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.




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

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

See The Work! – Part One

Pamela Phillips Olson “Was She Wrong To Rejoice?” Collage 2016
Pamela Phillips Olson “Could You Not Have Looked Back?” Collage 2016
Deborah Kades “Blonke” Cotton Thread on Cloth 2016
Deborah Kades “Merkhek” Cotton Thread On Cloth 2016
Deborah Kades “Baytl” Glass Bead on Leather 2016
Ellen Meyer “School Photograph” 2016  48×48″  Acrylic on Canvas

Echoes of Wisdom: Creativity, Understanding & Korczak’s Heart

IMG_1252This evening, we explore Wisdom in the context of Creativity and Understanding — and delve into Korczak and the Children by Erwin Sylvanus.

We began this evening with Rabbi Steinberger.    She was inspired by a session she attended with Dr. Erica Brown, titled “Unleashing your Creativity as a Jewish Leader”.  To begin with, Dr. Brown defines Creativity as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.”      In the past few weeks in our torah readings, we have reviewed the building of the Mishkan, in which sections we also explore creativity and its concomitant wisdom.     In Shemot (Exodus) 31:1-5, verse 3 specifically…three different words are used to mean “wisdom”,  Chachma, Bina and Da’at.

In English we translate these words as Wisdom, Understanding (intuition plus experience) and Knowledge (referring to the “Aha!” moments of inspiration)…but they all imply something intrinsic accompanying something learned.

These are all ways that an artist receives wisdom.

There is a story about Daniel — who attributed all his wisdom to G-d.   Daniel was considered wise — because  he said that the wisdom was from G-d.    Should he have not made this attribution — then perhaps people would not have thought of him thus…but it was his humility which was part of his wisdom.    Nebuchadnezzar said that Daniel was wise indeed…because he attributed his wisdom to the Divine.

There is an attribution to wisdom which is part of the heart.    It is thought that wisdom of the mind alone — without wisdom of the heart is worthless (Aaron of Karlin).

From BT Brakhot 55a:  Rabbi Yohanan states:  “The Holy One, blessed be He, imparts wisdom only to those who already possess it”.

The people of Israel were wandering in the desert when they were commanded to build the Mishkan.   HaShem said to them “When you build it, I will dwell among you”.

In order to build the mishkan, the people were asked to give of themselves, to give of their hearts.   Their wise hearts…

And yes, they did build the Golden Calf — which did not come from their wisdom, it came from their hunger and their greed.   When it was time for them to build the Mishkan….the people did also give their gold –but this time, the intention in the giving was from the heart — in a wise-hearted way.

Now it was time for Dr. Bob Skloot to introduce Korczak and the Children.

Dr. Janusz Korczak

Bob suggested that some of the themes of the play might be — how do we obtain wisdom?…and how do we bring ourselves to knowledge?    Dr. Janusz Korczak was a Polish Jew — a Jew and a Pole — a Jewish Pole — who was born in the 1870’s.   He was a pediatrician — a doctor, a children’s author…and he ran an orphanage for Jewish children in the 1920’s.   He maintained his connected to the children of the orphanage even during the war…and even when the orphanage was moved to the ghetto.   He also had a call-in radio show and was known as the Radio Doctor.

Dr. Korczak believed that all children were equal — that all were blessed — and that all are preyed upon, in some way, by adults.

He was a prominent figure in education in the Republic of Poland at that time.   He based his ideas on children are all equal to each other — and equal to adults.    At one point during the war Korczak has to beg for food for the children of the orphanage.  He stays with them…they are ‘his’ children.

Then…in 1942, he is still head of the orphanage when he is offered freedom by the Nazis in exchange for preparing the children to be deported to the camps.    He turned them down.

It is said that Korczak never lied in his life — except for the one lie he told for love.

He loved the children — told them that they were going on holiday — and they each packed a small bag with a toy — and they went off together, Korczak and the children, to Treblinka, walking in formation and singing songs.

He gave them courage.

He gave them love.

This play was written by a German soldier.   It was the first one written in German after the Holocaust.    The playwright asks us:  “what is true and what is something when it is a lie?”

Under certain circumstances, can one be another?

Korczak, indeed, is thought of as one of the few heroes of that time.

The playwright dares us to live a happy and pure life — we live only once — and we should live for love.     Bob suggests that the playwright lies to the audience — and in some ways, indicts them for their guilt.

In truth, like Korczak, we create ourselves in our daily acts.

We are formed….in the moments we are tested.