Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

A Wedding On Hallowe’en?

October 29, 2015

VF-TheBridesFinger-Illustration

Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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

The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.

Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming  that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered. 

Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object. 

“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…

Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.

“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape. 

In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.

That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.

Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the  marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.

The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.

With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.

Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.

“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.

For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.

The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.

Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”

The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!

When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.

“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.

But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.

At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.

*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!

That Was Delicious, May I Have My Check, Please?

October 31, 2013

BirkatHamazonRGB.jpgOutside of those whose regular practice is to recite the blessings after each meal, I suspect that, per the title of this post, more expressions of gratitude for our food go to our servers in restaurants upon receipt of our tab and/or to the chef for a meal well-prepared and thoughtfully presented rather than to the more ethereal Source of Life.

Though I have not always done so, in recent years I’ve decided to try and experience my meals as more than just stuffing my face; whether it is to appreciate the combinations of colors and textures, the unique fragrances of each item on the plate or just acknowledging the complex processes that have made this meal come together as a gift of nourishment for body and soul. This line of thinking and the memories of fine meals past and present led me to choose the Birkat Ha-Mazon or the Blessings After Meals for my next illumination.

Research began with wondering about the origin of this set of blessings and pointed to the reference I found in Devarim or Deuteronomy 8:10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He gave you”. I learned that the lengthy combinations of blessings and songs of thanks consist of four distinct but related ideas expressed in a lovely poetic stanzas.  They are: the Birkat Hazan (blessing for nourishment and praise for the One Who Sustains the World), the Birkat Ha’aretz (blessing for the Land of Israel), the Binyan Yerushalayim (blessing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem), and the HaTov V’Hameytiv (blessing for the One Who Is Good and the One Who Does Good). Following these blessings, a group of short prayers beginning with the word HaRachaman (The Merciful One) ask the Source of Life for compassion.

Although several versions of the Birkat Ha-Mazon can be found within Judaism (Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite), I’ve chosen the Ashkenazic form with which I am most familiar. Accordingly, the illustration includes medieval Jews of Central and Eastern European ethnicity, my own cultural background. The pewter dinnerware on the table are empty indicating the conclusion of a meal. Since the figures portrayed are not nobility, their durable pewter might have been more commonly used than finer metals or porcelain. Above this group are four items reflecting the concepts of the blessing’s four verses; a winged crown, a jar of biblical manna, a lion and a model of Jerusalem surmounted by a living date palm. Each item has it’s mundane and mystical purpose and detailed explanations of these will appear in the artist’s commentary of An Illumination Of Blessings.

So I guess the question I have via this blessing is; do you live to eat or do you eat to live? If your choice is the latter, then maybe a little mindfulness will help us realize how to make everything we eat that much tastier… or as the French Ashkenazim might say, ‘Be’ te-avon’ (Bon Appetit)!

Update #3: An Illumination Of Blessings-Havdalah

July 2, 2013

Image

Dear Backers & Backers-To-Be:

We’re just about down to the wire: 57% funded and 4 days until midnight of July 6th when funding closes for An Illumination Of Blessings! So if you haven’t decided to become part of this unique effort, please take a few moments to consider doing so and by all means spread the work to anyone you know who would also like to contribute.

I promise that you will not be disappointed when you receive your postcards, prints and copy or copies of this beautiful art book. Like every work of art I make, it does not leave my studio unless I am entirely satisfied that I have done my best to bring it to life.

This week I’ve completed a new blessing for the book; it is called Ceremony Of The Senses and presents the Havdalah ceremony, performed at the conclusion of the Sabbath. The book will include a detailed commentary about the imagery I’ve chosen. As always, your comments and questions are welcome and I look forward to being able to share An Illumination Of Blessings as a personal legacy to you for generations to come.

Here is the link for you to enter your pledge and to forward to all you think would want to participate.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

Thanks in advance!

Ilene

Update #2-An Illumination Of Blessings: More Work In Progress!

June 27, 2013

  • Image-282338-full
Dear Illumination Backers and Backers-to-Be:

With only nine days to go until midnight of July 6th, this project is only 52% funded! Don’t wait until the last minute to be part of this unique creative adventure! ( But it’s ok if yours is the big pledge that brings me to my goal! I’d love to fill my dedication page with your name and share my work with you! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

Speaking of which, I’ve been hard a work creating a new illumination for An Illumination Of Blessings. This new one is the Tefilah Ha Derech or The Traveler’s Prayer. Historically, travel has always been fraught with anticipation, excitement and potential hazards. Most of us have childhood memories of the phrases “Have a good trip and/or Be Careful!” as we set off on journeys large and small through the various stages of our lives. Yet to embellish these sentiments with a prayer to One greater than us somehow makes them ‘official’, almost like a protective amulet. Indeed, in the Jewish tradition, small cards with these prayers are readily available in bookstores and online and when you are gifted with one of these, it somehow lends gravitas to your journey.

But I’ve never seen The Traveler’s Prayer interpreted in the way I have chosen here. Its presentation as an antique map hints at the history of travel and navigation that is both timeless and time-based. The iconic elements of earth, air, fire and water within the border are the forces that drive the various means of transportation that we’ve developed over the centuries from astrolabes that have guided us by the stars to sandal-ed feet guided by such maps and onward through the ages of iron, steam, air and space travel. Which brings me to the lesser known fifth element shown here; the Aether. In classical mythology, ‘Aether’ personified the ‘upper skies’ of space and heaven. I like to think of it as the worlds of our imagination, where we may travel unhindered by earthly concerns. Nevertheless, one might wish to use caution when traversing our inner landscapes. While the insights and ideas we discover there are often exciting and rewarding, they, like our dreams, may not always be what they seem… Safe travels, everyone!!

And don’t forget to visit Kickstarter to post your pledge; I can’t do this without you!!! Thanks!! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings

Ilene

News From Imaginarius: A New Kickstarter Project!

June 2, 2013

KickstarterSplashpage

Dear Readers:

For the past three + years, I’ve been enjoying your visits and comments to my posts here at Imaginarius. And today I have some exciting news for you!

I’m pleased to announce the launch @Kickstarter of my new book project!

My book is called An Illumination Of Blessings and is now in progress as a unique visualization of 36 universal blessings. A chapter of commentary will be included to provide perspective on the evolution of my images. In the spirit of my recent book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary which interprets the Five Books of Moses in a new light, An Illumination Of Blessings will be like no other book of blessings you’ve ever seen.

8-KickstarterCoverRecto

You can see why at this link to my Kickstarter page where a little video will tell you about my creative and funding goals for this project. You can also select from my gifts to you in exchange for your help in supporting my efforts:

http://kck.st/17F0To0

I’ll be posting updates to the progress of this project at Kickstarter, at Facebook, and here at Imaginarius. Your questions and comments are invited and welcome!

I look forward to hearing from you and working together to make An Illumination Of Blessings my artistic legacy for your family and friends for generations to come.

With Warm Wishes for Peace And Blessings,
Ilene Winn-Lederer/Imaginarius

On Art And Memory

April 30, 2012

Despite the volumes of analysis, artspeak and criticism that accompany the long history of art, it seems that each generation is compelled to coin new definitions and ‘movements’ for their own artistic expression or at least redefine and clarify existing terms.

From my own experience, the question of what makes art ‘Jewish’ or what is ‘Jewish art’ was raised in the early 80’s during a solo exhibition. In writing his review, the reporter for a local newspaper asked me to define it for his broader audience. He wanted to know whether art was deemed ‘Jewish’ because of its subject matter or because it was made by a Jewish artist. At that moment, I couldn’t say, but I did know that it had to be some combination of both. Only a few days later on December 12, 1982, I’d finished reading Chaim Potok’s 1972 book, My Name Is Asher Lev when an answer came to me that I recorded in one of my journals: ‘Jewish art, regardless of its creator, is what emerges when one is inspired to create art whose imagery is specific to Jewish culture, history, tradition and/or ritual.’ Given my penchant for illustration, my love of stories and growing interest in a faith I was born to but did not deeply observe, that realization would become the touchstone for much of the work I would produce in the ensuing three decades.

As I explored the literature, history and traditions of Judaism, I began to understand how vital art is in the preservation of our collective memories so our descendants may inherit them and pay them forward. When the details of a story have faded with time, an image associated with that story remains the guardian of its essence. By visually encoding its imaginings, traditions and memories, these components are assured a certain immortality that becomes verbally embellished with specific details at each viewing. These thoughts inspired today’s illustration, The Besht’s* Minyan, based on an old, often retold legend of the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him that involved the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer. Afterwards, what he had set out to accomplish was done.

A generation later, when the Maggid**of Mezhyrich was faced with a similar task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers.” And what he prayed for became reality.

In a succeeding generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov too, was faced with the difficult task of ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. Returning to the woods where his ancestors had prayed, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we do know this place in the woods to which it belongs; that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

Finally, in the generation that followed, Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin was called upon to perform the time-worn task of preserving his community, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: ‘we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story on how it was done.”
And the story which he told verified in effect the actions of the previous three sages.

All of which persuades me to conclude that as I continue to interpret the stories that illuminate Jewish history, mysteries and seemingly mundane wisdom, I may be doing my small part to pay forward that vibrant tapestry of ideas into the continuum of who we were, who we are and who we may yet be.

I welcome your questions and interpretations of this image as I look forward to continuing this conversation…
***************************************************************************************************


*’Besht'(בעש”ט) is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov. Though later attributed to several of his descendants and disciples, this honorific was originally attributed to the 17th century rabbi Yisroel(Israel)ben Eliezer who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement based on his own spiritual and mystical insights and practices. For further information, Wikipedia offers a lengthier biography and explanation of the Besht’s philosophies at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Shem_Tov.

**an Eastern European Jewish itinerant preacher of Torah and narrator of religious stories.