Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

by Susan Weinberg

"To everything there is a season." Quick!  Who wrote that?  If you guessed Pete Seeger you're wrong although he did borrow it from a guy known as the Kohelet.  The resulting song Turn, Turn, Turn actually has the distinction of being the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics, no copyright infringement here.  We have in fact appropriated many selections from Kohelet, giving credence to his expression  there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Our lab session began with an examination of Ecclesiastes, also known as the Kohelet.  So who is this Kohelet guy? Chapter 1 introduces him as the son of David implying that Solomon is the author of this rather pessimistic assessment of life. Kohelet means the Convener and its alternate name Ecclesiastes means essentially the same, the Convoker. 

There is some dispute about this proposed source and in fact it is believed to have several authors from a later period due to the nature of the Hebrew.  The more puzzling aspect of these passages in the inconsistency in the message.

In our lab session Meryll led us in an examination of some key sections of the Kohelet.  In Chapter 1 he presents his approach to seeking out wisdom concluding that wisdom is vexation and knowledge increases sorrow.  In Chapter 2 he explores laughter and mirth, wine, great works, wealth, all joys and concludes that while wisdom excels folly, in the end all face a common fate, death. Thus he comes  to the conclusion that one should eat and drink and enjoy life, because in the end it all comes to naught.  Not exactly a message that the rabbis wished to promote.  And yet after this puzzling note he concludes "for to the man who is good in his sight he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy."  Huh?

It is in Chapter 3 that we find the passage that inspired Pete Seeger with its poetry. In Ecclesiastes 3:11-14  he extols the creation of God as beautiful in its time, urges us to do good and suggests that we should eat, drink and enjoy pleasure as the gift of God. 

In  4:9-12 he makes a bid for the belief that two are better than one, asserting that this offers support, warmth and defense. Whether this partner is female is cast in doubt by the aspersions he casts on women in 7:23-29 whose heart is "snares and nets" and yet in 9:9 he urges one to enjoy life with the wife that one loves. Perhaps within his 1000 wives and concubines he had examples of each.

In the midst of pessimism and cries of all is vanity we find such contradictory phrases as 8:5 "Who so keepth the commandment shall know no evil thing; and a wise man's heart discerneth time and judgment. " And yet just a few lines later in 8:10 he bemoans the fact that the sentence against sinners is not carried out expeditiously resulting in sin in the hearts of men.  He concludes with the well-known exhortation to eat, drink and be merry (8:15).

Let's take a look at the conclusion of this debate with himself.  In 12:13-14 we find these final lines: 13 The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. 14 For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.

What are we to make of these contradictions with the exhortations to eat, drink and be merry and the meaninglessness and futility of life?  The rabbis struggled with these writings and are believed to have added the conclusion to make it palatable in its inclusion.  It was also proposed that everything under the sun speaks to the earthly realm distinct from the realm of the Torah which exists above the sun.  Despite its many contradictions, these passages offer much poetry that is reflected in our language.

In the second part of our session we spent some time discussing our work for our upcoming exhibition.  Some themes are beginning to emerge.  Several took an approach to wisdom of many paths and learning from other people.  Others looked at the ancestral wisdom that is passed down through generations.  We concluded that this has proven to be a rich topic that upon exploration has offered many directions from which to approach this theme.

As we closed our session Ann shared a reading titled Daniel's Matzo which can be found at handouts.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Let Go, Reach Out

by Susan Weinberg

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” -Ashile Gorky

Robyn began our local retreat with this quote by Gorky. We closed our eyes while she read it, absorbing its meaning. We were asked to consider a word that might represent our efforts that day. Two phrases lodged in my mind, sequential in nature, first-let go, then reach out.

Letting go is implicit in abstraction. Representational work requires us to fit the pieces together. There is a "right" way no matter how stylistic it may be, knee bones connect to thigh bones. Abstraction has no such "right" answer, rather it requires us to "let go" and feel the essence.

There are different forms of abstraction employed in different mediums and Meryll opted for poetry as a form that doesn't fill in all the blanks. As she described it, poetry can make a word burst its boundaries. Jewish classical text on wisdom offers a how to manual. Proverbs instructs us on how to behave. Poets come at it a bit differently and Meryll chose to explore abstraction through a poem by Yehuda Amichai titled Jerusalem 1967. (See handouts). We each read a section of this lengthy and rich poem that seemed quite prescient, anticipating the divides we experience today in Israel. The poem takes place on Yom Kippur in 1967, the first Yom Kippur after the war, in the year of Forgetting 5728.  The letters which stand for this year actually mean the word forgetting, but on this first Yom Kippur he is remembering and mourning.

Once his name was Ludvig Pfeuffer.  In Israel he took his Hebrew name Yehuda and added the last name Amichai which means "my people lives".  In the poem he references the Yehudean desert, perhaps a reference to his own interior.

Amichai fought in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 and his experience during war colors his perspective and his poetry.

"What wisdom do we see in this poem?" Meryll asked.  A recognition of a duality, multi-layered, an understanding of interrelationships.  It was observed that he is the artist on the bridge.  Others proposed that as an artist we separate ourself from the rest, we view it as an outsider.

We were meeting in the studio of  Sandra Felomovicius and we shifted to learn more about her work.  Born and raised in Mexico City, both of her grandparents came from Russia and Poland.  Ellis Island was closed in the 1920s when they arrived so they ended up going to Veracruz and gradually moved to the larger cities.  While there was a Sephardic community, Eastern European Jews went to Guadalahara, Monterrey and Mexico City.  Her grandmother came from Alabama and New York, married and stayed in Mexico.  Sandra was the second generation born in Mexico.  She also did a stint in Florence, Italy, but moved to Minnesota when she married and attended MCAD.

Sandra introduced us to  Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-5:2) . Bamidbar means "in the desert"and 
we are told that to find wisdom we must embrace the desert by bringing an open mind and  letting go of preconceived ideas and beliefs.

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt says, "Wisdom is all around us – in animals, in nature, in the world and most especially in every single human being. Wisdom is bombarding us at every moment. But we need open minds and open hearts in order to appreciate it, to value it and to take it in. If not, we merely shape what we hear to feed our existing misconceptions rather than develop new understandings.

The key is to make ourselves into deserts – open to the world, allowing the outside to flow into us uninhibitedly.

When our minds and hearts are deserts – freed from personal agenda – then, and only then, will wisdom fill them up."

With that introduction, Sandra led us in an exercise of abstraction.  We each stood before a piece of paper and for a count of five were asked to record a circle, square and triangle without lifting our pen.  We did this several times then moved to our neighbor's paper.  Next we returned to our original page and developed it as we wished.  Many of us discovered crayon resist by combining watercolor and crayon and the results were surprisingly interesting.

At this juncture we broke for a wonderful repast to which each of us had contributed.

Later Rabbi Davis joined us and for his contribution to abstraction offered the niggun, a wordless melody.  He told us a story of a chassid who failed to understand what the Rebbe was teaching until he joined in a niggun.  "What and how does he suddenly understand?" asked the rabbi.  The niggun gave him the space to find the meaning, room to digest. It was suggested that an idea is present before words and focusing too much on the words banishes the idea.  We need to let go before we can find what we seek.

The rabbi quoted from Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement who speaks of music as a training in attentive hearing, a cultivation of the spirit.

For our final portion of the day Lynda and Jay revisited our mind maps on wisdom that we had created at the very beginning of our sessions.  Our task was to update it based on what we had learned about wisdom.  Keeping with my theme of letting go, I felt a resistance to mind mapping,  too much of my typical intellectual exercise. Instead of thinking of how words connect, I approached it as less of a thought exercise and more visually.  I looped all of my prior words together like a circulatory system, flowing in and flowing out.  We take in wisdom and we send it out, I added circles to allow for space, to let ideas emerge, to find quiet for wisdom to take root.  Inter-connectivity, space, interrelationship.  That's what I've learned.  Let go, reach out.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Wise Child

by Susan Weinberg

With Passover fast approaching, it was time to revisit the wise child and what exactly makes him wise. Rabbi Davis began the discussion by asking the group about Passover traditions in addressing this topic. One person noted her family looked at it from a generational perspective, from religious to not knowing what to ask.  It was also proposed that one person could embody all four children.

The language in the handout (The Wise Child) raised yet another question.  While the wicked child asks "What does this drudgery mean to you?", distancing himself from the community, the wise child asks about the "precepts, statutes and laws God commanded you" also distancing.  The rabbi noted that the language in Deuteronomy says "commanded me" and the Torah which was ultimately quoted uses the phrase "commanded you".

So what makes the wise child wise? He asks a question and wants to listen to the answer.  He is paying attention, having observed what has occurred up to that point.  His question is God based -"what has our God commanded you".

We shifted our attention to the afikomen, a Greek word that means dessert. In the Passover seder a portion of it is hidden for children to find.  It was suggested that metaphorically it represents what is hidden and if a child seeks what is hidden he will find the secrets.  The seder was modeled after the Greek or Roman symposium which began with discussion and led to partying.  It actually means music, dessert and party hopping.

But we have a puzzling admonition. "It is forbidden to conclude the afikomen after the Passover offering". Kedushat Levi offers this interpretation: In fact the afikomen is viewed as a symbol of something new representing renewal and resuming the eating of "chametz" is to return to something old.   We are to retain the taste of matzo all year lest we lose the taste of renewal.  Netivot Shalom added to this interpretation by noting that we are to look to the moon for "she teaches about innovation/change and renewal".

With this introduction, the rabbi posed the question of the relationship of art to renewal.  Every canvas is a clean slate, a chance to start fresh was offered.  Each person who views our artistic work has a new way of seeing it.  It was noted that some artists such as Chuck Close are process artists concerned with how to accomplish the same thing in different ways.  The focus is on process, not the end result.  Yet another suggested the painting Dance by Matisse which leaves a gap in the circle, hands not quite meeting to indicated a continuous evolving process.  It was suggested that renewal is reflected not only in what comes out, but what comes in to renew us as artists.

The second part of our session was led by Alison Morse and Diane Pecoraro who began the session by reading one of their poems on the themes of process and wisdom.  The session was geared to us getting a better sense of each other's work.  To this end they shared a handout (Artist Philosophy) with a selection of artists and their comments about their work, all of which made quite interesting reading.  In small groups, our task was to prepare questions we would ask a specific artist if we were to interview them.  We then used these questions to interview our fellow artists.  For example Lee Krasner noted "I never violate an inner rhythm, I loathe to force anything".  Were I to interview her, I would have asked "What allows you to find your inner rhythm?  Do you go through periods where you can't find it?  How do you respond to that?"

We then gathered the full group and posed some of the questions to the larger group.  The exercise was both thought-provoking and well received.

Image source

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Eyes Wide Open: Let the Walls Speak

Visions of Israel Blog: Minneapolis Jewish Artists' Lab Israel Trip

During the Artists' Lab trip to Israel we are inviting our participants to write a blog entry.  We hope to capture the trip through many eyes.  

March 21, 2016 Blog and photos by Leslie Levine Adler

By dinnertime, everyone had taken their seat at the Hotel Ruth Daniel dining room for our first meal together, some straight from the airport and the rapid pace was set. The artists were delighted to be united with Anat, our one-time facilitator, after over a year’s absence.

Our first adventure was a nighttime walk on “the other side of the tracks” in the Florentine neighborhood of Jaffa, settled by Greek immigrants, many from Salonika who were recruited to build the new port north of Jaffa that would become the new port of Tel Aviv. The neighborhood is industrial, and a bit bohemian. With flashlights, we followed our guide Yigal and several cats through the narrow alleys to view the graffiti. Why at nighttime? The workshops pull their shutters down, and these become the canvas for the street artists. Yigal referred to it as “letting the walls speak.”

We learned that the graffiti movement gained momentum here after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Graffiti now deals with political, social, and religious themes. Even some Orthodox artists are involved expressing ideas in painting that might be forbidden to talk about directly in their community. The number, variety and quality of the graffiti were stunning to us. In a memorable one, two ibexes lock horns in a battle, which Bernie Sanders would understand, between capitalist efforts to seize property and build and those who struggle to keep their homes.

These graffiti artists often pride themselves on remaining anonymous and representing a voice to counter the power of the marketing. “The street and the walls are their platform, said Yigal. Much of the work exudes talent, spirit and hutzpah. Paint is very expensive and the best graffiti artists plan their efforts in advance and do their work quickly to avoid getting caught. It is subversive but tolerated in this neighborhood and, perhaps, now even a source of pride and identity.

We came home through the American colony settled by Christians from Maine who brought over a 150 year old wooden house. This was another reminder of the diversity of Tel Aviv/Jaffa.

Editor's Note:  In 2013 Adam Heffez visited the lab to talk about his book on graffiti art in Israel.  You can find the blog written on this lab and links to the art he referenced at Anonymous Words.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Honoring the Objects:Finding the Story

March 22, 2016 Visions of Israel Blog-The Minneapolis Jewish Artists' Lab Israel Trip
During the Artists' Lab trip to Israel we are inviting our participants to write a blog entry. We hope to capture the trip through many eyes.

Blog by Lucy Rose Fischer
March 22 2016
We spent this morning with a remarkable couple. Lisa Gross is an artist who creates whimsical creatures using found objects. Her husband Bill Gross has an amazing collection of Judaica.
We visited Lisa’s studio early in the morning. It is located on a dusty street in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Not long ago, this city was just a few houses; now it is a major urban area—known especially as a city for children, with a children’s museum and many other activities designed for children. We first entered an outer room of her studio—it is filled with figures of all sorts and sizes—sheep, a cow, quasi-humans—all quite friendly and composed of various found materials.
Some of our group had seen Lisa’s work when she had an exhibit at the Sabes JCC in 2007. For others it was all new. For all of us, seeing the collections in her large studio was an amazing experience. She had pieces on the walls and on tables and suspended from the ceiling. She told us how she finds objects and they inspire her. She tends to walk with her head looking down, so she can spot interesting objects. Sometimes she uses natural objects as models, such as palm fronds, and creates molds. Her work is imaginative and delightful. For Lisa, “garbage” is an opportunity to create art.
Our next stop was their home, in a very beautiful neighborhood in Ramat Aviv, another Tel Aviv suburb. It’s hard to convey the scope of the Judaica collection that Bill Gross has collected. Three large glass cases encircle their large living room and other spaces are also filled with his collection. But what is really impressive is his knowledge about Judaica and the context of his collection. He has arranged his objects into 10 groups, corresponding to different cultural areas where Jews lived. He said that there is a myth that objects such as Hanukah menorahs were found in most private homes. But in fact most Jews were very poor. The silver items that we were viewing were used in synagogues and in the homes of the very, very wealthy. The Jews were even poorer than the non Jews where they lived because Jews were not allowed to own land or engage in most professions. They were limited to a very few occupations and therefore there was huge competition and most could barely scratch out a living. So, Jews in the Ukraine, for example, if they wanted to like Hanukah candles, would take a potato and make holes…
Bill also told us how the Judaica reflected the places and cultures where Jews lived. For example, an 1840 Hanukah menorah from Vienna is in the shape of a sofa, like the furniture that would have been in wealthy homes at that time. He showed us a menorah from Algeria from the early 20th century that had a star and crescent.
After lunch at the Tel Aviv port, we began a tour of Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv. We began at Shalom Tour, viewing beautiful glass mosaics about the founding of Tel Aviv. The first Jewish neighborhood was Neve Tzedek where the architecture was more European, Mediterranean, with red tile roofs. The Bauhaus architecture was brought by German architects, who designed functional buildings that fit with the environment.
We saw the building where Ben Gurion declared the Independence of the state of Israel in 1948.
Editor's note -Susan Weinberg
Lucy was unable to join us for our evening activities and lest they go uncaptured I wanted to add a few remarks on them. Back when our theme in the Lab was Light, one of our lab members described a restaurant in Tel Aviv where the waiters were blind and customers ate in a totally dark environment. We were captivated by this idea and remembered it when we created our itinerary.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live without sight? How about without sight and hearing? One of the most unusual experiences that we have had in our visit to Israel was at the Nalaga'at Center. Nalaga'at means "Please Touch", a request that makes perfect sense when you learn about its history. The center was started by people with an unusual disease, Usher Syndrome. People with this disease are born deaf, but in their first decade typically lose their sight as well. When young they learn sign language and by touching the communicator as they sign they learn to read it even without the visual cues.

Today the center offers plays, education and a restaurant in which we are blinded by darkness. The waiters and actors are either deaf or visually impaired or some combination. We began our visit with a workshop led by two deaf people who taught us how to sign basic words, lip read and pantomime specific words. We ascribed names through gestures which expanded on some descriptor, either physical or perhaps based on personal likes. We learned that sign language reflects the culture out of which it comes. For example the sign for "food" in the United States is holding a hamburger, in Chinese sign language it is manipulating chopsticks.

Following our workshop we moved to the dinner portion of our evening. We selected our dinner before entering the dining room. I was careful not to select the fettuccine as I end up wearing it even with advantage of sight. We were also asked to put cellphones and other belongings in a locker prior to entering, lest we or the waiters trip over them. We entered the dining room in train fashion, our hands resting on the shoulders of one of our table mates. As we entered we joined a world of darkness that our waiters were far more adept at navigating. This was not a blackness to which one's eyes adjust, it was a velvety darkness that allowed no light to gain a foothold. I felt my stomach lurch as we entered and thought of those yoga balance poses that become infinitely more difficult if one closes one's eyes. I felt off balance.

We were guided to our table by our waiter. He then taught us how to pour water into our glass with our finger in the glass so we didn't overflow. I missed the glass anyway dampening the table, but I discovered an advantage in this world of darkness, no one could see it. We heard the jingle of bells approaching, signaling our waiter Mohammed nearby with our meals. There was no waiting until everyone was served as there was no way to determine that. My husband and I reached across the table identifying each other's location. That coveted taste of my husband's meal was going to be difficult. I'd be lucky if I found my own plate. The inability of others to see quickly eliminated any table manners. After a few empty forkfuls, I quickly developed a stabbing strategy with the objective of navigating food to mouth. It wasn't pretty, but then no one saw me. The food was actually quite flavorful, perhaps enhanced by a focusing of our senses. My special treat at the end was when my husband had the waiter bring some of my husband's leftover meal to me to taste. We left in train style, grateful for the anchor of the person in front, blinking as we moved back into light as we adjusted to the world of the sighted.