Elul: A Time to Search and Destroy

“It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Throughout the Hebrew month of Elul, the shofar is sounded every day except the Sabbath, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews at the time months were first named, Elul means “search.”

The entire month, blasts of the shofar serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to begin our internal search- the deep, spiritual work of the season. However, the day before Rosh Hashanah the shofar is silent. It is said one reason for this change in pattern is to confuse Satan, who may have viewed the daily repetition as mindless routine and is rattled by  the sudden stop. Befuddling Satan, throws him off his evil game.

The pregnant pause in the pattern also provides us with the opportunity to reset, to collect our intentions for the resumption of the shofar, which, before it is sounded in the Torah service Rosh Hashonah mornings, is introduced by the recitation of a series of six Hebrew verses. The acronym formed by the first letter of each of these verses spells out the phrase Kra Satan, “rip up [destroy] Satan.” This declaration expresses the desire to  rid ourselves of our own debilitating negativity and the evil influences in our midst.

According to gematria, the numerical representation of Hebrew letters and words, the Hebrew word for “Satan” equals 359. The word “nachash” (the snake in the Garden of Eden) equals 358. Kabbalah teaches that in tabulating the numerical value of a word, the number one may be added to represent the word as a whole. Therefore “Satan” and “nachash,” both equalling 359, may be viewed as synonyms for negative energy or evil.   The spiritual counterbalance to the primordial snake and Satan is the Messiah, whose name, fittingly, also equals 359.

The upcoming Jewish new year, 5780, contains the number 80, the numerical value for the Hebrew letter pey,  meaning “mouth,” and by extension, “word,” “expression,” “breath.”  The number 80 is the same numerical value of the words yesod and gevurah, “foundation” and “strength.” There seems to be more and more evil in our world, whether in the form of dragons, snakes or human incarnations of Satan. It won’t do, to leave this tragic reality out of our calculations. It will take a foundation of creativity, courage, strength and leadership for us to banish Satan and begin the holy work of repair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Talk to Strangers, One Smile at a Time

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In spite of my optimism two years ago, when I first published “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” the news has not been so good. Violence, against humanity and our planet, is on the rise. Evil seems to be seeping from our leaders, corporations, and predators, staining  what is left of our collective moral fiber.  I reflect often upon my favorite Akira Kurosawa quote, “It is better to be mad in a sane world, than sane in a mad world,” though it offers only minor solace.

However,  I continue to wear my smiley face handbag, with the same results I described in that early post.  And, I see the direct, positive impact it has on others.  I’ve decided it’s time to recognize the treasured, yet fleeting, interactions I have with others, and chronicle them through my new instagram project  @onesmileyfaceatatime. Now, when a someone spots my handbag, and greets me with a hearty, “I love your bag, ” or simply starts laughing, my new practice is to stop, chat for a moment, and give them a smiley button as a souvenir of our encounter.  With permission, I photograph my new pals and post the pictures. It’s my Johnny Appleseed approach to making the world a better place, planting one smile at a time.

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                                     You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

first published  August 19, 2017


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I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture.  It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.

Reading of the  survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope.  It also resonates with my choice of handbag.

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When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again.  The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing,  and I felt the need for just such a bright spot.  I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.

On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville,  a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”

What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service.  In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.

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L’Shana Tova 5779: Come As You Are

East Side Bus Tunnel, Providence, Rhode Island, 2018

The series of sounds of the shofar, helps us prepare for the work of the year ahead.

Tekiah: we are whole

Shevarim: we are broken

T’ruah: we are shattered

   Tekiah g’dolah: we are whole; transformed through the holy work of repair, reinvention and renewed commitment to making our lives a blessing.

Home Team?

You can take the girl out of Philadelphia, but you can’t take Philadelphia out of the girl. My visit this weekend reminded me of the devout pride Philly has in its teams. Yesterday, in a horribly long line for the register at the Center City Trader Joe’s, an announcement came over the loudspeaker instructing customers to chime in and sing the Eagles’ fight song, on the count of 3. That happened, in a big way, with boisterous Philly enthusiasm. Today, the at 30th Street Station, in “Eagles Nation,” the arrival of my train home was energetically announced by an Amtrak employee, wearing an oversized green Eagles jersey, beaming, shaking hands and high-fiving passengers as we filed onto the escalator. While I love the home I have made in Providence, RI, for tonight’s Super Bowl, I’d rather be an Eagles fan.

You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile

emoticon

I happened upon an article in The Times of Israel chronicling the recent discovery of “history’s oldest smiley face,” After 7 grueling years of excavations near the Turkish border of war-torn Syria, the site of a famous biblical battle, archeologists uncovered a 4,000 year-old pot featuring the classic, stylized representation of a smiling face, comprised of the black dots and arc reminiscent of Harvey Ball’s 1963 design. Commissioned by an insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees, the smiley face quickly became part of popular culture.  It is central to today’s text-based cyber-communication, conveying tone and emotion through facial gestures in the short-hand language of emoticons.

Reading of the  survival and re-emergence of this smile from 1700 BCE has filled me with a sense of hope.  It also resonates with my choice of handbag.

SMILEY FACE POT.png

When I rediscovered a treasured smiley face purse from childhood last year, I knew it was just the right accessory for me to sport once again.  The election year had quickly escalated from strange to disturbing,  and I felt the need for just such a bright spot.  I have worn this bag in the subsequent 6 surreal months. My sartorial decision has had more impact than I could have imagined.

On a regular basis, people stop me on the street, honk and wave at me from their cars, approach me in stores, symphony halls and on public transportation, grinning, laughing and warmly letting me know how much they love my handbag. The day after the violence in Charlottesville,  a somewhat dour woman eyeing me on the subway suddenly, earnestly, thanked me for wearing the bag, “especially during these times.” I found myself responding, “It helps, doesn’t it?”

What I’d thought was my private, playful fashion statement seems to be providing a much-needed public service.  In troubled times, there is solace in discovering that each of us can be ambassadors of goodwill, even with a simple smile.

File Aug 18, 7 27 45 PM

A Reflection on Squash and the Arts

squash-art-1I recently attended my first squash match at Brown University’s Pizzitola Sports Center. It was an afternoon featuring the top men’s singles players from Brown against Princeton in one of the last meets of this season. Beyond the spectacular display of athleticism and strategy, I found myself enjoying an unexpected inter-disciplinary arts extravaganza.

It’s a fast, hard game, not for the feint of heart. The improvised, high speed same-sex pas de deux, performed by opponents in a circumscribed  4-walled court, has an intensity and grace that rival a choreographed modern dance concert. With speeds up to 176 mph, the repetitive, percussive Edgard Varese-esque thwack of the ball against the cubicle walls is hypnotic and engaging. Could artist Sol Lewitt’s  Wall Drawing #118 have been inspired by the trajectory of endlessly surprising angles traveled by a squash ball in play?  A player’s ability to change the direction of the tiny hollow rubber ball at the last instant is a tactic used to unbalance one’s opponent. Gravity appears to be defied. Sound and movement are driven, unpredictable and exciting, the elements of great theater

And then… there are the walls.

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Each court is covered in what looks, at first, like an updated abstract version of Upper Paleolithic Chauvet Cave painting. Bearing the scars of thousands of black marks chronicling prior squash battles, the white walls simultaneously exhibit documentation of the past as well as a live performance-art work in the making. In the visual art world, this kind of process-based art-making, where drawings are mostly composed of the residual markings of movement, emerged from the  Abstract Expressionism and Action painting movements. Although I found the multiple squash matches exciting and engrossing, I confess, I found the walls equally enchanting. As I watched speeding balls creating the accumulation of new black marks in varied compositions, my mind wandered to art history.

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Jackson Pollack’s landmark 1940s drip paintings were the result of his actions, the paintbrush merely an extension of his arm. Each movement would fling paint onto the floor canvas.  In the late 1950s, Shiraga Kazuo, eliminated the paintbrush altogether and used his entire body as the art-making tool. Suspended, he painted with his feet on floor-based canvases, and once wrestled mud as a public performance. John Cage’s Cleaning My Pen, an undated artifact from the composer’s days at Black Mountain College and Art Center is, as advertised, a sheet of the repeated black ink marks with which fountain pen users are familiar. cleaning-my-pen-john-cage

William Anastasi’s pocket drawings of the late 1960s involved paper sheets folded into eight squares, making them small enough to fit into the artist’s pocket. As he walked, he held a tiny, soft pencil against the exposed paper inside the cramped space of his pocket; the resulting marks graph his movements. When he deemed a section complete, Anastasi refolded the sheet, creating a new blank surface; the process began again.

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Using paper as a stage, dancer Trisha Brown, in her work It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, moved across a sheet large enough to encompass her whole body. Holding pastels or graphite in her fingers and toes, she rolled, pivoted, pushed, skidded, pulled and swooped, breaking her materials, skipping them over the surface, rubbing up the texture of the floor beneath, sweating, fidgeting, smearing, resulting in a series of drawings.its-a-draw-trisha-brownBarb Bondi is an artist working today in the tradition of mark-making as evidence of human activity.  In her ongoing Work Effort Subset Series, she dusted the wheels of her office chair with powdered graphite to record the imprint of the chair’s wheels as Bondi completed a week of work,  making tangible the efforts of labor.

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To create her work titled Suspension, Bondi slept in a head-to-foot spandex body suit enhanced with compressed charcoal fragments to record body movement. She slept on a 72 X 38 inch piece of Stonehenge paper mounted on plywood. When she awoke, the charcoal had marked her movements during sleep. 

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Kevin Townsend, another contemporary artist, created Residue of a Shadow. The gallery installation of gilded tea bags filled with powdered graphite, responded to any movement in the space, transferring graphite which marked the wall, creating the drawing.  Townsend states, “Deposited over time, as human movement through an interstitial space caused the bags to sway- the force of each impact adds a fine layer of graphite…So much of what I’m working with now is about what is left behind, the residue. Our memories are like this, the accumulated residue of our actions, the debris of sensation and cognition accumulated over time, marking us.”

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My squash meet reverie may not reflect the passion others have for this compelling sport. Nor will it be of much value in the continuing debate on inclusion of squash as an olympic sport. But take a look, next time you can, at the art that is happening  where you least expect it.