We are happy to have a guest post from Kol Haot as part of the Mitzvot Unplugged Series. A fuller version of this post appeared in the Lookstein Journal Jewish Educational Leadership: The Arts in Jewish Education A short note, although i have never participated in the series, many years ago I visited David Moss’s Jerusalem studio with my parents and my very creative bar mitzvah aged nephew. We were lucky enough to get an abridged version of the Akeda scroll presentation and I could see how it would be a lovely and successful bar/bat mitzvah project in a school or as part of a celebration. Update: I have since participated in a program with multiple ages. All really were engaged and enjoyed the program.
As artists and educators, we have devoted our careers to utilizing the combination of visual symbol and verbal communication. Our long experience in creating works imbued with Jewish significance together with our sharing of these works to inspire and educate others have convinced us of the incredible power, and the vastly underutilized potential of this magical combination. We call it “teachable art.” Through these pieces of art (both visual and performing), one can experience, engage and learn the text or value it reflects in a deeper way.
“Illuminating Experiences,” are typically hour and a half long programs for groups of North Americans traveling in Israel. Each of these programs focuses on a Jewish concept, value or text. We share with the participants works of art, and through the form and beauty of the art, we are able to learn and engage with the content it reflects. This is followed by a hands-on experience which allows them to create and engage in the artistic process first hand.
Below are two of these programs, how they have been used, and the reactions we’ve gotten to them.
Mentschmaker, Mentschmaker, Make me a Mentsch
What does it take to be a mentsch? The Hebrew word middot means measurements. But middot also mean moral virtues. Moral qualities are the measure of a human being. In this interactive program, we enter the realm of human virtues including Compassion, Truth, Humility, Justice, Holiness, Gratitude and more.
Participants are paired for a dynamic havruta learning – each pair receiving one specific middah. Through suggestive poetry and evocative, collage art which attempt to portray these abstract concepts, they address the deepest issues of personality development. Participants are then invited to share their learning experience and discussion with the rest of the group. This is followed by an optional hands-on, in which consists of a writing/poetry exercise and then a collage creation, both focused on a particular middah or abstract Jewish value.
Once given the chance, participants from varied backgrounds, knowledge and ages are excited to have the opportunity to discuss these basic moral issues and to reflect on the role they play in their lives. Whether they agree or disagree with the artist’s interpretations, it allows them to react, to discuss and to reflect. The hands on activity allows participants to delve even deeper, having to create their own interpretation of a chosen virtue.
From Text to Symbol
In a unique, animated mural, David Moss has translated the narrative of the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22), into emotive colors and symbols. After teaching and experiencing the Akeidah scroll and the way it transforms the characters and story line of the text into colors and symbols we use it as an inspiration for the participants to create their own symbolic interpretation of text. In a hands-on project with participants, we explore a chapter of Biblical text (typically taken from parashat ha-shavua or some other text that connects with the relevant time of year (Esther, Jonah, etc.) and translate it into a visual word-less story. Participants may work individually or in groups.
This program has been especially successful with bar/ bat mitzvah groups, where the entire group, led by the child, studies a part of the child’s portion, and then translates it into symbols and colors, creating a collage which is then presented to the bat/bar mitzvah as a collective work of art.
Matt Berkowitz shares a remarkable experience he had while on a visit to Baltimore. Just before a Hebrew School class began, teachers approached Matt explaining that one of the children in the class is autistic, typically he is not engaged – and not to be surprised if he keeps his head on his desk. Once the Akeidah scroll began to unravel, miraculously, this child became animated. Each of the kids in the class took a turn to narrate a section of the story – related to the shapes and colors. When this special needs child stood up for his turn, he was so connected and engaged that he was reluctant to let anyone else have a turn! The visual arts for this child, was a pathway both into Judaism and into his world. It was a tearful moment for Matt and all the teachers present.
We believe it is important to foster the creation of deeply rooted Jewish artistic expression to convey eternal Jewish values. By providing opportunities and venues for the Jewish plastic and performing arts, we hope to unleash the creative and Jewish potential in learning through making, in learning not through the head alone, but with the heart and through the hand.
Photos courtesy: Kol Haot
For further information about Kol HaOt’s programs see Kol Haot’s latest programs page.
About the authors
David Moss considers himself a “mitzvah beautifier.” He works in diverse media including calligraphy, illumination, papercuts, sculpture, wood, prints, artist books, architecture, pottery, drama, education programming and others. He created The Moss Haggadah, and collaborated on the Tree of Life Shtender. Matthew L. Berkowitz is the Director of Israel Programs for The JTS of America and co-founder of Kol HaOt. A Wexner Graduate Fellow alumnus, he was ordained from JTS in 1999. Rabbi Berkowitz is trained in Jewish scribal art, has illuminated ketubbot, and completed a limited edition artist portfolio entitled Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus. Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz is one of the co-founders of Kol HaOt. She draws on all media to create interactive, participatory events and programs of Jewish content, through her “Day Away” programs, weaving together Jewish texts, music, food, art and drama to create all-encompassing experiences that are authentic, educational, inspirational and fun. Yair Medina studied professional photography at the Hadassah College of Technology from 1992 to 1995, where he graduated with honors. Medina is a producer par excellence having worked on numerous projects with Avner Moriah, David Moss, Eliyahu Sidi, Amalia Nini and Matthew Berkowitz.