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 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

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.




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)