Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Congratulations go out to NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art to l(ink) the past and the present in their first exhibition of contemporary arts from China.

Imagine ... 

From the press announcement:
  1. The first major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art ever mounted by the Metropolitan, Ink Art explores how contemporary works from a non-Western culture may be displayed in an encyclopedic art museum. OK. Confession
  2. Presented in the Museum's permanent galleries for Chinese art, Great stuff from folks who know
  3. the exhibition features artworks that may best be understood As if we need some guidance.
  4. as part of the continuum of China's traditional culture. Oooooh! How exotic is this! Orientale
  5. These works may also be appreciated Since it's likely that most Western folks have no idea why they would want to even care.
  6. from the perspective of global art, Why not simply because it comes from a unique and very powerful culture.
  7. but by examining them through the lens of Chinese Red or otherwise?
  8. historical artistic paradigms, layers of meaning and cultural significance that might otherwise go unnoticed Any more than any other works in the museum?
  9. are revealed. How do you say "AB-RA-KA-DAB-RA! in Chinese?
  10. Ultimately, both points of view contribute to a more enriched understanding of these artists' creative processes. Ah, so ... artists made this art ... Were they perhaps Chinese artists?
It has wonderful pieces in it.  Through April 6, 2014
Check out the website .. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/ink-art

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Deep Dreideling

(originally published on www.opensiddur.org ... 
Every Jewish holy day, even Shabbat and the highest ones, we call forth all the 22 Hebrew Letters to join us in celebration. For those of us who study Kabbalah from within the realm of the Alef-Bet, Ḥanukah is unique in that we are given a magical tool with which to activate these signs and wonders.[1]
The top-like dreidel / sevivon (literally, “spinner” in Yiddish and Hebrew, respectively) typically has four sides or sections, each one bearing a specific, single Letter from the collection: Nun, Gimmel, Hei and Shin. (Note: in contemporary Israel, the Shin has been supplanted by Peh, but here we are looking further back. How long? Hard to know, but more than 60 years for sure.)
We are told as children that this “toy” was used by the Maccabees to disguise their clandestine Torah study, despite the distinct prohibition against any Jewish ritual observance by the Greek oppressors. As we know the Maccabees ultimately rose up against all odds and defeated the Greeks, as their successors have done at other times. In fact, some people are taught that each of the four letters stands for four oppressors of the Jewish people: Nun (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia); Hei (Haman of Persia); Gimel (Gog of Greece); and Shin (Se’ir who was identified with Esav and hence with Rome).
The Nes Gadol, great miracle, Haya Sham that happened there (or Haya Poh, “here” if we are in the Land of Israel) continues to happen for Jews who keep that dreidel spinning! There really are no spectators when it comes to dreidel.
Most people today are caught up in the mundane notion of dreidel as a seemingly benign amusement using the “rules” “put – and – take”, and even tying it to the tradition of giving Ḥanukah “gelt”, or coins (chocolate or otherwise). While children are the beneficiaries of intentionally simplified stories, trying to make adult sense of this one can lead one through a maze of minhagim (traditions) to a dead end, such as extreme "Major League Dredel" competitions — with Vegas-style stakes.

From a kabbalist viewpoint, however, one can think above and beyond the box of Sunday school sound-bites by asking the right questions — Why these four letters? Why put them on a top? We can find clues hidden in the Letters to know why and how the Maccabees were able to rededicate the Temple just by “playing” with a “toy”. May we have such capacity in our own time!
Whether made out of the Grecian clay soil or, most recently, molded Chinese plastic, spinning a dreidel with the left hand, the right understanding, clear kavanah (intention) and the appropriate blessing can be a transformative act; the dreidel becomes a magical tool. A dreidel enables us to take these four otiyot and niflaot, signs and wonders, in hand to create a stream of presence of the miraculous in our midst and reunite the four worlds.
We begin with Nun, signifying a place of internal rest. We retreat to a quiet, inner place where outer distractions cannot penetrate. By returning to “neutral” we make ourselves “empty” and ready to receive the wisdom and strength necessary to face the greater challenges. We are able to reclaim and renew ourselves for the work ahead. (Atzilut)
Gimmel, the third letter of the Alef-Bet, has the numerical number of 3, which is also the total value of the Letters that spell sheffa, the promise of abundance. Once we reach repose, we realize how much greater is our internal capacity to fully receive that abundance from the Great Source above. We have the strength to literally turn our ideas and dreams into reality here and now. (Briah)
The dreidel doesn’t spin itself. Each of us, in turn, must take hold of the dreidel at its axle handle, put its tip on the earth and spin it by adding our life force. With Hei guiding our hand we become that connectivity between above and below at a very specific point in time and space. (Yetzirah)
Everyone’s attention is fixed as the dreidel begins to spin. The growing excitement indicates that sheffa is whirling out from the center toward all who are captivated. The letters are now in full motion and returning to a single, blurry, formless pure essence. The Shin heralds the presence of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, who will spread her protection (shomer) over us to help dispel the negativity that always hovers nearby anything hopeful. (Assiah)
May I achieve self-realization in the present moment, and
Fully receive the Shekhinah’s abundant protection.
Blessed are You,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who directs us to spin the dreidel.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Answer is Blowin' on the Art: Calder @ LACMA

 I have been blowing on art  since X first encountered an Alexander Calder mobile at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Given the height and weight of the installation, it was unlikely that   I  would make any waves, but X wanted to have some way to interact with the art, especially given the hands-off rules of proper museum visitorship. It needed to move if it was to move me. For some reason, blowing on a van Gogh or other heavily textured work remains a reasonable encounter style to this day.

                                         The Calder retrospective “monographic” exhibition opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic”, gives one many reasons to blow, wink, wave and do all sorts of other seemingly harmless gestures toward his mobiles and stabiles, but the Frank O. Gehry installation keeps us at a reasonable distance along the periphery of some provocatively curved walls and barriers. The exhibition design, in fact, demonstrates Gehry’s infinite technical capacity to trump (almost) anything he is asked to wrap. L’arc de triumphe!

We think we “know” Calder because his work was the rage when most of the larger western contemporary art institutions were consolidating their collections. He seemed to animate beloved works of his contemporaries, Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Wassily Kandinsky to name just three. Given the materials, Calder is durable to say the least, and he seems to have an easy to grasp (no touching!!!) stylistic vocabulary: mostly black or white or primary colored discs, including modernist "kidney shaped "petals", dangling from black wires that have an uncanny resemblance to clothes hangers that propagate unchecked in one’s closet. 

Wondering whether his work has “held up over time, is not a useful question when viewing Calder in the 21st Century. It serves more as a benchmark for how the viewer has changed since first encountering his work. We think we see his work everywhere, but in fact, it is his influence that has become ubiquitous.

There are many classic balancing acts in this exhibition supported by the Calder Foundation, on whose website there is a warning not to be fooled by what may look "like” a Calder. Thus, the exhibition’s historical perspective is helpful in examining the maestro's process, one that is decidedly influenced by his education in physics-based engineering. (I am also reminded of Hayao Miyazaki's latest and last film, The Wind Rises,  where science is reflected in the creation of something destined to live in the air that is also beautiful for beauty's sake.) 

The earliest Calder pieces on display present the opposite of what we think of as trompe d’oeil.

Several of the pieces incorporate a “frame”: either a   field in the background or just a perimeter surrounding space. In this town of various cinematic trompes d’scopes and IMAX screens, it is relaxing to watch Calder’s pieces “simply” float in front of a basically flat background. Gehry comments that the museum didn’t have a proper space in which to install the work. This inspired him to create unique curvaceous panels to divide the broad, open rectangular footprint of the Resnick Pavilion, but the arcs seem rather large wide sweeps. Nonetheless, there are shadows on surfaces that do allow the pieces to dance in and with the light.

Each of the 50 pieces in the exhibition has something unique to say. Schools of aimless fish and flocks of maniacal birds define the “empty” sky and water environments that we, land-based animals, can only enter with aid. There is a multi-colored humanoid skeletal piece that tries to leave the earth. A few pieces, such as Yucca (1941), cast shadows that would be fitting in any xeroscape garden in LA’s now history-making arid climate.

Calder has admirers throughout the world, including Japan. Un effet du japonais (1941) does not particularly reflect any more japonais – ness than others. The freestanding work with hints of mobile-ism resembles two "conjoined" giraffes whose necks actually do meet in mid-air!  The piece predates his first exhibition in Japan by more than three decades. According to the Foundation, the Pennsylvania USA native had no previous direct encounter with Japan prior to that.

Photo by author

What attracted my eastern sensibility much more is Escutcheon (1954), a relatively small stabile that might be a Sogetsu ikebana arrangement. It is hung close to the ceiling near two cast bronze table top pieces that resembled natural branches that might have caught the eye on a walk in the woods. One resembles a snake and the other, to me, harkens to Picasso's She Goat.

Calder also worked in natural materials, including wood. Gibraltar (1936, MOMA NYC), constructed out of Lignum vitae, walnut, steel rods and painted wood, is in the genre of his galaxies. (LACMA’s grand exhibition of the work of James Turrell is still on display, enabling one to enjoy more-naked eye celestial observations.) 

The "milky way-like field that rings an island mountain is evocative of an image of Calder in his studio wearing a light visor at a rakish angle. Further, one of the elements, a piece of wood held aloft by a vertical rod, reminds me of a sotdae, Korean wooden spirit post topped by a simply rendered bird that is placed singly or in multiples at the entrance gate to a village to promote good harvest and luck.

I would never have had these insights when I blew on my first Calder. If his are the only "floaters" I see as I age, then I'll be very contentToday we have the capacity to do 3D printing, but if Calder had put a stylus on each of his discs and turned on the wind, we would have almost holographic creations. 

The answer may be Blowin' in the in the Wind, and Calder may be setting up the questions. It is not impossible to think that Calder's work takes me on a trip within the space inside my mind. I trust that he will continue to inform me about how “far” I’ve come.

For more information about Alexander Calder, I am happy to direct your attention to the wonderful resource Artsy

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Encounters With Jewish Musical Traditions: Jewish Radio Programs

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the "Bagels and Lox" and "Kippers 'n' Capers" were two Jewish music radio programs on Sunday mornings available on the fledgling fm channels. (It could have been "am" radio, but I think not.) 

Each offered a smorgasbord of music ranging from recordings of liturgical (Hebrew) and secular songs (Yiddish and Engilsh) of the great cantorial voices such as Yossele RosenblattMoishe OysherJan Peerce to Israel Music Festival winners, the latest pop sensations, such as Alan Sherman, and even a bit of shtick from the likes of "Mollie Goldberg" (aka Gertrude Berg who also had her own radio program, "The Goldbergs"), Belle Barth and Fanny Brice. The usual announcements of local events and a bit of banter between the music filled a half hour easily. Ads were from local restaurants and delis, haberdasheries promoting bar mitzvah wear (Krass Brother Men's Store on South Street was a favorite.), Jewish book and gift shop, etc.

There is nothing to be found online at this writing about this genre of radio. (You try going through the thousands of references to "bagels and lox" online!) It's a real shame.  I will continue to seek out more information in a strategic way, but here's a great sample of the types of music I heard from the Idelsohn Society.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Glass Mechitzah Part 1: YouTube’s View From on Higher

 View from women's balcony in trad. Ashkenazi shul.
As the first bas mitzvah (Ashkenazi not the now politicall correct Sephardi "bat") of a reform temple in the 1960s (and only one for several years following), I was quickly made aware that boys’ ritual needs trumped those of girls: when my classmate with whom I shared a birthday got the shabbos that corresponded to the date; I learned early that I had to find my own joy in the life that unfolded in front of me. Being fond of color, I was thrilled when my parasha (a month later) ended up being “Vayeshev”, Joseph’s coat of many colors, a keepsake I still treasure and hope to understand one day. All the fuss and excitement that followed kept me on course with my Jewish learning. Later, after having exhausted the balance of formal religious school, the boy (now a “man”) and I (an teenage girl) leaned Pirke Avos in a special class with the rabbi. Early into the book we read the phrase, “One should not engage in much gossip with women...” I decided this girl was not going to take it any more and stopped the lesson for good. 

It was further clear that I couldn’t wait for that joy to find me.

Since those days I have respectfully explored the Jewish world first hand to make sure that I had a sense of what is going on and, more important, and did what I could to fee; included and close to the source. My forays from women’s farbrengens with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights NY  (“Why didn’t they have a respected woman speak to us? Rabbi XYtz is a learned man.) to dropping in on the last bar mitzvah in Bulowayo Zimbabwe (What do you mean you don’t know where the women sit!) , from trying to get into a mikveh in Los Angeles (“I never said I was married.”) to Jewish feminist Tu b’Av retreats in Mendocino CA (“What happens in Mendocino, stays in Mendocino!”), I remain deeply uncomfortable with the separation of sexes by a mechitza, the physical barrier that is erected between women and men during public prayer. 

Furthermore, it became apparent only decades later, that I realized the most exciting role models in my life were the "chiefs", all male, blooming with very cool outfits, like the males of most animal species, such as the eagle feathered headdresses and war paint worn by native Americans ... and, it seems, the tribal uniforms of Chassidim whose affiliation can often be recognized by the type of hat, fedoras in black of course, or the shape of the streimel of the fur variety.

It’s not that I need to stand shoulder to shoulder with or even be surrounded by men at that time, it’s just that the ark containing the Torah is usually on their side. I know that vision is made in the brain where two images come together. My eyesight is compromised enough that it presents a partial vision of the world in front of me. But for once, I want to be in the presence of something whole. Hugely Jewish, yet intimate. Fabulous. The living presence of those iconic images of a Jew who was not engaged in housework or child rearing.

What if, I pondered, it were a glass wall?

You mean like the glass ceiling?

Enter YouTube ... 

Despite extraordinary efforts on the parts of some “extremely orthodox” (a term that is not redundant in Jewish circles, unlike slightly pregnant) community rulers to put a hex if not altogether ban the Internet and its lascivious content, women and the rest of the entire world may now see some of the sights to which we would otherwise not have been privy. 

The glass wall!

Not so fast ... In May 2012 the Citi Field baseball stadium in New Jersey was crammed literally to the brim with black-hatted, etc. Haredim men for the seven hour Asifa convocation to denounce the Internet’s ubiquitous content, if not also the connection itself. There seemed to be some disparity as to the point of concern: the additive qualities or the worldviews. (Current monitoring of North Korean news provides some frightening comparisons.)

No women were invited because no women were allowed ... because public prayer would be held. The field was de-womaned to the extreme: a sponsor’s huge billboard bearing the image of a woman on the label of the hot sauce was covered. Sure they could put women in the bleachers, but not this group. Boys to men came by every possible means of transportation, from ferries to buses from throughout the near and far world and constituted what must be the largest gathering for Yiddish language (for the most part) speeches in history --- estimates of 60,000 required 20,000 to sit in the adjoining Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium and view the proceedings via satellite feed on monitors. My favorite one is from the lakewoodscop.com feed showing two ferries full of praying Chassidim en route.

There are many interesting details about the experience that have been reported (check “asifa” on YouTube and watch the endless hours of speeches, prayers and other images (smartphones!!!) but none as courageously captured than that for a high – tech blog, betabeat.com, by Adrianne Jeffries who, in true “Yentl” fashion bound herself up, added some convincing peyos to a borrowed hat and suit and snuck into the mix. Brava! Brava! 

Many cult-ish groups seek to restrict / protect their members’ from distraction by “outside” influences for their own good. In this day forward (one opinion) of the Internet, the notion, much less reality, that there is life beyond the eruv, another physical barrier that defines a community’s neighborhood as an extended “house”, seems to be impossible to secure. It would be like telling someone never, ever, to look up at the stars. I remember the time when “surfaced” from a trip to the depth of the Grand Canyon and was sharing the beauty with a native American woman who worked the cafeteria steam table. She quietly remarked that according to her tradition, people were even forbidden to look into it, as it is the center of creation! Can they rely on their adherents not to stray? These Haredim are trying, with various blocks to sites and even matchmakers who are instructed to check if the potential spouse comes from a family with internet connection.

We still can view here the official satellite feed and available, later, to families (women) at home via closed circuit ... and “not on any website”, according to the chair of the event. One can easily see people taking photos / videos? with smart phones ... irresistible!
Certainly there are Jews who forbid the taking of photographs of themselves, but there are clearly many who wish to share, even if its just with each other, the celebrations, mitzvahs and presentations of their learned rebbes. Case in point are the many YouTube postings of wedding mitzvah-tanzes of various Chassidic communities around the Great New York Metro area.

Bobov Rebbe's Version
For example, at this writing there are 342,719 views of the
Satmar Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum’s mitzvah-tanz (3:08 minutes). The wedding took place in Monroe NY in 2006 and the video is professionally produced. In it the lone woman, in a bridal gown, is tethered to the elder man, who is decked out in his gold brocade caftan, white stockings and a streimel (mink fur hat). They are tethered together by his 100' white gartel (cloth that he wears around his waist on Shabbos and holy days to distinguish the upper and lower parts of the body) and are “dancing” in a tent the size of an airplane hanger. All around him thousands of black and white clothed males of all ages are singing and clapping along with piped in music, and swaying like a "wave" done in sports stadia. There are many, many other videos from Bobovs and Lubavitch, from holidays and special teachings, like this inter-denominational presentation by Lubabitcher bochurem who entertained at the Satmar rebbe’s tish (teach-in) juggling and acrobatics on the tish (literally, table).

Wish I had been there ... My relatives would have poo-poo'd it. I think that one of my great grandfathers was kicked out of the house because he studied too much and didn't work to support his six (or seven) children. We were modern even then.

Of course YouTube is also making great Jewish learning opportunities available to us. For example, the 12th Siyum HaShas of Daf HaYomi made by Agudath Yisroel that took place in MetLife Stadium on August 2012 is a seven hour delight that begins with a great statement about life long learning. (For a quick jump to the music and dancing, click here.)

The historic visits of rebbes to their contemporaries, such as The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to the Beltzer Rebbe, or the procession in Boro Park of the sifrei Torahs from their old stiebel to a new one is sweet. The most poignant one I have seen – and had my heart broken each time -- is the Horowitz Brothers singing “Av Harachamim” in the crematoria at Auschwitz.

Since this is the season of redemption, I definitely recommend the posts about and from Women of the Wall, the pluralistic group of women in Israel (now supported around the world) who are demonstrating their right to pray aloud, with tefilin, talis and sefer Torah scrolls on the women’s “side” of the Western Wall. To achieve social, legal and religious equality at this important site will be a major achievement that, no doubt, will be available for view on YouTube. My article about them may be found here. See "The Glass Mechitzah Part 2: Which Side Are You On?"

With all due respect – to those who find the Charedim at best out of date – and those who are trying to maintain focus while the world has literally opened up without filter -- I love the internet and especially YouTube for a glimpse beyond every-day abilities. I am happy to see the 2009 posting of the Abudaya (Uganda) shirat hayam weekday services at the Moses Synagogue at Nabugoye where men and women are “simply” separated by nothing but an aisle. (You can hear the woman's (far right) voice.) There are too many here to mention, so go and explore by yourself.