Walking The Work

And tonight we put our work all around the room before it was hung.  We walked and walked around…and studied each other’s pieces.   So amazing to hear us say to each other “Tell me about this”. — and “This is my grandfather.” And “This is my story…”.   “It’s very emotional.”IMG_1189

AND שדךלחןקןחףךחןןממקלגלגלגלדץקןיישמשמגןגמששרירך״”    (Words spoken in Hebrew which I did not understand but where nevertheless heartfelt.)

Eve took pictures (they are posted here).      I heard some singing.    I heard “Do you have any more of your Zines”?     I heard “Megan is here and we have been waiting for her and all of this!”.IMG_1192

“This is gorgeous!”  “Do you need help with anything?”  “This is so nerve-wracking!”

“Wow, just wow.”  “We finally have a minyan!”IMG_1172

“Well, she made it”.   “It was like my Grandma.”   “The other paper I used was much more transparent”.   “I am still compiling, it is a process”.     “Oh, it’s Eva!  She is beautiful”.   “This is — like — so HOLY”.

IMG_1185“It was wet”.  “Oh, you painted it?”  “So, it was also performance”.   “It’s a photo of the painted work”.   “I love gesso”.     “It’s instant texture-pattern”.    “It like so familiar”.   (But not too familiar)    “It’s like the signs in Israel”.    “Leading community and all that”.     “I have been so jealous ever since you said that”.   “I have been thinking about that.   That is SO interesting.”    “Your piece makes me breathe better.”    “You painted in my palette!”

“That’s so great!”

“I came across the drawing you did on Chanukah”.


It is the Inside coming to the Outside.   What was and has been inside all of us is now being revealed.      We are subtending the boundaries of ourselves — of our imaginations and bringing our work into common reality.   What was concealed is now revealed.    We are finally unmasked.

Come see the show — opening SUNDAY, APRIL 30th, 3:00-5:00 PM at UW Hillel, 611 Langdon Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703.




MSN and MKE Join Forces Again!

(Leslie is out of town, Steve Olson is guest blogger.  Photos by Eve-Lynn Siegel)

As the Milwaukee and Madison groups met together for a joint session, Professor Steven Nadler shared some of the insights he gained while researching his book Rembrandt’s Jews .

Because many Portuguese Jews successfully settled in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition, they provided a unique model of interaction with a 17th Century Calvinist culture.

The two communities lived in close proximity, and Jews invited curious Dutch to observe services at their magnificent Sephardic synagogue. Some Dutch artists began to normalize Jews in visual terms (they look just like us!) rather than depicting them as anti-Semitic stereotypes, as was common in European culture.

Rembrandt was a neighbor of important Amsterdam Jews and seems to have had an especially close relationship with Menasseh ben Israel, one of its chief rabbis. In a well-known painting, “Belshazzar’s Feast,” Rembrandt pictured the puzzling and mysterious Aramaic “writing on the wall” accurately in a form which was very likely given to him by the rabbi. (The writing was vertical and moved right to left.)

The dual Insider/Outsider status of Jews in Amsterdam provoked a good deal of discussion and many questions.

The evening proved to be a session rich in knowledge and shared ideas.

The Book & The Cover: Concealment & Revelation

There is a recurring motif in the Torah in which people reveal and then conceal – or first conceal and then reveal. So the peekaboo aspects of the telling of the Purim story are really only an echo of themes we have heard a million times (Jacob/Esau, Jacob/Issac).

We hide from each other.  We hide from HaShem.  HaShem hides from us, only revealing one name, then another…the real names are concealed from us.

We are not allowed to know.

So we spend our lives playing hide and seek with our loved ones, with our communities and with ourselves.   The holiday of Purim — with its costumes and masks…may tell us more about revealing/revelation in its hiddenness.

Purim happens in the late winter/early Spring, depending on the year.   It is the time when the hiddenness of life only begins to be revealed…only a little.  Even before we are aware that the sap in the trees is running, the bees are already gather pollen from the maples.    The life force, previously hidden, meekly shows its lovely face.

Purim is the beginning of the revealing.   Purim is the story which demands the end to the concealment.

Even if we begin by looking at the names we fine that the heroine “Esther” may share her name origins with “Hastir” which translates from the Hebrew to mean “Conceal”….and the story that we tell is told from the scroll called “Megillah” — but “Megalah” translates to “reveal”or “discover”.

We all wear masks in our lives…we play roles. We get to decide to whom we reveal our true selves and in the right circumstances.

What people wear, in fact, either reveals who they are or hides who they are. A black leather jacket can show someone’s ‘rocker’ personality or it can hide someone’s sensitivity. The ancient priests in the old temple wore specific robes – described very specifically in the Torah – which were designed to magnify their role as Kohanites.

In the story of Purim – Esther and Mordechai were clearly connected. Does she hide her identity as a Jew deliberately or is she blissfully unaware of who she really is until circumstances drove Mordechai’s motivation to finally tell her. Are we, in fact, sometimes blissfully unaware of who we really are until circumstances require that we rise to the occasion – on the occasion that the King raises his scepter.

No, that’s too much information.

We reserve the right to the privacy of our real selves. We reserve the right to reveal who we are…but be warned…sometimes life reveals who you are before you are ready.

Concealment is not forever.

Of Qadosh, Otherness & Responsibility

Qadosh — being separate, sacred, holy — treasured.    Qadosh -of the Divine, separate from human impurity and sin…although Qadosh (aka Kadosh) implies specialness — there is also some tension associated with it.   When you are chosen, when you are Qadosh, separate, holy — you are isolated, you are the Other.

Qadosh can be morally or ceremonially sacred.   Qadosh can indicate an angel, a saint, a sanctuary — and once again, isolation.img_1781

The Artist as Qadosh must do their sacred work in Isolation.   Some might say that the Artist works hand in hand with the Divine.   What is holy for a Jewish Artist?   Some say that it is the pulling together of ideas — the inspiration (like breathing in…), the connection, the doing — the connecting color or line or sound or light with feeling.

The Artist is Qadosh when they cause the audience to draw in breath — be inspired.img_1804

If this work is not holy, it is nonetheless sacred.   And being an artist we have the responsibility to do our work — to do the holy work of inspiring that the Divine designed us for.

But as Jewish Artists, of Qadosh, there is an inherent responsibility.  Being chosen does not make you free.  It makes you worry.  It makes you work.   It gives you soapbox and mouthpiece and voice.     Art that is not qadosh — does not have voice or message or feeling — has vapidity?  Discuss.img_1805







We looked at the work of Elaine Reichek, a NY-based visual artist, born in 1943.   Although the work looks like Craft, the message belies the sanctity and surprise of it all.

“The Parents of Jewish Boys Always Love Me — I am the closest thing to a Shiksa without Being One.”  – Elaine Reichek



“We Shall Overcome” — Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn was a social realist — his work used his sacred mouthpiece to deliver messages on social construct.

“James Chaney” – Ben Shahn

















Perhaps it is our role as Outsider, Other, Separator, Qadosh — that allows us perspective.


Defender of the Outsider and Sunflowers: Seeing the Face of The Creator.

This evening we began with the text study of Isaiah Chapter 56.   Isaiah was thought of as the defender of the outsiders….eunuchs, foreigners, sexual outsiders….Isaiah was their champion.  This passage, photographed below, is read twice per year…on the Fast of Gedalia and on Tishe B’Av.  This passage is considered to be nourishment for the soul.

Rabbi Steinberger chanted this as Haftorah.    It was chilling and magical.


In Verses 5 to 7 above, portions of this are posted on a plaque at Yad v’Shem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.     Meaning that one has a name and a place — a soul needs a place to call home.

Souls that are wandering — they are outsiders.    A soul needs a place to land.   A field, a flower, a windowsill.

Souls that are unsettled often feel on the outside of life.   Depression can cause this as well.   Depression — the unsettling of the soul.    Andrew Solomon wrote a book entitled  “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” — which is very interesting and could pertain here.   Andrew Solomon also wrote “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” which is also recommended to us to read.

Now Allen Ginsburg, writer, born in 1926, was a man who cared for his mother who suffered from Schizophrenia.     When he was twelve years old, he left her in a sanitarium.    He wanted people to say of him “He is gifted with poetry, he has seen the face of the creator”.

He wrote a poem which was a string of aphorisms, born of his experience growing up…with his mother.   It is called Sunflower Sutra.    Read it BELOW:

“Sunflower Sutra
I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry. 
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery. 
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily. 
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust— 
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem 
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past— 
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye— 
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, 
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, 
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then! 
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives, 
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown— 
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these 
entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form! 
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze! 
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul? 
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive? 
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!   
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not! 
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter, 
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen, 
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision. 
Berkeley, 1955″
I have made the third stanza from the bottom into bold type — to make a point.    Ginsberg is challenging the flower — who is feeling used up and grimy…to try to remember when it was young and fresh and beautiful….it is a flower.   A glorious sunflower.    A warning to all of us to not forget who we really are…
So…Ginsberg’s mother died in the sanitarium — and after she died, he found a letter which she had written to him:   “The key is in the window.   The key is in the bars in the sunlight in the window.  Get married.”
Perhaps he saw this as the yellow sunlight, for him, for his mother, was a divine image….it was a vision of the face of the Creator.
He became suicidal.  He read Blake’s poetry.     He could hear Blake’s voice reading “Ah, Sunflower….”   To Ginsberg, to his mother — everything outside the window looked beautiful and — and like G-d.
Then we had a change of activity and a treat — Sabrina Ross brought a portion of her play, Shalom Bayit, for us to read a chapter.

Sabrina Ross, Playwright



With Sabrina’s permission, here is a portion of the script:


            She doesn’t like rugelach?! Vey is mir. You are a goy’s daughter aren’t you?


            He’s converting you know.


            Batya’s been telling me that for years.


            He studies hard, Zayde. He reads the Torah. He even knows some Kabbalah. Do you know Kabbalah?


            Shah, child. Why do you defend him? Being Jewish is more than knowing the  stuff. It’s a matter of blood. And you don’t like kugel, you don’t like rugelach… you must not have  enough Jewish blood in you.


            I really don’t think that’s how it works, Zayde.


            It’s a way of life, Rachie! Your father does not live like a Jew!


            He keeps Kosher. He doesn’t work on Shabbat. He even yelled at me once for eating bread on Passover.


            It takes more than that- 


            Even his clients thought he was a Jew!


            It takes pain Rachel! It’s a burden! 

 A beat.


            His own sister called him a kike.


            Rachel! Do not use that word in my home! 


            I’m sorry!

 ZAYDE sighs.


            Oh Rachel. Don’t repeat such a word! It hurts me so to hear it. 

ZAYDE puts his head in his hands.


            I’ve spent so long forgetting the horrible, horrible pain that came with that word. You say it and it makes me remember. But I can’t let myself remember. It will kill me. It will kill me.

ZAYDE wipes his eyes and looks up.


Your Aunt Faith, I don’t know about her. I remember the day she said that word. It was the last day we saw her. I was so surprised, because she was always sweet to me.


            Why did she call him that? 

A beat.


            She said she saw him do a horrible thing. 


            What was it?

 A beat.


            I will not repeat it to you. No good will come of it. Your mother said it was a  disgusting lie to try and break up your family.

ZAYDE puts his hand over his mouth and looks away.


            But now I don’t know. I just don’t know, after what your father just tried to do.

A beat.


            You don’t even know what happened that night.


            Of course I do. Your mother told me.


            But she wasn’t even there. I was the one who found him. She just called the police after.


            Okay, Rachel.


            She wasn’t even going to call them before I made her. She didn’t want people to  see the siren lights in front of our house! Meanwhile my knuckles were bleeding from punching through the bathroom door to find dad passed out with a backpack full of-


            Rachel! Did I ask to hear this? No. I cannot.

NOTE:  Rachel’s play, Shalom Bayit, will be done in a stage reading on Thursday evening, May 4, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin.  Please email me at lesliecoff@gmail.com for details.

So many themes this evening of the outsider, the unstable, the prophet and seeing the face of the Divine.     (Read HERE ABOUT A PATIENT OF MINE WHO THOUGHT HE SAW THE FACE OF THE CREATOR.)

Abundance, Mixed Media On Canvas, 30 x 60, Leslie Coff 2009

Trending American

We have come to America. We were refugees ourselves, striving to live within it borders…on the inside.

Some of us came through Mexico.  My grandfather certainly did.   Some came through Ellis Island.

Rabbi Steinberger’s family came through Ellis Island, to Chicago, in 1948. Her mom was born in 1942…at a logger camp in Siberia.  img_1751 Her grandparents were married on the 31st of December in 1939 — in total darkness — in a basement in Poland by a rabbi — and then they walked to Brest, Russia.    She shared pictures of these courageous people.

img_1750 img_1752

Her mom learned to speak English when she was six years old — in day camp.  She spoke Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German…and English.

And then it was 1948…and they were at Ellis Island, in line, waiting for their turn to tell the officers that their final destination was Chicago.

Coming into the Harbor, they passed Staten Island and saw the beautiful Statue of Liberty National Monument…and a poem, by Emma Lazarus, graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the status stands.

Here is that poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame

With Conquering limbs ascribe from land to land;

Here at our sea-washing sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.   From her beacon-hand

Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Here she stands, the poem says, the Mother of Exiles.   Are we not a home to exiles….?  Was that not the promise?   Colossus was the picture of strength.   Of power.  Of protection.


And America as a community…not just a melting pot — which implies assimilation, but also a fruit salad — which implies careful co-existance among differences…intersectionality?

The dangers of the melting pot — that we would become SO American that we would lose parts of our identity that are so integral to us.

Becoming American…the promise of streets of gold and religious freedom, was a pipe dream.    Becoming American was Trending.   The map itself, though, was not the territory….as explained by Jacob Glatsein in his poem, “Good Night World”, written in America in 1938:

Good Night World

“Good night, wide world.

Big, stinking world.

Not you, but I, slam the gate.

In my long robe.

With my flaming yellow patch

With my proud gait,

At my own command–

I will return to the ghetto.

Wipe out, stamp out all the alien traces.

I grovel in your dirt.

Hail, hail, hail.

Humpbacked Jewish Life.

A ban, world, on your unclean cultures.

Though all is desolate,

I roll in your dust.

Gloomy Jewish Life.

Piggish German, hostile Polack,

Sly Amalek, land of guzzling and gorging.

Flabby democracy, with your cold

Compresses of sympathy.

Good night, world of electrical insolence.

Back to my kerosene, tallowy shadow,

Eternal October, we little stars,

To my crooked alleys, hunchbacked street lamp,

My stray pages, my Twenty-Four-Books,

My Talmud, to the puzzling

Questions, to the bright Hebrew-Yiddush,

To Law, to deep meaning, to right.

World, I stride with joy to the quiet ghetto-light….(….)”

This poem by Glatsein sheds light on the darker side of the new golden land…and in its transformation, the poet finds peace and light even in the chaos and dirt and brokenness of the New World….

“From Wagner’s pagan music — to tune, to humming.

I kiss you, tangled Jewish life.

It cries in me, the joy of coming.”

It was all at once a cool, trending thing to be an American and an embarrassment to be of the old country, to be a Jew.  Countless ‘celebrities’ dropped or augmented their surnames which hinted that they were really Jewish.

Bob Dylan was an artist who did such a thing.   Leonard Cohen, although keeping his surname, was not identified as a Jew…though for both of these particular recording artists…there was work of their which leaked their Judaism…

Here are the lyrics to You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen…

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Hineni, hineni

And our beloved Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) perhaps outed himself in Blowin’ in the Wind:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

OR PERHAPS Like A Rolling Stone…?

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone? You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

It is, I believe, a dance that we do….a dance between assimilation and particularism, a wanting to belong and wanting to hold on to.  From the time that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents gave their names to the men at the gates, suitcases in their hands and stones in their bellies….to now…when it is still a time when refugees want to come here and seek REFUGE.     How can we deny this when it is still a time that is Trending American?    Fixing the world has always been our inclination — as Americans…and as Jews.     Overlap.img_1746

Josh Gilstein joined us via Skype from Buenos Aires!
Josh Gilstein joined us via Skype from Buenos Aires!