Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

The Seventh Blessing: For Life & Love

September 25, 2013

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The Seven Blessings, or Sheva Brachot are a lovely old tradition, each one recited under the Chuppah (Marriage Canopy) by chosen friends and family at Jewish weddings. The Seven Blessings begin with the blessing over wine (‘pri hagofen’) followed by praise and gratitude to the Source of Life for our creation, for our existence and for our ability to thrive through time. They also address the binding of the couple, wishing them a life of love, joy, peace and friendship from the Biblical perspective; that their union should mirror the happiness of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. Finally, the couple is made aware that as they rejoice in each other, their union will also bring joy to the world . Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that Jewish weddings reflect the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai symbolizing the wedding of Heaven and Earth.

For the eleventh blessing in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially attempted to work all seven blessings into the illustration, however after further research and several iterations, I came to the conclusion that the seventh blessing really encompasses the other six and is therefore essential. This idea was suggested by an interpretation in Kabbalah which explains how each of the seven blessings corresponds to seven of the sefirot, or the energies that are the foundation of Creation.

Although there are actually ten sefirot, the interpretation posits that the three remaining sefirot do not correspond to their own blessings because two of them, Keter (Crown representing ethereal consciousness) and Chokhmah (representing Wisdom) are contained in the sefirah of Binah (Understanding) and the last one, Malkhut receives all of those above and before it. The Hebrew language in the Seventh Blessing also contains ten words or synonyms for happiness, peace and friendship, all of which lead to joy. In this sense, it corresponds to all ten sefirot as well as the ten phrases by which the world was created and the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai. These ideas prompted me to place the letter Bet (for Binah) in the space above the Chuppah for these values must guide all that we do. The commentary at the end of the book will provide explanations of the symbols that appear in the illustration.

Shown above is the finished illumination for the Seven Blessings and below is one of the iterations.

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As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

For An Illumination Of Blessings: A Blessing For Here & Now

August 26, 2013

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For my Kickstarter backers of An Illumination Of Blessings and all readers of  Imaginarius, here is my interpretation of the Shehekhiyanu blessing for your viewing pleasure. The following explanatory text is from my Update page at the Kickstarter site:

Most of the twelve months of the Jewish year are distinguished by a day or more of holiday observance and/or a major festival that preserves and celebrates our history and culture while bringing them forward to our present and future. Although the liturgy for these holidays addresses them individually within their duration, there is one blessing called the Shehekhiyanu that is traditionally recited during candle-lighting on the evening preceding each of the major holidays and festivals with the exception of holidays that commemorate sad or tragic events such as Tisha B’Av.

The Shehekhiyanu is the tenth blessing that I have completed to date. It is a blessing of thanks in acknowledgement of special occasions and life-cycle events such as weddings and bar mitzvot. It is also appropriate for new or unusual experiences such as tasting a first fruit in season, meeting an old friend, or acquiring a new home or clothing. ‘Shehekhiyanu’ is Hebrew for “Who has given us life” (and brought us to this moment). This blessing originated in the Mishnah and is cited in the Talmud, the collections of Jewish laws, interpretations and observances set down after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE (of the Common Era).

My interpretation of the Shehekhiyanu blessing is relatively straightforward, showcasing symbols of the Jewish holiday cycle which are clockwise from the top: Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Passover, Lag B’Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah and Chanukkah. The commentary at the conclusion of An Illumination Of Blessings will detail the significance of each holiday symbol. This ‘cycle of life’ is supported between the sun and moon in reference to the Hebrew lunar-solar calendar that determines when each holiday begins and ends. In this system, the year corresponds with the solar calendar and its months match the lunar calendar.

For those of you that missed the funding deadline, but would still like to have a copy of the book or gicleé prints from the illustrations, don’t fret. You can visit this link to place pre-orders for the book and to specify which blessings you would like to have made into prints: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm

It’s back to work for me now onto the next blessing! As always, your questions and comments are welcome!

Kickstarter Update: An Illumination Of Blessings Is Happening!

July 18, 2013

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After many months mixed with that potent sauce of hope and worry, I am pleased to let you know that (with my heartfelt thanks to all of you generous and supportive backers), my Kickstarter project, An Illumination Of Blessings now has the green light to get real!

If you’ve followed my updates here and at the Kickstarter site, you’ll have seen several of the first group of blessings in progress. I will continue to post new work as it develops both at the Kickstarter site and here in addition to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and several other media sites.

Completed to date are the following blessings: HaMapil (Blessing for Sleep), Asher Yatzer (Blessing The Wisdom of The Body), Netilas Yadaim (Blessing For Washing The Hands), Kiddush (Blessing For Wine), Blessing For Lighting Sabbath Candles, Havdalah (Blessing For the Conclusion of The Sabbath) and T’filah HaDerech (The Traveler’s Prayer).

Tonight, I have posted my interpretation of the Shema blessing. This powerful, essential prayer is recited three times daily to define Judaism as a monotheistic religious practice. You can look forward to a more detailed commentary on the significance of this blessing and the symbolism in this drawing that will appear in the completed book.

For those of you that missed the funding deadline, but would still like to have a copy of the book or gicleé prints from the illustrations, don’t fret. You can visit this link to place pre-orders for the book and to specify which blessings you would like to have made into prints: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm

It’s back to work for me now onto the next blessing! As always, your questions and comments are welcome!

Kickstarter-Final Update #6: An Illumination Of Blessings: The Blessing Of Words

July 5, 2013

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Dear Backers and Backers-To-Be:

Well, we’re in the last stretch of this Kickstarter project at 72% funded with 22 hours to go. Not surprisingly, these are significant numbers. 72 represents twice’double chai’ or a very generous measure of good fortune, while 22 are the letters in the Hebrew alphabet/alephbet by which all Creation came into being. In the ancient system of Gematria or Hebrew numerology, interpreting numbers is seen as the key to our understanding of the Divine Will. Accordingly, every Hebrew letter is embedded with its numerical equivalent and spiritual significance. For example, the number 18 is the sum of the letters in the word ‘chai’ or ‘life’ while 36 doubles that value for a blessing of all good things to come.  So today, for my final update of this project, I present to you two new illustrated Hebrew alphabets, Rimmon (Pomegranate) and K’Shutiy (Ornamental). I will be employing these original calligraphic alphabets throughout the book and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do when I create them.

If you have not yet pledged your support at this point, please do so at this link: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

Throughout the development of exciting new work for this Kickstarter campaign, I’ve realized what a labor of love this book will be and truly hope that with your help, we can bring it to life as a significant portion of my artistic legacy for generations to come.

Wishing you Peace and Blessings,
Ilene

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The Faces Of Purim

February 23, 2013

NaamatEsther.RGBOften referred to as the ‘Jewish Hallowe’en’, the holiday of Purim (which is the old Accadian word for ‘lots’, as in ‘chance’) commemorates a grim story of religious persecution in the 7th century Persian Empire. Even so, it is observed as one of more frivolous holidays in the Jewish year, a day when identities are masked by the faces and costumes of players in the timeworn story of Esther, or Ishtar, who would be Queen of Persia.

Instead of rehashing it here, there are many sources online that provide commentary on this holiday and its origins. Here are a few: http://ohr.edu/holidays/purim/ http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12448-purim. In addition, you can follow this Wiki link at your leisure to the whole Megillah: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purim.

Considering the power of archetypes as drivers of both Biblical and secular literary works, I find it interesting that Esther’s story is not included in the books of the Torah. Although it incorporates a number of tropes found there such as hidden identities to counter religious persecution and villains whose evil activities have come to be regarded as morality lessons, it is referred to as ‘apocryphal’ primarily because it does not include G-d’s name or tenets of religious observance.

For these reasons, the Megillat Esther is a story that avoids the second commandment creative restrictions and has fired the imaginations and craft of many artists and writers through the centuries. So this alone is for me, as an illustrator, reason to celebrate.

As I prepare for my virtual visit to Shushan this year, here are some of the illustrations that were done some years ago for the Baltimore Jewish Times. As always, comments welcome.

Hag Purim!

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

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When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

For Tu B’Shevat: In Celebration Of Creation

January 25, 2013

The universe is always unfinished. It calls for our continuous effort and unceasing renewal for we are the partners of the Creator.” R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827)

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THE holiday of Tu B’Shevat or Jewish New Year of the Trees which occurs tomorrow on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat or in January on the Julian calendar has long been one of inspiration for me, a powerful metaphor of our connection with the Creator and our mandate as stewards of our planet.

Last year at this time, I posted an image based on a new Hebrew alphabet I had designed called ‘Abundance‘. It’s letters are formed of the plants, fruits and vegetables cultivated in the land of Israel. Tomorrow we celebrate this holiday once again and for those that might have missed last year’s post, I’ve decided to offer it again along with the entire alphabet (alefbet):

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Gicleé prints of this image in sizes 11″x14″ or larger are available. I can also format them as place-mats for your Tu’B Shevat seder celebrations. For prices and ordering information, contact me at: ilene@winnlederer.com

In addition, here is a calligraphy illustration that references the quotation above this post. It is from a series of six prints commissioned by Hadassah/NY in 1998. The others can be seen here: http://magiceyegallery.com/PicturePage.aspx?id=243 where they may be ordered individually or as a set.

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I wish all of you who celebrate a year of abundance and inspiration.

Parashat Bo: The Masks Of Light And Darkness

January 24, 2013

Exodus-Bo1AS I reflected on Bo, this past week’s parashah in The Book of Exodus, its lurid descriptions of the final three plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians) caused me to wonder about our perception of the nature of good and evil. When we blithely attribute occurrences of good or evil to forces beyond ourselves and therefore beyond our control, are we forgetting our innate capability to influence them from our miniscule place in the tapestry of humanity?

The creation stories of each major religion maintain that we are modeled after One Who ’embodies’ good and evil among myriad other attributes and has called us into existence. If so, then we too are creatures that embody these attributes to some lesser degree. And if we accept this idea, then we must shoulder our part of this great responsibility. We cannot entirely shifted it onto our Creator without denying the autonomy of free choice, a trope hotly debated, but never resolved over the centuries by religious scholars.

When I first read the phrase in which G-d tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and to your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”, I was cynically inclined to see the players in this epic drama as pathetic puppets whose human frailties were being manipulated by unseen forces as an end to their own means. Was this part of some vast cosmic game played by said entity (ies) for their own amusement? If so, then who was playing whom’? Could the players in the epic drama of the Exodus be archetypes meant to teach us that we and the ‘One’ mirror each other?

Or, were these events but a series of horrific natural phenomena occurring within the Earth’s evolving biosphere as scientific researchers have attempted to demonstrate? Are the scientific and religious interpretations (as cause and effect punishments for human misbehavior) of these natural phenomena mutually exclusive? What a classic illustration of  ‘right brain vs. left brain’ thinking!

Given our distant remove from these events and the effects of diaspora living, perhaps the above questions are clues to their own answers. If we believe that ‘the devil made me do it’ excuses evil behavior or if we insist that we are but victims of natural disasters, then our human frailties can become excuses for despair and inaction. In which case, we are denying our true capabilities as the ‘crown of creation’ and stewards of this planet as evidenced by the plethora of blogs out there.

In sum, I prefer to think that both sides are a kind of duality; dependent on their discrete functions to validate each other. In the way that we wouldn’t understand the properties of good and evil if they didn’t exist to define each other.  So, I’m inclined to believe that if the story of Moses’ righteous deeds and Pharaoh’s intractable stubbornness was intended to inform the metaphorical book of our spiritual and cultural development, then we ought not stop at any of these interpretations. The mystery of it all is too vast to comprehend in thousands of lifetimes, but each lifetime grants us more clues to its solution.

Our sages agree that Torah is to be viewed as the blueprint of creation, its stories as instructions for living with each other on this planet. And as we continue to interpret the dualities (multiplicities) embedded in its intricate diagrams, we will comprehend more of how they apply to us individually and as a nation. And in this evolving understanding of our humanity and spiritual mandate will the true nature of our power be made clear.

The Grudge Report: A Genesis Of Angst

October 27, 2012

After reading Lekh Lekha, this week’s Torah portion, I was of two minds regarding the outcomes of the story. On the one hand, I appreciated Abraham’s generosity towards his heavenly visitors and G-d’s miraculous blessings as evinced in Sarah’s late but welcome conception of Isaac. On the other, I was reacquainted with Hagar’s emotional dilemma and subservient travails in this dramatic power-play between two iconic women and the man they both depended upon for survival.  The genesis of toxic chin-wagging and posturing they established was a commonality that has defined and plagued human history. Simply stated, the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and the sons thereof, provides poignant illustrations of an ancient angst whose consequences shadow us today, 2,000+ years later. It encompasses the psychological agony of unquestioning obedience to an immaterial God, the bitterness of infertility coupled with tainted altruism, and the rivalry over an inheritance that would become a cultural grudge match of epic proportions, evidenced by the uprising and continuing effects of the Arab Spring in our generation. Closer to home, its echoes are currently characterizing our presidential election campaign as well as our efforts to maintain the quality of long vaunted living standards in the US.

From the AfterImages chapter in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary, here are my interpretations for the illustrations shown above (design of these images has been modified from the originals to accommodate this post):

In The Conversation, Abraham, alone with God and his knife (based on a Canaanite model from Hebron ca.1900BCE) cuts a frightened yet courageous figure. Challenged to circumcise himself in order to preserve life for future generations, Abraham seems to sense this demonstration is only the beginning of his obedience to God. As if portending the sacrifice of Isaac his future son, Abraham’s shadow extends beyond our view leaving behind long pagan traditions as he stands at the forefront of monotheism.

 In the Prophecy At Mamre, three angelic visitors are spectators to the results of the prophecy they delivered in the previous year to Abraham and Sarah. Despite legends that describe Sarah as eternally youthful, I’ve chosen to portray our ancient mother-to-be caressing her pregnancy, a secretive smile on her wrinkled old mouth. Is her smile one of satisfaction at having banished Hagar and Ishmael in favor of the son she will bear to Abraham, or could she be experiencing a twinge of guilt despite her blessed event? Either way, a young Ishmael who also casts a long shadow to the future, appears poised for his inevitable revenge.

In sum, Lekh Lekha can be seen as more than a Bible story or just another chapter in the playbook of partisan politics; it foreshadows the continuing global saga of the struggle for survival by the disenfranchised, for the rights of women to their own bodies and to the amoral actions of men with too much money, too much power lust and willful ignorance of social/biological facts. Whether or not we take these stories literally or as metaphors of human behavior, to continually ignore their lessons is to do so at our own peril and that of our descendants.