Posts Tagged ‘Judaica’

Creativity: A Burden Of Choices

January 15, 2016


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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. 

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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

Beholding Beauty : A Blessing Of Appreciation

June 25, 2014

BlessingForBeautifulBirds+TreesRGBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old cliché, but it is a quick sound bite at best because it doesn’t attempt to define beauty nor does it offer insight into alternative, more subtle perspectives.

At first glance, this blessing recited upon seeing something beautiful in our world seems ‘sound-bit-ish’ and similar to the one recited on encountering a fragrant tree. Both are found in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 58b) and both express appreciation to our Creator for the gifts of Creation and of our five senses. The latter focuses exclusively on the sight and smell of certain trees while the former also recognizes trees, but includes the singular esthetic beauty of humans, birds and animals that we acknowledge with our senses of sound, touch and taste. Together, they serve to enhance perception of our environment and help us to connect with our divine origins.

The words of the blessing seem simple enough, however the concept of beauty in life is anything but. So how does an artist begin to choose which elements will represent the depths of meaning inherent in this blessing? I knew that I needed to portray some sort of tree along with a person, animal or bird, though I didn’t know which of these I would choose or why.

Of all my references, the Torah and its associated collections of commentary from across the  centuries have never failed me, even on quests that are secular in nature.

As I thought about what sort of tree to illustrate for this blessing on natural phenomena, I remembered a midrash on the Book of Genesis concerning the mysterious Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The former bore fruit which kept Adam and Eve healthy and immortal while the fruit of the latter was forbidden to the first couple for reasons not explained. Perhaps this was the model for the inscrutable mitzvot known as ‘chukkim’? These are a category of commandments which are to be followed without question as a test of our obedience and respect for our Creator.

Inevitably, mysteries invite speculation. This midrash suggests why no one knows what types of trees they were. Despite the arguments of medieval churchmen, scholars and artists that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree (which did not exist in the Middle East at that time), many other species have joined the fray with inventive justifications; wheat, pomegranate, quince, St. John’s Bread (carob) and date palms, even grapevines and fig trees. These justifications are too numerous to list here but can be found in B’reishit Rabbah, a book of commentary on Genesis*.

The commentary concluded that since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge against the prohibition and precipitated their disastrous expulsion from the Garden of Eden, its species would always remain unknown to honor its innocence in bringing death to the world and to prevent its extinction from Earth’s biosphere.

Although the nature of the Tree of Life also remains unknown (except as a metaphor of Torah wisdom), Rabbi Abba of Acre** offers the etrog (citrus medica) as a likely candidate. He suggests that Eve found the wood of the etrog tree edible (Genesis 3:6). Later authorities such as Rabbi Abahu*** translate the word etrog as ‘ha-dar’ or that which dwells, because its fruit, in both young and old phases remains on the tree through all seasons.**** The ‘pri etz hadar’ or fruit of the beautiful tree is described in the book of Leviticus (23:40) and though it originated in India, it has been cultivated in ancient Judea for more than 2000 years.

In common use, the word ‘ha-dar’ comes from the Aramaic language and means ‘beautiful’. Because an etrog is the only fruit that tastes like its tree, both are considered beautiful. The fruit is said to symbolize the human heart as it represents a person who is able to internalize scholarship and also perform good deeds (mitzvot). There was much more commentary on the etrog, but at this point, the etrog tree became my obvious choice for this illustration. In this interpretation, I’ve given my virtual Etz Chayim 22 etrogim, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which, according to Kabbalah, are the building blocks of Creation.

For my representative choice of beautiful birds, the commentaries on this blessing offered the fine examples of peacocks and parrots because these species are unique  for their graceful forms and beautiful colors. I arbitrarily added the cockatoo, a distant cousin of the parrot once known as the crested parrot, for compositional balance and simply because I love to draw them! To complete my illustration, I’ve prefaced the blessings English and Hebrew calligraphy with initial caps constructed from macaw parrot and peacock feathers respectively.

If this blessing and my visual interpretation of it put you on the path of marveling daily at the world around us and expressing your appreciation of it’s myriad gifts, then perhaps I’ve begun to meet my own purpose in this effort. Thanks for staying with me; the book is becoming more of a reality with each post!

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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 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.

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*B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2


** Abba bar Acre was a 3rd century Palestinian ‘amora’ (commentator on the Oral Torah).

*** Rabbi Abahu was a 2nd generation ‘amora’ living in Caesarea, a major influence on ethics, philosophy and religion. http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2443094/jewish/The-Singular-Tree.htm/mobile/false https://sites.google.com/site/rabbiabahu/stories-and-biographical-info

**** http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/746603/jewish/Why-cant-I-use-a-lemon.htm/mobile/false

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.

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* 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

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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:

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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

Mezuzah: A Blessing Between Worlds

December 25, 2013

When we enter or leave a space through a doorway, most of us rarely wonder about the evanescent consequences of doing so. Yet, without considering that doorway as a bridge between worlds, we remain unaware of subtle changes in ourselves with relation to those worlds through the nature of our experiences on either side of it. In that sense, mezuzot (plural of mezuzah), those ubiquitous little boxes (attached to doorposts of traditional Jewish homes to guard them from harm) serve as memory tools for our awareness of these transitions and of the eternal unity of G-d. This tradition has defined the Jewish people since the early Israelites marked their doorways for protection from the tenth plague* during the first Passover in Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Mezuzot are made in various sizes of materials from clay to wood, metal or glass  and are often beautifully crafted works of art. Marked with either the single Hebrew letter shin or with the three Hebrew letters shin, dalet, yud that represent one G-d’s holy names, the box encloses a tiny rolled parchment (klaf) inscribed by a kosher scribe (sofer*) with two verses from the Torah; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses are written in 22 equally spaced lines, as are the verses in Torah and tefillin**. This parchment must be placed upright under the Hebrew letters in the box so that the prayer will appear correctly.

When we occupy a new home, a mezuzah is installed on its doorpost. It is held in place at the upper right-hand side tilted toward the inside of the home. But before it is secured to the post, a special blessing is recited, as shown in the illustration above. This procedure is repeated when a mezuzah is installed at each doorway in the home except for the bathroom. Entering and leaving those spaces is then acknowledged with a touch to the mezuzah followed by a brief kiss to the hand that touched it, invoking G-d’s blessing and protection on our comings and goings. It is important to know that over time, the parchment (klaf) may become damaged and so should be periodically examined by a sofer who can repair any broken letters and preserve its effectiveness.

But the protective energies of the mezuzah have not always gone unchallenged in Jewish history. In Talmudic times, mezuzot were attributed with powers to ward off evil spirits, but by the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Kabbalah’s esoteric knowledge, names of various angels and magickal phrases (sometimes accompanied by mystical diagrams) were added to the Torah verses. This latter practice slowly lost momentum when the RamBam (an acronym for the 12th century French Rabbi and Talmudist Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) asserted that no harm could come of writing Hebrew letters on the outside of the mezuzah case and the prescribed verses within, but those who wrote angelic names or other formulae on the inside would lose their share in The World To Come (Olam Ha-Ba).

So, for this 17th entry in my book An Illumination Of Blessings, the mezuzah in my illustration displays the Hebrew letter shin on the outside and only the Torah verses on the klaf within. For clarity and artistic intent the 22 klaf verses also appear in the background.  The tiny gold pomegranate suspended from the mezuzah signifies abundance and its seeds, said to number 613, represent the categories of mitzvot or the  commandments we are required to fulfill. For decorative purposes only, an equally tiny hand with an apotropaic eye crowns the mezuzah.  This is called a chamsa, inspired by those ancient devices employed to ward off evil throughout the Middle East.

On a personal note, though I’ve always had mezuzot in my home, it was only some years ago during and after a health crisis that I thought to have them checked for damage. Indeed, the sofer informed me, several critical letters had become damaged and the klaf needed to be repaired, a pronouncement that caused chills to run down my spine..

* Death of the Firstborn

*A sofer is a Jewish individual who is educated to transcribe Torah scrolls, **tefillin (two small leather boxes essential for prayer rituals per commandments in Deuteronomy (Devarim)  6:8 and mezuzot. More detailed information may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofer and at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10774-mezuzah

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-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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On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

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In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
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