Tag Archives: art history

New Year Thoughts

art by Laya Crust, inspired by Ben Shahn

Rosh HaShana is a day of deep prayer and meditation- as well as an opportunity to connect with family and friends. Put another way, the time of prayer allows us to connect with ourselves and then connect with others. The Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva- a Sabbath of return.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuva begins, “Return o Israel unto the Lord your God…”  Within the haftarah we are told to blow the shofar, and gather together.

I’ve been thinking about the act of personal prayer and our place in society and the world. Much of the New Year and Day of Atonement is spent  in personal prayer. What do we get out of personal prayer? What are the benefits?

On the first day of Rosh HaShana we read the story of Hanna, a childless woman who goes to the Temple and prays silently, moving her lips, but making no sound.

art by Laya Crust

Hanna was the first person in Jewish text who prayed silently. She expressed her thoughts to God, conversing with God and stating her needs and desires. Hanna must have been a person who knew herself well. She did something unconventional and clarified her personal path to allow herself to go forward.

We live during a time that is full of natural disasters, spiritual disasters, leadership disasters and international tragedy. It’s possible that the world has ever been thus, but with the existence of internet, twitter, skype, cell phones, and immediate news we are aware of the international calamities immediately. The fascism and racism exposed in Charlottesville and the genocide in Myanmar are but two of the horrific “human rights abuses” (understatement if there ever was one)currently taking place in the world. The global peace watchdog- the UN is a disaster. The forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts are all natural disasters that have destroyed lives and communities around the world- all disasters we have witnessed in the last couple of months.  It is very difficult for some of us to know what to do, how to respond to these world crises both man made and natural.

It makes me think of another narrative in the bible.

Elijah was a prophet who was being hunted down by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Although God told him to face his accusers Elijah decided to hide in a cave on Mount Horev in order to avoid his dangerous and overwhelming realities. God finally tells Elijah to step out of the cave. First a huge, violent wind comes by, breaking the mountains and rocks. Then after the wind there was an earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. God was not in any of those forces. After the fire there was a still, small voice, and God was in that voice. At that point Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle , stood in the entrance of the cave , and “behold, there came a voice to him.” (Kings I 19: 13) The voice was the voice of God.

This story encompasses my thoughts about prayer and personal prayer.

Each of us is a compilation of experiences. Within our psyche we carry the lessons we have learned from parents, grandparents, teachers, wise individuals, illnesses and events we have experienced. We carry ethical truths based on what we have learned. Those ethical truths are God’s voice. It is the still small voice that speaks to us and can help us unravel difficulties that we face in a day or in our lives.

It is a thought I will take with me. As I enter synagogue to pray or meditate, like Hanna I will focus on my own prayers rather than pose for others. As the shofar is blown I will hear that pure, unusual call and know it is calling all Jews from every corner  of the world. When I am distressed by the earthquakes and fires and hurricanes I will listen to the still small voice and work out how I am able to best help and contribute to making the world a better place.

May you have a meaningful Rosh HaShana, May your year be one of health, peace, tranquility, and goodness throughout the world.

Shana Tova,  Laya

 

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Justice, Justice

צדק צדק תרדף   

SofetimFrankfurt Mishneh Torah, Northern Itlay, dated to 1457.  Illuminated by the Master of the Barbo Missal

Justice, Justice, you will pursue. These are among the first words in this week’s Torah portion. The words echo in my ears, louder and louder.

We live in a western democracy. I live in Canada which has a democratically elected government. The United States to the south also has a democratically elected government. Here in Canada we are tolerant- at least we think we are. We strive to be more tolerant to others than ever before. Gay marriage has been legalized. Sex change operations are accepted. All modes of dress- from halter tops and shorts to burkas are seen on the streets. Acceptance and school accommodations for learning disabilities, autism, hyperactivity, physical disabilities and attention deficits are the norm not the exception. Employers cannot discriminate according to gender, race or religion. It all sounds good and right.

BUT- strangely enough we seem to have lost our way. In the environment of free speech and inclusion, free speech and inclusion are disappearing. And it seems that not enough people, including those espousing human rights on University campuses, are noticing.

Those in favour of abortion, or in favour of Israel are shut down and excluded from public discourse. Those who are concerned about extreme Islam and doubt the direction of “Islamophobia” are called bigots and anti- Muslim. Those who want to use normative pronouns are pilloried and fired. This is not free speech. It is censored speech. Free speech is respectful speaking and listening without descending to hatred and threats. Free speech has too often morphed into aggressive speech and action. Unfortunately violent and hateful rallies are happening here, in Canada, and on university campuses. There is a problem with how the population defines free speech and democracy.

It’s true- Black Lives Matter. However, ALL Lives Matter.  White Lives, Men’s Lives, Women’s Lives, and Children’s Lives. Brown Lives, Indigenous Lives,  Jewish Lives, Christian Lives, Muslim Lives, Somali Lives, Yazidi Lives ……..

Two weeks ago there was a demonstration in Halifax calling for the removal of a monument honouring Edward Cornwallis. The Mik’maq people are among those calling for the removal of the statue. Although the Mi’kmaq are marginalized indigenous people who have lost land and rights in Canada, their leaders ensured that the rally was peaceful. They understand that the “fight ” for human rights and recognition does not have to be violent.

Currently too many activists from the far left and the far right resort to violence, hate messages and even murder. It’s frightening to read about the attacks in Barcelona, Spain; Turku, Finland; Halamish, Israel;   Charlottesville, USA; London, England; etc. etc. The behaviour of the Mi’kmaq is a model for discussion, understanding, and behaviour.

The balance of respect and dignity is part of justice. So when we read “Justice, Justice, you will pursue” let’s endeavour to bring that practice into our lives, our world,and the world around us.

With prayers for peace, acceptance and understanding,

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Acharei Mot

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah- Ezekiel 22: 11 – 19

The Torah reading this week deals with strict rules for religious and moral behaviour. One of the abhorrent practices mentioned is performing child sacrifice to the god Molech. Different aspects of blood are discussed- blood that the cohanim sprinkle during the sacrifice ceremony, blood that is shed during forbidden sacrificial rites, and the prohibition of eating blood. “You will not eat the blood of any flesh for the life of all flesh is its blood.” (Leviticus 17:14)  It is a fierce section of the Torah.

The haftarah is equally fierce. The prophet Ezekiel starts off condemning the children of Israel. Ezekiel communicates that God spoke to him and said, “…will you judge the bloody city? Then cause her to know all her abhorrent deeds…You stand guilty in the blood you have shed…” (Ezekiel 22: 2, 4)

The illustration is based on a painting  called “Allegory 2” by the great American social realist Ben Shahn.  Shahn was eight years old when his family immigrated from Lithuania to the United States. He apprenticed as a lithographer and studied biology and art. He was a social realist , very concerned with human rights, discrimination, poverty and social justice. Throughout his career he did  number of works integrating Jewish text and liturgy. Among other projects he illustrated a haggadah, wrote out and illustrated the Book of Ecclesiastes, and wrote “The Alphabet of Creation”.

“Allegory 2” shows a man huddled in fear, trying to escape God’s accusing hand. Painted in 1953, during the McCarthy era, the American “Establishment” was petrified of Communism. High profile individuals, many of them artists, actors, writers, film makers, and Jews were professionally destroyed after being accused of having communist affiliations. Shahn did not agree with this flagrant abuse of power which branded creativity and human rights as evil communism. Some think that Shahn’s use of red in this painting was his criticism of America coming down against the “Red Commies”. In this illustration God is berating those in power (like McCarthy and his cronies) for abusing power.

The haftarah “Acharei Mot” is frightening in its list of punishments and it is rarely read. Usually the week this reading appears it is paired with another section which is chanted instead.

It is spring- a time of blossoms, new growth, beauty and beginnings. Let’s take advantage and do good things in the world around us!

B’vracha, Laya

 

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Miracles and Humility

art by Laya Crust

This year, 2017 or 5777, we read the Torah portions for Tazria and Metzora on the same Shabbat. Both of the protions deal with the laws pertaining to an affliction called “tza’arat” which is commonly translated into the English word “leprosy”. It isn’t the same as leprosy however. It was a condition that affected people’s skin. But it could also affect their homes and their walls. It was a punishment for certain sins,particularly speaking negatively about another person.

The haftarahs take place during the time of Elisha the prophet. Jerusalem was under seige and the Jews were starving due to fammine. In the haftarah  Tazria, a young Jewish slave recommends that her Aramean master go to Elisha to be cured. Her master, Naaman.  follows her advice and is indeed cured.

art by Laya Crust

The second haftarah tells the story of four lepers who are sent outside the gates of Jerusalem- they are essentially in quarantine. They are starving as are the Jews in the city. They come across an abandoned Aramean camp filled with food, clothing and precious goods. After having their fill of food they tell the city about the camp and this alleviates the starvation.

One element the two stories have in common is that the lowest, most overlooked members of the population are key to saving the protagonists. In Tazria a young slave girl helps an Aramean army captain become cured of tza’arat. In Metzorah four banished men save the people of Jerusalem.

art by Laya Crust

Yom Ha’Atzmaut- Israel’s Independence Day- is a reminder that the smallest can overcome greater forces. Tiny, unprepared Israel overcame huge enemy forces in 1948. In 1967 once again Israel conquered the attacking surrounding countries. It happened again in 1973. These victories were miraculous, and are evidence of God’s invisible help. To recognize that we say the “Hallel” prayers on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. 

The victories, although miraculous, did not come easily or without a steep and painful price. Many lives were lost defending Israel- most of them the lives of young soldiers cut down at the beginning of their paths. The day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut we observe Yom haZikaron and recognize the sacrifices of those who died defending  Israel’s sovereignity and right to exist; and defending the lives of Israeli citizens. Following is an 11 minute film dedicated to those fallen heroes, posted by United With Israel.

https://unitedwithisrael.org/watch-a-moving-tribute-to-fallen-idf-soldiers/

Throughout Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut there will be barbecues, music, parties and celebration. Light up YOUR barbecue- and celebrate too!

With blessings for peace, Laya

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Shemini

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah: Samuel II :  6:1- 7:17

The Torah reading of Shemini and the accompanying Haftarah both describe two tragic events. In the parsha two of Aaron’s sons- Nadav and Avihu- die because they have offered sacred sacrifices at the wrong time. In the haftarah one of King David’s attendants, Uzzah, is afraid the Ark of the Covenant will fall. He reaches out to steady it and dies as a result of this action.  In both cases the men who died were trying to serve God but were punished because they were serving God but not within the proscribed boundaries. These incidents are examples of crossing boundaries with extreme results.

Within the haftarah we read how King David leads the ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem with great exuberant dancing and leaping. His wife Michal looks out of her window disparaging him for his less than regal behaviour. I based the painting at the top of this page on illustrations from a 19th Century book written and illustrated in Meshed, Persia. The book is a love story of Yusuf and Zulaikha  (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) as recounted in the Koran. The Sufi poet Jami (1414- 1492) wrote a passionate love poem about them which became very popular with the public. The painting below is from a Yusuf and Zulaikha book created in  Meshed, Persia in 1853.

illustration from Jamil’s Yusuf and Zalaikha, collection of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 The text is written in Persian transliterated into Hebrew letters. The text was presumably written by a Jew but it is unknown whether or not the illustrations were painted by Jews. The patterning is lovely with the interlocking swirls inspired by leaves and vines. The clothing is interesting, very different from the styles we see in Western manuscripts art of the same period.

Meshed and Isfahan were two communities in Persia that had strong artistic Jewish communities.  They produced illustrated Judeo-Persian books such as  Yusuf and Zalaikha featured above;  Ardashir-nameh -a book about Esther and Ahashveroshand  Musa-nameh which is the story of Moses.

Ardashir -Nameh, collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary,  New York

The Jews had a long history in Persia, dating back to 700 BCE.  The Jews continued to live there although their conditions varied depending on the forces in power. For instance from 1656 – 1663 there were forced conversions. The Jews, called “anusim” (forced converts), practised their Judaism in secret.

In 1839, almost 200 years later,  Muslim riots burst into the Jewish quarter of Meshed and forcibly converted the entire  community to Islam. Again the anusim lived outwardly as Muslims but continued to practice Judaism in secret. It wasn’t until after WWII Jews began to practise their faith openly.  
Jewish manuscripts and ketuboth from Isfahan, Meshed, and other Persian communities are interesting and unique.  It was fascinating to come across these beautiful illustrations and I had the wonderful experience of looking at the original books in the JTS library. They are colourful and evocative. It’s beautiful to see Jewish art done in Eastern style.
 I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Persian Jewish culture. 
Laya

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Va Yakhel and Pekudei

Va Yakhel – Pekudei

Exodus (Shemot): Chapters 35 – 40

The Torah readings of Va Yakhel – Pekudei are often described as the most boring parshas of the year, as an obsessive investigation of detail, and as parshas that are difficult to regard as giving important lessons. Why would these particular parshas be considered so boring? Aren’t there sections of the Torah that are lists of names, lists of battles or lists of the order of sacrifices? When I read the parshas and paid close attention I came to my own conclusion. These two readings from the bible are about art, craft, and aesthetics. We live in a society that seems to value economics and technology. Therefore the unadventurous reader doesn’t appreciate the insight and spirituality that goes into creating holy objects.

Va Yakhel explains that Gd chose Bezalel to be chief architect and designer, “and filled  him with the spirit of Gd, in wisdom, and in understanding and in all manner of workmanship, to contrive works of art…” (Exodus 30: 3). This quotation shows that those trusted with creating the holy space should have spiritual depth and understanding beyond the average individual. The parsha describes the collection of all the materials that would be needed to create the Tabernacle, the “Tent of Meeting” that would hold the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

We see that everyone was invited to participate in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The only proviso was that they had to be “wise” or “willing hearted”. Phrases like “wise hearted” and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. The construction of this holy place was incredibly democratic.

Gd understood ( and still understands) the importance of beauty in life. In the midst of the wide expanse of desert and rugged mountains He gave detailed instructions to create a place of beauty where people could focus prayer and thought. Just a beautiful place wasn’t enough. True beauty has a foundation of wisdom and goodness. To that end Bezalel and his assistant Aholiav were imbued with wisdom and understanding. Furthermore  people from B’nei Yisrael- a group of rag tag people traversing a desert- would be contributing. Gd said, “In the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom that they may make all that I have commanded thee.” (31:6)

As we go forward in life let’s remember to be wise hearted and introduce integrity and beauty in order to elevate our lives and the lives around us.

Have a good week,

Laya

The illustrations I painted are based on manuscript paintings from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. There were a number of beautiful manuscript pages done in the 14th and 15th centuries featuring the Temple’s holy objects.

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Toledot 5777

P1100804Red lentil soup, like Jacob used to make

 This week’s parsha is Toledot  (Generations). The parsha deals with the birth and sibling rivalry of Esau and Jacob- the twin sons of Rebecca and Isaac. Those babies were fighting even before they were born, to the point that Rebecca asked God what was going on with her pregnancy.

Esau loved being outside and hunting while Jacob stayed home, cooked, and according to the commentaries learned Torah. Esau traded his “birthright” for a bowl of Jacob’s soup – showing Esau’s impatience and disregard for tradition, and also showing Jacob’s desire to take advantage of his brother. The climax of the story is Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Rebecca convinces Jacob to masquerade as his brother in order to fool Isaac into giving Jacob the special blessing for the first born.

The story introduces all kinds of questions and puts flawed family dynamics into relief. Why did Isaac favour Esau while Rebecca favoured Jacob?  Why did Rebecca fool Isaac instead of talking to him? Was Isaac really taken in by Jacob’s deception? Maybe he suspected the truth but realized that Jacob was more suited to the blessing. Did the two brothers end up with the fates that most suited them in the long run? Esau would be a man of the field and Jacob would become the leader of the nation of Israel.

What seems to hold true is that poor family dynamics and communication skills certainly continued from generation to generation.  We see that this deception had repercussions that continued and echoed in the lives of our ancestors. Jacob fooled Esau and was fooled in turn by Lavan.

Toldot Sigart by Laya Crust

Although Jacob was promised Rachel as a wife he was presented with Leah. Lavan justified himself by slyly announcing, “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder…” (Genesis 29:26) The favouritism Isaac and Rebecca showed each of their sons was echoed in the favouritism Jacob showed Joseph, favouring him above his brothers. The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau was repeated in the rivalry between Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob’s sons lied to him as he had lied to Isaac.

The picture above  shows the “family dynamics. The blind, deceived Isaac is blessing his son Jacob. Rebecca is delaying Esau from coming in until the blessing is complete.  When Rebecca was pregnant Gd had told her that “the elder shall serve the younger”. She wanted to ensure that the prophecy came true.

Can we learn anything from this? There are many, many lessons. One is that hurt and dishonesty don’t disappear. They continue to spread like dust in the wind. The climactic story of the Isaac-Rebecca nuclear family was Rebecca and Jacob’s deception. It tore the family apart, causing Jacob to leave for many, many years. The two brothers never really solved their differences. Esau’s marriages never satisfied his parents. Deception and white lies were an undercurrent in Jacob’s own home.

I believe Jacob would have been the leader of our nation even without the ruse in today’s parsha. Without the ruse honesty and communication may have become a more utilised tool in our world.

IP1100803f you would like the recipe for this fabulous Red Lentil Soup you can find it at an earlier post of mine:https://layacrust.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/toledot-red-lentil-stew/

Scroll down past the text and the ingredients are all listed.

Have a wonderful (and deception free) Shabbat.

 

Let’s pray for more peace and less vitriol!

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

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