Monday, April 25, 2016

Through Her Eyes

What has changed for you since last Seder and how will that affect you this year?  This was the question that was posed to us at a recent Seder. I remembered last year when we were asked to bring a figurative guest to a Seder and I brought my mother. Mothers were a frequent Seder companion; ghostlike, they populated the table, many no longer alive but figuratively present. Several choked on tears as they wished they could truly have them by their side. I remember being grateful that I still had my mother. Later I told her that she had accompanied me. "I did?" she asked, perhaps wondering if this was yet another thing she could no longer remember.

This year I spoke of her death, of how I was still learning to live in a world without her. I think of her often, but not in a painful way. I had no unfinished business, no angry words, no hurt feelings. My thoughts of her are loving ones and often occur at unexpected times.

I think of her when I count out 25 blueberries for my yogurt in the morning. I used to count out 20 until one day we compared notes and learned that we each had this counting ritual. I upped my count to match her less parsimonious number, reaching for more sweetness in life.

I look out the window between the glass plates I took from her kitchen. Through them to the budding tree that they frame. My mother was a nature lover. She would have appreciated that tree throughout its changes, from buds, to green leaves, to orange tinged with red to the delicate lines of branches touched with snow. I look out at Spring, a season during which she was still with me. I see it through her eyes.

I incorporate her into my life, into my vision, into my rituals. It is as if she had bequeathed me her eyes, the simple joys she embraced in living. It is a strange process, adopting another's eyes. Seeing the world in a slightly different way. Feeling their presence as you do so.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Be Grateful

I am participating in a writing group and as part of our weekly session we work with writing prompts. This past session we read a piece on advice to the author's 22 year old self and we were then asked to write our advice to who we were at that age.

It is an interesting exercise. Many advised their youthful self to appreciate the package of youth that they took for granted. Others cautioned about upcoming bad relationships. I thought what I wrote was interesting in what I left out as much as what I put in and I began to consider what I omitted and why. For some reason I didn't pick up on the appearance aspect although I have often been surprised as I look at photos of that pretty girl I barely recognize. And it is not that I didn't have my share of bad relationships in which I stayed too long. I am a bit older than many in the group and I think that might color my perspective. I've had more time to come to terms with my history and the changes we go through as we age.

I am someone who needs to find things out for herself and I think I needed those relationships to learn lessons I needed to know. To wish them away might leave a lesson unfinished, me unfinished. I also have found getting older freeing. There is a certain sass that one has when you are young and look good and know it. You have a sense of power, but you find that it doesn't stand up well under pressure. The problem is you still care too much about what other people think, especially men. Your power is predicated on their approval of something over which you have little control. There is so much more power in no longer caring what people think and that comes with age.

A little background...When I was 22 I was newly married in what proved to be a starter marriage. I had kept my own name at a time when people didn't and I chaffed at the idea of restrictions on my independence. Balancing independence with marriage was a tough balancing act. I was in my first real job and reveling in it, discovering talents I didn't know I possessed. And yes, I was a little full of myself.

So this is what I wrote.

I think back to you, that twenty-two year old, newly married, struggling to preserve your independence, delighting in the discovery of your own power and creativity. What I would tell you has much to do with preserving who you are today. Surprisingly, it is easy to forget when the world begins to impinge. Right now you have nothing to lose so you can take risks. You don't know the things you can't do so you do them anyway. Those are enormous gifts. Soon you will worry about looking foolish, about whether you know enough. You will become fearful and constrained.

Don't let those fears gain a foothold. Take risks, don't impose limits, trust your gut. Don't let anyone else control you and your choices. Believe that all is possible if you put one foot in front of the other. An amazing amount will be. Remember that work should be entertaining. When you look in the mirror in the morning and wonder if you will always delight in your work as you do in this moment, know that it is possible. Maybe not with the pure joy that comes with newness, but with the deep pleasure of using your talents and making a difference in your piece of the world. Take that piece of the world and make it shine.

There are some things you don't yet know. The world is not black and white. Your father will tell you one day when you fail that "It was about time you landed on your ass, you were entirely too smug". He will be right.You will succeed and you will fail and out of loss will come insight and understanding and compassion. The world will become much more gray. You will become kinder and less judgmental.

Get out of your own way. Don't be afraid of failing, don't be afraid of the world. Just move forward and say yes to the unknown. It will open up opportunities you could never imagine. Don't tell yourself you are too busy as an excuse for not welcoming something new. Use your time wisely, but leave space for surprises. Don't plan so much order into your life that you don't leave a doorway for the unknown.

Love your mother and let her know it. She won't always be there. You are very fortunate to have such a wise woman as a guide in life. Pay attention. Live your life so that you have no regrets. You will find a capacity for love in giving to another, something you don't yet know. It will bring a richness into your life.

Use your creative talents and imagination throughout your life, read, write, paint. Those talents will be your old friends when others are wondering what to do in the next phase of life. Be grateful. You have so much: talents, choices, time. Be grateful.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Bird's Eye View

I love travel, that opportunity to see the world through fresh eyes. I savor the sheer pleasure of resting weary feet at the end of a day of exploration, a day of trudging through museums and city streets, studying shop windows and the attire of the locals. Ahh, but home, an equally satisfying journey. We sit aboard our plane taxiing on the runway back to the comforting routines of our life. There is comfort in the ordinary, in expanding beyond packed bags to the untidy clutter of everyday living. Periodically over the past few weeks my phone would flash reminders of yoga classes, reminding me of that life that felt so distant, soon to be embraced once again.

We have been traveling the past several weeks in Israel with a chaser of Paris. Our travels to Israel with the Jewish Artists' Lab afforded us the opportunity to meet a number of Israeli artists and to travel with fellow artists and arts aficionados. I am normally a bit leary of traveling in packs. I like to be in control of my time so usually shoulder the planning and lugging of bags in exchange for that control. This time I let go of control, trusting that the Israel portion of the trip would offer experiences beyond my capabilities to create. I was not disappointed. It had the added benefit of an extremely compatible group of fellow travelers, really good companions. Our travels were booked before the spate of terrorist attacks in Paris and Israel and we noticed tightened security along the way, soldiers with guns, screening equipment at every museum. Still everyone continues with their life. It is hard to be too much on guard and live normally.

Now at home I sift through our experiences putting them in some sort of order. I had let them wash over me so am left with fleeting images and impressions. When we concluded our trip in Israel we were asked about our experience. Then it was too soon for my response to take shape. I need to let things simmer, then go to my mental mountain top and get a bird's eye view, finding the common themes that echo and weave throughout.

Some impressions...Israel was filled with Purim revelers. For the week before Purim we passed groups of young people, faces painted, cat whiskers and superheroes, a young man with angel wings and a halo in the market. We went to a service on Purim. The rabbi stood at the pulpit with a large sombrero on his head as a family of ladybugs sat nearby. We too came in costume. My husband improvised with mask and shower cap creating a superhero vibe while I went feathered mask and jewelry bedecked.

And cats everywhere, real cats, not revelers in dress. Tel Aviv once had a rat infestation so in the 1930s the Brits brought in cats. Cats soon proliferated. Residents put cat food on the streets and clusters of cats dumpster dive. We look for ones like our ginger cat who craves attention as much as food, not the temperament for a wild cat. He would certainly never survive to his 20s on the street.

Tel Aviv is also known for its over 4000 buildings built in the Bauhaus style or the International style. We explored a segment of these buildings on a walking tour of Tel Aviv. Ironically this defining architecture migrated to Israel along with the Jewish architects fleeing the Nazis, the spread of ideas on the wings of persecution.

We felt as if there were many Tel Avivs as we experienced three different areas of the city. Our favorite was by the port the night before we departed. We strolled Dizengoff Street where store windows could easily pass as galleries, filled with sculpture and sculptural clothing. A charming restaurant at which we ate could easily have been in our next destination, Paris.

Another stay in Rehovet, just outside Tel Aviv, allowed us an opportunity to visit the Weizmann Institute of Science, an unexpected treasure. With clever use of interactive technology they allowed the nonscientist to appreciate often unexpected interconnections. I thought about our Artists' Lab theme of wisdom and the way in which one discipline often informs another, how wisdom of necessity must embrace interconnectedness. I was also struck with the familiarity of video statements from scientists about what drew them to their profession, how it satisfied their appetite for discovery. It was so similar to what an artist might say, a curiosity and exploratory nature is common to both.

We had many artist visits, Lisa Gross' whimsical work created out of found objects, Sabena Saad, who integrates the papers in which oranges are wrapped into her artwork. For both everything was grist for the mill, a repurposing from one source to another. A theme begins to emerge not too unlike what we observed at the Weitzmann. We are surrounded by creative sparks if we learn to view them as such. It is in how we view our surroundings, how we see the world around us. Those found objects are all around us waiting to be discovered and connected in different ways.

We had an opportunity to discover some found objects of our own as we participated in the Temple Mount sifting project, a project that allows visitors to sift through dirt removed from the Temple Mount. Pottery shards and even an ancient coin were among our discoveries. We were even allowed to take some of the rejected discoveries which were to reappear later in our trip.

In the course of our visit we went to Zippori, a Jewish city that did not revolt against the Romans, but rather incorporated elements of its art and culture into their own. There we observed mosaic floors that incorporated mythic elements. Even the synagogue floor included birds, animals, people and the zodiac.   Jewish culture has often incorporated elements of other cultures. Even Yiddish borrows from many languages. Similarly the art.

When we visited the extensive Judaica collection of Bill and Lisa Gross, Bill had pointed out the Hanukkah lamp from Vienna in the shape of a Biedermeier sofa. A Dutch lamp echoed the Dutch buildings. Another lamp was made from a Hessian Grenadiers hat, a found object repurposed.
At the studio of David Moss and Matt Berkowitz we learned to create a symbolic language to tell a story, borrowing Moss' approach to his retelling the Binding of Isaac.

And so we borrow, incorporate ideas from others and integrate disparate concepts finding the synergies and points of connect.  We find objects and ideas wherever we go and draw on them for inspiration, repurposing them to find new meaning.  And we carry ideas into new realms like those Bauhaus architects. 

At the conclusion of our trip we had the opportunity to create mosaics, often from the very found objects we had gathered along the way. Pottery shards from the Temple Mount were integrated into our mosaic of our experience in Israel, a fitting metaphor for our travels into a world of interconnection, exploration and discovery.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Family Picture

Recently I made my way to Haifa to visit my cousin. Now this is no ordinary cousin. In genealogy speak she is a second cousin once removed. That means her father and I are second cousins and share a common great grandfather. She is one generation removed from the second cousin relationship. Have I lost you yet? This is usually where people's eyes glaze when we delve into genealogy speak,but stay with me as the story is a good one.

My cousin Zehava and I didn't grow up together. There were no family reunions and I never knew of her on our visits to family in Brooklyn. I tracked her down the hard way, my researcher nose hot on the trail. Many of the genealogists I know tend to fall into one of two categories; they like the research side of things or they like the connection with living cousins. I actually tend to fall in the first category. I always feel a bit shy once I track down a living relative, a bit like the dog who caught the car and doesn't know quite what to do with it. When I found and met a third cousin in Paris all my high school French fled in a panic. It is an odd interaction. You have no shared history, only a family tree in common. The more gregarious tend to fare better in these interactions, but sometimes my sheer enthusiasm carries me across that gulf of the unknown and unfamiliar.

I met Zehava through Yad Vashem. More precisely, I met her through her father's testimony on his grandfather, David Weinberg, a victim of the Holocaust. David was my grandfather's brother, a brother 18 years his senior. So let's follow the trail. I had interviewed a survivor in New York. I had always known her as part of the couple who rented my aunt's condo in Florida. When I had first interviewed my aunt she advised me-"Talk to Phyllis, she can tell you more about family". I soon learned that Phyllis came from the same town as my grandfather, Radom, Poland. She had an aunt Chana Rosenberg who married David Weinberg. Our families worked together in the milling business. While not related directly we had connections by two marriages. David and Chana were one. In addition the one survivor that we knew of in our family was the son of my father's aunt and Phyllis' uncle. He was a cousin to both my father and Phyllis.

My aunt was right. Phyllis knew quite a bit about family and with the information on these marriages I turned to Yad Vashem's records. Virtually all of my Radom relatives were murdered in Treblinka. Yad Vashem is a museum in Jerusalem that tells the story of the Holocaust. It is also an archive and is trying to document the lives of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. To that end they accept testimony that documents those lives. As I perused their records I found one that made my pulse quicken. There was my grandfather's brother, all the details Phyllis had provided checked out. I looked to the bottom of the page. There it noted that his grandson had provided the testimony and fairly recently. When I did the math I remembered that 18 year age difference and realized that grandson would be closer to my father's age than mine. And yet another wrinkle. The address on the testimony was in Hebrew. "How did a letter travel through the US Postal Service with a Hebrew address?" I wondered. It was then that I contacted the Israeli Jewish Genealogical Society. My questions were "Is he alive and if so how do I contact him?" A day later I had confirmation that he was alive and an address in English. I wrote a letter.

A month went by and a thin letter arrived from Israel. It was from Zehava and was polite, but brief. She thanked me for my letter, but noted that her father remembered little. I chuckled at her recall of this first contact over our recent dinner in Haifa. I had wanted more. And so that enthusiasm I mentioned carried me forward. I googled Zehava and tracked down an email. Now this is the delicate stage of these interactions. You want information, but you don't want to be a pest. We began a correspondence.

When she advised me that she had a conference in Montreal, I replied, "I'll meet you there." I booked a flight and a hotel for a Montreal weekend. It occurs to me that most people don't do such things, but genealogists go where the search leads them and Montreal is a nice place to spend a weekend. We met and I was intrigued by this striking woman just a few years older than me, an academic. I also met her cousin who came from Israel and was the head of the Radom Society in Montreal. All interesting, intelligent people. I once had a friend comment, "I don't like the relatives I have now. Why would I want more?" In fact those that I've tracked down have been lovely people.

We had a second meeting in Chicago where she spends part of the summer and a third in New York. That gathering was quite unusual. Zehava came with her adult son and daughter. By now I had become friends with Phyllis' son and daughter and they joined us as well as Phyllis' granddaughter. There we had both sides of the family of Zehava's great grandparents. I was on the groom's side. My friends, Phyllis' children, represented the long-gone bride. Together we represented a new formation of family, once sundered.

And now Haifa. We told her of our travels in Israel. She shared pictures of grandchildren and her son's new wife. As we left we took a photo. A family photo.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Please Touch

Back when our theme in the Lab was Light, one of our lab members described a restaurant in Tel Aviv where the waiters were blind and customers ate in a totally dark environment.  We were captivated by this idea and remembered it when we created our itinerary.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live without sight?  How about without sight and hearing? One of the most unusual experiences that we have had in our visit to Israel was at the Nalaga'at Center. Nalaga'at means "Please Touch", a request that makes perfect sense when you learn about its history. The center was started by people with an unusual disease, Usher Syndrome. People with this disease are born deaf, but in their first decade typically lose their sight as well. When young they learn sign language and by touching the communicator as they sign they learn to read it even without the visual cues.

Today the center offers plays, education and a restaurant in which we are blinded by darkness. The waiters and actors are either deaf or visually impaired or some combination.  We began our visit with a workshop led by two deaf people who taught us how to sign basic words, lip read and pantomime specific words. We ascribed names through gestures which expanded on some descriptor, either physical or perhaps based on personal likes. We learned that sign language reflects the culture out of which it comes. For example the sign for "food" in the United States is holding a hamburger, in Chinese sign language it is manipulating chopsticks.

Following our workshop we moved to the dinner portion of our evening.   We selected our dinner before entering the dining room.  I was careful not to select the fettuccine as I end up wearing it even with advantage of sight. We were also asked to put cellphones and other belongings in a locker prior to entering, lest we or the waiters trip over them. We entered the dining room in train fashion, our hands resting on the shoulders of one of our table mates.  As we entered we joined a world of darkness that our waiters were far more adept at navigating. This was not a blackness to which one's eyes adjust, it was a velvety darkness that allowed no light to gain a foothold. I felt my stomach lurch as we entered and thought of those yoga balance poses that become infinitely more difficult if one closes one's eyes. I felt off balance.

We were guided to our table by our waiter. He then taught us how to pour water into our glass with our finger in the glass so we didn't overflow. I missed the glass anyway dampening the table, but I discovered an advantage in this world of darkness, no one could see it.  We heard the jingle of bells approaching, signaling our waiter Mohammed nearby with our meals.  There was no waiting until everyone was served as there was no way to determine that. My husband and I reached across the table identifying each other's location. That coveted taste of my husband's meal was going to be difficult.  I'd be lucky if I found my own plate.  The inability of others to see quickly eliminated any table manners.  After a few empty forkfuls, I quickly developed a stabbing strategy with the objective of navigating food to mouth.  It wasn't pretty, but then no one saw me.  The food was actually quite flavorful, perhaps enhanced by a focusing of our senses. My special treat at the end was when my husband had the waiter bring some of my husband's leftover meal to me to taste.  We left in train style, grateful for the anchor of the person in front, blinking as we moved back into light as we adjusted to the world of the sighted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Common Roots

We arrived in Tel Aviv last night. This is my second trip to Israel, my husband's first. A few years ago I took my late mother, then 86 and losing memory. It was a trip of maneuvering wheelchairs and holding her hand tightly lest she fall, a trip built around her life-long desire to visit Israel. This trip is built around my desire for an arts focused exploration. We are traveling with the Jewish Artists' Lab, a group I've been a part of for several years. My husband, who is not Jewish, decided to join us. I've pulled him into many trips to my ancestral towns so he's gotten a dose of heritage travel, but I suspect there may be elements that are new to him on this one, foreign. There are elements that are foreign to me as well. I wear the hat of a secular Jew.

There are different kinds of hats on our flight. A young lanky man, in a black suit, tzitzis fringes hanging down, searches the overhead bins for a place for his luggage. In his hand, a hard shell case, like that for a guitar, this one in the form of the wide-brimmed hat of the Hassidic Jew.

He has the window seat, my husband the middle and me the aisle. I had anticipated swapping seats with my husband, but reassessed that idea when I took note of our seat mate. There have been stories of religious Jews seeking seat exchanges when placed next to a woman. They will not take the hand of a woman upon introduction. This is foreign to me as well.

At 1am people begin to wake up from their cramped attempt at sleep . Some form a line for the sticky floored lavatories. Others reach for their prayer shawls and stake out a corner by the lavatories for morning prayers. In the back I notice a man framed by both the blue of Delta's curtain and his prayer shawl with its blue stripes, forming one continuous line. He davens, gently rocking forward, prayer book in hand. The morning light falls behind him, drawing my eye in the darkened quiet of the plane.

Our seat mate exits for morning prayers, wrapping himself in his prayer shawl. I think of my father's cousin, a survivor of Auschwitz, telling us of my great-grandfather. "A religious guy" he had said in his thick Polish accent. "This kind of religious?" I wonder. That was a world far from the Americanized secular Jew.

A few rows up on my right a bewigged woman sits next to her bearded husband. She holds a small prayer book in her hand, a ribbon dangling from it. Her husband wears a velvet yarmulke. A small movie screen is set in the back of her seat, a story unfolding for the gentleman who sits behind in a different world than hers. On my last trip I saw more young women, modestly dressed with many children in tow. They wear a wig when married, married to someone like our young seat mate.I am fascinated by this world so different than mine, yet related to a common root if I were to trace back in time.

We arrive and fondly greet our fellow travelers as we gather our group and our luggage. We then peel off to get our SIM card for our phone. After a long wait, a man edges in front, a newcomer. "We were here first" I assert, sharp elbows defining my space. My Israeli edge, not too unlike the armor I don in New York. An assertiveness that I think of as necessary in both places. Another culture than that which surrounds me in Minnesota, one buried in my genes as well perhaps. It is not a culture of passivity.

When we arrive at the hotel I am pleased to see my friend Fran who came a few days ago. We had traveled to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania together some years back, studying Yiddish and traveling to my ancestral town in Belarus. We shared long hours of Yiddish homework over our kitchen table in the former small ghetto of Vilnius. We had originally met doing genealogy research in Utah and became good friends over shared lunch breaks from long hours of research. Lots of sharing of food and study. Fran is traveling with us to Haifa and Paris after this trip.
We move in an altered state after 17 hours of travel with only snatches of sleep. A brief dinner and then a night-time graffiti tour. I recall a visit to the lab by Adam Heffez on Israeli graffiti and the political expression often embedded within it. Our guide points out some of the messages, but my sleep deprived eyes and lack of Hebrew fluency focus on the visual elements. Here are a few of the images that I found interesting. And thus ends our first very long day in Israel.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Shared Memory

And yet another memory from the memory jar...This one was told more like a story.  Here's what was shared:

My memory takes place on an old farm in rural Minnesota.  My grandmother was plowing one summer day and clipped a fawn's leg.  She mended her leg and Toosie became a family member.  One early summer morning I was playing with Toosie on the front yard.  I was about 3 years old and I had an aqua blue oversized toy camera.  I pretended to be a photographer capturing the moment with my curious playmate.  My grandma sat wearing her cat eye glasses and white sleeveless blouse with pure amusement spread across her face.

For those just joining this thread, the story was provided by a young woman visiting my studio and represents a memory she shared with a loved one who lost memory.  I am painting two paintings for each memory, one that is representational of the story as told, the second that plays with the vantage point.  In this case it is from the perspective of the fawn.

Above you can see the scene as I first imagined it.  Grandma with her cat eye glasses sitting on the porch watching her granddaughter and the fawn occupying the foreground of the canvas.  I made her a little older than in her memory.

I often will use a drawing program on my Ipad to do a quick sketch with my finger of an idea and while doodling came up with a totem pole image, all three aligned with the grandmother's arms around her   granddaughter and the fawn facing them both.   I decided to add the wicker chair as well, embracing the three of them in shared memory.  This may not be done yet, but I like the image.  I like the darkness of the sunglasses, the camera's lens and the dark nose of the fawn.  Once more the second image is a more playful take by looking at it from another perspective.