Posted on January 17th, 2012 No comments
This past year, Texas suffered through an extreme drought. Roads melted and cracked and water mains fractured under the stress. But perhaps the worst of the drought was what it did to the trees. Thousands and thousands of them died and now the city workers go through our neighborhoods marking trees that are definitively dead with spray paint so crews will know which trees to cut down. We all understand why these elms, pines, magnolia and others need to be cut down: they need to come down in an orderly way or they will fall down and cut off power and traffic. But still, we see those sprayed painted markings and fell a sense of loss.
The “tree deaths” aren’t randomly distributed. We found this out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. Elms, which have a very shallow root system, were simply blown over because their ratio of canopy to roots was too small.
You can see the shallow ball of roots that tipped up as the elm fell, uprooting the sidewalk.
Interestingly enough, we have a live oak tree in our front yard and it scarcely lost any foliage at all: some leaves and twigs blew off but that was about it. That oak’s roots go down about 20 feet and the tree itself is probably only 30 feet high.
During the drought, I worried about the elms, but not about the oak. I knew the oak’s roots would be able to reach downward toward the water table.
The lesson, I’m sure, is clear. What is it, who is it, that survives? The one with the deepest root system. Those who composed the Torah, and those who wrote rabbinic literature knew how much wisdom we can gain from observing trees. Important events happen with trees (e.g., the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the terebinths of Mamre, Genesis 12:6). The menorah in the Tabernacle is a stylized almond tree. Trees are not to be cut down in a war (Deuteronomy 20:19), nor are permitted to exploit trees while they are still saplings (i.e., the rules in tractate Orlah). They can even teach us some interpersonal lessons, as it is said, “A person should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar (B. Taanit 20a).”
So with all this as background, how might we best celebrate Tu Bishvat this year? We could Study one tree and its place in the local ecology. We could make a plan to make a “local lulav” of branches in the fall and mentally mark four trees for that purpose. For example, if you live in Vermont, you might include maple leaves and apples in your “local lulav.” And, of course, plant trees here and in Israel.
See the trees everywhere you look, for they are there…even where you might least expect them to be. If you look closely at what a scribe did to this Torah scroll, you can tell that he saw the trees and plants everywhere, everywhere
Posted on May 23rd, 2011 No comments
Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.
Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian. When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?
Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?
Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.
There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her. I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.
Posted on January 31st, 2011 1 comment
A Filipino who speaks Yiddish.
Arabs living in Jerusalem speaking in Hebrew about identity.
A Jewish grandmother returning to home of her youth –in Djerba.
These are some of the people I’ve encountered recently through the new Israeli arts site Omanoot.com.
The importance of the arts for Jewish education is an axiom among those of us who make Jewish learning a central element of our lives. YouTube and services like Netflix have made it possible for us to access a growing amount of artistic content for use in connecting with and inspiring our communities. Yet much of Israeli film continued to lay beyond the reach of those of us in the US, either because it was not available for viewing on our systems or because of the language barrier. Enter Omanoot.com. The site’s claim that it is “Omanoot is Israel’s HULU, Amazon, iTunes and virtual MOMA all in one” is a bit grandiose but it does hit its mark of making “Israeli, literature, and visual art) accessible for cultural, educational, and entertainment purposes,” by streaming many films, providing subtitles, searchable indexes and educational materials.
Moving far beyond the Hasbara films of the Israeli foreign ministry, the site provides a great deal to explore. But I was particularly intrigued by how the offerings might be used to enhance Jewish education. The founders of Omanoot worked with artist and master educator Robbie Greengrass of Makom in conceptualizing the site. The thoughtfulness has paid off. Though the educational materials are for the time being quite limited, the lesson plans that have been posted are particularly strong. Mixing classical Jewish sources with contemporary ones, pairing when appropriate Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and providing educational activities for different settings. A particular favorite of mine was a lesson that used Israeli Reggae Band Hatikva 6’s song “If I Met God” in conjunction with Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah” to open up conversation about the nature of the Divine.
But the site should inspire educators far beyond the prefab lesson plans. Nor should Omanoot.com be limited to Israel ed moments. The content on the site is appropriate for opening conversations on many topics. For example, Yossi and Jaeger about gay Israeli soldiers, for example is available for streaming here and quite relevant as we look towards the repeal of DADT.
The short lesser known films from the students at the religious film school Maalot, are especially easily adapted for classroom and youth group triggers. The Yiddish language film A-Maiseh which looks at a moment in the life of an elderly Jew and the young Filipino who cares for him might be used in a class on aging or on immigration –not necessarily Israeli. Of interest in this short piece are not only the dynamics between the police and the illegal immigrant but those within the family and among the friends. A class on world Jewry would undoubtedly warm to the story of Aunt Diya, who with scrimping and saving makes her way back to Tunisia to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer in the synagogue she grew up in on the island of Djerba. The story is at once very familiar to those who know the genre of similar roots films retracing Jewish life in Europe and at the same time new and novel given the setting and the customs. Students with whom I watched the film had little knowledge of Jewish life in Arab lands and were curious not only about Diya’s reasons for leaving but also for going back.
I highly recommend Omanoot.com to the bookmark list of any Jewish professional who knows the value of the arts to make deep connections and lasting impressions.