances - the last day to see the Artists' Lab show...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wisdom is...

by Susan Weinberg

"Where do we find wisdom?" asked the Rabbi..."the head, the heart, the hands and in relationship", he replied. 

Tonight we gathered to thank our wonderful guides into wisdom, to share food and company and the meaning of our wisdom piece with the rest of the lab.  The final lab is always one of the most interesting labs, but also one of the most difficult to capture in words.  And no, I am not going to report on the comments of twenty-four individual artists.  You just had to be there.

What I share is a distillation of wisdom  from the perspective of the collective lab.  As I listened to each artist speak, I heard themes emerge, ideas that seemed to weave throughout using many voices.  Here's what they said.  

We have keys to wisdom, pearls of wisdom and words of wisdom.  

Wisdom is in the voices of our people and carried forward through books. It is in art and color and line. It is in poetry and in the process, starting somewhere and arriving somewhere, sometimes unexpected.  Wisdom is layered, veiled.  We find it in unlikely juxtapositions grafted together, forming synergies.  It is reflected, but only found upon searching.  We feel it in our bones and in our blood memory.  We find it in doing things, getting things done.   Wisdom is discovered in experimentation, in letting go, going out and coming in.

Wisdom is ephemeral, hard to grasp, sometimes passed on and sometimes lost.

Animals are metaphors for wisdom, owls and donkeys and snakes shedding skins.  Apples signify wisdom, their growth a maturation into wisdom.  

Wisdom is a gift, made of seeds, patterns, connections, cyclicality, a collection of things, a balance between heart and mind.  It is constantly changing, evolving, renewing.

People can signify wisdom, influencing others, modeling wisdom.  Those of us who witness wisdom honor it and those who carry it.

Wisdom resides in relationship and in nature.  

It is in the spectrum of color, hiding even within the word itself.  Wisdom is the search, the process.   

Wisdom is not a product of schooling, but a lifelong attempt to acquire it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Coming Down the Mountain

June 14, 2016 by Susan Weinberg 

We just concluded Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses went to the mountain top and came down with his face radiant as he clasp those two tablets to his breast, so radiant in fact that others were afraid to approach him.

 Often we see artwork reflecting Moses with horns, a rather puzzling interpretation. In fact it represents a translation error. Rashbam speaks of the radiance of Moses' face as representing "a brilliant light which gives off rays on every side". The word for rays is "karan" which is similar to the word "keren" which means horns. (see handout-Moses Radiance)

"So what makes someone glow?" asked the rabbi.

"Menopause" injected one of our group in humor.   Feeling a connection, when someone is in their element and passionate about something added others. What else makes us glow? Humor, enthusiasm, love, confidence and assurance were offered up.

"So why was Moses shining?" asked the rabbi.

Here we dug a little deeper. Transmission of energy, infused with the light of Torah. Some focused on Moses as conduit between God and the people, you plug in the socket and it glows. The rabbi suggested that some believe the light was coming from the tablets and was reflected light.

 "So why does the face shine and not some other part of the body?"

Our eyes are the window to the soul offered some.  Our eyes are how we make a connection with another person.  Proverbs 20:27 elaborates on that connection when it says  "the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord".

"Do we know of anyone who shines?"

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dali Lama were offered as examples.

We then shifted to a few parables.

We considered a story of Rabbi Abbahu who was believed to have found a treasure because his face was glowing.  When questioned by Rabbi Yochanan as to whether he had heard a new interpretation of Torah he referenced an ancient source that he had discovered.  Rabbi Yochanan noted "A man's wisdom makes his face shine". Wisdom can come from both old and new. (handout-Coming Down the Mountain)

From the Hasidic Parable by Aryeh Wineman we discover Sadness in Finding a Treasure.  The story involves a man discovering a treasure too immense to count and he lacks the containers to take the full extent of the treasure.  He is distressed by what he must leave behind.  What does this mean?

There is too much to fill up the small containers that we are.  Take what is essential.  Don't be arrogant, always leave much behind.  David considered whether we needed to view it from a different perspective and shared with us a story from Jean Cocteau who was asked if his house was on fire, what would he carry out of it.  "The fire", he replied.

The rabbi closed with the question, "What are we taking with us and what do we leave behind as we close out this year of the lab? "

 I'm a "top of the stairs responder".  You know, the kind of person who comes up with her response as she is leaving the room and the topic has changed.  It works fine for writing a blog, but less so in the moment.  So after some thought here is what I take and leave.

I take with me the community of friends I have made through the lab, the ideas and discussions that enrich my artwork, my knowledge that has deepened about Judaism and the many things I have learned from others in the group and our wonderful facilitators.  What I leave behind is a little harder.  When I first entered this group, I carried some unease which I now leave behind.  I felt outside of the community and as a more secular Jew, I wondered if this would be a comfortable place for me. I have found it to be a very embracing community and close the year feeling that this is in fact my community and I am very pleased to be a part of it.

A Still Small Voice

In the second part of the lab we were led by Rabbi Debra Rappaport of Shir Tikvah in a discussion about wisdom and silence.  She began by speaking of the relationship of wisdom to Kaballah. Wisdom is one of the Sephirot, the ten attributes of Kaballah.  It is the seed of a thought. By the time we have created an artwork it has gone through many phases. The root of wisdom is in the potentiality.

We shifted to the subject of silence and its relationship to wisdom.  In the Mishnah Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel speaks of silence as beneficial for the body.  Rabbi Akiva describes it as the fence for wisdom.  The Talmud speaks of spending an hour in meditation as a preparation for prayer. (handout-Wisdom-Presence)

In keeping with the subject of silence, Rabbi Rapport asked us to write about what silence was to us.

As one who embraces silence, I loved this topic and wrote:

"Silence is like a warm bath.  It surrounds me, supports me, uplifts me, but doesn't impinge on me.  I float in its embrace.  it calms me and opens me.  Unexpected thoughts and ideas grow within it."

I related the story of how my husband and I deal with silence in different ways.  He enjoys music and often assumes that if I am in a room silently that it is an invitation to turn on music.  I've taken to playing classical music, my fallback to silence,  to let him know the aural space is occupied. For me silence is a presence, not an absence.  Music, particularly with words, is a distraction from my thoughts. Usually I create in silence.

Others who defined themselves as introverts noted their need for silence and spoke of it as a gift.  Still others offered that silence allows time for the creative process to breath.  Silence is the voice of the unspoken.  Not everything is voiced in language. Some noted that they needed silence for certain parts of the creative process and certain types of music for other parts.

As we closed this discussion the rabbi pointed us to Kings 19:4-12 where Elijah waits through wind, earthquake and fire for the Lord to make his presence known.  When all the pyrotechnics have passed there is a still small voice that emerges.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Spirit of Wisdom

by Susan Weinberg

We are nearing the end of this year's lab and deliver our artwork for the exhibition in just two weeks. This is the period that best identifies our individual work styles. There are those who work best under pressure and are now contemplating what they will do in the next two weeks. Then there are those of us who fold under pressure so prepare well ahead. I am clearly in the latter camp with my painting complete.

Our session this evening began with a wisdom prayer from Isaiah 11:2Touch our lives with the spirit of wisdom and insight. Meryll then asked us several thought-provoking questions as we anticipate taking our artwork from the solitude of our studios to the very public gallery.

What kind of wisdom and insight would you like to imbue in others as they view your work?

The responses began to fly, some rather tongue in cheek.

Has she lost her mind?

I want them to feel struck by lightening!


Many of us have incorporated text and hope to entice the viewer into exploring it after absorbing the overall image.

We had a bit of a debate over accompanying wall text.  Some argue for responding just to the artwork and prefer not to know the artist's perspective.

Others of us consider the text as an integral piece of the work.

I prefer them to first understand my intent and then extrapolate to the meaning it may hold for them.   For my work the text and image are both important elements.

Some added that they wanted the viewer to travel the artist's path and then revisit it alone.

That question was then flipped around.

What kind of wisdom and insight do you need to view others' work?

We asked for receptivity to the ideas we addressed, patience and a willingness to take the time.  We noted that the opening usually doesn't offer the environment for that.  Many of us return to go through the show slowly in quiet.  We recommend that others do that as well.

We wanted questions rather than answers, work that provokes the viewer to contemplate.

I found myself thinking of my work that deals with the wisdom of the mothers, a take off on the text Pirkei Avot: The Ethics of the Fathers.  I would ask a viewer to consider what wisdom they received from their mother.

For the second part of our session we broke into groups of four and discussed our work. It is always fascinating to see the direction that others are going and the mediums they are exploring.  Our group was composed of mixed media, collage, poetry and ceramic, all in various stages of completion.  Some are quite brave, delving into unfamiliar mediums with great success. We especially appreciated Sharon Stillman's maiden voyage into ceramics with intriguing results.

This has been an especially interesting topic, a topic with considerable depth.  That depth provides much room for exploration and sometimes some uncertainty as to how to proceed.  It is that looming deadline that pushes us forward.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cutting Room Floor

by Susan Weinberg

The period from Pesach to Shavuot is a time of reflection and study. This period lasts 49 days and traditionally is a time to study the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. These are the sayings of the rabbis, many of which we know well. Perhaps one of the best known is Hillel's statement "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" (Avot 1:14).

The section that we turned our attention to is called the Kinyan Torah which deals with the acquisition or receiving of Torah. It is from the time of the Mishnah, but was not included in the Mishnah. These are the clippings that ended up on the cutting room floor, but found a new home in the Pirkei Avot and form the last chapter of this section.

The Beraita introduces the passage by asserting that the Torah is greater than the priesthood or the kingship; for the kingship is acquired by 30 qualities and the priesthood by 24, but the Torah tops them all with 48 requirements (handout-Kinyan Torah). Not only do these differ in numeric count, but the nature of the requirements also differs. The priesthood and kingship are hereditary and are methods of political or religious control governing a finite period. The Torah has an infinite time frame, is subject to individual interpretation and represents collective knowledge and values. The priesthood and kingship requirements are relational in nature. The priesthood addresses what the people are required to give. The kingship speaks to the privileges of his office. The Torah by contrast addresses the things we must do to receive Torah.

With that introduction we began to explore this list of 48 criteria and identified some that we found particularly intriguing. We broke the group into two circles, one inside the other and facing each other paired off to discuss a selection of criteria through modern day eyes. Every time the rabbi shook a tambourine we changed partners.

It was only later that I took at look at what the Sages said relative to our understanding and I've included it below. Sometimes we focused on the same concept and sometimes our more contemporary perspective took us in another direction.

Ordering of the Lips - We saw ordering of the lips as choosing one's words with care, diplomatically and not in anger while the rabbis saw it more as practicing one's lessons until they came effortlessly.

Joy - We associated this with an openness and receptive state, one of listening. The rabbis spoke of enjoying one's studies as an incentive to continuing and saw joy as broadening the mind, sharpening the intellect and unlocking the memory. I rather liked the idea that joy precedes learning.

Long-suffering - we saw this as dealing with challenges without complaint and saw challenge and attitude as important attributes of learning with much of our learning coming from discomfort. The Sages saw this as avoiding anger.

One who recognizes his place - We added a caveat to this that it was true if the place was one of choice. Much of life is about finding one's place in the world, recognizing it and choosing it. We are all restricted to some extent, born into a particular body and in a particular country and we can choose to honor our body and seek to encourage wisdom in our country. We felt that recognizing one's place had to do with authenticity. The sages spoke of assessing one's own worth, knowing one's qualities as well as shortcomings.

Makes a fence around his words
- We weren't quite sure where to go with this one, but the rabbis spoke of expressing oneself with caution. We felt that words need to be part of a dialogue so our fence required a gate. Turns out that wasn't their interpretation at all.

Our final attribute was shunning honor which we saw as not being too full of oneself, not too dissimilar from the Sages who added that we should be studying Torah for love of Torah, not for our own reputation.

Rabbi Davis concluded by noting that there are many pathways to the Torah. The Pirkei Avot speaks of three crowns, the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name excels them all. Hmm, three crowns, but the fourth is better? What are we supposed to do with that? It goes on to state that the crown of a good name flows from the Torah, thus wrapping it all together. Rabbi Davis summed it up with the statement that Menschkeit is the foundation for Yiddishkeit. Being a good person, a mensch, is at the core.

The second part of our session was led by Carolyn Light Bell and Leah Golberstein who began their session by distributing chocolate to encourage joy which we understand is a precursor for learning. They began by leading us in some poetic thoughts from the Kohelet and other sources (Poetry-Haiku Instructions handout).

We were particularly intrigued with a quote they provided from Rav Avraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who wrote: "Literature, painting and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul and as long as even one single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, it is the task of art to bring it out."

We explored a number of poetic expressions leading us into haiku and were given some time to explore our own creative talents at haiku. We spent a lot of time counting out the 5-7-5 syllables on our fingers to arrive at our creations. As I looked around the room, many hands were raised as fingers moved in rhythm.

Even as we sought to stay within the required pattern, Ann reminded us with a haiku that it was only a structure.

Forget this structure
It is only a construct
we keep for order

The very interesting expressions that we received can be found on the handouts page at Haiku, but let me close with:
Chocolate brings joy
We rejoice in our portion
And are enlightened