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Drisha Arts Fellows Explore Shabbat

Who would have guessed that a yeshiva would have an Arts Program?  If I had died and gone to heaven, surely the World to Come would look like this.  And yet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan the liberal women’s learning program (i.e. yeshiva), Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, has had for 7 years an Arts Fellowship program that offers a year of study (in addition to their regular yeshiva courses like Talmud, Halacha, Parshanut, Biblical Hebrew and Liturgy) where Torah subjects and the arts are combined and pursued with the seriousness and determination of most guys sitting and learning all day long.  And it’s for women only.

The first question an artist friend of mine asked; “why isn’t there a similar program for men.”  I have no answer but hope that other orthodox Jewish educators will feel compelled to ask themselves the same question.  For what it’s worth, this is exactly what I have been arguing on these pages for the last ten years; i.e. that there is no contradiction between the arts, visual and otherwise, and Torah learning and observance.  In fact, one legitimate and effective way of learning and interpreting Torah is through art.

The importance of this concept is exactly what founder and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi David Silber clearly believes. His support and sponsorship of this program and the parallel Artist’s Beit Midrash has pioneered the integration of Torah and contemporary arts.  On a recent Thursday evening in June the creative results were on display for one evening.  It was very impressive.

This year’s program is composed of eleven women whose artworks spanned poetry, film, performance, music, theater, sculpture and painting.  The subject they collectively explored was Shabbat.  While the range of investigations was broad, the liturgical poem Yedid Nefesh by R. Elazar Azikri drew special attention of a number of the artists.

Jaime Wynn, director, coordinator of the Drisha Arts Fellowship and one of the artists, first translated Yedid Nefesh into English and then crafted a poem inspired by her personal 21st century vision of the difficulties of yearning to be close to God.  This in turn stimulated the creation of three paintings.  These acrylic paintings present a surreal meditation on R. Elazar Azikri’s life and work.  By means of a haunting light and evocative color the paintings craft a dreamscape of objects that suggest the yearning for the Divine in the physical world.

Azikri was a renowned kabbalist and halachist in 16th century Safed known for his Sefer Chareidim.  He emphasized the intense love one must feel for God as fundamental for piety and spirituality.  One of the most powerful evocations of yearning is found in poetry and song.  Eliana Kissner composed and sang a four-movement song cycle of the famous piyyut Yedid Nefesh.  Her performance, at first operatic, quickly transitioned into deeply tender pleadings with the Divine, each stanza unique with the emotion of the verses surging until she swept the entire audience along in her rendition of the last stanza.  The difference between the often rote recitation on Friday night or Shabbos afternoon and this performance was remarkable.

As the artists were learning with Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox, their rabbinic instructor, one fact in Azikri’s life surfaced.  Two of his young sons had suddenly died and, soon after Azikri formed a small chevrah to study in ascetic isolation devoted to spiritual perfection, purification and communion with God.  It was during this period of isolation that he created Yedid Nefesh. Composer and playwright Bronwen Mullin was drawn to the relationship between an ascetic life and personal tragedy.  Additionally she noted that in the oldest versions of the poem the feminine suffix is used throughout to refer to God, further emphasizing the poet’s longing for the compassionate aspect of the Divine.  The result of these musing is her short musical play; “Two Little Lights,” about the death of the Azikri’s children.  Mullin’s performance piece was breathtaking in its drama and tragedy.  She effectively transferred the anguish she sensed in Azikri’s piyyut to Azikri’s wife who is driven to madness by the death of her two children; repeating over and over; “There is no peace, there is no hope, Father of Mercy, two little lights went out…”  She continues to speak to them as if they were still alive and is only rescued from her grief by the haunting verses of Yedid Nefish sung at the end, somehow enveloping her pain into the passionate desire to draw close to an ineffable God.

What was especially impressive about all the artists is that they were able to each focus on one aspect of Shabbos and contextualize it so that it narrated in deeply individual terms. Monica Gomery read her poem “A Want Exists” with 5 additional readers, searching in multiple voices “What impels and informs a desire for spiritual submission?” The ancient world of Safed that produced Yedid Nefesh; the mikveh, the closeness of an awesome God, the barring of pious souls, impossible words to think and the impossible Name to speak are all explored.

The papercuts of Sara Levi appropriated Yedid Nefesh to examine the dual nature of Shabbos and its liturgy.  Entering Shabbos with Shabbos candles and the first two verses the papercut is projected as the unique Island in Time, whereas the second papercut casts the light of Shabbos onto the rest of the week; referring to the last two stanzas of the piyyut asking for pity and illumination in the mundane days.  Poet and musician Nomi Lerman reflected in her poem “rhythm in flame” the importance of fire in Shabbos, its phoenix-like arising, alive, then fading only to arise again at the end of the holy day, prefiguring her belief that “the mishkan re-builds itself whenever a candle is lit…”

Filmmaker Ilana Ellis offered her video “How to Receive Blessings, or What I Learned Over Pesach” that explored God’s blessing of the seventh day and how we are to capture that blessing.  She utilized a two-fold visual metaphor. In one, a ‘machine’ built to receive blessings is seen in which a coin rolls around and around gradually being captured in a funnel.  Her use of images of baking matzah expounded on how we integrate blessings into our lives: literally the making and consuming this mitzvah food was the second visual metaphor presented on the video.

Hannah Minnette Katz’s tableaux consisted of a small table set with two candles, a lighter and a sefer filled with collaged digital photographs.  “Beyn Kodosh L’Chol: Between the Sacred and the Mundane” proposed to contrast and at the same time integrate the sacred book, a commentary by Gaon Tzvi on the Gemara Cholin rescued from a geniza, (itself concerned with the mundane), with photographs that documented aspects of contemporary Jewish life.  As a meditation on Havdallah it also sought to locate the holiness of Shabbos hidden in weekday life.

Everyday woes and travails can invade Shabbos as well, as playwright Julie Sugar made abundantly clear in her delightful ruminations, “Signs.”  She begins with “A great miracle happened here.  Right here, at home,” launching into a tale of unexpected Shabbos guests, an absent husband and the challenges of properly setting the Shabbos timer.  Her reading revealed her doubts, anxieties and the plain absurdity of many of the Shabbos rituals we all take for granted.  It traveled back in time to the end of another Shabbos when her husband proposed to her and then to the miracle of the light that went off during lunch and magically turned on at just the right moment as Shabbos ended.  Sugar’s reading captured the joy and wonder of searching for understanding and the occasional Divine intervention that Shabbos can bring.

As these young women artists are studying at Drisha (the name is taken from Psalm 119:10: “With all my heart I sought You out.”) they are not only acquiring basic learning skills but struggling with understanding many fundamental concepts of Judaism.  Sarah Young’s “As Old as the World” interrogates the concept of justice as embodied in the historical Sanhedrin.  If you will take a look at Sanhedrin 36b-37a you will find a rather curious gemara. The Mishna straightforwardly describes the physical arrangement of the Sanhedrin and the gemara immediately expounds that this shape is derived from Song of Songs 7:3 that literally describes aspects of a woman’s body.  While the gemara interprets this allegorically (hence Rashi’s famous translation), it is nonetheless striking that the pinnacle of Jewish law should be juxtaposed to the female form.  Young created an environment containing a couch that centered on the half-moon shape of the Sanhedrin, which she photographed with two collaborators.  These photographs propose to reintroduce the feminine into the concept of the Sanhedrin in which women are halachically excluded.

The creation of an entirely new form of poetry was an unexpected surprise at the Drisha Arts Fellowship.  Nonetheless Shira Schwartz, writer and singer, has crafted a new poetic form called Sugya Poetry, “blending Talmudic and poetic form to handle questions and tensions that these “opposing” tropes appear to create.”  As she read her creation, “The Ethics of Cutting on Shabbat” I was struck by the seamless integration of Talmudic reasoning, multiple voices, personal historical references, rabbinic opinions and decisions all in a form totally lacking punctuation and paragraphs.  Much like an actual sugya in Gemara, it could not be understood at first glance but demanded re-reading, analysis and reflection.  In its extraordinary way, it was a wonder.

Wonders are perhaps becoming commonplace when the artists get involved at Drisha.  This is not to say that every artwork, poetry or performance was a masterpiece.  Rather it is to say that the process of Torah’s integration with the Arts is extremely productive, creative and illuminating.  It must be lauded, applauded and imitated.  The result will be more and greater understanding of Torah reflected in contemporary Jewish art.

Drisha Institute for Jewish Education
37 West 65th Street, New York

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