Tag Archives: Ben Shahn

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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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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Yom Kippur 5777

ShabbatShuva sigart by Laya Crust

I love the image above- the image I painted for Shabbat Shuva. I used this painting (based on artwork by Ben Shahn) for last week’s reflections on the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur.

It exemplifies the grandeur of Yom Kippur. The shofar is a central and defining sound of our supplications to Gd.  Jews of all colours and races, Jews with different traditions and approaches to life gather and recognize Yom Kippur in their own way. The menorah represents the religious objects that guide us through our observances. Above all we see the hand of Gd, immersed in flames. The strength and power of Gd are beyong our simple understanding but still we strive to get closer to Gd.

Yom Kippur Minchaart by Laya Crust

The second day of Yom Kippur, during mincha (the late afternoon prayers) we read the Book of Jonah. It’s a great adventure story.  Jonah warned the inhabitants of the town of Ninevah that they would be destroyed if they didn’t change their evil ways. Evreryone- from the King to the animals(!) fasted and prayed in order to avert the punishment. They did repent and change their behaviours and Gd pardoned them.

The text refers Gd’s attention to all living things. Gd cared for the inhabitants of Ninevah who weren’t Jewish. The message is that we, who are created in the image of Gd, also are to care for all living beings around us and treat all living beings with compassion and understanding.

The story of Jonah also shows each person’s struggle with him or her self.

That is Yom Kippur. A conversation between oneself and Gd. It is an accounting of behaviour and motivation. Each person’s path and value is different and we must each examine ourselves- not judge others.

I hope you have – or had- a meaningful fast and meaningful prayer. May this year be one of health, peace, love, and joy for you, your family, and the world.

גמר חתימה טובה וצום קל

Laya

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Days of Awe 5777

ShabbatShuva sigart by laya Crust

Haftarah:   Hosea 14:2-10,   Micah 7:18-20,   Joel 2:15-27

This year I was at my wonderful little shul where we have the most beautiful tefillot (prayers) imaginable. Every year we are treated to the niggunim  (tunes) and heartfelt prayers that come from the souls of two wonderful brothers. Aaron and Jeremy have been leading us in prayers and shofar blowing for many years.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American Artist Ben Shahn. His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific art works. His paintings, graphic art, photographs and essays are devoted to the “human condition”.  The strength of human beings to survive difficulty and stand tall in the face of  adversity and unfairness runs through his works. I love the music and the movement he brings to his compositions.

Image result for ben shahn paintingsImage result for ben shahn poster

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He paints individuals and groups overcoming the destruction of their homes and their belongings…but continuing in spite of it. He represents those who are trodden upon but rise up in spite of it. He reminds us that we don’t live in a bubble. We must care for ourselves and those around us. Those are among the meditations of Rosh HaShana.

We are reborn each day. Each day we have the opportunity to make new choices and make them good choices. Each day we can forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do yesterday, or what we wish we had done differently. We can begin anew and strive to have a fulfilling day.

I take it back to the painting at the beginning of this post. The sound of the shofar is the sound of remembrance. It is the sound of Gd’s “still, small voice” that resides inside us. It is the sound of faith and of fighting for what is right. We all- regardless of race or colour- can hear the still, small voice, and carry it with us.

 Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are “The Days of Awe”.  They are a gift that we as Jews were given in order  to reflect on our values and our goals.

Enjoy this time and have a wonderful Shabbat.

with blessings for a good year of peace, joy and health,

Laya

 

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Shabbat Shuva

ShabbatShuva sig

Hosea 14:2-10,   Micah 7:18-20,   Joel 2:15-27

It’s that time of year again, the count down to the holiest days of the year, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

The Shabbat between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuva” meaning “The Shabbat of Return”. The first words in the haftarah are, “Return (shuva), Israel, to the Lord your Gd…”  The words direct our thoughts to introspection. Later in the haftarah, in the book of Joel, it says, “Blow the horn in Zion, sanctify a fast…” The illustration for this week shows a leader blowing a shofar. People of all colours- representing people from different corners of the world- are hearing the shofar. Above them is the hand of Gd surrounded by flames, representing Gd’s presence. This illustration is based on a wonderful painting by the American Artist Ben Shahn. Shahn was born in Lithuania and came to America with his family in the early 20th Century. His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific art works.

Social responsibility and expression through art is part of our history. This summer my family and I were lucky enough to go to Israel and to Prague, an amazing jewel of a city in the Czech republic. The streets are lined with beautiful, beautiful buildings. Everywhere we turned there were sculptures, embellished doorways, and decorative columns. The curving streets showcased colourful homes and eye catching balconies and windows. 
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We walked the streets and looked at the six synagogues there, synagogues that had been built throughout the centuries. The oldest is the “Alte Neu Schul” (Old New Shul) built in 1254. Two legends surround this amazing medieval structure. One is that the wings of angels transformed into doves to protect the synagogues from fire in the ghetto. The other is that of the famous “Golem” . The story is told that the Maharal, Rabbi Loew, created the Golem out of clay in order to protect the Jews of Prague. It is said that the Golem’s remains are in the attic (but we didn’t see the Golem or his remains).

The newest synagogue was built in 1906 and is breathtaking, inspired by Moorish architecture. It was built as a Reform synagogue and has an immense organ in it.  Two of Prague’s six synagogues have regular services and two of the synagogues are museums to the Jews lost in the Holocaust.

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 The beauty of Prague and the long history of Jews there was put into stark relief by our trip to the Terezin work camp/ transit camp/ ghetto 45 minutes outside of Prague. Walking through the camp where thousands of Jews had walked was more than sobering, and I have yet to integrate my impressions and emotions. Thousands of deported children, infants, women, and men walked those roads and through those doorways. But through the impossibly dark situation art flourished. Painting, theatre, music and composition were produced. Operas and plays were written and performed. Children published weekly newsletters. Although the circumstances were devastating  hope, faith and beauty survived. We saw hundreds of beautiful watercolours and drawings as well as original musical scores and even intricately crafted hand-made dolls. How inspiring!

Prayer was elevated too. A small  synagogue was built in secret. A man named Artur Berlinger decorated a storage room, painting designs and Hebrew quotations on the walls.  He led services there for a small group that lived on the same street. Below you can see stars painted on the ceiling and candles painted on the walls. The wall decoration ws intact until the flood of 2002 damaged them.

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In Prague and Terezin we saw the art of the synagogues and the art of the people. It was all around us in different forms. The art, music, theatre and architecture were created by Jews through different eras for different purposes. Much of it was done by  architects and craftsmen, but much of it was done by non-artists, adults and children, men and women, who loved artistic and creative expression.

 Art, music and creativity help make the world a brighter place.  They bring comfort to the creators and designers. The art can bring ideas, pleasure and even escape to the audience. Positive action, good deeds, political awareness- all these things are important too. So however you approach these holidays, may this be a time for reflection and creativity..
What do you think? I’d love to read your comments.
Shabbat Shuva Shalom,  Laya

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