Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

Creativity: A Burden Of Choices

January 15, 2016


NewEndeavorBlessingRGB50%
When we feel the need to embark on a new creative project, we don’t always have a firm idea for it in mind. Even as we consider possibilities, these can overwhelm us to the point of inertia. At such times, surrendering to indecision is tempting but not necessarily the endgame. Then, when we least expect it, life makes decisions for us. The following is a reflection on balancing the burden of choices from a personal and creative perspective.

As a freelance illustrator, indecision regarding the subject of an artwork was rarely an issue because I’d grown accustomed to working on assignment where the parameters of a project were usually stated upfront by my client. Instinctively, I felt that I might not always be doing assignment work, but couldn’t know why. Perhaps health issues or other unforeseen events would determine that. It wasn’t until after the US economy tanked in 2008 that I was compelled to begin the next phase of my career.

At that time, I’d been working on a long-term dream; a unique personal book project called Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary. Following its well-received publication by Pomegranate in 2009, I was invited to offer many presentations and book signings. At these events, I was surprised to find enthusiastic demand for more of such projects (Books of Psalms, Prophets or a Passover haggadah, etc.), but I was also haunted by the frequent question: “So what will you do next?”  

For me, this query provoked some anxiety because after devoting five + years to Between Heaven & Earth, I was too physically and mentally exhausted to consider my next endeavor. Yet I had the feeling that my work in this genre wasn’t finished. I had casually entertained the idea of building a personal and professional legacy around books that would explore several Biblical tropes, but doing so seemed a daunting and distant goal since it wasn’t yet clear what that legacy should comprise or how it should be framed. I only knew that whatever I did would have to reconcile my own spirituality with my secular worldview. As I wondered whether an idea for a book, a series of drawings or a synthesis of both could teach me how to do this, I remembered an aphorism attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius that might yield a clue: “Study the past if you would define the future.”

So I decided to re-visit the notes and sketches in my collection of journals. These little books span decades, but for a strange reason, have gathered no dust. While regularly writing and drawing in new journals, I occasionally re-read old entries and add new insights to them, flattening time as I maintain a ‘dialogue’ with my younger self. This virtual orchard of back-burner ideas has often been amusing, thought provoking and full of choices for potential projects.

However, the process of choosing one among them was far from simple. It would be impossible to predict whether the idea I chose would become viable or have any market value without investing serious time, funds and effort. So at this stage, all I could rely on was my intuition.

On one of these forays, I came across a note that was made during my research for Between Heaven & Earth. I had been looking into incunabula (early printed books and came upon a reference to a 17th century miniature prayerbook. This was a Me’ah Brakhot (100 Blessings) and contained Hebrew blessings that originated in the time of the Biblical King David. According to my journal, I had searched for and found a copy of this beautifully illustrated little jewel and noted that I would like to try my hand at a modern version of it.

MB-8

Back in the present, I decided that such a project would not only employ all of my skills as an artist, writer, editor, designer, it would also fit the requirements of my legacy; and so I began to envision the book that would become An Illumination Of Blessings.* At this point, I was faced with making two other choices. One would determine the book’s fate upon completion; the other would be germane to its essence. 

First: should I submit this book to mainstream publishers or self-publish? Both were risky in their own ways. The former, with its often-lengthy approval or rejection times, traditionally offers a financial advance but it also entails editorial and marketing caveats that could entirely change the nature of this project. The latter would require fundraising skills (which I hadn’t yet developed) but it would also allow more creative freedom. Ever the sucker for a new venture, I chose the latter; a choice that would let it become a successfully funded Kickstarter project. 

Second: since I initially planned to self-publish this book and wanted it to include all 100 blessings, I did not set a timeline for its fulfillment. However, when I looked into the requirements for a crowdsourcing project, I learned that for a fundraising campaign to maintain momentum, the optimum timeframe would have to be no more than a year. So in a sense that choice was made for me. Of the 100 blessings (which were both mundane and obscure), I decided to select 36 that were more universal in nature. Guiding this decision was the notion that if this book were successful, it could generate two more volumes that would complete all of the blessings.JournalScans-2009

During the learning curve of my Kickstarter campaign, many other choices presented themselves and I was often intimidated to the point of discouragement. Still, I chose to forge ahead for the reason that will conclude this reflection.

As I became immersed in creating the illustrations and text for this project, the blessing for wisdom offered a subtle insight. It was originally called ‘the wisdom of the rooster’ because we are not thanking God for our own wisdom per se; we are acknowledging His wisdom in creating the rooster with the ability to recognize the difference between night and day. This told me that blessings are more than ritualistic behavior. They are a call to mindfulness of both body and spirit beyond the environs of a place of worship.

Because I had always recited blessings nearly by rote in synagogue services, this idea was an eye-opener; it helped me to understand that we are truly blessed by our ability to choose. By paying close attention to each choice before us while considering its multi-layered consequences we can learn to counter indecision. In this way, our choices become less of a burden and more of a way to achieve a nuanced balance in our lives as we decide how to frame our own personal and professional legacies.

*Images and detailed essays from it were posted here at Imaginarius throughout 2014. 

Advertisements

An Illumination Of Blessings Is For Real!

September 22, 2014

Dear Backers of An Illumination Of Blessings:

As of this past Monday, September 15th, I am pleased to announce that with your generous support and encouragement, this Kickstarter project is done and delivered! It’s been a wonderfully challenging year and a half of research, writing, design and illustration for these 36 illuminated blessings including the  interactions with all of you throughout the process. Recently, I’ve been asked whether another edition of blessings will follow to bring us closer to the originally intended count of 100. Perhaps, if there are a significant number of requests for it. But for the moment a bit of recovery is in order as I contemplate a short list of options (which include both Judaic and secular themes) for my next project. Your questions and suggestions are welcome!  Again, thank you all from the bottomless-ness of my creative well: I look forward to continuing our creative conversations and collaborations!

Ilene Winn-Lederer, September 18, 2014

Eating With Ethos

July 17, 2014

ShehakolBlessing10FROM THE MOMENT IN CREATION when G-d ‘breathed’ the soul of life into Adam’s nostrils, we were made to understand how noses and souls are gateways to experiencing our existence. Shortly thereafter, Adam and Eve were instructed concerning the source of their nourishment: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Overcome by their curiosity, they disobeyed, giving birth to the history of religion and its consequences. Oddly enough, scholars and rabbis reasoned, the first couple were not punished merely for eating forbidden fruit, but for the way in which they ate it; without the intention of holiness, without gratitude for its Source.

How does one define gratitude? In its simplest form, a ‘thank you’ suffices for most occasions, but doesn’t really do justice to the more deeply felt emotions when you are on the receiving end of altruistic largesse whether it be a kind word, service or unexpected material gift. That is where blessings allow us to be more creative in expressing those emotions, not just to our fellow humans, but to the One whom we credit as the Source of such gifts.

When it comes to food, which is undeniably physical, a blessing does more than address what we are about to consume. Yes, we eat to strengthen our bodies to healthfully house our souls, but each time we eat, we also recognize our senses of sight, taste and smell which connect our physical and spiritual essences.

Judaism offers many opportunities to spiritually acknowledge all the wondrous elements of life on this planet, yet sometimes when the object of our gratitude does not fit clearly into a category specified by one of the many existing blessings, say for particular foods that we enjoy, there is the Shehakol or ‘everything’ blessing for those singular forms of nourishment. It is recited before eating or drinking any foods other than ‘fruits’ of the earth or trees, wine, or breads.

The types of foods included under the Shehakol rubric are: meat, chicken, fish, cheese, mushrooms, wild herbs, some edible flowers, eggs and soy-based products. Drinks include: water, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, tea, cocoa and coffee.

This blessing also covers some ‘manufactured’ foods or those prepared with a combined ingredients such as soups, candy, ice cream, peanut butter or baked desserts like apple pie; however, the ingredients used for these combined foods should not be recognizable within the product in their original form to qualify for the Shehakol. If they are still recognizable after cooking or processing, they would require individual blessings such as the ones recited for fruit of the trees or the earth.

Much specific information on this blessing and the rules for its application may be found online*, in contemporary publications and in classic texts such as the Mishnah Brurah and the Shulchan Aruch*, but for this book, I’ve illuminated the Shehakol (#36 out of 36!) for An Illumination Of Blessings! as just an appetizer so to speak, to provoke your curiosity and learning.

**************************************************
To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit: 
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until August 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.
************************************************************
* http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/
  http://www.ravaviner.com/2011/01/which-blessings-to-say.html
  http://www.englishtorahtapes.comguide_to_proper_blessings_fo.htm
  http://www.vharevnu.org/About%20Mitzvahs/Bruchos/dairy.htm
  http://www.kof-k.org

** The Mishnah Berurah or Clarified Teaching (by Polish Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) is   a commentary on the first section of the Shulchan Aruch  or The Set Table (Yosef Caro-Venice,1563)-which addresses the laws of prayer, synagogue, Shabbat and holidays .

-Wikipedia

Beastly Blessings

June 18, 2014

Beastly BlessingsI’ve long been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts and their history, but the tiny details in their margins and the
inventive illustrations that accompany the painstaking textual calligraphy are elaborate weavings of words and images that
continue to influence my illustrations for this current Kickstarter-funded project.

This week, for An Illumination Of Blessings, I present one that originates in Judaism but is universal in content. It acknowledges
the Creator by virtue of the unusual creatures that inhabit our world and can be recited upon seeing a rare or unusual animal.

As I considered how best to interpret this blessing yet reconcile it with my love of drawing all sorts of creatures both real and fanciful,
my imagination teemed with images, all begging to inhabit the page. It seemed to be a difficult choice until I came across references in
the Talmud (Berakhot 58b) and Shulchan Aruch (225:8) which offered some parameters for interpretation.

As one of two similar blessings for observing living phenomena, it recognizes and praises the Creator for the various
strange and extraordinary forms of animal and human life that are not conventionally beautiful. The other blessing is recited upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people or animals and praises the Creator for placing such beauty in the world. A commentary in the Gemara* specifies that the first blessing refers to the sighting of a monkey or an elephant. One rather strange explanation is offered; that humans were transmogrified into elephants and monkeys as punishment for their participation in the Tower of Babel débacle! Is this anti-evolutionary tale not a great plot for a horror flick? An idea with greater appeal to me was that monkeys and elephants are considered to resemble humans; the monkey for its body shape and manual dexterity and the elephant for its smooth, hairless skin and a trunk which it uses as though it were a hand.

While monkeys and elephants are common sights today at any zoo, in medieval times they were considered exotic and rare, inspiring the creation of special blessings. Since travel to foreign lands beyond Europe was undertaken primarily by nobility and merchants, these creatures were often represented in manuscripts by illustrations that interpreted word-of-mouth descriptions by such travelers.

Complicating the medieval artist’s task was the Second Commandment prohibition against creating ‘graven images’. However, because creativity is in itself a force of nature, these artists were not discouraged and gave free rein to their imaginations as they incorporated fantastical beasts and homunculi into their manuscripts.

One other reference finally clarified the concept of my illustration for this blessing; a discussion of the elephant as a metaphor of the Torah presented by Dr. Marc Michael Epstein in his classic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Penn State University, 1997)**

After reading this enlightening chapter, I began to wonder why elephants were often shown saddled with ‘howdahs’ that sometimes resembled castle towers. Further reading revealed that the word ‘howdah’ is from the Hindi and Arabic languages referring to portable shelters used for travel but also for hunting and military battles. Carvings of elephants wearing howdahs are often seen as pieces in chess, the symbolic game of war.*** Taking this idea a step further, I imagined that a howdah could also represent a sort of portable synagogue; an ideological ‘castle’ as its own metaphor of Jewish history.

Accordingly, the first blessing for strange animals is illustrated here with a monkey riding an elephant whose ‘howdah’ or ‘turret’ recalls a medieval synagogue. It was inspired by an illustration in a 15th century volume of the Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. A decorative border of fanciful flowers and dragons surrounds them in tribute to the master medieval illuminators
whose timeless work continues to inspire my own.
***************************************************************

Dear Backers: The Blessing For Rare and Extraordinary Animals is the 32nd of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there!
*******************************************************
Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm   Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that your contribution of $500 to the top reward level of this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

*******************************************************  
* rabbinic teachings compiled after the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple
** The Elephant and the Law, pp. 39-69
***I remembered seeing this image as a sculpture in London near the Elephant & Castle Underground station.
   This image is part of my blog at Imaginarius: https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/the-tragic-beauty-of-ideas/

A Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

*******************************************************

Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

*******************************************************

*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

An Illumination Of Blessings Update: On Moonlight And Memory

May 16, 2014

RoshHodesh-MoonBlessing50%Science and religion have always been strange bedfellows, each occupying neighboring compartments in our minds, yet ever distrustful of each other.

A quotation attributed to Albert Einstein offers some insight: “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Nevertheless, they remain eternal antagonists, each perhaps seeking an impossible validation from the other.

This observation is far from new, but it came to me as I considered how to approach this blessing for the moon, an ancient source of wonder until July of 1969, when American astronauts walked on the moon. They became at once part of its history and its future in human perception.

Although they seemed to prove that the moon was physically no more than a rather large, cratered and lifeless asteroid, unworthy of the age-old mysteries attributed to it, still, they changed little for most of us earth-bound creatures in terms of our romantic, spiritual or prophetic predilections. We still love to invest the moon with human qualities in our arts and culture or laugh at the idea that it is made of green cheese.

Yet, whether we are romantic or pragmatic, we can safely admit there is a certain subtle beauty in the presence of the moon; it’s there to light our paths at night and in a numinous way, to remind us that we are not alone or without purpose in the dark.

These ideas might be part of the foundation underlying religious rituals created around the moon. In Rabbinic tradition, the newly minted Israelites were commanded to sanctify the new moon upon their delivery from Egypt. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

This practice directly conflicted with Egypt’s officially sanctioned sun worship. It also ensured that the moon would not become an object of worship; instead, its cycles became the basis of the Jewish calendar, a valuable tool for timekeeping and agricultural foresight.

In this system, each month defines one lunar cycle as the moon completes one orbit of earth. One hallmark of the lunar calendar, the Rosh Hodesh* holiday is observed with prayers and blessings at the point in the moon’s orbit when it is suspended directly between earth and the sun so that a thin crescent of it is visible to all, marking the beginning of a new month and/or season.

Metaphorically, the appearance of the moon as it progresses through its phases, illustrates our ‘deliverance’ from spiritual darkness to light. It would seem that such ‘enlightenment’ included recognizing the importance of women in early Israelite culture, yet I wonder, does it also tell us that the story of human existence would always be written in alternating chapters of darkness and light?

It is interesting to note that the monthly cycles of both women and the moon figured in the establishment of Rosh Hodesh as a holiday. Perhaps this reflects the idea that both women and the moon are capable of rebirth or renewal and must be honored as such. But two references in the Babylonian Talmud perceive it as a special one for women in particular while an 8th century midrash provides the backstory.

The first reference, in Tractate Megillah (22b) states that women must be exempt from work** on this day. The midrash, Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer*** suggests that after the incident of the Golden Calf, women were given a work-free holy day as a reward for their refusal to contribute their jewelry to the construction of the idol. Later, the French medieval Torah commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) specified that the exempt work included spinning, weaving and sewing since these were the skills that women freely contributed to the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) following the Exodus from Egypt.

The second reference points to a related monthly prayer called Kiddush Levanah****, or The Sanctification of the Moon in which we express our appreciation for G-d’s celestial gifts. It is traditionally performed outdoors in the moonlight (preferably under a cloudless sky) at the end of the Sabbath from 3-7 days after the new moon is visible. So, in Sanhedrin (42a) Rabbi Yochanan teaches that one who blesses the new moon in its proper time is regarded as one who greets the Shechinah (female aspect of the Divine Presence).

Although Rosh Hodesh celebrations have an ancient history, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that such celebrations became popular. They were one of the ways in which Jewish women could explore and express their own spirituality while enhancing their communal roles. These events gave birth to support groups for various lifecycle issues and forums for women’s studies.

In my illustration for The Blessing of the Moon, I have visually addressed both the Rosh Hodesh and Kiddush Levanah rituals. The sun has just set beyond the distant mountains and on a hillside above the sea. A woman wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl is dancing to the rhythm of her tambourine as she raises a cup of water in tribute to Moses’ sister Miriam and to all women among the Israelites who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea after the Exodus from Egypt. It was the first performance of a song-prayer, Shirat HaYam (Song Of The Sea) that is now part of the morning prayer services worldwide. The letterforms on the cup spell ‘Miriam’ in paleo-Hebrew, an early form of modern Hebrew.

I’ve shown four phases of the moon as it turns from new to full, from darkness to light, tracing its path along the ethereal form of a nocturnal quadrant, used in medieval times for astronomical navigation, perhaps on a ship like the caravel that is arriving with the tide. The ship and quadrant represent the human curiosity and ingenuity at the core of both science and religion while the woman on the hill knows deep within that love, peace and gratitude will mitigate their conflict if only we pay attention to the gifts we have been given.

* head of the new (month)
** except for work which cannot be left over for the following day, (ex.child care)
*** Chapter 45 in this collection of Torah exegesis and folklore
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirke_De-Rabbi_Eliezer
**** More information on Kiddush Levanah may be found at these links:

http://www.chabad.org/library/  article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/The-Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm

and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607391/jewish/Thank-G-d-for-the-Moon.htm

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

ImageOn average, we spare little daily thought for the sun other than to its perceived influence on the esthetics of the next twenty-four hours. It is, therefore, we are. End of story.

But since the sun’s first appearance in the skies on the fourth day of Creation, according to the Torah (Book of Bereshis/Genesis), this story is not one with an ending; it is punctuated with the myths and folklore of every human culture from the beginning of recorded time and perpetuated across generations in forms apropos to each telling.

These tales comprise a portion of the collective effort to comprehend our origins amidst our mercurial environment, the relentless cycle of the seasons and our place in the cosmos. They are an amalgam of sincere theological speculation, intriguing scientific discovery with some millennial fear-mongering thrown in for spice.

In tribute to this timeless portrait of human curiosity, I’ve chosen to include a rare Jewish blessing for witnessing natural phenomena in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

The Birkat Ha-Chamah or Blessing of the Sun is rare because it is recited only once every twenty-eight years, most recently in April of 2009. It is not to be found in standard prayer books; rather, it is distributed to participants at each recitation ceremony. The blessing dates back to Talmudic times (first century AD) when the rabbis, wishing to acknowledge the sun’s importance to life on Earth without inviting idolatry, addressed the star theologically without attributing divinity to it.

According to rabbinical opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is to be recited every twenty-eight years on the vernal equinox* to commemorate the sun’s return to its original position (relative to the Earth) on the fourth day of Creation when it is fully visible above the horizon at dawn. They taught: “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’.” (Tractate Berachot 59b)

My illustration for this blessing is set in medieval Europe when rabbi-scholars like Maimonides (the Rambam) and Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon engaged in lively discussions of Torah and Talmud, codifying their opinions for future generations.

On a grassy hillside against the backdrop of a castle fortress-town, a prayer shawl (tallit) clad man and his son are awaiting the full sunrise as they imagine a vignette of the fourth day of Creation framed within an astrolabe. The hand-shaped (hamsa) device from which the astrolabe is suspended is meant to represent the idea that its five fingers remind us to use our five senses to praise G-d. The hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam in remembrance of her as sister to Moses and Aaron.** The boy holds a ram’s horn (shofar), which will be sounded when the sun has risen.

This image was suggested by the Birkat Ha-Chamah ceremony of April 8, 1981, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York and sounded the shofar amidst a crowd of 300 participants.

I think, perhaps, this is how we might understand our place in the cosmos. As witnesses to the wonders of created life, that is a dance of chaos and order, we are privileged to question it, but are never to know all the answers or the end of the story; at least, not yet.

*************************************************************************

* Why every twenty-eight years? Although the sun rises and sets in the east and west respectively, its position shifts seasonally, moving to the north in summer and to the south in winter. The midpoints of this movement are the equinoxes which mark the autumn and spring seasons. To complete this cycle requires one solar year, the length of which varies by slightly more than a day in our calendar. So the rabbis calculated that when the equinoxes have moved forward exactly thirty-five days, they will occur on the same day and hour as on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation.

** Some of you may wonder why I have not included a woman in this ceremony. This is because the Birkat Ha-Chamah is a time-based mitzvah (commandment) which women are exempt from observing. You can read more about this tradition here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/woman_commandments.html Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

Image

In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

Image

The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10

From Day Into Night: The Wisdom Of Perception

March 9, 2014

ImageOrdinarily, I like to deny subscribing to coincidence, but I must stand corrected on account of this week’s installment from An Illumination Of Blessings.

Anyone of middle-age and beyond will readily admit that as we age, time seems to pass more quickly, yet we only recognize that deceptive phenomenon in retrospect.

Last week, when I chose to begin work on this blessing for the wisdom to distinguish day from night it did not immediately occur to me that coincidentally, we were about to begin the ‘spring ahead and fall behind’ cycle for one hour semi-annually in the parlance of daylight saving time.

Today, it began around 2AM this morning and though I can always feel the transition instinctually, the fact of it never fails to take me by surprise.

This tradition began centuries ago as an informal observance of the Earth’s rotation in relation to the effects of the sun and moon cycles on agriculture, lifestyle and human productivity. It became progressively codified and enforced well into the twentieth century but today, there are groups advocating for its eradication in the interest of simplifying travel, scheduling, commerce and environmental conservation. The latter justification is ironic considering that daylight saving time was initially instituted as an energy saving measure!

However, since daylight saving time may have derived from our ability to distinguish and contemplate the differences between day and night, it is only marginally related to today’s blessing essay. So to learn more about it, you can find a detailed history of daylight saving time and the arguments against it at: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time and at: http://www.standardtime.com/proposal.html.

As for the blessing itself, you might notice a tiny rooster perched on the roof of the medieval-style house in my illustration. This refers to the blessing’s original title, ‘The Wisdom of the Rooster’. It is unique among the many we have for expressing appreciation for our physical, mental and environmental gifts. Why? Because instead of thanking our Creator for our own ability to distinguish between day and night, we offer praise for “giving the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” Rabbi Michael Gourarie* explains:

“Although a rooster crows at the beginning of each day it actually happens some time before it gets light. When it senses that dawn will break soon, and light is on the way to substitute for the darkness, he emits the crowing noise that became the ancient alarm clock.

In every day there are periods of light – clarity, blessing, peace of mind and prosperity; but there are also sometimes patches of darkness – challenge, confusion and difficulty. It takes special strength not to be caught up in the moments of challenge. It takes maturity to look beyond the darkness and see the light that awaits us. A wise person learns from the rooster. He/she knows that the darkness is only temporary and that light is on the way. The rooster is symbolic of an attitude filled with optimism, hope and belief. The rooster teaches us to envisage and celebrate blessing even before it comes.”

In addition to the rooster, the other elements in my illustration are arranged around a sort of cosmic hourglass. Suspended within their separate spheres, our sun and moon are poised to reverse their positions in a dance designed at the time of Creation. I wanted to symbolize our understanding of these celestial bodies with regard to our environment and our lives (trees and houses) by placing them within a man-made timekeeping device. The sprinkle of stars that inspired the signs of the Zodiac on the hourglass are there to remind us that while our acquired knowledge is of great value, the light of that value darkens without the wonder and faith that guide it.

*http://shiratdevorah.blogspot.com/2011/08/wisdom-of- rooster.html

A Blessing For A New Life

February 8, 2014

ImageThe arrival of a new baby universally inspires joyful celebrations for the parents and community with festivities unique to every ethnicity and religion. In addition to an array of rituals and special foods, these festivities are marked by prayers and blessings offered to The Source of Life for the divine protection, good health and honor of this child.

However, because the essence of these events is the wondrous fact of a new life; an entirely new world of hopes and dreams, in the form of a tiny human being, I wanted to illuminate this blessing for a new baby to emphasize this idea alone. This would mean limiting my choices of traditional Jewish iconography that normally characterize my work. Since this cultural iconography often contains wonderful folkloric themes such as fanciful astrological imagery to promote ‘mazal tov’ or good luck, this was quite a challenge for me as an illustrator; I am accustomed to crafting my images with much narrative detail.*

Nevertheless, I determined that in addition to the sleeping newborn child and colorful daffodils (which signify rebirth and new beginnings), I would limit my choice of iconography to the wimpel (or vimpel). This is a banner-like length of cloth that is wrapped and tied to secure the Torah scroll.

According to Philologos writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, “it is a tradition that began in late medieval times in the Rhineland city of Mainz, where the rabbi was then the renowned Ya’akov Segal (1360–1427). One Sabbath, so the story goes, a circumcision was under way in Mainz’s synagogue, when it was discovered that the mohel (an individual especially trained to perform this ritual)had forgotten to bring a diaper in which to wrap the newly circumcised child. Inasmuch as carrying was forbidden to pious Jews on the Sabbath, there could be no question of sending anyone to fetch one — and so the rabbi ordered the child swaddled in an avnet that was removed from a Torah scroll. Afterward, when asked if it could be laundered and used as an avnet again, he ruled that it could be, inasmuch as it had not been profaned but had merely gone from one sacred use to another. In memory of the event, the Jews of Mainz took to donating the swaddling cloths from their circumcisions for avnetim, which they called Wimpel (the German plural is the same as the singular).” Instead of the customary decorative imagery applied to wimpels by families who donate them to the synagogue, mine simply displays two Hebrew prayers, one traditional and one modern.

Independent of its ethnicity or religious identity, the birth of a child begins a new page in the story of humanity. With this child, we have a new window into the mind and heart of the One whose children we will always be and Who will always cherish us.

****************************************************

*In my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), both the brit milah (circumcision for male children) and the pidyon-ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son of descendants of the Tribe of Levi) were presented in detail. (I did not present the brit bat ceremony for the birth of a daughter in this context because these celebrations were developed in post-modern times, long after the writing of the Torah.)