Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

by Susan Weinberg

Our last session began with an artwork by Chagall on the book of Ruth.  We had quickly identified it, drawing on our familiarity with his work, well within the frame of our knowledge. This session, Meryll held up an unfamiliar, but striking work, a papercut of the story of Ruth.  We were at a loss to name the artist (Diane Palley), this was unfamiliar territory, a precursor of our exploration of Judges which would take us outside of the frame of Ruth in order to better understand its meaning.

Meryll guided us to our first clue in the first line of Ruth 1:1 And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. (handout-Ruth & Judges) "Anything unusual?" she asked.  We focused in on the doubling of the words, judges judged. Perhaps this doubling was intended to draw our attention. Was famine a judgment? A punishment?  The Hebrew word vayahi seemed a bit of a lament, much like oy vay, pointing us outside the frame of Ruth to the book of Judges.

We read through Judges 21:5-24, a difficult passage of murder and mayhem, unconscionable behavior. It began with a building of an altar, a violation of the religious rules. Then it progresses to murder and the kidnapping of virgins as wives. At the end of the passage  in Judges 21:25 the author adds his own judgment and our second clue: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

The people of Israel were lacking leadership and immersed in both religious and moral chaos.

In Judges 1 we get yet another clue. The tribe of Judah is presented as a preeminent tribe.  Who is from the tribe of Judah?  Boaz.

Finally we turned to Baba Batra in the Talmud (handout-Ruth & Judges). Through a series of retorts, Rabbi Yohanan underscored the fact that those being judged were judging the judges. This was a time of chaos, a time without leadership.

Clues had been strewn across our path, a trail of breadcrumbs that led us to Bethlehem, where Ruth and Naomi were now housed. In fact, those breadcrumbs led to a house of bread, the meaning of the name Bethlehem. Our solution is implied by the commentator of Judges 21:25. We need  a king to offer strong leadership and of course Ruth birthed the line that led to David. We'd come full circle.  The story of Ruth was a precursor of a future where kindness, loyalty and recognition of the other were underscored. God sat back and let the people find their way, treating each other respectfully, with kindness and generosity. What began in famine led to abundance and sharing.

Still more clues were scattered within the story through the meaning of names. Ruth means friend, Boaz-strength, Naomi- pleasantness.  When Naomi first returns in her grief, she asks to be called Mara which means bitterness.My favorite though was Orpah, the back of the neck, what she turned to Naomi as she returned to her home in Moab.

Chagall's White Crucifixion
Mark Rothko Chapel
The second part of our session was devoted to artist-led sessions. Roslye Ultan led us in an exploration of Jewish artists, particularly as they crossed boundaries into more Christian imagery. We began with the quintessential Jewish artist, Chagall. We described his work as dreamlike, free of gravitational pull, often with animals and most certainly narrative. Roslye also referenced  Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross and Mark Rothko's Chapel. Newman was interested in Kaballistic ideas and avoided "graven images" in his work.

We turned our attention to Chagall's White Crucifixion, one of over 30 crucifixions painted by Chagall. Here a talit is around his waist, perhaps hiding his circumcision  as in Christian iconography, yet here it is slyly covered with yet another Jewish symbol. The Christ figure is surrounded by imagery of the Wandering Jew, a rabbi fleeing with a torah and a burning synagogue. The cross is set in a beam of light. Is this a Christian story or has it perhaps been reclaimed? Chagall himself weighed in with these words, "For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr." Chagall identified with Christ saying "Every day I carry a cross/ They push me and drag me by the hand/ Already the dark of night surrounds me/ You have deserted me, my God? Why? . . .I run upstairs/ To my dry brushes/ And am crucified like Christ/ Fixed with nails to the easel."
Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross

Benito Quinauela Martin
La Boca
And now it was time to tango, or at least explore its history with Vivi Szleifer, assisted by  Rony Szleifer. Vivi took us into the world of the gauchos and Eastern European immigrants who populated Bueno Aires in the La Boca neighborhood, an area of meat packing houses filled with heat and stench. This world was captured by the artist Benito Quinauela Martin whose imagery reflects both the heat and the hard life, but also has a celebratory feel, filled with color and movement. Vivi spoke of the music that was later reflected in the music of tango, the guitar of the gaucho, the drums of African music. Originally the tango was danced by two men as if locked in mortal combat.  Women found their way into tango, often as prostitutes originally, and that mortal combat morphed into something else. In the 1920s and 30s singing was added. If you are interested in the Powerpoint on tango, click here.

As always our session covered a broad swath, from following a trail of clues in Ruth, to exploring the crossing of boundaries by Jewish artists, to entering the multicultural complex world of tango.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Riffing on Fences

by Susan Weinberg

In our recent lab, we welcomed Rabbi Jeffrey Schein who brought a rich energy into the room. Schein is a Jewish educator and Reconstructionist rabbi who has recently made Minneapolis his home.  He began by noting that he was in mourning for his mother who recently died at age one hundred. Together with Rabbi Davis, he had weighed whether he should be teaching during this period of mourning. Together they concluded that this was acceptable if he dedicated his teaching to his mother. A soul is sped on its journey by Tzedakah and study in their memory, thus our session was doubly fruitful, inspiring thought and helping to speed a soul onward.

Schein began our session by talking about an exhibition he attended at the Weisman Art Museum on the artist-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel prize winner in 1906. The exhibit was on the art of the brain. People used to think of the brain as a classical orchestra, coordinated and even dare we say, orchestrated.  In fact Cajal said, it is more like jazz with variety in how connections form. Neoplasticity implies that our brains are malleable, not always rigid in which part performs what.  As I reflected back on our session, I realized it too was much closer to jazz as we riffed on the topic of fences from a variety of perspectives.

Riff #1: We began by selecting an image of a fence, some with space between, some visually open, others walled in.  Schein asked us to imagine pushing against it. What did it feel like to push on the fence from the outside? from the inside? Some fences allowed interaction and thus altered social relationships in positive ways.  Others acted as true enclosures, shutting out the outside world, perhaps hiding a secret garden.

Riff #2: We then journeyed into the Tanach to revisit our old friend Ruth who Schein termed a fence rider, one who sits atop a fence, choosing which side to join. Ruth, of course, ultimately joined her mother-in-law while her fellow sister-in-law chose to remain in Moab.  

Riff #3: We continued our journey to Bezalel, the first all-round craftsman and the chief artisan of the Tabernacle.  The passage in question, Exodus 36:1, had three interpretations.  One speaks of his skill with his hand, yet another talks of his wise heart while the third talks of his wise mind. We concluded that a wise mind brings together both skill and heart. Each aspect has its place.

Riff #4 builds on Riff #3 : Having set the stage, Schein shifted to artwork and our need to be inside as we work on a piece, outside as we assess it. So too we use both our wise mind and our wise heart.  Inside affords us an emotional connection, outside activates our critical thinking. We often need the perspective of removing ourselves to come back refreshed to create. Mordecai Kaplan notes that "The Sabbath represents those moments when we stop our brush work in order to renew our vision of the canvas."

Riff #5: The Pirke Avot tells us to "Make a Fence Around Your Words." We understood this to mean to be accountable, words are important and we must understand the dynamics of communication and speak with intentionality. "Say Little, but Do a Lot," the Pirke Avot cautions us.

Riff #6:Often we create fences around habits.  We were asked to consider a list of habits. "How is this productive?" he asked. "How is it not?"  I chuckled at one he offered on completing an assignment two days before it is due.  I'm more prone to allow a month. I need lots of fence.

Riff #7: He shared a passage with us from Proverbs 4:14-15. Enter not into the path of the wicked...Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass on. Rabbi Ashi offered this explanatory parable: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected, but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected. (Sefer Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitsky).  We turned to each other and considered the meaning of this passage.  "Bad Feng Shui, " I replied, still not grasping the relationship to the proverb. 

Riff #7 feeds into #8 Another interpretation shortly arose when we closed our discussion with a powerful poem by Amir Gutfreund which raised the question of which way a compass points at the North Pole.  The answer: it goes crazy and points everywhere.  Often we look to a destination from outside and it becomes our North Star.  When we arrive, we need a new set of tools to guide us from within. Israel is such a destination, driving the needle mad. (Handout-Fences). Similarly our man in the orchard sees less clearly when he is too close, better when he takes a step outside to see the bigger picture. 

Riff #8 echoes Riff #6: At the close of our session, the rabbi introduced us to two videos on Tiffany Schlain, Connected, the Trailer and  Technology Shabbat. Together they remind us of the need to create personal fences to manage our dependence on technology. 

Pretty jazzy!