Tag Archives: Jewish Art

Shabbat Shira – it’s music

Halleluhu by Laya Crust

Parshat B’Shalach                        Haftarah: Judges 4: 4 – 5: 31

Music is magical. We can’t see it, touch it, smell it or taste it. We can hear it and magically it can transform our mood and take us to other places in our imagination. We all know about love songs (a billion), break-up songs (2 billion), songs of tribute (“Starry Night” about Vincent Van Gogh) and patriotic songs (“La Marseillaise”and “HaTikvah”). All our secrets can be unearthed (“Killing Me Softly”) and raw emotion can be exposed (Stravinsky’s compositions).

Music is a beautiful union of art, science, math, and imagination. I remember a friend of mine- a physicist- being amazed and unbelieving when I told him I loved music. “How is that possible? ” he asked. “You’re an artsy.” I was really surprised by that comment because I had always thought that music was art and emotion. That was when I found out that there is a close relationship between science and music.

Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

Music is an integral part of joyous Judaism. In the Torah portion B’Shalach we read “The Song of the Sea”.  It is Moses’ song of praise to God that was sung after the Israelites safely crossed the Red (or Reed) Sea, and were saved from the angry Egyptian army. The women, led by the prophet Miriam, sang and danced and made music on their “tof”, a handheld drum. There is a beautiful painting of the women led by Miriam playing their drums in The Golden Haggadah, and another lovely rendition in The Sarajevo Haggadah.

Devorah the Prophetess by Laya Crust
(inspired by a painting from a 17th C. Judeo-Persian book)

This Bible reading describing the escape into the desert, across the sea, and the ultimate Song of the Sea is paired with an adventure story in the Book of Judges. Led by the prophet Devorah the Israelites won a battle against Sisera’s Army. A woman named Yael completed the defeat by killing Sisera. Devorah then sang a song of praise about the triumph and Yael’s conquest.

 When we are happy, when we are sad, when we want to remember or forget, when we want to meditate or pray, be left alone or celebrate with others we often turn to music. Because it is a comforting, joyous and spiritual medium the most beautiful parts of prayer are often paired with music. The painting at the top of the page shows biblical instruments mentioned in “psoukei d’zimra”, prayers we say in the morning.

On this Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, pay attention to the songs and music composed by Moses, Miriam, and the prophetess-judge Devorah. Enjoy the art, the sounds, and the music around you and have a Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Neither slaves, taskmasters, nor nobility were named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who were named were those who stood up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self-determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides, and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing Indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the invisible individuals can then be remembered, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help us to find out their names. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world. Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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VaYechi- And He Lived

King David and Saul by Laya Crust

VaYechi is the last Torah reading in the Book of Beresheit (the Book of Genesis). It is just that- the story of the beginning, or genesis, of the world and of a people. The parsha begins with a word that in biblical Hebrew means “and he lived”, and in modern Hebrew means “and he will live”. It is appropriate because this word refers to Jacob who died in this parsha but created the family legacy which would continue, living as the Jewish nation.

Our forefathers and foremothers did not have perfect family lives. There was jealousy, jostling for power and attention, and lifelong resentments. We read about favouritism. There was very little tenderness exhibited in the harsh lives they led. However, tenderness does appear in this parsha.

When Jacob was 137 years old he had been living in Egypt with Joseph and his other 11 sons for 17 years. He knew he was about to die and called Joseph and Joseph’s sons to his bedside. “…he kissed them and embraced them. And Yisrael said to Joseph,’ I had not thought to see your face: and lo, God has also shown me your children.’ ” (Genesis ch 47 v..11) Yaakov was expressing the longing he had felt for decades, never believing he would see his son Joseph again. Neither Abraham nor Isaac had ever spoken to their children with such honesty and warmth.

We go on to read the first ethical will ever recorded. Jacob spoke to each of his sons, and to his two favourite grandsons. He foresaw how they were going to navigate the world. The prescience could have been see by the sons either as warnings or as guidelines for how to lead their lives in the best way possible. As well as speaking about the children’s’ attributes Jacob also made it clear that when he died he was to be buried in Canaan in the same place his wife Leah, his parents Isaac and Rebecca, and his grandparents Abraham and Sarah had been buried.

This scene and this request- he actually insisted that it be an oath- were the greatest lessons of all. By gathering the sons together in one room and speaking to each of them one by one Jacob was cementing the family unit. It wasn’t a speech to all the servants and to those Egyptians who respected him, it was a speech only to his sons. This showed them how he valued them as a family unit with common roots, and that they would retain their nationhood and integrity if they stayed together.

The insistence that he be buried in Canaan was an indication that Canaan, not Egypt, was his and their homeland. That being said, Joseph was the only one of the twelve sons who made an oath that he too would be buried in Canaan.

As always there are many lessons in the parsha. Communication in family, showing love to our children, expressing our deepest wishes, seeing each child as an individual, the power of the ethical will, unity, and being in the right place are all lessons from this reading.

We live in a frightening world with too much hatred and too much violence. If we stand together as a unified nation, if we live with the integrity laid out in halachah (Jewish precepts and law), and if we know who we re as Jews and where we belong, maybe we can help heal our nation and heal the world more effectively. As we go forward we might also be able to learn from Yaakov Avinu (our father Jacob’s) ethical will to us, his descendants.

With blessings for goodness and peace, Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Reunited

Joseph by Laya Crust

           

Parsha: VaYigash                                   Haftarah:   Ezekiel 37: 15-28

For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors,  Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.

In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers. 

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902
 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 
Judah, the same brother who decades earlier had suggested that Joseph be sold rather than be killed, stepped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to the great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.

Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard…” Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort. He told them how to get land so they could raise cattle.

Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael.  Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.

VaYigashReunited  by Laya Crust

The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation. 

beit horon passagephoto by Yoni Lightstone, tour guide

Ezekiel also told them that God would gather them from among all the nations and bring them back  to their own land. The text reads, “Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel.” (v.  21, 22)

Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. We are stronger as a united people. I hope we can learn to discuss, consider, and be united for the benefit of all.

The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch,  is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Picnic in Dothan

VaYeishev SigIllustration by Laya Crust

The last number of weeks we have been reading about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Jacob was the proud father of 12 sons and one daughter, and moved his family from Padan Aram back to Canaan. In this week’s Torah reading we find out more about the dynmics in Jacob’s family.

Jacob left his father-in-law’s home a wealthy man with huge herds of cattle and flocks of goats. The sons were shepherds. Joseph was favoured by Jacob, and was given a beautiful coat. While his brothers were out iin the hot fields for days at a time Joseph stayed at home with their father. There was a lot of jealousy for more than one reason.

At one point in this week’s Torah portion Joseph was sent out to the fields to look for his brothers and report back to Yaakov (Jacob). They had gone to Shechem with their flocks, and then traveled further.  Joseph went to Shechem but couldn’t find them. A man- we suspect that he was an angel- redirected Joseph to Dothan. The brothers saw him approaching. To paraphrase Maurice Sendak, they “made mischief of one kind and another”.  They threw Joseph into a pit and gave him to Midianite traders who then sold him to Ishmaelite traders.

I’ve often wondered about the brothers out in the fields, sleeping and eating there. What did they have for lunch? What were they eating as Joseph approached? Many Israeli cookbooks feature eggplant recipes, and I thought- could the brothers have enjoyed something like roasted eggplant?

Roasted Eggplant with Silan and Tomatoes

P1120421

Ingredients:

1 medium eggplant                                                        1 – 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 Tbsp. raw tehina                                                          1- 2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. yogurt                                                                   sprigs of fresh parsley, cilantro or hyssop leaves

1 tomato halved, cored, and diced                            1 crushed clove of garlic

1Tbsp. silan or dark honey                                           sea salt and crushed pepper to taste

Bake the eggplant. You can roast it over a bonfire, a gas flame or, as I have here, an electric element. It gives a wonderful smokey flavour.
P1120427

Slice in half and drizzle with tehina, yogurt, silan (or honey), olive oil and lemon juice. 
P1120437Season with salt, pepper, and garlic. Garnish with parsley, cilantro or hyssop.

The roasted eggplant is delicious with warmed or toasted pita and a good glass of beer.  (P.S. To be honest, the brothers wouldn’t have been eating eggplant or tomato. Eggplants are indigenous to India and tomatoes to South America. But, they are popular in Israel now! )

Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

This illustration for the parsha VaYeishev is based on a beautiful panel from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah was created in 1350 Spain, and has beautiful paintings illustrating the Bible from the story of Creation to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This particular image shows the brothers selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. Joseph is portrayed as a young boy begging his brothers not to sell him.

I have created pictures for each haftarah and parsha of the year and am currently working on a book, showcasing each painting. Stay tuned for updates! Please always feel free to comment. Pass the posting to your friends. If you like my blog sign up and “Follow” me. You will receive the current blog by e-mail.

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Conflict and Strength – VaYishlach


P1140396
art by Laya Crust

Va Yeishev: Bereshit (Genesis) 32:4 – 36

Haftarah:  The Book of Ovadiah

This week’s Torah reading takes us on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) journey through the country of Edom towards Bethlehem and Efrat. He was a successful man. He had huge flocks, 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons and a daughter, yet he was nervous. He knew he had to travel through his brother’s landholdings but did not want to face his twin because of  their unresolved history. Would Esau be angry at Yaakov? Did Esau still want to kill his brother?

The narrative begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother, announcing his approach. The report came back that Esau was coming to meet Yaakov, accompanied by 400 men.  Yaakov, frightened and anxious, sent his messengers ahead with many expensive gifts. He sent his family to the far side of the Jabok River for safety and he himself slept on the closer side of the river, possibly to be on the alert for any attack.

A man came and wrestled with him through the night. Finally at dawn the stranger told Yaakov to let him go. Yaakov demanded that the man give him a blessing and the blessing came in the guise of a new name- Yisrael, “because you have striven with beings Divine and human” (כּי שׂרית עם אלהים ועם אנשׁים).

Image result for jacob and the angel golden haggadah
Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Who was the man Yaakov fought with? An angel sent by Gd? An adversarial angel representing Esau? Or was it an inner battle that Yaakov was struggling within himself? At the end of the battle Yaakov had a new name and an injury that stayed with him the rest of his life.

Yaakov’s name has many meanings. It can mean follow, heel, or deceive. When he was born Yaakov followed his brother into the world, holding on to Esau’s heel. As they grew up he deceived his brother and his father, and in turn was deceived by his father-in-law.

He left Canaan to avoid confrontation with Esau and to seek a wife. Many years later he left Lavan’s estate in the night, also hoping to avoid confrontation. He may have been a successful man in terms of his career but he was afraid to face the consequences of his actions.

Yaakov couldn’t avoid wrestling with the angel and he refused to give up or give in to the aggressor. He was given a name that represented his strength and position.

Image result for jacob and the angel
by Gustave Dore, 1855

The night of struggle heralded a new beginning. He faced himself and the enemy across from him. That incident strengthened him in his role as leader of a nation. He could carry on and deal with whatever life put in front of him. The struggle with the immortal being took place between sending a message to Esau and actually facing him. Maybe the fight itself influenced Yaakov’s interaction with Esau.

These days we are facing anti-Semitic attacks- verbal and physical, hurtful and deadly, overt and covert, on a frightening level. We are witnessing anti-Semitism from the British elections to UN resolutions, to terrorist attacks in kosher grocery stores and in synagogues, and unconscionable displays of hatred against Israel and Jews on campuses. Like Yaakov we have to face our fears rather than run away from them. Strength as a people and a nation is the only way to combat the hatred.

Like Yaakov let’s struggle with the adversaries and stand firm for what is right. May we see peace soon,

Sabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Funerals and a Wedding

The Cave of Machpelah - Vincent van Gogh
The Cave of Machpela by Vincent Van Gogh

This week’s parsha begins with the news that Sara Imeinu (our matriarch) had died in Qiryat Arba at the age of 127. Abraham came to mourn and weep for her and to find a fitting burial place for his beloved wife.  Although the cave of Machpela was offered to him as a gift, he insisted on paying for it.  The text reads, “And the field of Efron, which was in Machpela,which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was in it,  and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about, were made over to Avraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Chet,…before Mamre: the same is Hevron in the land of Canaan.” ( Ch. 23 v 17 -19)

Avraham paid full price for this small piece of property, also known as Hebron, in front of witnesses so that there would never be a question of ownership.

chayei sarah0040
Abraham’s Journey by Laya Crust

At the end of this week’s reading Abraham died and his two sons- Isaac and Ishmael-came together as brothers and buried their father in the cave of Machpela, where Sara his wife had been buried. There had been a separation in the family after Isaac was born. Ishmael and Hagar were sent away because Sarah was adamant that Ishmael was a bad influence in Isaac’s life. It’s quite a testament to the strength of Abraham’s personality that the two half brothers united and buried their father together and without rancour. The ability to live apart but with respect was not the situation in King David’s family.

The haftarah is from the Book of Kings and concerns the last days of King David. After leading the nation of Israel through many battles, King David was old and ailing. In his illness and on his deathbed he was always cold. The court found a young and beautiful maiden, Avishag the Shunemite, to attend to him and “keep him warm”. The last days of two King David in the haftarah and the patriarch Abraham in the Torah reading link the haftarah to the Torah reading: .

Heir to the Throne by Laya Crust

This scene shows King David on his deathbed. Avishag, his attendant is there along with Bathsheba his wife, and Nathan the prophet. The calm scene in the picture belies the bloodshed and jockeying for leadership that was going on outside David’s chamber walls.

The ailing king had not yet appointed an heir to his throne. Although David had promised Batsheva that their son Solomon would be the next king of Israel, it had never been officially announced. There was a vicious power struggle among his sons and Adonijah, was about to declare himself king. Nathan the prophet knew that David had to announce his successor before his death to prevent a possible civil war. He also knew that David would listen to Bathsheba. “Then Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother….’Go immediately to King David and say to him, “Did not you, O lord king, swear to your maidservant: ‘your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit upon my throne.’ ?”   ( 1 Kings 1: 11, 13 )   When Adonijah announced himself king, Nathan and Bathsheba approached King David.

David was a great warrior and beloved king, but his leadership skills as a father left much to be desired. The fighting continued among his sons. In contrast Isaac and Ishmael reunited at Abraham’s funeral. Isaac had been chosen as heir and leader of Abraham’s legacy and Ishmael accepted that.

David was always in conflict with the nations surrounding him, and brilliantly led the battles that needed to be fought. Abraham fought as a last resort, attempting to make compromise and make peace when possible. Maybe Abraham’s non-confrontational policy paved the way so that his estranged sons could meet in peace and live parallel but non-combatant lives.

May all parents and leaders choose paths of dialogue and peace. Maybe then the world will be a safer and peaceful place.

Have a Shabbat Shalom.

The scene of David surrounded by Avishag, Bathsheba, and Nathan is one of the paintings in my forthcoming book, “Illuminations”. Stay tuned for more information!

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