Festivus, the secular December holiday credited to a screenwriter of the 1990s television sitcom Seinfeld, grew in popularity beyond its television roots as a secular societal celebration that allowed participants to express their feelings and frustrations with the holiday season. Festivus parties take place across the United States, serving as magnets for younger generations of Americans, among them many Jews. The celebrants of Festivus have stripped the holiday season of any religious meaning, instead relying upon irony and parody to carry the day.
Festivus Chai! And at Whole Food’s no less! While rambling around the aisles of the Whole Foods at Union Square in Greenwich Village, my wife, son and I encountered an entire wall of Festivus Chai! According to its online marketing materials, Festivus Chai is a limited‐edition seasonal holiday chai made with real cocoa, holiday spices, and organic ingredients.
Made by Third Street, Inc., a beverage company in Colorado, 5% of the proceeds during the holiday season will be donated to the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit which attempts to alleviate poverty through microloans in the third world. So there is a tzedakah component to the Festivus product.
Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available.
These tales of Deborah, Ruth and Hannah are wonderful stories, full of vivid characters and human drama — a pleasure for all of us to read them and for me to make (and share with you) pictures expressing them. But these are more than great stories; they embody our national mores, and those mores are why they were included in our great record of our folk history, beliefs and laws, the Hebrew Bible. The challenge of expressing these mores is my motivation in composing the pictures. So, how do I go about expressing these ideas in my art?
Throughout our history, we have sought to find the roots of our values, laws and lifestyle in our biblical texts, the stories of the creation and growth of the nation of Israel. Centuries of rabbinic efforts at deriving rationales for Jewish life and law from Biblical text resulted in the bodies of law called the Mishnah (by about 220 CE) and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds (about 500 CE). But all this analytic energy resulted in kinds of thought and writings other than straight legal codes alone. Interspersed among the legal writing, the halakhah, the Talmud includes aggadah, storytelling expansions upon biblical text or other related tales meant to elucidate points of law and other related Jewish customs and values. These story-telling portions of the Talmud, which by the 11th century were compiled in collections of such aggadah, along with a host of other kinds rabbinic legends developed over centuries before and ever since, comprise the vast body of midrash. Much of the midrashic literature was either designed for, or eventually used to inspire homiletics (synagogue sermons), and so midrash became the source for many of our best-loved folktales.
Now, as I said above, one of the really wonderful challenges in my visual interpretations of biblical texts (or couples’ relationships in ketubot, for that matter) is to dig out and express the larger complexes of values that we have derived from, or read into these stories. As you can guess, the midrash provides a splendid source of ideas and images (the latter often utilizing archaeology of the era I’m working with) to express these constellations of ideas. Arise! Arise! draws upon many different kinds of midrash to express the religious moral and legal, and national values embedded in these very human stories. But I like my paintings to make some kind of narrative sense, not just assemblages of disembodied, out-of-context “symbols.” In my own method of composing scenes that both make sense and express higher ideas, my teachers have been the masters of late medieval Flemish painting – I explain this in my introduction to the book. Now, since I’m drawing upon sources that are often unfamiliar to the generally educated reader and I want you to be able to understand the paintings, I include commentary for each painting. I’ll talk more about the complex of values expressed in Arise! Arise! in my next post. And so, my work is often described as “visual midrash.”
Let’s look at just a few elements of the visual midrash in the first painting of the Hannah story. Samuel I begins with this story of a beautiful, graceful woman who is deeply loved by her husband, but who feels humiliated and depressed by her inability to give birth; the baby who answers her prayers grows up to be the prophet, Samuel. Here you see Hannah locked in a bubble of her own acidic depression, unable to perceive her husband’s loving attention, unable to participate in the flourishing household filled with the presence of her husband’s second wife’s children. Throughout Arise! Arise! I employ the kabbalistic idea of the primordial vessel, here shown as the clay storage jars that were plastic bags of the era, to act as something of a barometer for the community’s sense of well-being. Outside of Hannah’s green bubble, the upright, brimming jars symbolize the wholeness and health of her husband’s second wife’s family; piercing her depression, broken clay potsherds express her pain. You’ll see two olive trees in the illumination here. Now, midrash has Peninnah, the junior wife, comparing herself and her children to a full, leafy, fruit-filled olive tree, Hannah to a dry, leafless, fruitless one, while midrash on Psalm 128 compares children to the shoots that spring from an olive trees roots; I use both of these midrashim to express Hannah’s situation. The eagle feathers surrounding the painting draw upon midrash from Exodus that compares God to the eagle, the perfect parent of the avian kingdom, to remind us divine providence will come to Hannah’s aid. The commentary materials in the book lay out the symbolism within this, and every other painting in the book.
Next, we’ll talk about the values embodied in these stories, which have shaped the Jewish national character ever after.
Visit Deborah Band's official website here.
Are you excited for next week's JBC and Jewcy #JLit Twitter Book Club with Jami Attenberg? Read more about Jews and food below and find our longer "Jews and Food" reading list here. For more on Jews and food, check out what our Visiting Scribes have to say on the topic here and don't forget to join the JBC team, Jewcy, and Jami on December 12th.
Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, is the full-time Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical, as well as the Rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. His most recent book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, is now available. He will be here blogging for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.
So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomenal of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!
In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!
Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.
Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: "Men makht a lebn—it’s a living."
The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.
Josh Lambert, academic director at the Yiddish Book Center and author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, discusses an exciting new Yiddish Book Center program: Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture.
Most of the Jews in their 20s that I know care more about culture than they do about religion or politics. They may or may not be members of a synagogue, and they may or may not be politically active, but they’re intense about something. It might be books—like the people who read this blog—or comedy or film or music or food or theater or something else, but most of them are following their favorite artists on Twitter, listening to podcasts, and working on creative projects of their own. Can we imagine a world in which these cultural pursuits are a central, fundamental part of what it means to be Jewish?
The Yiddish Book Center draws inspiration from the time when hundreds of thousands of Jews in America would read a daily Jewish newspaper, and when there were cafés across the country where Jewish writers and readers would gather, every day, to argue about art and everything else. Our new program, Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, is about creating those kinds of opportunities. Funded by Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, and developed by the Yiddish Book Center, this is a program that offers one-week immersive cultural experiences, for free, to Jews in their 20s. The deadlines are approaching fast for the first three of these. Tent: Comedy will take place in LA, in March; Tent: Creative Writing, in Amherst, MA, in June; and Tent: Theater, in NYC, in August.
In each program, a group of twenty Jews in their 20s will gather to experience that cultural field and its complex Jewish connections. In LA, they’ll discuss Jewish humor from Freud to Larry David, go out to the comedy clubs, and meet with stand-ups and screenwriters. In NYC, they’ll go to Off-Broadway and Fringe Festival shows, have an intimate conversation with Tony Kushner, and read some of the classic works of American theater. In Amherst, they’ll participate in creative writing workshops with teachers from the best MFA programs in the country, meet with agents and editors (for example, Matt Weiland from W.W. Norton, who’ll be editing Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth), and discuss the long and complex relationship between Jews and modern literature.
Who wouldn’t want a week of free accommodations, free tickets to shows, free workshops, and smart, funny, meaningful discussions with brilliant teachers and a group of like-minded peers? No one I know.
More details can be found at our website, www.tentsite.org. And this is just the beginning. For 2014 we’re planning ten of these one-week programs, on a range of other subjects, run in partnership with innovative nonprofit cultural organizations from across the country. And even more in 2015.
I’ve adored illuminated manuscripts all my life — as a child and teenager, these were the postcards I’d take home from museum trips. I’ve done hundreds of ketubot and this is my third book project published in 7 years, and as absorbing as each of these projects has been, Arise! Arise! has the deepest claim on me.
Arise! Arise! is a memorial to my late husband, David, who passed away in March 2009 after a long struggle with a unique spinal cord cancer. A couple of afternoons before he died, my father-in-law, Arnold Band, a renowned scholar of Hebrew literature, and I were sitting and talking quietly beside David’s bed in our family room, which had now morphed into a home hospice. “So, you know what your next project is going to be?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and said something like, “I know you’re going to tell me.” He knew perfectly well that I’d been working on Esther insofar as the illness allowed. “Yes,” he said, “your next project is going to be “Shirat Devorah and do you know why? Because you are the Devorah.” The real reason, however, the one that neither of us could yet bring ourselves to say, was that this would be a memorial to the son and husband we were about to lose.
Why Shirat Devorah? This two-part tale from Judges —a prose narrative and the much older epic poem, one of the oldest chunks of the Tanakh— had been David’s bar mitzvah haftarah, and he really loved its blood and guts war story. Indeed, the previous night I’d asked our younger son, Gabi, to chant the haftarah for his Abba so that he could hear it one more time. So, Deborah intrigued me, but two aspects of the project presented a puzzle. Solving those puzzles, however, gave me something from “my own life” to focus on, a sense of future against the backdrop of the bitter absurdity and disaster of my husband’s loss.
The first puzzle was what to do with so brief a story. Since Deborah’s story was far too small to publish on its own, I quickly decided to accompany it with Megillat Ruth, a favorite of David’s, and probably next up for me anyway. The pairing of one large story with one small story felt unbalanced, however, so soon the notion of including the Hannah story, another self-contained woman’s narrative and song, occurred to me. The interplay of the three stories instantly felt right. While I later found a deeper interaction among the stories, I could see immediately that they fit together neatly; all three happen in handful of decades, perhaps a century, prior to the foundation of the Israelite monarchy, both happened within the central part of the Land of Israel, each presents a formative moment in the establishment of the Israelite polity and together, they represent the totality of genuine women’s stories within Tanakh. Esther, I’d already realized, is far less a woman-centered tale than a satire of palace intrigue.
The second puzzle was how on earth to approach these tales. As narratives with complicated interpretive histories, the Deborah, Ruth and Hannah stories posed very different problems than the poetic works I’d treated before. How would I find a key to open their worlds? One sleepless night a few weeks later, I finally pulled a new, 50th anniversary edition of Eric Auerbach’s classic exploration of narrative style, Mimesis, into bed to read. I’d intended to read Mimesis since college — fully thirty years earlier. I opened the introduction, learned how Auerbach had summoned the concentration to write this magnificent study in Istanbul, in the midst of fleeing the Nazis, and I was hooked…and by dawn knew that the key to interpreting the tales would be a focus upon the characters’ emotions. I had always approached my painting as a kind of method acting – I needed to “be” what I painted in order to capture its image, so the focus on the characters’ emotions opened the door into my interpretation of their tales. Deborah had been most remote from my experience; it was David rather than I who had been fascinated by military history, but now I saw that imbuing my painting and writing with her determination and guts could lead me to understand the story, even approach the rabbinic exegesis judiciously. So soon after my husband’s death, all sore, shredded edges and exhaustion, I found myself relating to Ruth’s and Naomi’s experience in a new way, and when you read my essay introducing Hannah you will find how acquaintances’ lives offered me a means to relate to her pathos and triumph. The emotions rising from the tales inspire the traditional rabbinic explorations of the stories, the midrash that reveals their deeper Jewish moral and ethical messages…and which lend depth to my visual interpretations, my own visual midrash. More about that soon.
Visit Deborah Band's official website here.
The period immediately after your book comes out is a wonderful and strange time. On the one hand, the work you've done—which for most of its existence just hung out on the hard drive of your computer, feeling not quite real—is now in front of you, in a very concrete form, between two covers. Your work is a book, a thing with mass and substance, an object that other folks can find and get and read—maybe even folks you don’t know! In that way it’s the joyous culmination of perhaps years of work and efforts to get the work published.
On the other hand, it’s definitely a weird time. The main weirdness is that, when your book comes out, suddenly you’re probably doing all kinds of unusual things to help the book succeed: you may be giving readings, driving from one bookstore to another, sitting on panels, Googling yourself way too much and checking your Amazon Rank (please don’t, if you can help it)—and also perhaps doing what I’m doing here, which is writing about writing. Every one of these activities is the result of very good fortune—you couldn't be doing them if you hadn't gotten that book into print—and they’re generally a lot of fun (aside from Googling and Amazon Ranking, the dangers of which I cannot stress enough). Yet you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from that list of activities: aside from writing about writing, you may not be doing very much writing at all—not the kind that probably led to the actual book you’re now holding in your hands.
It can sneak up on you. If you’re anything like me, spending too much time away from writing means getting more and more irritable, and getting on your loved ones’ nerves. Often it’s my wife who, finally fed up with me, demands that I find some time to write or else. In those moments, it’s even possible to get a little resentful of your own good fortune—I would be writing if only it wasn’t for all this author stuff! But I don’t recommend embracing that resentment. These author activities are not only fun, not only the fruits of tremendous good fortune—they can also be an important part of the creative cycle.
Writing about writing (like I’m doing right now) is a great example of that. When I’m in the midst of writing short stories or poems, I’m not thinking a lot about what I’m doing. First drafts come out in a sort of unplanned, raw way, and even revision involves some specific strategizing, but not much thought about big questions, like Why do I write? or Why am I writing in this particular form? or What’s the best way to get work done? or any of a variety of other possibilities. The time after a book gets published is actually a rare and valuable time to sit back and get some perspective on what you do. It can add layers of meaning to your work, and it can make you a better and more purposeful writer.
For example, this fall, my writing about writing has helped me to: finally understand the basic difference between a novelist and a short story writer; to get clear on how a short story collection comes together successfully; to really appreciate the fact that I use writing to understand things that initially confuse me; to explore the Jewishness of my work and my process; and—right here—to value the very writing about writing that I’m doing now. It has also helped me participate in a larger conversation between writers and readers—a conversation I first encountered as a little boy learning to read. I want to be a part of that, and I’m glad that I get to be.
Of course, none of this replaces the real writing, the stuff that you’re most passionate about. And it makes sense to get a little agitated if it’s been a while since the last story or poem, and it makes sense to get back to it as soon as you can. But in the meantime it’s probably worthwhile to pay close attention to all you’re doing as an author, because, even in the middle of all the strangeness, you have an enormous opportunity to grow as a writer.
And really—just leave those Amazon rankings alone.