The Arts: Timeless and Fresh Rituals
An exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum adds layers of meaning to objects from mezuzas to menoras, exploring the particulars of the paraphernalia that ground Jewish tradition.
Rachel Kanter’s Fringed Garment looks very much like an old-fashioned apron—until you spot the tzitzit dangling from its corners.
The meshing of a traditional ritual object—a talit—with an unconventional form, seamlessly creating a new, hybrid work of art, is one of the hallmarks of “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life,” at The Jewish Museum in New York through February 7, 2010, and then at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (415-655-7800; www.thecjm.org) from April 22 through September 28, 2010.
According to Daniel Belasco, assistant curator at The Jewish Museum (212- 423-3200;www.thejewishmuseum.org), the 60 works from the past decade by an international cast of artists focus on Judaism as a “lived, organic experience” and identify the “physical acts that embody rituals” such as eating, drinking, counting, smelling, lighting candles and praying. The exhibition proposes identity as a verb: “We are what we do. We are hybrids,” he says. “It is hard to occupy one identity all the time, like being gay or Orthodox. Ritual is a tool with visceral power that helps us explore ways to transcend the limitations of those identities.”
So, Kanter’s reinvented talit challenges the either/or of traditional gender roles by merging the functional and spiritual needs of a woman devoted both to motherhood and prayer. When she wore a talit for the first time, Kanter notes in the exhibit’s accompanying catalog, it felt like her father’s overcoat. In the wall text of the exhibit, she comments further, “If I wanted to wear a talit, it should be made for me.” Her design incorporates scarlet and purple pomegranate seeds, symbolizing the time-bound mitzvot that are traditionally in the male sphere, and water imagery, representing both the female and the Torah. Her reinvention is not as far-fetched as it may seem, however. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg observes in the catalog, Kanter’s piece “has textual precedent. The Talmud in Menahot tells us that Rab Judah attached fringes to the aprons [of the women] of his household.”
The artists in “Reinventing Ritual” translate the actions of identity into works in diverse media from industrial design, architecture, installation art, video, drawing, metalwork, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture and textile. About a third of the objects are in the museum’s collection of ritual art. The artists, including a number of Israeli designers, illuminate the process of creativity in comments featured in accompanying wall texts and video interviews. The exhibit includes both usable ritual objects like Kiddush cups and Seder plates (a number of which are available in The Jewish Museum shop) as well as conceptual Judaica that employs the form and principles of ritual to convey a message.
In simple terms, a wedding ring can encapsulate a societal critique, as does British artist Mila Tanya Griebel’s Marriage, I Would Rather Have a Cup of Tea. The boxy sterling silver ring opens to reveal a tiny teacup that adapts a statement by singer Boy George (“Sex, I’d rather have a cup of tea.”) and calls attention to the plight of the aguna, a “chained woman” who is unable to get a divorce. The ring’s shiny exterior, engraved with the word “marriage” in ornate letters, hides a scarred interior. “The cup of tea in question sits on the family table stating that there is always a choice,” Griebel explains. “The alternative of a life without marriage is viable and free.” In contrast, Bruria Avidan’s Wedding Cup has two separate silver halves that can be bound together, concretizing the union of a couple.
“Ritual has made a comeback after years of denigration in the West as behavior that is hopelessly stereotyped, formulaic, repetitive and largely boring,” writes Arnold Eisen, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, in the catalog. “Ritual is once again receiving its due as an essential element of culture.” According to Belasco, the urge to mix ritual action with everyday life in art emerged in the United States in the 1950s.
Even rituals and objects that have been invented relatively recently are subject to interpretation: In Michele Oka Doner’sMiriam Cup—a modern addition to the Seder table—the artist answers the question, What would Miriam have used at the well? Doner’s piece rests in the cup-like base of a palm frond, invoking an ancient moment in a contemporary vessel.
Ruttenberg attributes some of the creativity to the do-it-yourself impulse of the younger generation “to situate themselves in Jewish life while embracing a myriad of cultural influences and, maybe, having a little fun at the same time.” Allan Wexler actually calls one of his entries Do-It-Yourself Charity Box. Inspired by food drives and Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans, Wexler places cans of ethnic foods like coconut milk, curry paste and collard greens into sealed plastic bags that also hold a can opener, pen and label so that each kit can be earmarked to a specific charity.
The precise and poetic nature of the exhibition, in Belasco’s words, resides in its innovative framework. Instead of organizing the works into conventional categories such as life cycle or holidays, Belasco has crafted a structure that flows around body, space and text. The sections Absorbing and Covering are the internal and external actions of Body (another section); Building focuses on space and environment, and Thinking subsumes rituals through text, learning and law. This fluidity is also reflected in the exhibition’s design: From the hallway, visitors can walk straight ahead or turn right or left into the different modules at will. “The show flattens the traditional hierarchy of Judaica,” says Belasco. “Things from the Torah are not more important than things important to the artists culturally or personally.”
Suspended in the visitor’s line of vision, Fringed Garment anchors the Covering section, which offers an array of objects that fuse the sacred and the ordinary even as they separate holy from profane, mark rites of passage and distinguish between Jews and others. Galya Rosenfeld weaves Ark curtains from gray fabric cut into Magen David-shaped geometrical units (Caporet and Parokhet). Disparate elements come together to create a whole: Liora Taragan’s taffeta Wedding Dress is steeped in tea, dyed with ink and incorporates a talit katan (man’s four-cornered undergarment) and tefilin straps.
Anika Smulovitz’s set of two sterling silver yads reinterpret the usual pointing finger that protects the sanctity of Torah from the reader’s touch. Compass attaches a compass to the end of the yad, “a tool to help you find east [toward Jerusalem],” comments the artist, or a “metaphor for the Torah as a map, meant to help you find your way.” Octogenarian has a magnifying glass at its tip, either “made to help old rebbes read the Torah” or “help those people searching for something hidden in the text.”
Because ritual can be fertile ground to explore, embody and effect change (the addition of an orange on the Seder plate as a symbol for the acceptance of Jewish feminism is one example), many of the pieces grapple with issues of injustice, disenfranchisement and ambiguity in spheres from gender to the environment.
Feminism, especially, has been a major influence on ritual art. Studio Armadillo’s whimsical chessboard arrays 16 greenkippot opposite 16 red kippot, all created by girls at the Orthodox Aviv yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Hevruta-Mituta compares the traditional dialectical mode of Jewish textual study in pairs (hevruta) to a chess competition. Though today girls and women have greater access to Jewish study, their full participation remains limited: They are still crocheting kippot for boys.
Helène Aylon’s installation, All Rise, anchors the Thinking section and depicts an imaginary all-female bet din. A wood platform with three steps holds three chairs with dangling tzitzit, flanked by two pink pillowcase-flags and three signs with pink dashes that read “In G-d We Trust.” A petitioner’s bench faces the bet din.
“I petition the traditional bet din of three males to include women as judges,” Aylon explains. “I think of my work as a ‘rescue’ of the Earth and God and women—all stuck in patriarchal designations.”
The appropriation of male rituals continues in Hadassa Goldvicht’s Writing Lesson (in Absorbing), a riff on the Hasidic custom that introduces a child to literacy by allowing him to lick the honey off the Hebrew alef-bet on his first day of school so that he literally ingests the sweetness of learning. During the four-minute video, an adult woman—Goldvicht herself—licks a honeyed alef-bet on the screen. Her face remains fuzzy, as if she is behind a mehitza, but her sensual act pushes boundaries.
Items in Absorbing counter the external actions of Covering by reflecting on Jewish laws that regulate how one thing can be absorbed into another. Learning through absorption finds its most brazen form in Mouth to Mouth, gel capsules that hold torn-up bits of Leviticus. Yet the work is rooted in the biblical text itself. In the accompanying text, artists Johanna Resnick and Michael Cloud quote the words of God to Jeremiah: “I am putting My words into your mouth.” The ingestible tablets are substitutes for the sacred tablets they originate from, the artists note in the exhibition text, the profound change in form signifies a transformation that can be used as “a prescription, a remedy to our questions of identity.”
While some artists play with precious materials and holy texts, others craft beautiful objects from the mundane. Alexis Canter’s wishbone necklace, cast from an actual chicken bone covered with gold, symbolizes memory of family dinners and her family’s history of chicken farming. Discarded porcelain plates from a Jaffa flea market turn into Passover heirlooms in the hands of Johnathan Hopp and Sarah Auslander. They affixed ceramic Seder plate decals and fired them in a kiln, simultaneously kashering them by burning away all hametz.
These pieces and others—especially in the Building section—exemplify the credo of bal tashhit: Do not waste. Photos of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois, depict a model for bal tashhit through sustainable architecture. Architect Carol Ross Barney reclaimed wood from barns in upstate New York, installed high-efficiency glass and a solar-powered eternal light. The synagogue received a platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
Recycled and repurposed art that channels objects from one use to another—some even have dual uses—form the essence of much of the exhibit. Wexler’s Gardening Sukkahcomes equipped with plates, candlesticks and wine glasses as well as rakes, trowels and hoes. It can be used for Sukkot without a full roof and as a gardening shed the rest of the year.
A menora made of seven orphaned candlesticks floating in a steel frame by Naama Steinbock and Idan Friedman allows viewers to stretch their imaginations. The candlesticks provide a sense of accumulated Shabbat experiences, linking individual families to a larger whole. Since the menora is an emblem of Jewish peoplehood, the stylistically different candlesticks make a statement about the Jewish diversity and unity that Shabbat has helped keep alive.
Joe Grand found the makings of his menora at Home Depot. “I remember sitting in the aisle surrounded by all sorts of steel pipings,” says Grand, an engineer and inventor from San Francisco. Karim Rashid’s hot-pink, silicone, amoeba-like menora, Menorahmorph, can be lit in any order, symbolizing freedom and flexibility. The Egyptian-American artist is one of the few non-Jews in the exhibition; these designers have found in Jewish ritual a complex language to explore their own concerns.
New designs challenge assumptions about how holy objects look and what materials they are made from, says Israeli Marit Meisler. Her CeMMent Mezuzah is one of several that elevate construction materials into demarcations of sacred space. Norm Paris’s Rubble Fragment, a handcrafted piece of concrete cast to look like rubble, is lit by a flashlight. An electrical cable evokes the ravages of conflict in the Middle East and Jewish history. Paris notes, “I am not entirely sure whether this object is a protective talisman, a religious reminder or a symbol of territorial struggle.”
Similarly, the idea for a mezuza that resembles a nail was motivated by a conversation that Elan Leor and Eran Lederman had with a Palestinian contractor. “You Jews will never calm down and cease to see us as enemies until you finish building your country,” the contractor said. “This is why building houses with and for the Jews interests me.”
The interaction of individual and community—or artist and Judaism—finds expression in Tobi Kahn’s Saphyr, an omer counter consisting of 49 sculpted forms set in a grid. “Beginning with one, we become an ordered multitude—accruing the attributes of a people in our journey from slavery to redemption,” Kahn explains. Each of the 49 pieces can be placed in its designated space in only one way: “By a daily act, the viewer becomes a participant in the continually changing work, a celebration that takes place over measured time.”
“Reinventing Ritual” shares that sensibility. As viewers encounter the pieces in the exhibit, they participate in new ways of thinking about rituals, their meanings and their reflections of a prismatic Judaism that is, in Belasco’s words, “a lived, vital, heterogeneous, multicultural, contradictory process that is open and malleable.” H
Rahel Musleah’s Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.