The Pesach series featured in this exhibition was done this year as an exercise, to bring Torah alive for Rabbi Patti Kopstein and her long-distance study partner, Fiona Dimond.
The difference in their topics, in their images, shows each woman’s insight into areas of general Pesach observance. It was great fun for them to exchange photos, to take up a challenge to translate Torah into photographs, and also to accept the risk of exposing one’s own thoughts to others.
“We hope you enjoy our process and project. We encourage you to try your hand and bring Torah into your life, and your life into Torah.
Hag Pesach Sameach!”
Fiona Dimond (Auckland, New Zealand) & Rabbi Patti Kopstein (Adelaide, Australia)
Fiona is a member of Beth Shalom, Auckland, New Zealand.
Together with Rabbi Patti, she has been modern ‘midrash-making’ using the medium of digital photography to explore topics associated with the weekly Torah readings and Chagim, as part of her regular Torah study.
This Pesach series utilizes simple contemporary images to focus on themes associated with Passover and the Seder.
FIRST OF MONTHS
“So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as Adonai had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent.” Exodus 7:10
This tall building appears to have no visible lightning rod – I wonder what could have happened to it?
THEY SANK LIKE LEAD
“You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the majestic waters.” Exodus 15:10 The horses were ‘slaves’ of Pharaoh too. We survived the passage across the Sea of Reeds, but they didn’t. This is the last we will hear of horses in the whole Torah.
PILLAR OF FIRE
“Adonai went before them in a pillar of cloud by day to guide them along the way; and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel day and night.” Exodus 13:21
The pillar of fire is still with us at the start of every new week at Havdallah — and if you look really carefully you can see the ‘cloud’ too as the candle is extinguished… Shavua Tov!
“I will sing to Adonai, for He has triumphed gloriously” Exodus 15:1
‘Mi Chamocha’ from the Song of the Sea… can any song more joyous than this? Music has the ability to express our celebrations and sorrows better than words..
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM
“L’shana Haba-ah biYerushalayim — Next year in Jerusalem!” Haggadah I have not been to visit Israel yet. I am hoping to make my Seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ wish come true this time though!
I KNOW ELEVEN
“Achat Asar Mi Yodea? — Who knows Eleven?” Haggadah
I know eleven – Eleven are the stars in Joseph’s dream…
Modern nations, ancient symbols…
“Dayenu! – Enough!” Haggadah
The eighth day of matzah — now we can say ‘dayenu!’ with true feeling.
We are already imagining the sweet softness of warm bread rolls straight from the oven melting in our mouths…
Dayenu with the matzah!
RABBI PATTI KOPSTEIN
Rabbi Patti Kopstein serves Beit Shalom, the Progressive synagogue in Adelaide. After years of studying Torah, with traditional commentaries to modern, she embarked on her own journey of midrash making for her own kavannah (inspiration; intentionality). At first, each parasha was explored with three small watercolour and ink paintings. This year, Rabbi Patti embarked on a project of weekly, contemporary photographic explorations of the text. She completed a special series for Hanukkah, and now Pesach.
DARKER THAN DARKNESS
“… a darkness that can be touched… a thick darkness..” Exodus 10: 21, 22
There is something so deep and invoking about shadow and light. Darkness can be both comforting and frightening, a plague or a pleasure. I love caving, and sometimes, if you turn off your torch, the darkness is so dark you can almost feel it.
BIRTH OF OUR FREEDOM
“You shall explain to your child on that day- ‘It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.” Exodus 13:8
Ah the egg! The egg is a mystery to me, as much as when it will hatch as what it will be. Such is life: parents and children, wisdom and experience. Now it is a symbol of new opportunity, and always a puzzle about when to eat it!
BREAD OF OUR AFFLICTION
“It was with a mighty hand that Adonai brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” Exodus 13:14 Like a prison, the slavery held us. Could we ever have imagined the light of freedom? Once seen, the light ignites our hopes.
L’CHA DODI (Shabbat Shel Pesach)
“Remember this day… no leavened bread shall be eaten.” 13:3 Every Pesach includes a Shabbat! To not only have freedom but also Shabbat! The Shabbat bride awaits our welcoming.
A WELCOME OPENING
“… forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” Exodus 14:22 Personally, I love the canyons and dryness of the Sinai. This canyon of matza calls to me like a voice: “mi-sinai” Was that the voice that sang them forward?
Preserving a bond with our ancestors, following the tradition of Hillel: “They shall eat…matzah and maror together.”
Being in the southern hemisphere, the traditional springtime associations and symbols of the northern hemisphere don’t match our seasonal environment. Our southern world is alive with colour and change during Pesach too.
“So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks…” Exodus 12:34
The home centred rituals of Pesach carry our heritage forward over the generations. Our ancient foremothers probably did not have nicely embroidered linen matza covers. This brings the Torah alive and compresses time for me. This one was woven by Ashira.
“You shall eat nothing leavened…” Exodus 12:20 One of the simple delights of Pesach is the wonderful mix of tastes and textures. Juicy pears and crunchy matza!— and sweet lemon tea that I enjoyed throughout childhood.
RABBI PATTI KOPSTEIN
Thank You to both Fiona Dimond and Rabbi Patti Kopstein for allowing me to display their work on our Adelaide Jewish Museum Website. Leanda Altman Curator, Adelaide Jewish Museum
Interpreting the Bible Visually
“Contemporary Midrash” through painting, sculpture, and other visual arts
By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
“Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it…” say our sages about the Torah. From rabbinic times forward, we have stories and commentaries that record the rabbis’ explorations of and reactions to sacred texts. Termed midrash (investigation, searching out), these teachings, a form of art in themselves, turn the text inside out, exploring all of its nuances and commenting on its meaning by answering unanswered questions found in the text.
Midrash is a literary genre that uses allegory and imaginative narrative to fill in those places in the text where the stories do not feel complete. In the last several decades, many artists, clergy, educators, and scholars have been creating what they refer to as “contemporary midrash.” Their work uses the process of investigating biblical and other scared texts to draw out meaning for people today; to re-animate biblical stories and characters and to add contemporary voices, visions, and concerns to the legacy of commentary.
Unlike classical midrash, which is a purely literary form, contemporary midrash takes many forms, including dance, drama, literature, theater, and the visual arts. Because the visual arts have not always been widely embraced by Jewish religious culture, contemporary fine artists working in this genre are often charting new territory in using visual images to comment on sacred texts.
Unique Artists, Unique Styles
Visual midrash can be found in a number of contemporary places: displayed in Jewish art galleries and museums, illustrating Jewish books, and sometimes as part of a lesson in a Jewish school or adult-education program. This movement to integrate visual imagery into a dialogue about our texts and our reactions to them is a deliberate attempt to recognize the power of art to combine our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual understandings of text.
An example is the work of artist Archie Rand. Rand’s expressive paintings depict biblical characters–such as Eve, Moses, and King David–in comic-book style frames, with Hebrew text written in cartoon balloons and boxes. He creates a new visual language that integrates pop-culture sensibility with serious investigation of biblical dilemmas, challenging the viewer to imagine how these ancient texts relate to our own moral and spiritual predicaments.
Rand’s biblical characters appear in modern dress, and his juxtaposition of contemporary and ancient symbols forces the viewer to think about biblical text in a metaphorical manner. One of his paintings, for example, quotes from Genesis, “And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam no fitting helper was found for him”; it portrays Eve wandering in a barren land, surrounded by dinosaurs.
Another artist creating visual midrash is Tobi Kahn. A painter and sculptor, much of Kahn’s work has explored Jewish religion and identity, some of which comments on biblical texts. Kahn says of his work: “Although Judaism has emphasized words, language, and interpretation, I have found the visual elements of the tradition equally illuminating. For me, the life of the spirit is integrally bound up with the beauty of the world, with the rituals and symbols that are a Jewish medium to transcendence. Like language, what we see can be a benediction.
A 2003 exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum called “Microcosmos” featured a series of Kahn’s abstract paintings inspired by the first chapter in the Book of Genesis. Evocative of the cosmos and elements of the earth, Kahn interprets Genesis in a meditative, minimalist series that invites the viewer to think about his or her own place in the vastness of creation. His paintings are metaphors for creation, examining the simplicity and beauty that begins with each a single cell.
Adding Women’s Voices
As best we know, the sages who created our classical midrashwere all male and many of their commentaries reflect an understandably male-centric view. In many cases, it is only in the last 50 or so years that Jewish women have been given equal opportunities to learning sacred texts, and many have started to create commentaries of their own. A number of prominent female fine artists and sculptors have added their voices and visions to the midrashic process by creating contemporary work commenting on the Bible.
Suzanne Benton is a sculptor, mask performer, and print maker who has traveled the world exploring myth, ritual, and archetypes in many cultures. Her mask-making series includes one of Jewish women from the Hebrew Bible, including the matriarch Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. Benton is both a visual and performing artist, using her mask performances to examine the complex tale of these women and their struggles around fertility and motherhood. Benton has taken this performance to countries around the world, using this particular biblical story to explore universal issues.
Renata Stein is an artist who works in mixed media, especially using everyday found objects to create a new visual language the reflects images of ordinary life. Her midrashic works include mixed media art commenting on the stories of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), Leah and Rachel, and Jacob’s ladder. Using stones, branches and other found materials takes her work out of the literal realm and into the symbolic one, which opens the viewer to his or her own imaginings about the stories.
One of Stein’s mixed media pieces, called “Jacob Set up a Pillar (Tree of Life),”recalls the moment in Genesis when Jacob – fleeing from his brother, Esau – stops in a new place to rest and sets up a pillar, before having his auspicious dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder from heaven. Stein’s envisioning of the pillar is a mixed-media piece that uses found objects to create a tree with branches stretching toward heaven and roots dangling down toward earth.
Artist Ruth Weisberg’s drawings can be found in The Open Door, a New Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell (CCAR Press). The book that accompanies and guides Jews through the order of the Passover seder, Haggadot have been illustrated at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Weisberg depicts humanistic, figurative images that reflect the Open Door Haggadah’s sensitivity to gender-inclusive language. Her rendering of the story of the Exodus from Egypt includes aspects of the story that have not always been emphasized before, including the bravery of the midwives Shifra and Puah. Her midrash is an example of how art can affect ritual and prayer, in this case aiming to deepen the spiritual experience of the seder.
Artist Beth Grossman has taken the idea of exploring biblical texts into a new direction; her work is about recontextualizing history and mythology–creating art that can turn assumptions upside down. While studying art in Italy, she found herself surrounded by images of an idealized, iconic Mary–the virgin mother. That experience, along with her interest in interfaith dialogue, inspired Grossman to explore the Jewish roots of this Christian icon. Grossman chose to revisit Mary’s story and create art that portrays her as an unidealized, very human Jewish woman.
When her Mary works have been exhibited, she has invited both Jewish and Christian groups to view and discuss the meaning of her artwork. As an artist, she is interested in finding common threads among groups; in this case, she feels it is significant for both Jews and Christians to remember that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were known, historically, to be Jewish.
Her piece “Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” for example, features a painting of a modern-looking Mary shielding baby Jesus. Mary is wearing a yellow star, as if she was a Jew in Nazi Germany. The painting is enclosed in a suitcase, filled with yellow stars. Written on the stars on the left side of the suitcase are stereotypes that the Nazis pinned on Jews, such as “greedy” and “useless.” The stars on the right are qualities traditionally attributed to Mary, who is also a Jew, such as “angelic” and “blessed.” The piece’s message or intention is to show the duality of human beings, how the same woman could have been worshipped or reviled simply by the time she lived in and the perceptions of those around her.
Not Just for Professionals
Visual midrash is not a form of expression limited only to professional artists. Educators are recognizing the importance of using the visual arts in Jewish education and their value in enlivening biblical texts for students. Scholar and artist Jo Milgrom wrote the pioneering book Handmade Midrash (published in 1999), which offers simple, clear instructions for Jewish expression through the visual arts; it was embraced with enthusiasm by many Jewish educators. In classrooms and Torah study workshops, teachers started using Milgrom’s techniques to inspire students to express through art emotions and reactions to biblical stories. Recognizing the value of visual learning as one of many multiple intelligences, the visual arts–and contemporary midrash specifically–are gaining a mainstream place in the Jewish classroom.
Visual art offers a different way of thinking and knowing, and by adding visual midrash to our literary commentaries, we are turning sacred texts in new ways, with new language, creating new visions.