Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Intersection of Humor, Wisdom and Jewishness

January 26, 2016 by Susan Weinberg
Jewish humor permeates American culture. From the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen to Jon Stewart, Jews have left their mark on what we consider funny. Tonight we gathered in the Tychman Shapiro Gallery in the LOL show, a show devoted to humor. The theme of humor permeates the JCC with the presence of the Jewish Humor Fest through the end of January.
We took advantage of the wonderful material that quite literally surrounded us and focused upon the theme of humor and wisdom and its Jewish connections. Our task was to select an image and consider how humor, wisdom and Jewishness intersect.This is of necessity a visual exploration so let me share a few excerpts from the show and the responses they generated. Kate McDonough captured what many of us thought of as Jewish humor in her grouping of four cartoons.

We asked ourselves why we considered it humorous. Quite simply it made us laugh. We liked the contradictions in language in the one above and identified with the personality she depicted. The wisdom we found it in was self-awareness and a certain self-deprecating approach to that awareness.

We felt that the self-deprecating approach was very typical of Jewish humor. Humor is used as a defense against what we find challenging personally. And as Woody Allen frequently illustrates, worry and a touch of the neurotic are not alien to many of us. The drawing on the right captures that sense of otherness that many Jews carry within them.

Debra Fisher Goldstein's brightly colored photos of the Minnesota State Fair drew our attention with their interesting visual humor. They are real-time, feel-good, joyous images. While McDonough's artwork is personal and captures a sense of solitude, Goldstein's is social and focuses on an event we call the Great Minnesota Get-Together. How could we be any more social than that?

Here humor was captured by the incongruity of nuns munching on an ear of corn or the echo of the cone in the shape of the young man's hair. The wisdom is that of daily life and the artwork makes use of visual puns.

We were especially intrigued with the work by Toni Dachis composed of layered chunks of newspaper to spell out a familiar joke. There is a sense that something may be buried within. By reinventing the familiar in an unexpected way, she allows us to see it through fresh eyes. In fact we proposed that humor lives in the familiar. Too esoteric won't do, we need to recognize the familiar before we can appreciate the twist.
And what could be more Jewish than reading. We conjured up images of old grandfathers reading the newspaper.
Rochelle Woldorsky sketch

For the second part of our session we turned to text, The Wise Men of Chelm (see handout-The Wise Men of Chelm). For this you will need to take a minute and read the stories. The Wise Men of Chelm share the humor of the schlemiel. Laurel and Hardy grew out of this tradition. It is the trickster story where insight may be found from a non-conventional approach. Again we find self-deprecating humor. Even when the characters appear foolish they are treated with kindness and gentleness.We concluded that the wisdom is that there is always hope. The stories arose during a time when life was difficult and laughter was the way out, laughter that was shared as they all saw through the same glasses, an image captured by one of our artists.  (For more stories on the Wise Men of Chelm)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fail Better

January 12, 2016 by Susan Weinberg
We began our session of the Artists' Lab with a discussion appropriate to this election season. Rabbi Davis posed the question "What do we look for in a leader?" Some of our responses reflected a reaction to what we see in today's public arena. A leader should embrace everyone, we replied. Being divisive is not leadership. Leading with one's ego is not leadership. Then we began to dig deeper and replied that a leader considers the big picture, bringing foresight and the ability to listen. They can break things down to decisions that are small but meaningful. They bring integrity. What we look for may vary a bit depending upon what they are to lead. A president or a spiritual leader may have somewhat different attributes, but many of the traits we noted are true of all effective leaders.

With that introduction we shifted to a handout (The Crown of...) with an excerpt from the Talmud that explores the idea of ranking. A very structured system of precedence was introduced. One of the more surprising aspects of it was a passage that noted a scholar or sage takes precedence over a king of Israel as he is less replaceable than a king. If a king of Israel dies, all of Israel is eligible for kingship, quite a radical concept. The Mishnah that follows this passage lays out some further ranking, but concludes with these words "If the mamzer (bastard) is a sage and the high priest is an ignoramus, the mamzer who is a sage supersedes the high priest who is an ignoramus."
R. Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University explains that our leader is not the king or warrior, but the Torah scholar, a teacher-king. It is a reminder that wisdom, not power guides the community.

We concluded this portion of our session with the idea that the crown of a good name is superior to the crown of Torah, priesthood or kingship. A good name is derived from our place within the larger community and underscores our responsibility to do good.
The second half of our session was led by your blog author Susan Weinberg and Rony Szliefer. Our focus was on failure and how it can lead to wisdom. We began with a little brainstorming. "What words do you associate with failure?" I asked.

"Mistake, anxiety, disappointing someone else," you replied. Several thought of failure in more factual terms - not meeting an objective in the allotted time, missing the mark. A few offered a more optimistic take with words such as opportunity and experimentation. "What do we call a person who fails?" I asked. "A loser" was the prompt reply offered in unison. You added that a loser is one who exhibits a lack of effort, is non-productive and self-doubting.

I then asked about the word success which interestingly elicited many more words associated with feelings - ambition, pride, surprise, elation, rewards and satisfaction. I began to wonder if it was harder to discuss the difficult feelings associated with failure than the pleasurable ones associated with success.

The word failure is derived from the Latin verb fallere and originally meant "deceive", but developed to mean to "deceive someone's hopes, disappoint someone".

The dictionary offers a rather depressing perspective on failure offering up such words as fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster, flop, washout and snafu. No optimism there.

We shifted to a discussion of our experience with failure. I shared a personal story which you can find on my personal blog in the entry titled The Guise of Failure. There you will find my ruminations on this topic as I prepared for this session. Several attendees shared stories of failures including job failures, personal failures and artistic failures. All created feelings of dismay and uneasiness.The artistic failure involved cancelling a project when that inner muse failed to show up. Perhaps that is artistic integrity some suggested, not wanting to do less than your best. Is there such a thing as artistic failure? Not creating was suggested as an example. And yet artwork often has to emerge in its own time, the muse doesn't always show up on our schedule. Liba wisely suggested we need to think more about process than end result.

We then explored how religious texts address topics of failure and humility (handout). Hasidic wisdom says "Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent" and Solomon the Wise noted that "the Tzadik falls and stands seven times".

Within Proverbs there is quite a bit about not being "wise in one's own eyes", not being too full of oneself. Humility is closely associated with wisdom and the wise person learns from the "reproof of life" as expressed in Proverbs 15:31 "The ear that hearkeneth to the reproof of life abideth among the wise."

In more modern times Samuel Beckett echoed Solomon the Wise with "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Some of our most innovative companies have a culture that embraces failure. This philosophy is at the core of many of 3M's successes from Post-it notes to Scotch tape. Often a failure for the initial objective proves to be a success for a problem yet to be identified. Now that's a culture of failing better.

Rony worked with us to explore our relationship to failure and how it can get in the way of wisdom. He noted that often a perceived failure is followed up with a resolution to never do that again, "that" being the source of our anxiety. We act out of fear of the discomfort associated with failure.
He asked a telling question, "How many welcome failure?" No one volunteered for the welcoming committee. Even those of us who speak of failure as an opportunity tend to shift to that mode when we are making the best of what we perceive as a bad deal, trying to find some meaning in a failure that arrived uninvited. Welcome it? I don't think so.

Rony asked about the experience of failure and now the feeling words emerged -sorrow, discontent, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, obsessiveness, emotional churning. Failure clearly affects us emotionally and discomforts us deeply.

He raised the question of when do we first experience those feelings and pointed out that young children do not have that fear of failure. Our fear of failure arises from the desire to not experience those feelings again.

In closing he pointed out that earlier in our sessions we talked about how wisdom is related to awe which is only possible in the presence of the unknown. Thus it is that our fear of failure often hampers our ability to explore the unknown and in fact limits our ability to embrace wisdom.