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Community Torah

Jewish Practice and Art Making

Torat Chayeinu: the Torah of our lives. Talks by members of Nehar Shalom on the second day of Rosh Hashana. Our theme for 5784 is creativity.

I’ve spent my entire life going to shul and living a committed Jewish life. This includes creating a personal midrash that after the UN vote to create a state of Israel in November 1947, my parents, in their unbounded joy, conceived me. And the numbers almost work out. Living a Jewish life and being a Jew is less about spirituality and scholarship and much more about being a member of our tribe. It’s tribal Judaism that keeps me coming to shul and always asking people ’Are you Jewish?’ My favorite parts of Shabbat services are Aleinu and kiddush. I suspect many of you may feel the same. Then it’s time to schmooze. And, truth be told, I’m an unrepentant schmoozer during services which is why many people choose not to sit next to me.

So, when I think about how the creative impulse informs and infuses my life as a Jew, I want to start by sharing with you my idea of God.

My first question to you is ‘what animates our universe?’ For me, the answer is CREATING, the operative force that makes all else possible. CREATING infuses all—from the most cataclysmic events in the universe like the Big Bang and Black Holes to the more microscopic ones like birth, decay and art making.

Consider this: why do hydrogen and oxygen come together to create life-sustaining water? My view is that there is no inherent or compelling reason that this should be so because the universe could exist very happily in an eternal state of random nothingness, of total and inexorable stillness. And yet, that is certainly not the case.

The majesty and exuberance of our universe happened because HaShem bequeathed the impulse to CREATE everywhere and to everything. And HaShem’s gift to CREATE will continue to do so, whether it is making breathtaking sculpture, the birth of a seahorse, a black hole or the atomic bomb.

After nearly 45 years working and family care taking, I decided to pursue making sculpture, something I had wanted to do for decades. Sure, I visited museums, read about artists’ lives and dabbled in something resembling art making, but it was only when it was suggested to me, by a perceptive social work supervisor, that I consider pursuing my lifelong dream of art making that I decided it was time to do it (with Sherry’s unrelenting support). Of course, I had no idea where this new journey would take me or how I would even get there.

I’ve been a practicing sculptor now for ten years. Let me be clear: making art is not fun. It’s grueling, hard work. Yet there is no place I’d rather be then in my studio. I walk in and feel time and space suspended, very much like my experience performing a tahara at the funeral home. My affect changes and my focus intensifies. Working with steel is dirty, exhausting work. Just look at my hands! I spend many hours alone with my thoughts as I grind away to fabricate and shape. While much of my previous work life was spent collaborating with others, making art is solitary. By necessity, I’ve become much more self-absorbed and self-centered, and it’s affected some relationships. As difficult as this change has been, I consider it one of the ‘tools of the trade,’ the price I’ve had to pay for art making.

Rashi, wrote the following: "'skill' is what a person learns from others; 'ability' is the result of one’s own insight and experience; 'knowledge' is divine inspiration." I can think of no better description of the artist’s world-learning from mentors and peers; honing skills, both technical and emotional; and then unlocking magical moments of creating that come from nowhere/somewhere. And, of course, a lifetime commitment to Jewish practice and seeking informs everything I do and everything I create.

Now, as I approach age 75, I’m starting to make smaller sculptures and to shift from art that focuses on more global themes of social justice to art that is more personal, emotive and soul-searching. I may not be able to devote as many hours each day to my studio work as I did ten years ago, but my commitment to and exhilaration for making art remains undiminished.

A final thought: the editors of our prayer books ought to eliminate the notion of God as "ruler" or God as "king" and focus instead on God as CREATING, a verb!

May we all manifest and appreciate the miracle of God’s CREATING each moment of our lives. L’Shana Tova!


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