Eytz Chayim: An Introduction to our Torah Table Tapestry

by Marcy Epstein

Torah Table Tapestry, photo by Nancy Meadow

It almost feels like an age ago when our congregation was a havurah, a thing of steady roots and fresh growth in every direction. Trees are a primary metaphor for us, one that is so powerful–from the Ten Sephirot, to the Cedars of Lebanon, back to the Tree of Knowledge and the mishnaic tree from under which the earth for Adam and Eve was formed. Since we are a branch of Reconstructionist Judaism and a species of Jewish life here in Ann Arbor, the secondary metaphors for us of growth and maturity, stability and change, tradition and the necessity for new ground, all make perfect sense.

Our bodies take the form of trees, while our Torah is spoken of as scroll (the spiral extrusion of a tree’s rings, as exegesis) and as a Tree of Life,  and Eytz Chayim. Trees grow among each other, as we have. Some of us are wiser for the proximity, others have felt the bittersweet tension of sharing the sun. Some of us are saplings, and we live within this tree as to create trees of life of our own, through our children, our work for justice, or our creativity. And while we relate to trees, we are also not trees. We are the recipients of trees. We breath off them, eat of them, draw sap, even wipe our bottoms and create some of our most holy texts from them. They seem within human domain, but they far exceed it. Thus Eytz Chayim.

A close up of the wall hanging we use as a backdrop on special events.

Over the 14 years that I have been active with the AARC, I have noticed the obvious, intentional expression of our community through wood. Wood is an expression of our living Torah, however we came to define that. During the gelilah (dressing the Torah), I noticed the swirls of tree and flame on our homemade Torah cover, made by several bat mitzvah and their families. Our Torah ark, so elegantly built by Alan Haber, was made from our city’s trees, no metal, as though to say that our Torah is among its own kind, among trees. I saw at high holidays the beauteous  backdrop, a wall hanging of leaves and boughs made by a Canadian artist and bestowed to us by another group of families with quickly-growing children. With Allison Stupka, I edited our Grapevine newsletter, which displayed our insignia of arching vine and laurel. Our Ann Arbor congregation has more than its fair share of artists, tzaddikim, and tree huggers. And trees.

Our traveling Torah is dressed and ready to roll.

Six years ago, in a conversation between Debbie Zivan and me on my front porch, we momentarily saw the cycle of growth in our community. It was as though we could sense the rings of growth brought to the Hav. Our community was on a long and arduous path, a liturgical and rabbinical journey, its life-cycle in motion with the Mitzvah Corp, our Beit Sefer, and our holidays together. We brought to the Board our feelings that while we may not own a building, though we are happily mishkanic (spiritually portable), we still needed more beautiful artistry. Our Reconstructionist community deserves the sort of beauty and artistry that went into the first tabernacle, the one priests carried long ago to contain the Torah, from which other rings of growth emanated: the Kohanim as caregivers and priests, the sanctuary and bima that came after, the gates of new cities, Holy Temples that were built, destroyed, and recreated throughout the Jewish world.  Or, at least, that was the lofty thinking that ran through my head and now tampers with my memory of the beginning of our tapestry. More to the point, we wanted a handsome, adjustable table for Shabbat, simchot, and holidays, and we saw this table paired with a beautiful tapestry created in the tradition of the mishkan.

The mishkan of Exodus was wood long before it received the parchment scrolls (also wood, also itself), a wonderful idea of living humbly and reflectively.  Jacob and his sons planted acacia trees in Egypt with plans to bear the wood as it seasoned, specifically as construction material for the ark. And as Exodus says, the artistic scion Bezalel and the humble, careful Ohaliab coordinated among diverse tribes and artisans; woodcarvers, metalworkers, weavers and sewers, enamelists, and craftspeople donated their best work so that the mishkan would fit the Biblical prescription. We became numerous like this, almost mystically as fast: Alan gave continuity to a Torah table, and Jack Edelstein committed some of his finest walnut and cherry (Ann Arbor) wood. Dale Sass, Debbie, and others joined them in designing the function of our fine table, slipping more tree matter (our congregants’ prayers) into its joints and grooves.

Meanwhile, a group of us also came together to create the tapestry to hang in front of the table, also metal workers and weavers, quilters and knitters, beaders and embroiderers, found object artists: Nancy Meadow, Idelle Hammond-Sass, Chava Israel, Janet Greenhut, Leora Druckman, Allison Stupka, and myself.  Friends from our artist circles joined us, too, to help boost production and morale: Elena DeLoof, Rabbi Michal, Michal Samuel, and Claudia Kraus-Piper.

We were very different people with various mediums, personalities, styles, skills, and rhythm through which to see a tapestry for the Torah table, so we took much longer than we ever expected to complete the tapestry. This could have been the Tower of Babel story rather than Eytz Chayim or Exodus. For four years, our group grew and regrouped, and our tapestry moved from dining table to studio to dining table, over 100 Sundays. Not by design, we were all women, and we came to the project for so many reasons: for mysticism and sacred creation; for a reconstruction of avodah and mitzvah; for grief over our dead mothers and their ways of mending, connecting, and creating; for the companionship of grown ups and for sharing our techniques with children; for communal art; for the Torah and its new table; for the b’nai mitzah we imagined reading from the bima; and for posterity. We were making something we hoped would last for centuries.  Our Torah itself comes from Chicago and a long way before. While we worked away at the Torah Table Tapestry, our first rabbi was hired, the Torah was purchased from its long lease, its longevity assured by careful repair. We wanted the same for its cloth.

The tapestry itself is layered with this history and a hope for our congregation’s long and happy life. When I describe how the Tapestry formed and what it means, it may sound contrived, like a thank-you list.  But I assure you that it was the opposite: we avoided contrivance. We never said no to daring ideas and nudged each other out of our comfort zones. It took a month or two just to get our ideas out on paper. We imagined a few things before we saw the tree, a whole tree. Idelle and Chava were entrusted to draw and assemble the design of this tree based on so many parameters and wishes that it was a miracle that we could exhibit it for community feedback at Rosh Hashanah four years ago.

It also feels like a miracle that we were able to recreate Idelle and Chava’s vision. We decided on a great tree that would be seen all at once, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and cherry fruit, laid out in a large circle that contained four seasons, four states of the tree above and at ground. This would be a Michigan cherry tree in the endless cycle of its splendor (right now, my backyard cherry tree is heavy with ripening, imperfect spheres). Our easiest challenge was accepting our mistakes and allowing the layers of the design to form both from design and from intuition. Our hardest challenge was to find love rather than criticism for our work or the work  of others, and then also the long tasks of presentation and colorization.

Torah Table Tapestry, in progress, about two years from finished.

One thing that was so important to us as Reconstructionist artists was that the material be largely donated, that it would come from our community. One of our group donated yards of her finest blue raw silk for the base of the picture, and another donated heavy red damask for the exterior and back. AARC’s community responded to our call for meaningful materials with more richness than we could ever have expected. Here are just some samples of the cloth that became our tree: someone’s wedding gown and dress shirt, someone’s birth shirt, someone’s bounty of silk ties, someone’s skirts from her days of Orthodoxy; a hippie shirt; a slip and someone’s cape; someone’s elderly mother’s dress, someone’s young son’s pajamas, someone’s entire sample box. We also received with awe the materials of two AARC members who have passed away, Lisa Gayle’s Guatemalan scarf and Nancy Denenberg’s colorful shawl (these line the sheath for the tapestry). There were dozens of stories behind these cloths, and our group found ways to include every single one, even the fuzzy pajamas.

From these we established the first layers of the tapestry, a range of blue and gray silks from darker to lighter to represent day and night, all sorts of weather. We sorted a mountain of cloth into seasons. We learned and unlearned as we went. We disciplined ourselves to learn each other’s crafts. Chava shared her techniques for application and beading for the sparkle of snow and flowers, for the cherries. Janet taught us to embroider leaves as they grew and fell, snow, the difficult horizon and mountains. Over the years, we needed to redesign and reflect, with Idelle sharing how things could be seen. Nancy and I often experimented with stitching and blending the outer layers, meeting nearly every Sunday. Leora reminded us of the wonderful kavanah going into the tapestry, as months suddenly past between viewings, like her own found objects.

Layers went on, layers came off. The horizon shifted. Leaves changed color, the ground (like humanity to the divine) mirroring the time and decor of the tree’s canopy. The tapestry seemed to become beautiful right before our eyes, and then there were times when the work seemed endless, fruitless. We took pictures of cherry trees and talked about how they are unique among trees. We sneaked in a squirrel, a pair of birds, a bit of spilt wine, and dandelions. We learned to stop questioning ourselves and just give this freely. Our children went to school, went away, came back from college, and parents and siblings passed away. We changed jobs, fell very ill, cared for our sick, came on and off the Board, lived through Art Fair, watched Torah being read for the first time on its new table, wondered and plugged away. We met under my Sukkah two years ago just to figure out the tapestry’s endgame. The tapestry had required so much of our energies, and we were so grateful for Claudia’s infusion of skill and verve in our last months. Julia Piper spent over two hours untangling our floss. Mollie Meadow pored over the tree for missing stitches. Cherries joined the seven species to embellish all four corners. We hired a local tailor to put on the tapestry’s backing, make the bag of memorial cloths.

All this time, Chava beaded the lettering in Hebrew calligraphy in the silvery ornateness recalled by the original mishkan. I think this was a labor of love, perfection, and responsibility for her, reminiscent of Bazalel and Ohaliab. The saying that goes around our Torah tapestry (for we dedicated it to our congregational use last Rosh Hashanah) means in English, referring to the living Torah, from the Mishna 7b (3:18): “It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it, and those who support it are fortunate.” We attached each word separately, creating the arc above and below the tree. There is another truth from Mishna on the Tree of Life which I felt true over the more than four years we worked the tapestry. We had finished just in time for Rose Basch’s bat mitzvah, and we marked our first year as the AARC. The teaching is this: ‘For length of days, years of life, and peace will they [the Torah’s teachings] increase for you’ (3:2).”

Yad by Idelle Hammond-Sass, with wood box by Dale Sass.

The Torah Table Tapestry and AARC’s artistic tradition continues to grow. Our group is resting for the year (after Shmita), but soon we hope to share the tapestry and the story of its creation with other congregations, perhaps even to have it displayed among other Judaica and fiber art shows. For our repaired Torah, Idelle and Dale have created a beautiful yad of wood and metal to mark our place as we chant. Idelle is also starting on a beautiful piece of wrought metal to turn into our eternal light. And just as the artists of the Temple turned from the Tabernacle to the next growth, we are thinking about what needs to be made next. Likely it comes from the earth, maybe from the increase of trees, and their beauty. Even if you haven’t made anything before, join us. It takes everyone to see the Mishkan on its path, and Eytz Chayim is for us all.

Degrees Conferred!

This spring, several AARC families are celebrating  graduations from institutions of higher learning.  The graduates are a diverse and fascinating group! Mazel tov to the graduates and families on these milestones.

Molly Kraus-Steinmetz and her proud mom, Deb Kraus

Molly Kraus-Steinmetz graduated from Grinnell College with a major in Sociology. After spending the summer at home working with the Interfaith Committee for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), in August she will start a year-long fellowship with Avodah Service Corps in Chicago. Avodah is a Jewish leadership and social justice training organization. Molly will be an organizer with Jane Addams Senior Caucus, working on housing issues.
Molly is fundraising $1500 to support Avodah. You can donate at this link and read more about her plans.

“The forces that we’re all up against—civil and human rights violations, abuses of power, destruction of the earth, exploitation, and discrimination—are massive, and the way to fight them isn’t to stand alone. It’s through collective action. Through filling the offices of people in power with determined protesters. Through listening to people, truly hearing their fears and struggles, and helping them find a way to express them as part of a powerful chorus of voices. Through organizing. And now that I’ve finished my sociology degree, Avodah has brought me the opportunity to do all of those things at Jane Addams Senior Caucus.”

Daniel Saltzman

Gregory Saltzman and Audrey Newell had a double simcha with two of their sons graduating this year.

Daniel Saltzman graduated in May from West Point and was commissioned as a  second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.  After four months of training in Missouri as a chemical officer, he will be stationed in South Korea.  Before going to West Point, Daniel served as an Army medic in Afghanistan.

Jonathan Saltzman graduated in May from Swarthmore College.  He will begin work in July as an investment analyst for the William Penn Foundation, a charitable foundation in Philadelphia.  Jonathan will be part of a team of six who oversee the outside investment companies that manage the Foundation’s  $2.4 billion endowment.

Jonathan Saltzman

 

Sarah Kurz

Sarah Kurz, Dina and Keith Kurz’ daughter, graduated with distinction from the University of Michigan School of Medicine.  She will be returning to her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, to complete a residency in Internal Medicine.  Her parents will miss the proximity they had with her during her medical school years and are so proud of her many accomplishments, honors and awards.

 

AARC 2017 High School Grads

AARC has a big crop of high school graduates this year. Tracking them down for updates on their lives, and pictures, was not an easy task. But with their parents’ help I was able to get vitals for each. Mazel tov to the graduates and to their families!

Livia Belman-Wells will be graduating from Huron High School. This summer she is taking her first trip to Israel, and in the fall she will be attending Brown University in Providence, RI.

Tommy Cohn is graduating from Skyline High School. He is heading to UM College of Engineering.

Ruby Lowenstein is graduating from Community High School and will be following her heart to Bennington College in Vermont.

Noah Resnicow is graduating from Pioneer High School. He is heading to University of Wisconsin-Madison to study journalism.

Shani Samuel is graduating from Pioneer High School. Next year she’ll be going on Habonim Dror’s gap year program, and the year after that she’ll be attending the University of Michigan.

Jacob Schneyer is graduating from Skyline High School. Next year Jacob will be going to Grinnell College in Iowa.

Isaac Asimov’s Book of Ruth

I’ve written about Shavuot several times over the past few years. In 2015, I wrote on the culmination of the counting of the Omer and the concept of “our lives as torah.” Last year, when Loving Day and Shavuot fell at the same time, I reflected on Jews and interracial marriage. In that blog, I recounted reasons I’d found that we read The Book of Ruth on Shavuot, “…the story takes place during the seasonal harvest that the holiday marks; Ruth’s acceptance of the Israelite faith is analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah; and because of the legend that King David, a descendant of Ruth, died on Shavuot.”

Last week my friend Abbie Egherman told me about the 1972 Isaac Asimov book, The Story of Ruth. Abbie is on a search for books that will inspire us, as Jews, to become more deeply and actively involved in refugee support and resettlement. According to Asimov’s memoir, his retelling of Ruth’s story is a long essay treating the book “as a plea for tolerance against the cruelty of the scribe Ezra, who forced the Jews to ‘put away’ their foreign wives.” Asimov’s essay places the story in context of the culture of the time it was written, but his purpose, as explained in his memoir, was to reflect on the potential of any people to become persecutors when in positions of power. In particular, he wanted Jews to look at our own history, situations in which we have been in power as well as eras when we have not.

There will be plenty of time to discuss Asimov’s reflection, as well as other retellings of the Book of Ruth at our congregation’s Shavuot gathering.

 

AARC Shavuot in Stages

May 30, 2017

Everyone Welcome

RSVP Here 

Location: Marcy Epstein’s home, 1307 Henry St.:

6:30pm Holiday blessing, Parsha Study, and Spring Soup

7:30 Community celebration with flower strands and wreaths and Ice cream treats

8:30 “Many Books of Ruth” Real storytelling, with wine and cheese tasting

Also:

May 31st 6:30-7:30 Yiskor/Memorial Serivce at the JCC

contact for Marcy: dr_marcy@hotmail.com

Second Saturday May 13 with Beit Sefer/Religious School Students

Some of the G’dolim working on our bulletin board.

Our G’dolim students, their teachers and madricha will be leading Second Saturday Shabbat morning service on May 13th. For many liberal American Jews, the Kabbalat/Welcoming Shabbat service on Friday evening is a well-attended social event of the week. The more sparsely attended (except for Bnei Mitzvah) Saturday morning service, when traditionally שחרית/Shacharit/Morning prayers and blessings are combined with reading from the Torah, is a more prayerful, relaxing time conducive to contemplation and learning. Perhaps a hard thing for pre-teenagers to lead for the congregation. But you may be surprised by how thoughtful they can be.

The students have learned the structure of the Shabbat morning service—still a mystery to many adults. They have a beginning familiarity with the prayers and melodies our congregation uses, and they have prepared a discussion on the Torah portion, Emor, which is packed with possibilities. We hope many of you will come pray and learn with us on May 13.

Second Saturday Shabbat Morning Service

May 13, 2017, 10am-noon

Jewish Community Center of Ann Arbor, 2935 Birch Hollow Dr. 48108.

Slide Show on Beit Sefer Values and Curriculum

by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer/Religious School Director

Religious education in our AARC Beit Sefer translates Reconstructionist Judaism’s values into the classroom.  For instance, it is important to accept, respect and celebrate the diversity of views,experiences and backgrounds of each student and their family. Another important value is that Judaism continues to evolve and that each of our students and their families are part of that evolution.

For our Open House last Sunday, I created a brief slideshow that tries to briefly convey how our religious school puts Reconstructionist Judaism’s values into practice. Here’s a link to the slideshow, hope you enjoy it. Comments are on. Let’s discuss!

AARC members are teachers

With the spring holidays, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot, AARC is coming near the end of two years of our members stepping up, without rabbinical direction, to plan our community’s observances. Of course, having started as a havurah, without a rabbi, many veteran members were used to planning holidays and services. And Rabbi Alana has been an inspiring service leader over this time.

In a few months, sure to quickly fly by, AARC’s new rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner, will be in Ann Arbor to begin her tenure with us and we are anticipating her leadership with excitement, and admittedly, relief. I’d like to shine a light on a few of the lay leaders who’ve filled in this year, not just administratively and logistically, but as religious and spiritual teachers.

From an article “Who is a Reconstructionist Jew” on the Reconstructionist Judaism Website: Reconstructionist communities challenge Jews to participate fully in our shared Jewish civilization. From building a sukkah to appreciating Jewish music, from caring for the Jewish young and old to leading Torah study – community members should experience Jewish civilization in our day as fully as they experience secular civilization.

Judaism will continue to be a dynamic civilization only if we choose to participate, create and transmit vitality to future generations. Reconstructionist rabbis work in partnership with committed lay people to formulate guidelines that serve as Jewish touchstones for our times. These guidelines are presented and democratically considered in Reconstructionist communities as standards for enhancing the Jewish life of the individual and the community rather than as binding laws.

A couple of weeks ago Jack Edelstein led our Second Saturday Shabbat morning service and discussion with such aplomb, I can’t wait till he leads again. Jack is my model of a Reconstructionist: knowledgeable in Hebrew, traditional prayer and Jewish source texts, he reads the Recon siddur/prayer book “beneath the line,” that is, during prayer, he emphasizes modern interpretations and understandings of the kavanah/intentions of the prayers. He led the discussion with respect for everyone’s input. My advice to all, next time Jack leads a service, come!

Over this past year, Evelyn Neuhaus, Margo Schlanger, Debbie Zivan, Barbara Boyk-Rust, and Allison Stupka have led Saturday morning services. Each of them brought learning of great value to the service. Dina Kurz has planned our last two Purims, and Rachel Baron Singer edited a new Haggadah just for us. Carol Lessure, Marcy Epstein, Mike Ehmann, Carole Caplan, and Nancy Meadow (and if others, please forgive me) have hosted home observances this year. Marcy is already planning for our Shavuot observance, May 30. I want to extend a thank you to all of them for helping us “participate fully in our shared Jewish civilization.” And I want to extend an invitation to each of our members to consider sharing your knowledge, skills, and spiritual leadership with the community as we move forward.

In May, Deb Kraus will be leading Fourth Friday and the following Saturday (when Peter Cohn will become Bar Mitzvah), and in June, Josh and Michal Samuels will lead. We are incredibly lucky to have these teachers in our congregation and we can all look forward to learning with them.

AARC Seder Photo Recap

The AARC 3rd night seder was multigenerational, heymish, inspiring, fun and began and ended on time! Everyone (all 45 of us) pitched in and brought something to share, and there was plenty of help with set up and clean up. Thank you to everyone! Here are some highlights:

Rachel Baron Singer led our 3rd night family seder, with a haggadah she compiled for us. Beginning with the candlelighting: We light candles on Passover, not just to distinguish Yom Tov as a special occasion, separate from other days of the year, but also to symbolize the light we wish to bring into the world. As we say the blessing over the candles, let us reflect on the darkness in this world and the ways in which we can both advocate for our own liberation from oppression and also become more effective allies to all others who are presently fighting for their own peace and light.

As we blessed the first cup of wine, we used new words from the American Jewish World Service Haggadah, “Tonight, we gather around the Seder table to recount the ancient Israelites’ miraculous transformation from slavery to freedom. Their story began with an awakening: As our tradition teaches, Moses saw the burning bush and recognized that he was called to liberate his people from Egypt.
Our journey, too, begins with an awakening: May this first cup of wine rouse each of us to the injustice that persists in our world today. May we recognize our own capacity to make a difference and commit ourselves to building a better world.”

This is our kids looking for the Afikomen….so skillfully hidden by Keith Kurz.

And finally, the librarian in me had to award books for the Afikomen finders (everyone, of course). And then the kids sat down and read while the rest of us finished up the wine.

 

Passover Seder Details

What: AARC 3rd Night Seder

Where: Ann Arbor Jewish Community Center, 2935 Birch Hollow Road

When: Wednesday April 12, 6pm

Join with our community to rededicate to our freedom, and our activism for freedom for all. With a complete but not too long haggadah followed by a potluck meal.

Everyone welcome, but we need people to RSVP so we know how many places to set. Sign up here, both to RSVP and to bring something. If SignUp Genius is awkward for you, just email Clare that you are coming and what you will bring: ckinberg@gmail.com.

New Activist Resources for your Passover Haggadah and Beyond

The first night of Passover will be Monday evening April 10, 2017. If you are still looking for some resources for your haggadah, or just some relevant reading for Passover, I’ve pulled together some new resources from various organizations.

  • New Israel Fund Jubilee Haggadah: In the Jewish tradition, the fiftieth year is the year of liberty. As written in Leviticus, “Sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.” This is the fiftieth year of the State of Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people. The time has come for liberty and peace. From SISO, Save Israel, Stop the Occupation.
  • Jewish Women’s Archive, Your Passover Story: As you prepare to spend Passover with loved ones, think of a Jewish woman in your life whom you would like to know more about. Maybe it’s a grandmother, an aunt, or a teacher. Invite her to participate in an interview with you, at a mutually agreed upon time and place.
  • American Jewish World Service, Ten Lessons from the Haggadah for Jewish Activists, and their Next Year in a Just World Haggadah Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective
  • Hazon Jewish Food Movement, Tips for a Sustainable Passover: Passover offers a perfect opportunity to combine the wisdom of a traditional Jewish holiday with our contemporary desire to live with our health and sustainability in mind.
  • T’ruah: Rabbinical call for Human Rights Crying Out Against Mass Incarceration Haggadah Supplement and fair trade chocolate for passover: Our ancient story of liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people today from the chains of mass incarceration.
  • The Shalom Center suggests a Passover deadline for Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart and Four New Questions for Passover: Write to  Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, urging him — with a Passover deadline — to stop funding Breitbart wth his advertising. 

Our community get together for Passover will be a third night seder, Wednesday April 12, at the JCC, beginning at 6:00 (but you can come early to help set up). Here is the signup for attending, helping and bringing something (everyone coming will hopefully sign up for something).