The Manufactured Miracle: Yuge Alternative Facts.

fullsizeoutput_50aAt the risk of presenting this post as click bait, let me just begin with the fact that this particular evening in December my world turned upside down.

I was told that there was no Santa Claus.  More importantly, I was taught that the story of the Chanukah Miracle that I always believed as a child (c’mon, fifty-five years of believing) was shot to youknowwhere by our own beloved Rabbi Andrea Steinberger.

Chanukah — a time when we have believed that we were lights looking for more light.  A time when we thought that the Macabbean Magic was not just their victory but it somehow extended into the magic of lipids….the physics of how oil for one night can burn for eight.

Big Yuge Lie — or as we know them to be now:  Alternative Facts.

And here is the truth…or the Alternative Truth, or Authentic Lie…however you want to characterize it…

In 167 B.C.E.  King Antiochus IV — of the Syrian-Greek Army, attacked the Temple in Jerusalem.  For the next three years they defaced the Temple.   They desecrated it.   Many Jews gave up their observances…they were disheartened.

There was a group of Jews who continued to identify as Jews….a small band of folks…Super Jews, you might say…Zealots…by the name of Maccabee.    Matisyahu and his son Judah — of the Hasmonean Dynasty.      The light was alive in them, as it were.img_1675

They won a military battle — a few against many.   Miraculous.  YUGE.

They opened a fast of kosher olive oil to rededicate the Temple after it had been cleaned and purified.

Now it is three hundred years later.  The Talmudic rabbis decided that as we celebrate Sukkot for a week…that we could also celebrate Chanukah — meaning “Rededication” (of the Temple) – also for eight days.

The miracle of the oil actually lasting eight days when it was only supposed to last for one…well kids, that is a myth.  A Freaking Myth.

Rabbi Steinberger noted that the subject of Chanukah really pushes her buttons.   The Rabbis, historically, became obsessed with the miracle.  The Manufactured Miracle.  The Alternative Fact.img_1674

The Actual Fact was that the Maccabees were extremists.   There was a YUGE issue of Particularism vs. Assimilation.   The candle, in our observance of this holiday, is symbolic of triumph.

In Rome, there is a menorah in the Arch.   A public display of the menorah.

The Actual Miracle of Chanukah is the resistance.   The Miracle of Chanukah is the opportunity for us to show our strength when things get difficult.  When things get tough, the tough get to work!

Lighting hearts and minds in Assimilated Jews…this is the miracle and the mandate of Chanukah.

Can we rise to that opportunity?img_1676

There is a tradition, also rabbinic, of putting the lights of the menorah in the window…it is said that the people of the marketplace should be able to see the lights…to see that you are not assimilated…in order to fulfill the mitzvah.    It is about opening the light into the outside.   Sharing the inside with the outside.

Becoming public with our inner selves.   But truly, how much of our insides do we really show?   If it is a mitzvah to put our Chanukah lights in the public window…is it also a mitzvah to show the world who we are??img_1673

img_1672Next Aviv shared with us a children’s show, Parpar Nechmad,  which has been alive and inspiring young Israeli children for a long time.   It is interesting to note how the symbols changed in 1983 representing Chanukah as just menorah and dreidel….to the more Machismo/militaristically-inspired symbolism of 1993.    Watch here:  Parpar Nechmad 1983  and  Parpar Nechmad 1993.





Kansas City Cool

This photo essay, courtesy of Rachel Herbsman, was taken during the Art Lab Retreat in mid-September.    Kansas City Coooooooolllll…img_5707substandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerendersubstandardfullsizerender

Vos macht a yid?

And so, it seems that we struggle with Jewish identity.   Like — who is a Jew?  “Vos macht a yid”….what makes a Jew?   And once you are a Jew….are you really anything else?

It used to be that Jews greeted each other with this phrase:  Vos Macht a Yid? –another way of saying “hey, how’s it going?”.   Or…the Jew is Me is Greeting the Jew in You.


This evening we explored Jewish Identity as Essential/Ontological.   In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a, R. Abba ben Zabda says:  Even though [the people] have sinned, they are still [called] Israel.  R. Abba said:  Thus people say, a myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle, and so it is called.img_1661

This of course provides many conversations…that a Myrtle which wishes to be a Reed — wants to secularize into the Reed Community, will always be seen as a Myrtle by the other Reeds. (think “Ugly Duckling” story)   No matter how much we polish our Reed-ness, we still look and act like a Myrtle to the other Reeds — and also to the other Myrtles.  We cannot change our basic essence — and as is written in the Sanhedrin above, Judaism/Jewishness is part of our Essence.img_1660

You can take on Buddhism — and you are a Jewish Buddhist — a JewBu.   You accept Jesus as the Mashiach and you are called a Jew for Jesus.   The Jew In You cannot be extricated from your being.  Even if you are exiled, you are The Jew in Exile.

Daniel Boyarin, a UC Berkeley talmudist. in his book “A Radical Jew” (University of California Press, 1994) has written “Jews in general feel not that Jewishness is something they have freely chosen but rather that it is an essence — an essence often nearly empty of any content other than itself — which has been ascribed — sometimes even imposed — on them by birth.”img_1659

This falls under the category of the UnNameable, the Unknowable, Shakespeare’s Hamlet saying “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.

But as Jews I think we are accustomed to the idea that something is just beyond our reach, just beyond our touch, beyond our understanding…and perhaps that Divine UnKnowable spark within makes us a Jew.

Or as I have written previously HERE:  “And when we know this part of ourselves, our Divine spark, the for us, every bush, every bush is a burning one.”

So, Vos Macht a Yid?   Is it that UnKnowable Essence?  Is it kindness and awareness of social injustice and connection and risk-taking?  Well, many think that in the world of art, that may be the Jewish calling card — if there is such a thing.

Robert Frank, a 1950’s photographer from Switzerland, came to this country and began to take a series of photographs, grainy in quality, with his Leica camera.  Here are a few examples of his work…you can feel, in the pieces, the social commentary, the feeling.   The pieces are evocative, provocative…and all at once gentle.  In this group of photos…there are many commentaries which can be described on who is inside and who is outside…socially, spatially and emotionally in the photographs.

Take a look below!

Trolley Car:  New Orleans, Robert Frank
Black Lady & White Baby, Robert Frank

And, as a final note, Lenny Bruce on who and what is Jewish and who and what is Goyish.

Enjoy:  Lenny Bruce: Jewish and Goyish

N.Y.C Lower East Side Puerto Ricans, Robert Frank, 1954
Elevator Girl:  Miami, Robert Frank 1954


Sharing Inside/Outside Boundaries

This evening we began our exploration of different types of boundaries which we have encountered/enjoyed/struggled with.  Each of us brought an example or a story of a boundary.

Steve brought milkweed seed pods — which he collects every year…for him…it is not just the beauty of the seed pods…but the juxtaposition of bringing something from the outdoors…subtending the boundaries to the indoors.  img_1629img_1628

Sabrina described her history with choosing to wear a headscarf…and that sometimes, for her, this provides a way of protecting herself when she is feeling vulnerable.

Suzanne brought this Native American photo from National Geographic.  Photographers, she described, are really outsiders, but try to be insiders.   img_1631

I have been fascinated for a long while with the work of Anselm Kiefer.   This piece, The Breaking of the Vessels (1990, St. Louis Art Museum) is my first love of his work.  Here the vessels holding Divine Light have been crushed by surrounding ancient tomes, and in breaking, the inside and the outside have mingled.

“The Breaking of the Vessels” 1990, Anselm Kiefer. Glass. Metal and Wood. St. Louis Art Museum.

Isabel described metaphorical boundaries — those that exist in our own minds…and how difficult it is to fight boundaries within ourselves.

Rena described their experience with wearing a kippah — and their decision to begin wearing one on November 8, 2016 (election day).    The gender suggestion of a kippah may seem obvious, it is clearly a “masculine object”.    In choosing to identify as “other”, one also subtends many boundaries.      In a secular context, Rena explained, the kippah separates them; it carries great weight — both with Jews and with others who wear different types of head coverings.     In taking the name “Yehuda” — a masculine Hebrew name, one jumps from inside to outside and to inside again in so many ways.


Lucy has been exploring opportunities to take action, also since November 8th.   She has realized that language is a boundary  when working with different communities….communties of color, differing demographics, etc.     She has been thinking about how many negative words are used to describe different communities — and how language barriers can be presented visually….how communication and relationship can be affected in our conscious use of positive versus negative language….

Lucy sharing on visual representation of language boundaries.

Pam brought in an armband which she wore a few decades ago…in a strike for peace and freedom.    Again, boundaries subtended, inside and outside and inside again…

Pam and the “strike” band.


Hagit is a poet.   She has translated her work from the Hebrew and she had brought two poems to share with us.   She described that inside/outside — another layer to explore — is being an outsider to the English language.    She read from her fourth book in Hebrew…and then in English.   The works:  “I drew a circle” and “Like a baby“…

Hagit reads from her work.

Of course, in scripture, an obvious Inside/Outside reference in our history/story…tells of Adam and Eve.

So many different representations in art of their exile…from when they were in Gan Eden…to when they were not.   Some of the following images are different iterations of Adam and Eve…img_1646img_1645img_1644img_1643

New Beginnings & The Story Circle

img_1613img_1612As with all new beginnings of groups, we had some new folks and some veterans — and we were grateful to be back all together with new stimuli and creative minds and collaborators.  This year we begin with a new theme and the addition of a few new cities: see masthead above for complete list of cities!

We will be studying “Outside/Inside:  Exploring Boundaries and Otherness”.

Of course img_1616there are a zillion different ways in which we can explore all these…in terms of the material, the spiritual, societal rules and norms, gender, religion, political, cultural, spatial…but for us, tonight, we began with a story circle.   And what, do you ask, is a story circle?  Well, as everything begins, a story circle begins with a spark, a prompt.    Our sparks for the evening:

(1) Are you a Jewish Artist?  Tell a story about how your self expression came out…

(2) What makes art Jewish?   Tell a story on how this challenges you….

(3) Tell a story on how an interaction with a Jewish artist was especially meaningful for you.

And so we began.  The story circle was a beautiful opening.  It represented a gentle unfolding of ourselves to each other — and to ourselves.   We weave the stories of our lives — of our hearts — into our work, into our art, whether we are aware of this or not.

Interesting ideas which came out of the evening — Archie Rand describes Art as Midrash — and to me, I am thinking that we are the art — that we are the midrashim.

Rabbi Steinberger described for us the idea of HaShem — God — as Artist.  In the creation story all is carefully crafted, molded, sculptured, breathed-life-into….

Rabbi Andrea Steinberger

Imagine the world as a gallery — God as Artist painting the clouds onto the sky, adding light here and there as final touches…adding texture to the buffalo and the hedgehog with an impasto knife…composing the silent but staggering music that is heard when the sun breaches the horizon — or when we witness the aurora borealis for not just the first time — but for every time.


And for the world as art installation — where are the boundaries of the created and the framed….in other words…where does the piece of creation end and the framing of it begin?   Are there really any boundaries to a particular creation…or does it go on and on…?


Almost all the group…(not pictured:  Isabel Coff, Pamela Phillips Olson, Deborah Kades and Megan Katz — and Leslie Coff, who is behind the camera)

See The Work! – Part Three

And — all the work can be seen in person at UW Hillel — 611 Langdon Street, Madison, Wisconsin, through August 4, 2016.

Leslie Coff “Cheshmal” Diptych Panel One 36×36 Mixed Media On Canvas 2016
Leslie Coff “Cheshmal” Diptych Panel Two 36×36″ Mixed Media on Canvas 2016
Leslie Coff “Echoes of Wisdom” 36×36″ Mixed Media On Canvas 2016