Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Clutter Within

I've been thinking lately about identity. Now one of the reasons I've been thinking about this is because I am preparing to dispose of belongings that no longer relate to the me of today. As a historian of sorts, I find it very difficult to let go of my history and its physical remnants. It occurs to me that perhaps I need to understand these attachments before I can let go. My history forms my identity and when I pitch its physical proofs I am releasing part of who I was. Hopefully it also opens me to new possibilities of who I will be.

So what is this stuff that defines us? Some of it is the everyday stuff of living and those things tell a story of who we are. Our things are intricately interwoven with our identity. I went to my car the other day and chuckled at what one can tell about me from the clutter within. In my 2005 Prius I have two yoga mats and reusable bags from Trader Joes and Whole Foods. There are frequently programs from theater events and nonprofit boards on which I serve. The detritus of my everyday life tells you something about me without me even being present.

The category of stuff that I find most challenging is that of papers and books. I come from a family that is inordinately fond of information. An old friend used to joke that if you plotted information density there would be a huge vibrating black dot over my parents' home. For years my father videotaped everything that interested him as if the act of videotaping acquired all of the knowledge contained within. I am afraid that I am also guilty. Information gives me comfort even if I absorb it only by osmosis.

I have books that I know full well I will never pick up again, but they represent my history of reading. While electronic reading and a list now satisfy my sense of ownership, there is still that history reflected in very tangible books from my past. And then there are the books that populate my shelves that I never read and think I might someday, I remember one time I picked up a Jack Finney book from my shelves and was captivated by time travel. Now I contemplate what other treasures might be lurking. Kind of like shopping your closet.

I once asked a friend how she kept her home so tidy, cleansed of that paper that finds its way to the level surfaces of my home. She motioned to a cluster of woven baskets which she filled up with papers before guests arrived. Upon my return, I went out to Bed, Bath and Beyond and purchased several large baskets which worked perfectly until they were full. I had forgotten to ask her about the next step. How do you empty them? Or do you? Perhaps you just buy more.

Over time I cobbled together an approach. Periodically I go through them and throw out information on events that have passed, but there is a perma layer which always remains. So what is in that layer? A Jewish children's book that I got in the mail. I don't have kids and my step-daughters' kids aren't Jewish. So why do I hold onto this? Well first of all, it's a book, but does it perhaps reflect some sense of the road not taken? I have articles on places I've visited and places I'd like to. Ironically two are about a place my husband and I are planning to visit soon, but I made the reservations totally unaware that I had these articles. There is a sketch of Tai Chi poses an old friend recorded for me almost 20 years ago. Every time I pull them from the perma layer, I think, "Perhaps some day I'll try them" and with that thought, back they go. These scraps seem to represent an identity as well, often the one not assumed, but that coyly beckons.

I was listening to MPR recently and heard a show from This American Life on Andy Warhol's time capsules, 610 boxes of detritus that he began to assemble when moving to a new studio. Someone suggested that he box his stuff and call it art and he went with it. Three women are charged with cataloging his stuff and have a sense of knowing him from his belongings. They talk about which relationships he was happiest in and which of his partners they prefer. From such ephemeral items as a note from Bianca Jagger signed with a lipstick kiss to dirty underwear, they catalog it all. I totally understand the impulse behind such a project though doubt I'll have the luxury of catalogers. Perhaps I should just buy more baskets.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Mystery to Unravel

One of the things that I most enjoy about genealogy are the global connections that emerge. From one town in Poland, I have developed connections around the world. Currently I am doing research for a woman in Australia whose husband came from Radom, the same town in which my grandfather was born. Yesterday I spoke with two Brits on Skype who are interested in visiting Radom and I shared what I knew from my visits there. And as I translate Russian records for my Australian friend, I am drawing on a gentleman in the UK for assistance. Meanwhile in my own town, I've developed a close friendship with a survivor from Radom. I love the idea that the connections from that town radiate around the world and I am part of that web, often in the middle of it as I do the website for those researching their roots.

As I do research for others, I often stumble across new mysteries and am working to untangle one currently. I recently received records that I had ordered from the archives in Radom for my Australian contact. Among those records were the marriage of her husband's great-grandparents, the birth of their children and the death of his great-grandmother. But something was unusual. The children were born in the late 1800s and the marriage occurred in 1903. In 1904 the great-grandmother died. What does that mean?

One gentleman who helped me with the translation said that perhaps it was a marriage allegata which I believe is attesting to the fact that a marriage occurred. Now my guess is that the great-grandmother was ill at that time and they thought it best to make sure there was a clear trail in the event of death. Our original theory was that there had been a religious marriage, but not a civil one, but we soon learned that was not the case. Interestingly two of the children had the same record date for their births. Now I learned from my own family that meant not that they were twins, but that they had delayed in reporting one of the births until the second one occurred.

The plot thickened when a second translator advised me that one of the birth records noted that it was the father's fault that it was late because he had "annulled" the marriage. The word for annulled was not clearly written so we are continuing to translate other records looking for further clues. We then translated the marriage record which clearly stated that this was a religious marriage and they cited their children's names and birthdates. In addition they included the following language: "With this marriage act (the bride and groom) recognise (the children) as their own, andon the basis of the article 291 of Civil Code of the Polish Kingdom guarantee them the status and the rights of lawful children."

Documents tell a story, but we need to connect the dots. Perhaps this is one for which we will never fully know the underlying story.

 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Look to the Skies II

In addition to this blog I also write one for the Jewish Artists' Lab which is focusing the year on the theme of light. In recent days Minnesota has been in the deep freeze for which our compensation has been the sighting of sundogs, a phenomenon which I have been unaware of until now.

Here is a picture that I snapped of one portion of a sundog which resembles a rainbow, but is created by a reflection of ice crystals when the sun is low. One of the benefits of writing a blog is that I get to pursue concepts that interest me and in this case explore how they were reported and depicted in history. One can safely assume that natural phenomenon that create wonder in us today, certainly created a perception of meaning in the past. In this case the history takes us back to Ezekiel and 1535 Stockholm. You can read more at
Creative Connections:Look to the Skies.

 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Propaganda and Dinosaurs

I am settling back in after a busy Thanksgivukkah in Chicago. While there we spent a day at the Field Museum, a museum that I hadn't visited since I was a child and that I tended to associate with dinosaurs. One of the shows I was interested in was traveling from the Holocaust Museum and addressed the subject of Nazi propaganda. Our visit spanned both dinosaurs and Nazis, certainly an odd combination. Unfortunately many of the beliefs of the latter are not yet extinct.

I've seen many exhibitions on the Holocaust, but this was an unusual perspective that has implications for our current political life. What caught my attention were a number of quotes from Mein Kampf.

The exhibition led off with this quote from Hitler on the role of propaganda.

" After my joining the German Workers' Party I immediately took over the management of the propaganda. I considered this section by far the most important."

He then went on to give some guidelines for effective propaganda: "All effective propaganda must limit itself only to a very few points and use them like slogans". Ah, the origin of the sound bite!

My curiosity was piqued. Certainly politicians today make use of these very same principles.  As I explored further I stumbled across theses additional quotes from Mein Kampf:

"The function of propaganda is not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for."

"Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth and then set it before masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly."

"As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid. The masses are then in no position to distinguish where others injustice ends and our own begins."

"It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success."

"The masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them."

"When there is a change, it must not alter the content of what the propaganda is driving at, but in the end must always say the same thing. For instance, a slogan must be presented from different angles, but the end of all remarks must always and immutably be the slogan itself. Only in this way can the propaganda have a unified and complete effect."

Now I am fighting the urge to veer into political commentary, but I am certain we can all identify these practices in our political discourse today. Here's a hint -think about how widely the phrase "job killing" is employed as a descriptor.

The Nazis made active use of propaganda and carefully evaluated their audience. Regional Nazi leaders evaluated peoples' response to "the Jewish Question" and calibrated their propaganda accordingly. Many were willing to overlook the anti-Jewish rhetoric. Just as today we often talk about not being one issue voters, many Germans voted on economic issues and accepted racism as part of the bargain.

An organizational chart of the Joseph Goebbel's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda had divisions for film, music, theater, fine arts, literature, broadcasting and both German and Foreign Press. The free press had been destroyed and all means of communication fell under the sphere of propaganda.

The Nazis played up the growth in the German auto industry that had occurred since they had come to power. They talked of how the Fuher created the People's car, better known as the Volkswagen. In turn they urged people to thank the Fuher by giving him their support.

The party also targeted youth and educators as both targets and disseminators of propaganda. They first began with a purge of Jews and those who were politically undesirable. The teachers who remained became active promoters of Hitler's beliefs with 97% belonging to the National Socialists Teachers League. The Hitler youth was essentially a training ground of both future soldiers and citizens willing to support the Third Reich. It grew astronomically. In 1933 there were 50,000 members of the Hitler Youth. Three years later they numbered 5.4 million.

The Nazis also recognized the power of radio and subsidized production of the "People's Receiver" . In 1938 there were 9 million radios serving 50% of German households. Three years later there were 15 million.

So we see a very effective propaganda program, but how did they make the leap to mass murder? For that we must turn to Goebbels who advises us that, "The cleverest trick used in propaganda was to accuse your enemies of doing themselves what you are doing."

What were the Nazis doing? Starting a war with the objective of world domination and ultimately planning to enslave populations such as the Poles who they deemed lesser beings than Aryans. That translated neatly into their strategy of blaming the Jews for starting the war, seeking world domination and the enslavement of the non-Jewish population. They didn't ask Germans to commit murders, only to not interfere, fostering an environment of indifference.

After the war the Allies employed a strategy of de-Nazification. Material containing Nazi propaganda was destroyed. The publishing of Mein Kampf was banned. Street signs and emblems glorifying the Nazis were eliminated. But one thought nagged at me. What about those 5.4 million Hitler Youth raised to glorify and believe in the Nazi party? How did they square those beliefs with the reality of what occurred?

The show is up through February 2, 2014 if you are in Chicago.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stories, Observations and a Few Odd Facts

As you may know, I am especially fond of story. Nomi, our guide in Israel, was an excellent storyteller and in the course of our trip, I've filed away many interesting stories, observations and a few odd facts. And of course good stories are meant to be shared.

The Haredim
On the flight to Israel, there were many Haredim, the extremely religious Orthodox Jews easily identifiable by their attire. The word Haredi actually means one who "trembles at my word". In Israel we saw many bearded men wearing large black broad brimmed hats and on the Sabbath we spotted one with a "streimel", a large traditional fur hat. The married women dress in black and white and wear a head covering or a wig. Usually they have several young children in tow. I watched them with some curiosity, wondering how they saw the world. Often in arranged marriages, they know no other world than the closed society in which they were raised. On the flight to Israel I awoke to men standing in the aisles in morning prayer, prayer shawls held aloft, then drifting down round their heads, they could as easily been at the Wailing Wall. Within the prayer shawl they created their own private world of prayer as the breakfast carts maneuvered around them.

Nigerian Pilgrims
Along the way we observed large groups of Africans all dressed in matching brightly colored garb. Nomi advised us that these were Nigerians and their government began to pay for Muslims to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Christian Nigerians said, "What about us?" and the government began to pay for them too to go to the Holy Land. They only receive $1000 which is a fraction of the cost of
travel. Thus they economize wherever possible, buying one bolt of material and each sewing their clothing from it. As she told us this story we drove by the place where the Jordan River flows into the sea of Galilee and there the pilgrims stood in the river awaiting baptism.

The Druze
Another interesting ethnic and religious group that we observed were the Druze. The Druze are loyal to the country they live in and as a result often end up on opposite sides of conflicts. Many are in the Israeli army. They are found in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. You cannot join the Druze religion because they believe in reincarnation so you must be born a Druze to be one. They are identifiable by the white head covering and black loose pants that they wear. Many of them live in the Golan Heights and speak fluent Hebrew.

More Than Food
I loved the Israeli food and I don't think I had a bad meal in the course of the trip, but meals often proved to be about far more than food.

One day we stopped for lunch at a goat farm and our guide struck up a conversation with a gentleman who had come there for lunch. Upon learning that she was a guide he asked where the group was from. To his amazement it was the very organization where his child had spent a year working with the local community in Illinois, in fact many of the people around that table. Now what are the odds?

At another lunch stop at an olive farm we heard the story of the late Ehud Yonay as told by his wife. His family had settled in that community in the 1920s. The community was originally created by Hasidic Jews from Poland who gave up waiting for the Messiah and came to Palestine to farm the land. Ehud went to California where he wrote the original article that led to the Top Gun film. He was also the author of No Margin for Error, the story of the creation of the Israeli Air Force. He later returned to run the family olive farm where we had stopped for lunch.

Tel Aviv Cats or Be Careful What You Wish For
In Tel Aviv you will see many feral cats on the streets. In fact there are 39,000 of them, one for every ten residents. Why so many? Apparently in the 1930s cats were brought from England to deal with a rat problem. They quickly multiplied and now if you see a cat with a striped tail it likely has British ancestors.

Bauhaus Architecture
Tel Aviv has the distinction of having the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings with 4000 buildings in this style. In the 1930s German-Jewish residents fled Germany and accounted for this building boom. So we have architecture driven by anti-Semitism.

The Second Temple Menorah
When the second temple was destroyed, the Romans had a quandary. Their practice was to take the representations of the gods of the people they conquered and treat them in a humiliating manner. What to do with a people who believe in one God and do not make idols? Instead they took the grand menorah from the temple and took it back to Rome in a triumphal procession where it is depicted on the Arch of Titus. So where is the menorah today? Rumor is that it resides in the Vatican.


The Calendar
Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why September begins with the root word for seven, October-eight, November-nine and December-ten? But wait a minute, they are actually the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months. The Roman calendar began with March so this numbering was once accurate. The Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar added two additional months, January and February. The Roman Senate named the month of July in Julius Caesar's honor for reforming the calendar. It replaced Quintilus, then the 5th month. When Augustus came to power they renamed the month Sextilus as August in his honor. Not wanting to slight either Julius Caesar or Augustus they made both months 31 days in length.

And a few interesting facts....

The Dead Sea has nothing living in it. I suppose the name is a give-away, but it never dawned on me that it has no fish. The sea is 33% salt versus the ocean which is only 3%. In Hebrew it is called the Salty Sea.

A home is only taxed when it has windows so you will see many Arab homes without them. I recall a similar system in Mexico involving not finishing the top floor.

As we passed City Hall in Jerusalem, our guide pointed out the bullet holes in the building. She related a story of the mayor's secretary exclaiming "They are shooting at us!" to which the mayor replied, "Duck, madela, duck". (madela means young woman in Yiddish)

And a few food facts...
Bananas are often seen with a blue bag over them so they ripen at the same rate.

After 15 years they cut down palms and replant them as it is too hard to harvest them when they are too tall. Well that makes sense, doesn't it?

Supposedly there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate which represents the 613 commandments that Jews are to fulfill. This is the reason the fruit is often a symbol for Jewish organizations.






Monday, November 11, 2013

A Bit of Magical Thinking



It has been both a challenging and interesting time in Israel this past week. I am traveling here with my 86 year old mother, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. As most dreams go it had a bit of magical thinking involved. I think she was imagining a "beam me up Scottie" experience with effortless travel spiriting her away to Israel in the body which supported her travels twenty years ago. Reality bites. There have been many moments when she longed to click her heels together and arrive back at her home instantaneously.

We began our trip with a battle over using a wheelchair, probably not uncommon with elders who are not ready to acknowledge their limitations. Suddenly what I knew would be a challenging trip became quite overwhelming as I contemplated moving her safely and quickly through O'Hare on her own steam. My sister gave me the advice to go with the flow. She lives closer by and sees my mom weekly so has had more practice dealing with such moments. So I let her do her thing. Dragging her small carry-on behind her as I managed the larger bags, she'd walk for a bit, then pause to catch her breath while looking to me woefully, managing to project both exhaustion and defiance. When I found a cart to load the bags on, I had her help push. I know she is particularly fond of shopping carts that she can grasp for balance, a walker by a less threatening name. By the end of that stretch she agreed that the airport was much bigger than she imagined and perhaps a wheelchair might be helpful.

I have been greatly impressed with the ease with which airlines initiate the wheelchair conversation. They seem to have a practiced eye for identifying who needs assistance. After that first day my mom began to welcome their offers of help.

As I expected, getting my mom out of her familiar setting was a bit confusing for her although that seems to have stabilized now that we are no longer changing hotels. I am doing my best to be her source of familiarity and to quell that first impatient impulse. Life is so much more difficult for her than it used to be and by and large she proceeds with good humor.

I realize that I've had the luxury of focus for much of my life. The ability to focus comes with quiet and the lack of distractions. I had not fully anticipated the fatigue that accompanies attending to someone else's needs and repeated questions while keeping them on schedule. My fellow travelers have been very kind to my mom and I appreciate that they reach out and literally lend a helping hand.

I end most evening too tired to write despite the fact that we have an excellent guide who tells us many interesting stories. But a few stories stay with me which I will share in these pages in abbreviated form.

For now a few general impressions... I have been struck with the closeness of borders. Now I know Israel is a small country surrounded by a number of unfriendly countries. It is one thing to know that, yet another to realize viscerally exactly how close those countries are and with that, the threat that always exists in the lives of Israelis. One day we drove ATVs along a barbed wire fence festooned with signs that indicated, Danger-Mines. I take my mom to some interesting places! On the other side of the minefield was Syria.Every decision Israel makes has security consequences, a fact that countries with physical security often fail to appreciate. One does not return territory without assessing the potential range of shelling. The return of Gaza has reinforced that awareness.

When we first entered Jerusalem we went to the Hebrew University at Mt Scopus for a Shehecheyanu blessing. There we learned that this world renowned university that began in 1925 with such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber on its board (I am sure there is the potential for a great improv skit on their board meetings), had to close the Mt Scopus campus from 1948 until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. The Hadassah Hospital at Mt Scopus was also closed during that time as Jordan forbid access. Ironically Haddassah Hospital serves all populations in Israel and Arabs make up 30% of its population. Now imagine a US university or hospital faced with such a circumstance.

One more story on a somewhat related theme. Our guide told us a personal story from during the 1967 war when she was a high school student. She and fellow students were required to dig temporary graves in Tel Aviv as they expected 20,000 deaths. Juxtapose that thought with the fact that her father was in the army and they hadn't seen him for a month. She and her mother made sandwiches for soldiers when the Army was having difficulty feeding the soldiers. For every sandwich they handed out they got a note in return saying "please call my wife, my mother, my family and tell them I'm all right". I think about how such experiences color one's perspective, what it must be like to live daily with an awareness of threat. And  perhaps those of us who judge from the comfort of our well-protected nation are also prone to magical thinking, skipping over unpleasant facts and realities that conflict with our tidy solutions.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Synapses Snapping

Last year I participated in the Minneapolis Jewish Artists’ Lab and found it both thought-provoking and the genesis of an evolving artist community. I wrote about it in these pages, uncertain if it would resonate with a broader audience, but it seemed there was interest so I will continue to share some aspects of it. I come from each session with synapses snapping, almost too much stimulation to absorb. It is through the act of writing that I am able to integrate it into something to which I can give voice. 

This year I was asked to serve as the Resident Writer and write a blog focused on the Artist Lab for the artists. I am writing that blog on a website called mplsjewishartistslab.weebly.com and anticipate going more in-depth for that targeted group, while sharing a more abridged version in these pages.

Recently we gathered for the first session of year two and began to address our new theme of "light". I must confess to some initial skepticism on the topic, but I came away from the session with many directions to explore and convinced that it will provide rich material for creative efforts. Our group has expanded so we greeted our original group with affection and began to get to know our new artists. In some cases I was familiar with their work long before meeting them. I was struck by how many of the artists worked in multiple mediums, using art as a means to explore the world. Curiosity seemed to be the common trait.

The setting truly set the stage for this topic. In fact it was on the stage of the theater, an interesting juxtaposition of velvety black darkness pierced by the glaring beams of spotlights.

One of our facilitators introduced us to the Hebrew word for light “Or” and pointed out that if the first Hebrew letter aleph is swapped out for an ayin it spells “Ivver” which means blindness. She reminded us of the morning blessing that speaks of God opening the eyes of the blind.

My mind wandered to a close friend, the subject of my painting for the last lab exhibition. My friend is legally blind and we have often talked of the gradual encroachment of darkness on her world. I thought of how she keeps her light alive despite that darkness. How would I paint that concept?

I thought of the interviews of elders on which I base my artwork, how sharing story is a way of inviting light in. I've written of Hanna who came to London on the Kindertransport. It was hard for her to open up about her story. For a long time it was sheathed in darkness, sadness. My painting of her story seems to have opened her up by recognizing what she felt and experienced. Now she tells her story to others, proudly identifying her painting. It is as if telling her story brought it into the light. As I considered these different perspectives on light I felt more comfortable with the topic, finding my familiar touchstone of story.

Many of the artists spoke of the fact that light must exist in relationship to its opposite, darkness. Some felt discomfort with darkness while others found it offered a place of quiet self-containment. One of our arts facilitators offered a moving perspective when she spoke of the child in her womb, the source of so much light for her, yet floating in darkness. She imagined that moment when he or she would emerge from that quiet solitude into the bright light of this world.


The photographers among us had a unique relationship with light through their work and spoke of the tension between light and dark. And one reminded us that light is not a simple concept. It can be a particle or a wave and has many facets, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray. Yet another artist spoke of the other guest at the table, shadow. It was not until I wrote these words that I realized I have a painting in my recent series focused on light (Fire, Light and Legacy) and yet another that addresses the shadow of memory (A Matter of Chemistry). Unbeknownst to me, I had already begun this exploration.


At each session we do an exercise and we were asked to turn our attention to a table which contained objects related to light: a light bulb, an electric flame, a mirror, a glow stick and matches. We each selected one and wrote what it connoted for us. We then gathered with others to discuss what we had written. What to choose? I immediately began an internal exercise to determine “what object is different from the others?" Then I chose the outsider, the mirror. Differences offer more material with which to work. Unlike the others which emit light, a mirror reflects light and cannot exist as a visual presence in darkness. We talked of how we see ourselves in reverse in a mirror and often focus on the superficial. In Jewish tradition mirrors are covered when someone dies and one of our group reported that there is a Hasidic belief that children should not look into a mirror until they can verbalize what they see as they believe it can pose a danger. Others spoke of the impression of softness reflected on a hard surface and the different perspectives a mirror affords us.


Can you hear the synapses snapping?

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Musing on Memory

In a week I leave for Israel with my soon to be 87 year old mother. I am a bit nervous about this trip. I've traveled many times with my mother, but our European trips were almost 20 years ago. It is a daunting thought to realize I am now close to the age she was when we first traveled together. My mother has always wanted to go to Israel, but my father was not a particularly enthusiastic traveler. By the time my mother and I began to discuss a trip, my father's health was not good and my mother would have felt uneasy leaving him. And so it languished. When my father passed away early last year my mother settled into her new life, much more comfortably than she ever imagined. As many elders she is very tied to her home and so we began to build the support systems to enable her to live as she wished, surrounded by familiar things, reinforced by reminders of her history even as memory begins to flag. I realized that familiar things and places are anchors for memory. I wonder how she will respond to the loss of those anchors when we travel. I will need to be the familiar anchor for her.

So much of my artwork deals with memory that I've become intrigued with what sticks and what doesn't. Time perception seems loosely anchored, especially when you no longer need to live by a calendar. Each day I respond to my mother's request as to how many days before I come in. "Eight " I responded today, "One less than yesterday."

"Here I have fifteen ", she said, finding a scrap of paper from an earlier discussion. "Well it was fifteen last week", I reply.

She writes eight down and I imagine all these ephemeral scraps of paper, each with a day, a point in time now past. I report to her that I will arrive on Halloween, knock on her door and say, "trick or treat". "Ooh, treat !", she exclaims in delight.

There are some memories that stay. She vividly remembers when I jumped from a train in Spain as it was leaving the station with me on it and her on the platform, getting smaller. Apparently that was a memorable moment. Recently she was reminiscing about when she worked for a dentist in Brooklyn seventy years ago. I remembered that she had told me he called every young girl who worked for him Miss B, regardless of her actual name. "I think his name was Dr Dendy" she said suddenly, a new piece of information. "Dendy the dentist", I thought, she must just be associating the sounds. I did a search online and came up with someone reminiscing about going to Dr Dendy in Brooklyn. Where did that seventy year old memory bubble up from?

The other thing she remembers are regrets. Fortunately not many of them, but she wishes she could have done more for her mother who lived with us for several years as her memory deteriorated. And she wishes she had squeezed in one more person one Thanksgiving. My mother is a kind person and her regrets are about wishing she had reached even deeper. I think it was around a discussion of regrets that the forgotten trip to Israel came up. Apparently she hadn't forgotten it. "Ok, let's do it", I said, and that failing memory closed on the idea like a bear trap. There was no going back, and so we go forward.

I remind myself that my role on this trip is as my mother's companion. She is in good health, but she is, dare I say, older, and she tires more easily. She still thinks she has the traveling capacity of twenty years ago and I remind her that we are both twenty years older. I am trying not to focus on what I want to do so I don't respond with disappointment if she needs to take a break. I remind myself that just as our other trips; this is a gift for her, but also for me. I get to create memories with my mother yet one more time. She has a refrain. "This is my last big trip" she says. "Then I'll go visit Dad."

"No hurry," I say.

"No hurry", she agrees.



Monday, October 14, 2013

The Power of Story

Last week was the beginning of the Yiddish Fest and I attended two very extraordinary events. The first was a talk by Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I had the good fortune to have heard him at the genealogy conference I attended earlier this year in Boston and was struck by his energy, passion and humor. Even though he touched on many of the same stories, his enthusiasm brought a freshness to them.

If you have read his book
Outwitting History, you know something about his story. As a graduate student he began collecting Yiddish books, often as Yiddish speaking elders or their children were disposing of their libraries. Many of his more colorful stories related to rescues that began with a middle of the night phone call on a rainy night alerting him to a dumpster filled with Yiddish books. Food also seemed to be a theme as each stop at a home entailed eating their way through offerings of Jewish delicacies before beginning their labor of book removal. As I listened to the reverence in which these books were held by the original owners, I thought of the groaning shelves of books that I grew up with. While not Yiddish books, I suspect they grew out of that same reverence, something deeply rooted in Jewish culture.

Lansky talked of their efforts to digitize the books to make them widely available. This effort was largely funded by Steven Spielberg consistent with his efforts to preserve both survivor stories and the stories of Jewish heritage. More recently they are working to apply optical character recognition (OCR) to be able to make them searchable. And of course this comes with a story. Lansky was contacted out of the blue by Assaf Urieli, a gentleman who lives in the French Pyrenees and created Yiddish OCR to aid in searching information on his ancestors. He offered this tool free of charge to the Center, a tool which can revolutionize Yiddish scholarship.

So that was amazing lecture number one. Amazing lecture number two occurred the following evening when I went to hear my friend Dora Eiger Zaidenweber together with her grandson Etan Newman launch her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz. A crowd of almost 200 people showed up to hear her speak. I've written previously more of this book, Sky Tinged Red, and the unusual story of its discovery. In brief, while it was written immediately after the war, the first portion was not discovered until her father's death in 1960. Dora translated this in the 1980s only to discover it ended in 1942. It was not until 2007 that she found the original handwritten manuscript in Yiddish which recounted the rest of the story. Even more amazing was the fact that Dora, now legally blind, translated it with the aid of a magnifying machine, one letter at a time. So we have a very unusual story of discovery and an unusual story of translation. The story itself is also unusual in that few people survived 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz, witnessing and participating in its creation, the bombing of the crematorium and ultimately liberation. Isaia Eiger was fluent in many languages and as a result was assigned the role of intake scribe.  Because of these responsibilities  he was in contact with many of the people who entered Auschwitz and writes of them, especially those from his town of Radom.

In addition to her father's tale Dora was asked about her own story. Dora was in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and has shared many of her stories with me in our conversations. We frequently debate the role of personal story. I believe it is the way that most people connect and hence very important. Dora has often opted for more universal themes. I was pleased when a student asked if there was something that stayed with her from her experience and Dora shared two of her most powerful stories. Now that 200 people heard them, I feel that I can share them here as well. Both involve her mother who accompanied Dora throughout the war and was in large part the reason Dora survived.

First Dora recounted her memory of standing naked before Dr Mengele as their fate rested in his hands. Other women had preceded them and the older women were usually sent to one side, to death, and their daughters to the other. The daughters who had escaped the gas chamber often sought to remain with their mother. As Dora and her mother approached Mengele, Dora was behind her mother. Suddenly her mother pushed her in front. Surprisingly both survived the selection even though her mother was in her 40s, an age considered old in that time and place. Afterwards Dora asked her mother why she did that and she replied, " I didn't want you to try to follow me."

The second story showed a similar level of forethought that I hadn't expected. Dora's mother had hollowed out the heels of her burgundy shoes and in each heel she had hidden a small diamond ring. On many occasions they debated if the time had come to trade one of those rings for a loaf of bread, always opting to hold it in reserve. In Bergen-Belsen, typhus was rampant. Dora had become ill and recovered, but was still very weak. One day she was unable to arise for roll call and was taken to the infirmary, a death sentence. Two people shared a bed, 30 inches in diameter, awaiting their place on the pile of bodies that accumulated each day. Dora's mother returned from work and discovered Dora was missing. She went to the infirmary, diamond ring in hand and offered it to the Polish woman in charge in exchange for her daughter.

As you can gather, both Dora and Aaron Lansky are powerful storytellers and I was privileged to witness the power of story in their hands.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stepping into Someone Else's Shoes

This week is the opening reception for my exhibition at Sholom West.  Sholom is an elder residential facility with a Jewish focus located in the Twin Cities.  Sholom residents were the focus of a three year interview and artwork project that I recently completed.  It began with interviews of elders and often their families and concluded with a series of artwork based on their stories.  I conceived of this idea on impulse and remember my early grant proposals which outlined what even then sounded like a rather immense project.  It wasn't until I narrowed the project to stages that I began to receive grants to support the project.  No doubt some had thought "my eyes were bigger than my stomach".  In fact the project was more complex than I fully realized. Seventeen interviews, transcriptions, edited videos and paintings, twenty-three blog posts and eighteen speeches later I am now talking about this project from the high ground of completion.  Phew!

This past week I did a talk about the project for a senior group at the local JCC.  In the group were two women, Shirley and Hanna, whom I had interviewed.  I rather anxiously hoped they would like my treatment of their stories.  I ran into Shirley when my husband and I arrived at Sholom to hang the show. ( Did I mention that my wonderful husband builds my frames and "helps" me to hang my shows?)  I showed Shirley the paintings I had done based on her stories and she was tickled at the outcome of our long ago interview.  In my talk I played a little bit of video of her telling of her grandmother keeping chickens by the bed prior to them becoming dinner.

Hanna's story was Everything Stopped, about the sudden cessation of Red Cross letters from her parents in Germany while she, part of the Kindertransport, was living in London during WWII.  I had imagined and painted what it was to wait, not knowing what had happened even as one considered various possibilities, hoping against hope that they were all right. In fact they were not and met their fate in Auschwitz.  The painting was semi-abstract as I imagined a black hole of silence and I wasn't sure how well a more abstract painting might work for her.  I was gratified when Hanna told me it captured her feelings exactly.

There is something about the process of  painting a story that forces you to imagine someone else's experience.  A study came out recently that found when people read literary fiction it caused them to be more empathetic.  They attributed that to the fact that they encountered unexpected situations where they had to infer what someone else felt.  I think painting someone else's story is much the same.  When I painted Hanna's story, I knew the bones of it.  Letters from her family suddenly stopped. I thought about her phrasing, "everything stopped" and how you only know that after waiting.  The awareness of cessation only comes after time passes. Then I imagined waiting with a sense of foreboding. It was from that place that I began my painting.

For the recent Artists' Lab show, I had tried my hand at poetry to complement my painting.  I realized how that too is a means of stepping into someone else's shoes.  The thought occurred to me that each of my paintings comes out of a place similar to that of poetry.  I am often free associating, combining disparate imagery.  That is especially true of the more abstracted imagery.  With that in mind I began to write poetry about my paintings in this series. Here is the one I wrote of Hanna's story.

Suddenly Everything Stopped

Waiting for word,
So homesick my stomach clenches.
I can no longer remember when it didn't.
What is this fear I can not swallow?
When letters come
Cryptic words are carefully chosen
for other eyes watching, always watching.
Vati, Muti
Signed with the pen that their hands held.
My fingers trace the letters as if I could touch them,
Grab their fingers and hold them tight.
I want to tell them
how I struggle
with the shape of English words.
The, this, that,
my tongue below my front teeth
trying to make the sound of thistles and thimbles and thieves.
Thieves threw our piano out the window
Threatened our family
And thinned our belongings.
I polish the stones of the fireplace,
Of the Quaker family
that took me in.
The stones shine with my fear.

My mother gathered my belongings
And put me on the train.
There were other children too,
I was sixteen,
No longer a child
But not yet ready to leave my home.
Only I had to go,
my brother stayed behind.
Now I take care of English children
and an English home
And miss my family,
And miss my family
With a throbbing ache
I didn't know possible.
The Red Cross sends their letters,
Not much, but something.
But now, nothing,
Nothing for months.
Suddenly everything stopped.
Anxiously I await word,
Word that does not come,
A silent void, a black hole of silence
Fills my head
And fear so thick it chokes me.
Something has happened.

In the poem I wove in other elements of Hanna's story.  She had talked of how her mother packed her belongings and put her on the train to a boat to England, the Kindertransport.  She also told me of how Nazis had thrown their piano out the window and of her struggle to learn English. A little research told me that one of the harder things for a German speaker to learn in English is the "th" sound so I played with that a bit in this poem. And she talked of how the British liked the stones of their fireplaces polished and I imagined her polishing them with fear propelling her fingers.

Hanna told me that she expected me to be older to be able to capture her sentiments as I did, as if life's losses bestow a greater sense of empathy.  I think perhaps painting or writing can also be doorways to such understanding.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Anonymous Words

The Artist Lab gathered recently to hear Adam Heffez talk about the meaning embedded in the graffiti of Israel and the West Bank.  The theme of this past year’s Artists’ Lab was Text-Context-Subtext and I don’t think there could be a topic more to the point than this discussion.  Graffiti is composed of text as well as image. It needs to be evaluated in its context to fully understand its meaning and subtext.  It is an uncensored expression and as such presents insight into the views of the people in the region.

Adam has written a book Words & Walls: Social Commentary through Graffiti in Israel and the West Bank which shares graffiti that represents the views of not only Israelis and Palestinians, but also the division within those groups, reminding us that each group does not speak with one voice.  Adam is a Middle East foreign policy analyst who became interested in the local graffiti in the course of his work in the region. He lives in Washington, DC, but accumulated his material while living in both Israel and Jordan.  

Adam shared a number of images with us on such themes as Holocaust related imagery, Arab-Israeli divisions, terrorism and peace. We frequently began by identifying where the graffiti was located and considering what languages it was written in as we tried to decipher the intended audience and the authorship.  In many cases Adam tracked down the creator of the graffiti so he often had a first-hand interpretation of the meaning. He pointed out that the Arab community was a closed community where saying what one thinks is not encouraged. That means that graffiti is one of the ways that people can express themselves anonymously.  Often we would see conversations where the opposing or amplifying view was expressed in relationship to the initial graffiti.

I have always been intrigued by the visual impact of graffiti, but had never delved into the content.  In the case of Adam’s material I lacked both the language proficiency and sufficient knowledge of the cultural issues to fully grasp it without a guide.  As this exploration began with visual material I would encourage you to access a slide show of some images at Tikkun or Tablet Magazine.  Among these you will see one that I found particularly moving.  It took the national anthem HaTikvah and translated it into more inclusive verse.  Here is the graffiti artist’s version.

As long as deep in the heart
The human soul yearns Inside, backwards, and forward,
To justice, an eye sees
Our hope will not be lost
The hope of the dawn of days
To be cool in our land
The land of [crossed out] and Israelis


Now contrast that with the actual lyrics below.

As long as in the heart within 
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.


The focus on a Jewish nation is clearly dominant from a Jewish soul to worshiping facing east.  The altered version appears to be more inclusive to the Arab minority.  A word which we believed was Arab was crossed out and we debated the meaning of that.  Was it saying that both Arabs and Jews were Israelis and amplifying the inclusive message or was it excluding Arabs?

We examined imagery related to keys, a powerful image in the Palestinian community where many left their homes with their house key in their pocket and still expect to return to open the door to their home.  Adam spoke of, a mall which now stood on the site of a former village, a fact that was not acknowledged by the Palestinians from that original town.  Palestinians are stuck in a sort of limbo, afraid to leave the refugee camp as that would end their right to return and unable to move forward with their lives without leaving the camp.  There is a divide within the Palestinian community between those who remain in the camps and those who left and considerable pressure to stay.  Similarly there is a divide in the Jewish community between secular Jews and the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox.  Graffiti represented different voices from these various communities.

Heffez shares graffiti that represents many perspectives.  He doesn't take one position, but rather his focus is on using graffiti as a means to gain a better understanding of the beliefs of people in the region, beliefs that are unfiltered by political spokespersons. 



Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beneath the Stairs

My painting time will soon be limited as I begin a consulting job, shifting gears to one of my other pursuits. I was telling a friend that I didn't feel that I was using my time as well as I should and she told me an old Yiddish story of a man who complained to the rabbi that his home was too small. The rabbi told him to move his goat into his home. When he returned complaining of how difficult it was to share quarters with his goat, the rabbi told him to now move the goat out. He then returned to thank the rabbi profusely because his home was now so much larger. I suspect that after some months of moving consulting into my time, I too will have a new appreciation for the time that I now have.

I am actually at a good breaking point with two exhibitions in the coming months of my Identity and Legacy series. My husband is hard at work making frames for me. I'll be hanging that show later this month and giving several talks in conjunction with it.

As my window of time narrows, I've been working on a small series of paintings on my friend's Holocaust stories. I spoke some time ago with an organization that focuses on Holocaust education. They suggested I introduce some of my paintings into educational settings. With that in mind I'd like to have a small group that tell powerful stories. As you may recall I had done the painting We Walk Together for the Jewish Artists' Lab based on my friend's story of a death march from Auschwitz.

Another story she told me was also quite vivid and occurred when she was in the Radom labor camp. One morning she was ill so stayed behind at the apartment while her mother went in to work at the kitchen. Suddenly she heard the sound of guards.. She desperately looked for a place to hide. The practice was to do an unannounced sweep of the buildings and to drag out those who were not at work. They would line them up and shoot every tenth one. Not to hide meant a 10% chance of death and a 100% chance of terror.

She looked around in vain until she noticed a small space under the stairs. There was a small door, maybe two feet wide. I used a bit of artistic license and made it a hole with a more interesting form. It was too small for a person, but in desperation she twisted her body to squeeze her head and shoulders in, then her hips and last her feet. Still in her nightclothes she crouched in fearful silence. Above her head she heard the guards' boots resounding on the steps as they ran up the stairs. Then shots of the unfortunate 10% soon followed.

Her mother returned from work fearful that her daughter was no longer alive. She too had heard the shots and knew what they meant.

This painting went through many stages before I was satisfied with the direction it was going. The discarded approaches divided the painting into distinct color fields and showed the entire figure. I take photos along the way and ultimately backtracked to an earlier version that hid portions of the figure and felt more mysterious. It reminded me of a womb or a body within a sarcophagus, fitting perhaps in that her success or failure in hiding could mean life or death. Behind the stairs are the suggestion of ten figures, each with a yellow star, a target.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Legacy Unchained

For the past three years I've been completing a series of interviews with elders at Sholom Home, editing the videos  and finally completing a series of paintings based on their stories.  Until recently I had completed paintings on all of the interviews but one.  That straggler was the one I was finding most challenging.  With a show of this work approaching, I decided I needed to begin that elusive painting.

My interview with Yevgeniy began with the story of his grandparents who lived in a shtetl called Bykhov in Belarus.  His grandparents married at 14 and 12 and had eighteen children.  His mother was the youngest and the most beautiful.  When his father was stationed in Bykhov he fell in love with Yevgeniy’s mother, they married and moved to Minsk.
  Back in Bykhov those 18 children had 294 children all of whom were shot by the Germans in the castle of a Polish count during WWII.  Meanwhile Yevgeniy and his mother were safe in Minsk and were the only family members to survive.  In 1934 his  father left them to move to Birobidzhan,  a Jewish autonomous republic.    At that time they were inviting Jews to move to Birobidzhan which was supposed to be the heaven for Jews.  When his father left the family he gave Yevgeniy three rubles and said that should be enough for his life and they never saw him again. 

Yevgeniy became an author of many books and the stories he told me had a somewhat magical realism quality to them, so many children, the most beautiful woman, a heaven for Jews. 

He also had some significant family relationships that he has written about.  The chief rabbi of Moscow was related on his father’s side.  A Spanish artist named Mazo is related to his father and married Velasquez’s daughter.  Through that line there is a relationship to Spanish royalty.  A soldier in the retreating army of Napoleon married a Belarussian woman and that is how his father’s Belarussian line came about. 

There were so many unusual stories, I wasn’t quite sure how to capture them. When I paint story, I try to find the underlying theme and this jumble of stories made it challenging. Ultimately I went back to the beginning, to a story that he told me about visiting his grandfather as a child.  Eighteen carriages of the many family members would show up to greet him.  They all wanted him to stay with them, but he wanted to stay with his grandfather. 

He described his grandfather through a child's eyes,  a very wise man with lacquered patent leather boots and a watch on a golden chain.  The grandfather told Yevginey that he would inherit the watch when he died and he eagerly awaited that watch.  As this project was about legacy I decided to paint the lost legacy.  You will see the carriages of his family members greeting him at the train station and his grandfather’s watch with a portion of its gold chain.  Note the broken link representing the loss of family.  On either side you will find the pages of a book, carrying us away in story.  In the sky you will see the suggestion of the three moon-like rubles which were his legacy from his father.

This body of work will be exhibited for the first time in its entirety at Sholom West.  You can find more information on the exhibition and on the project at my website.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Unexpected Finds

At a recent session of our arts book club, my husband and I were reminiscing about some museum shows we had attended. A person in the group remarked that we must go to a lot of museums. In truth we do. The first thing we look up in any new city is what art museums there are to visit. We are always in search of those we've not yet discovered and often find them in unexpected places.

But now I was curious. How many had we actually visited? With my usual dedication to number counting I began to build a list slightly over 130 with almost 60% of them overseas. Not surprisingly France accounted for 25% of the list. Almost half of our total received repeated visits.

Fortunately for me, my husband shares my passion for viewing art as well as the endurance to spend whole days immersed in that activity. I recall a seven hour visit we had at the Prado in Madrid. Exhausted in both mind and body we were trudging back to our hotel, contemplating a Spanish siesta, when we stumbled over a lovely gem of a museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It closed in two hours. A sidelong glance at my husband confirmed he could muster the energy for another two hours and off we went.

When I was recently in Boston for the International Jewish Genealogy Conference, we spent two afternoons at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as well as a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The MFA is a stellar museum that I had never been to so it was a rare treat. John Singer Sargent was a citizen of the world who called many cities home, but did some significant work in Boston. Upon entering we discovered the ceiling murals commissioned from Sargent in 1916 for what was then a new museum building. In addition to a large collection of Sargent paintings, drawings and murals, the museum also has an exceptional contemporary exhibit which reflected thought and artistry, something we do not always find in contemporary exhibitions. We were particularly drawn to a work hanging overhead by Tara Donovan created solely out of styrofoam cups. The form and material interacted with the light to create something much greater than one might imagine. Between Sargent and Donovan we spent a lot of time looking up.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner is a very eclectic museum which has a Sargent painting of its founder that I had only seen in books. Her husband so disliked it that it was not shown until after his death. There is something rather special about standing in front of the original. In addition to these wonderful offerings, we took particular pleasure in the unexpected discoveries at the Pucker Gallery and the Boston Public Library.

The conference had the forethought to arrange a visit to the Pucker Gallery following a film on Samuel Bak. The gallery represents Bak who now lives in the area. Bak came from Vilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania where he and his mother were among the 200 survivors of a city of 70-80,000 Jews. Nuns hid them during the war. His father was murdered shortly before the end of the war. Bak's talent was recognized at an early age and he was invited by the poet Abraham Sutzkever to exhibit his artwork in the ghetto at the age of nine. Although he wasn't in a camp, he heard the stories of others in the DP camps and that influenced his work. After the war he studied art in Poland, Germany and Israel. His work has a number of themes; pears, chess pieces and a childhood friend who died in the Holocaust reappear frequently. Pears were common in Vilna and his stepfather used to play chess with him.

At the gallery there were many pieces on display and accessible on panels that could be pulled out. Upstairs a display of his work filled the walls. Pucker shared stories about Bak's history and the meaning of symbols that reappear. It was a rich immersion into the work of an amazing artist.

As we wandered around Boston we came to the public library. We entered the new portion which while certainly functional lacked the magic of the original which we entered through a connecting courtyard which felt like the many cloisters we had visited in Europe. Around the grand staircase we found murals by de Chavannes representing the muses of Greek mythology. In the Sargent Gallery we found an impressive series of murals titled the Triumph of Religion. The theme was based on the idea of religious freedom and ran into a bit of controversy that caused Sargent to abandon his last painting of The Sermon on the Mount. The paintings begin with the religions of “pagan gods” and then depict Judaism and Christianity. The focus is on the study of religions, not on religious worship, but the controversy arose when Sargent depicted Synagogue and Church. Synagogue was depicted as a blindfolded older woman while Church was depicted as a beautiful young woman. The Jewish community of Boston objected that his depiction demeaned Judaism. Sargent, puzzled by the controversy, was drawing on depictions in Christian art which typically show Synagoga as blindfolded and holding a broken lance, suggesting it was vanquished by Christianity. They represent the inherent bias of Christianity as they are depicted in a church narrative.

I found it interesting that the Jewish community of Boston was sufficiently established to object vocally, perhaps the best argument that some measure of religious freedom did in fact exist at that time. An interesting side note relates to another unexpected Sargent discovery of ours in the War Museum in London. There is a powerful painting called Gassed which depicts the blinded soldiers during the war. Done at the same time, it is argued by Sally Promey in Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public Library that its influence can be seen in this painting.

If you get to the library make sure to visit the Edwin Austin Abbey murals on the The Quest of the Holy Grail. The library offers tours of the artwork and architecture. And if you are interested in learning more about Sargent and his work, two books which offer excellent background are David McCullough's The Greater Journey and Deborah Davis's Strapless.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Declaration of Being

I'm a "???".  Most of us can fill in the blank with a number of descriptors. At the Jewish Artists' Lab* exhibition, artist Robyn Awend has an interactive piece which consists of plastic card holders, each pocket holding a card that describes one attribute among the multiplicity of things that can describe a person. The act of taking a card is a declaration of being, of who one is, or at least one aspect of who one is.  It is in the combination of attributes that we begin to define our uniqueness.

Last week at the opening we had a gallery filled with people and vibrating with energy. The catalog looked beautiful and each artwork told a story about a subject we had discussed, but also gave a glimpse into the artist.

The poem I wrote to accompany my painting drew a lot of interest and brought me back to the topic of declaring who one is. " I'm not really a poet ," I protested, conscious of the "real" writers and poets who create far more "poetic" work among our group. The act of declaration seems to carry a responsibility to work at and develop a craft. I'm not sure I'm ready to make such a declaration about poetry. I think about a journal from my 20s filled with poetry, a chronicle of my first marriage. When did I stop writing? I think it was as that marriage wound down, as if I could only write when faced with youthful angst. Since then I've written a handful of playful poems for special occasions, but nothing of the daily fabric of life.

So what motivated this recent effort? In this case it just seemed like the best way to juxtapose the two stories, Abraham and Isaac and Dvora and her mother. The other advantage of poetry was that it let me tell the story through the eyes of Isaac and Dvora. Not only could I contemplate their experience, but for a brief moment I could step inside of it and imagine it through their eyes. I am accustom to working in a series of paintings, each one allowing me to look at a different facet of the topic I explore. One painting just didn't seem like enough. I could easily have done a series, but lacking wall space in the exhibition, I decided to use a different medium. In the process it felt a bit like discovering an old friend. The sound of words lapping up against each other, giving voice, echoing, weaving in and out, each voice stepping up in turn to declare itself.

I thought about those other declarations in my life. "I am an artist" took me a long time to state. Back when I painted just for me I used to debate with my husband what made one an artist. He felt that painting for a larger audience was important to the definition. I argued that one who paints is an artist. Even as I asserted that, it was still hard to get those words out when asked what I did. It was only when I started showing my work that it gradually became easier to take ownership of that label. The rest of the world began to see me through that lens, but it still had to begin with that barely whispered assertion, "I am an artist".

"I am a writer" is still in its infancy. I've been writing this blog for over four years. Does that make me a writer or is blogging a category unto itself? Words are a medium that I embrace, but with such truly accomplished writers in the world, it seems like hubris to claim that label. And yet...claiming that one is a "fill in the blank" is often the first step to becoming that.

Yesterday I wore one of my other hats. I interviewed for an interim CFO job. When asked if I would be interested in full-time permanent work, I quickly responded with a definitive "No!". "Why not?" I was asked. "I have other things I want to do, I am an artist," I replied. I marveled at how easily it rolled off the tongue. I realized that I had reached a milestone when I could so easily integrate that part of me with the financial business side of my being. We are each many things and embracing that messy, squirming totality is the first step towards being our full selves.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.