Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Bernard Raskob once called Judaism “a hands-on religion,” by which he meant that it was a faith that calls for the direct involvement of a Jew in the performance of ritual. No priestly intercessor is necessary, just the ritual objects required for a particular observance.
That unique aspect of Jewish religious practice is the subtext underlying The Jewish Museum’s current exhibit, “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life,” and is central to “A Day of Reinventing Ritual,” a program of workshops, performances and discussion taking place on Nov. 15.
“We don’t think of this as a conference,” explains Ruth Beesch, deputy director for program at The Jewish Museum. “For us it’s more like an event, a kind of multifaceted opportunity to engage with the ideas that the exhibit communicates and expresses.”
Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is co-sponsoring and hosting the program, has given a great deal of thought to the place of ritual and ritual objects in Jewish life recently. He believes that the recent resurgence of observance among American Jews has been sparked in no small part by attention to such ritual.
“Jews are drawn to activity; it sweeps them up and invites them into the tradition in a way that texts alone cannot,” Eisen says. “Textual study is a key part, but without ritual observance it wouldn’t have the traction.”
The objects associated with those observances — chanukiyah, havdalah spice box, tallit, tefillin and more — have a grip on the imagination that ties an individual Jew into a larger community.
“Individual experience is crucial, but if it happens within the family or community, it’s even more powerful,” Eisen says. “Women are using their mother’s or grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks, and they will pass them on to their daughters. It’s a family heirloom, and the mere fact [that it ties her to those other generations] gives it the quality of a mitzvah for her.”
But as it says in the titles of both the exhibit and the program, the focus here is on reinventing ritual and, more important for the artists involved in both, the ritual object. Hence the largely hands-on focus of the event at JTS.
“We want to make the experience of the exhibit and the program accessible to people who don’t know what a mezuzah is, let alone have a familiarity with the fine points of ceremonial objects or the function of ritual in Jewish practice,” Beesch says. “Early in the planning sessions with our colleagues at JTS, we hit on the idea of a program that would engage people in the act of making their own ritual objects, of interacting with some of the artists. That [occupies] the whole morning and the early part of the afternoon.”
At the same time, it is impossible to conceive of Jewish ritual practice without referring back to sacred texts in some fashion. The solution the planners hit upon was a fortuitous one.
“We wanted a performance or concert where people could watch an artist perform,” Beesch says. “Music is a great way to do that. We knew of Galeet Dardashti’s work and she is a perfect fit. She’s reinterpreting ritual and story and putting a modern feminist slant on traditional practice.”
Dardashti’s music-video-dance piece “The Naming” is an elaborate and creative reworking of the stories of several of the Tanach’s prominent women. She has no trouble at all seeing how the piece fits into the day’s events.
“‘The Naming’ weaves together all these different aspects of ritual,” Dardashti explains. “I’m drawing on Talmud, prayers, Torah chanting, the cantillation of Megillat Esther in the traditional Persian style, piyutim, my own family history and newspaper headlines. It’s a collage work, in a way, composed of these various ritual elements. My song about Dinah, for example, includes passages of Talmud and piyutim; studying Talmud is an element of ritual, and so is chanting piyutim.”
Appropriately enough, the impetus behind that song was Dardashti’s discovery of a Moroccan ritual tradition of chanting piyutim for the birth of a girl.
“I was surprised, I thought, ‘Wow, they actually celebrate the birth of a girl,’” she recalls. “There are no stories in the Torah of people being happy and celebrating a girl’s birth. I wanted to weave this into one of my songs about the women of the Tanach. Burton Visotzky [professor of Talmud and rabbinics at JTS] told me about a midrash in which Leah prays for the birth of a girl when she is pregnant again, and the fervor of her prayers is so great that God changes the sex of the fetus. So I incorporated that story, and the song ends with the birth of Dinah.”
In a roundabout way, that seems a perfect metaphor for the work that the artists who participated in the exhibit are doing.
As Darsashti says, “The point is to inspire people to think about ritual in new and different ways, to spark their curiosity about the rituals, to look at a tradition that they have never thought about before.”
“A Day of Reinventing Ritual” takes place on Sunday, Nov. 15 at the Jewish Theological Seminary (3080 Broadway at 122nd Street), 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. For information, go to www.jtsa.edu/reinventingritual. The exhibition “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life” will be at the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street) through Feb. 7. For information, go to www.thejewishmuseum.org.
The Jewish Week, November 10, 2009