Thanks to Janet Kelman for this article in the May 2020 Washtenaw Jewish News.
by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer director
For the Rosh Hashanah Children’s Service, I transformed our Community Chuppah into Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which was said to be open on all four sides in order to welcome guests. The theme for this year’s Beit Sefer is “Welcome.” We are learning to be welcoming of ourselves, new friends, new community members and immigrants to our country. Based on several Midrashim and a story told by Nissan Mindel on chabad.org, I wrote a story for our families:
Bruchim habaim, welcome to the tent of Abraham and Sarah in Beersheva. We are in the desert and our ancestors Abraham and Sarah have a beautiful garden around their tent, which is open on all four sides, just like this chuppa we sit under. This is a story about their open tent.
Abraham and Sarah were not born in Beersheva; they came from far away. They went on a long round-a-bout journey, walking thousands of miles to get where they finally built their tent and garden. While they were on their journey, some of the people they met were very kind and welcoming, offering them water and food and a place to rest. Sometimes they tried to pass through places where people chased them away shouting “get away,” we don’t want you here.
When Sarah and Abraham built their own tent, they wanted it to be open on all sides to let people who were passing by know that they were welcome. Sarah and Abraham would sit in their tent and listen for travelers. They would welcome them into the tent and feed them.
Out in the garden surrounding the tent, there were two tall date palm trees. The leaves at the top of the trees could see and hear from many miles away. So the trees were the first ones who could see caravans of travelers when they were still far away. And the caravans could see the trees and know there was a place to rest from the hot desert sun.
The trees kept watch for Sarah and Abraham, and when the trees saw a caravan of people who seemed like they came from far away, people who dressed differently and spoke a different language, they would rustle their leaves with a special swishing sound.
When Abraham and Sarah heard the sound of the date palm trees swishing in the special way, they knew they had to do more than wait for the travelers to come to the tent. They knew the travelers might wonder if they would be welcome. So Sarah and Abraham would prepare food and water and they would run out of the tent to greet the strangers and offer them water, food, and good company.
The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation is proud to present one of our hand-crafted sacred objects, a Megillah Ark created by Alan Haber, with components crafted by Idelle Hammond-Sass. The Ark is a beautiful piece of artistry specifically designed to shelter a hand-illustrated scroll of the Book of Esther or Megillat Esther. For more on the Scroll of Esther acquired in 2016, see Barbara Boyk Rust’s blog post. Please enjoy this description of the symbolic elements of Ark in the artist’s own words:
I made it like a city within which to live and be safe, with 6 walls to hold the story. Each of the wall boards has two tenons like the boards of the tabernacle. In the front are the city gates, Boaz and Joachim. In the back is a dark post, ready also to serve as gallows. The wall boards on each side of the gate have the smile of Vashti, in the grain, through which the story unrolls.
The story scroll is held tied between 2 pieces of rosewood attached to a piece of white holly wood, which serves as the handle to draw the story out between the city gates, though the smile of Vashti. The gate is closed, with the story inside, and latched by a piece of ebony wood, tied with a blue thread. When the gate is unlatched, the ebony latch bolt is inserted and held at the top of the gallows post and the blue thread serves as the rope and noose. The crown of Esther is on top of the central post holding the scroll, and is turned to unroll the story, and turned back to re-roll. Mordecai sits at the base of the city gate and aligns Esther when the story is returned to within the city and the latch retied. The city walls and earth below and roof above are all of cherry wood … surely a favorite of Esther, without ointments and oils.– Alan Haber, 2019
According to Idelle Hammond-Sass, the scroll was designed by an Israeli woman artist she saw at the Janice Charach Epstein Gallery. Says Idelle:
Barbara Boyk-Rust and I purchased it, hoping to have a housing created for it. It is color-offset, richly decorated and signed.Idelle Hammond-Sass, 2019
We arranged to collaborate with Alan and I made a brass Crown etched with the Hebrew for Megillat Esther, which fits the fulcrum of the turning for the scroll. It has designs pulled from the scroll itself. Barbara and I also visited the Megillah container Alan made for Beth Israel and helped to fund the project.
This article appeared in the February 2019 Washtenaw Jewish News.
The creativity and collaborative nature of our Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) were on display at the joyous installation ceremony for Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner on December 15, 2018.
A beautiful Chuppah was decorated with thirty colorful cloth squares created by our community, forming the artistic centerpiece of the event.
Much appreciation goes to the Chuppah project coordinators:
We are creating a record detailing who made each square in the Chuppah, along with their comments about the process and its meaning. If you contributed a Chuppah square, please add your information to this Google Doc by January 31, 2019.
The Nancy Denenberg Fund paid for the chuppah materials, and Nancy’s sister contributed a square in her memory. Nancy, who passed away in 2006, was one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah, which later became the AARC. The community Chuppah commemorates Nancy’s interest in the arts and in building a nurturing community.
A delicious meal was catered by El Harissa and coordinated by Stacy Weinberg Dieve and Kathy Kopald. Deborah Fisch, Lori Lichtman, Bob Lichtman, Adrianne Neff and Nancy Meadow contributed challahs and amazing desserts.
We are looking forward to seeing how the Community Chuppah is enjoyed in the future as our congregation celebrates significant events and milestones. For more about the congregation’s ritual art pieces, see the blogs on the Torah Table, Torah Table Tapestry, Ner Tamid, and Yad. Additional blogs on the AARC’s other hand-crafted ritual objects are coming in 2019.
By Sarai Brachman Shoup, AARC Community Chuppah project coordinator.
Karyn Schoem is a Beth Israel member with quilting experience who has volunteered to put our community chuppah together. An artist, she also makes beeswax Shabbat candles – Or Haneshama (“Light of the Soul”). I bought some and thought they were really nice. They also smell great!
The candles are 100% beeswax from Lesser Farms in Dexter. They burn cleanly with no dripping and have an approximate burn time of 3 hours. No toxins are emitted while burning. She melts the wax in her kosher kitchen or in a solar box. She uses silicone molds. The wicks are 100% cotton and lead-free.
Since Karyn is contributing to our community through her volunteer work, I thought it might be nice to let people in the congregation know about her candles (It is OK with her). They are $5 for a pair and $14 for a pack of six. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AARC has a new ner tamid/Eternal Light to grace our aron hakodesh, the ark that holds our Torah. Two years ago, during Yom Kippur 2016, AARC then board chair Margo Schlanger gave a talk to the congregation about our need for a ner tamid to join our other community-made sacred objects: ark, Torah table, tapestries, yad, and Torah cover. Thanks to the artistry of congregant Idelle Hammond-Sass, we were able to welcome the new ner tamid during the High Holidays.
“In considering creating a ner tamid, or Eternal Light, I wanted to visualize how to use light as an emanation, coming from an unseen source,” Idelle wrote in her artist’s statement. “Before the sun rises, the light begins to glow and illuminate the world.”
Like the AARC logo, most of our sacred objects include images of trees and leaves. Idelle continues, “My ideas began with leaves and branches, but as the work progressed, these became backlit bare trees flanked by fold formed panels of copper etched with branch stencils. The light offers hope, the promise of a new day and the world being born anew, and of rekindling our connection to divine presence.”
To create our ner tamid, Idelle had to take into account some technical peculiarities. As Margo wrote two years ago, “Our ark travels; it lives in our closet at the JCC, and comes out for our Torah services. So how could we have a ner tamid?” In addition, our new ner tamid has to work with our particular ark, made by Alan Haber, of cherry wood, in the dimensions given in the Torah. So the ner tamid Idelle created is very portable (with a beautiful storage case made by her husband Dale) and uses a battery powered LED light that can be on for several hours, but switched off for storage. Its dimensions and arched shape fit perfectly atop our ark.
We are very grateful to the AARC members who have helped fund this project: Margo Schlanger and Sam Bagenstos, and the Bramson and Gombert families, who contributed in celebration of their sons’ upcoming bar mitzvahs. Support for this project also comes from the Nancy Denenberg Fund, a memorial fund established in Nancy’s memory, which honors her creativity, and love of beauty.
In honor of our congregation’s new ner tamid and Rosh Hashanah being the symbolic “birthday of the world” during which we often teach the Torah’s creation story to the young people, Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg wrote a story for the Children’s Service that connects the ner tamid with the primordial light.
by Clare Kinberg
In the beginning of the beginning, there was nothing at all, there wasn’t even nothing, there was nothing before nothing. There was tohu vavohu, unformed emptiness. Except in the emptiness, there was one thing: there was the power of creation, there was the potential of creation. In this story, that is called God.
And according to the story, the very first thing that the power of creation said was “let there be light, yehi Or. And there was light, vayehi or. This was a very special light, because it was before the sun was created, and certainly before fire or electricity or batteries. It was the first light. And with the first light, everything could be seen, from one end of the universe to the other. Everything was light.
On the second day, God divided the light and separated the waters of heaven and the waters below heaven.
On the third day of creation, the waters on earth scrunched up together, and dry land appeared on earth. And the first light sparked the growth of grass, flowers and trees and fruits and vegetables. And here’s the amazing thing: In each blade of grass a little bit of the first light was hidden.
On the fourth day, the power of creation gathered the first light together and formed the sun and moon and stars, lights that could be seen and used. They are of the first light, but they are only part of the first light.
On the fifth day of creation, God created fish and birds and hid a little bit of first light in each one. And the fish and birds filled the oceans and the sky with sparks of first light.
On the sixth day of creation, God used all of the remaining first light to create millions of animals, dogs and cats and cows and deer and antelopes and monkeys and humans. Each is filled with first light, hidden within our bodies.
On the 7th day, on Shabbat, the power of creation took a rest and noticed how beautiful everything was, how each animal, plant and stone and river and ocean was its own self, yet if you looked closely you could see that bit of first light shining through.
Now all of the first light is still in us and around us, and it is called the Hidden Light, or ha ganuz.
The hidden, first light was God’s first creation, everything is made from it, and when we remember this story, we remember that we are all part of one another. This is a good thing, so there are many lights in Jewish tradition to remind us of the first light. One of these is the ner tamid, the lamp of the eternal light that we keep above the aron hakodesh, the ark where the Torah is kept. Our congregation just last night received a new ner tamid, made by an artist member of our congregation Idelle Hammond-Sass. For her, the first light in the forest reminds her of the first light of creation, and so she made a ner tamid called Forest Dawn Shachar b’yair. Look for it next time you attend an AARC Torah service.
by Dave Nelson
Our 250-year-old Torah’s century-old wimple
As noted in the past, most of the postal mail the AARC receives takes the form of bills, checks, services we don’t need, scams, and benign crazy talk—but we also get some really nice or interesting notes from really nice and interesting people. May was a bit thin for mail, but the one piece of non-bill, non-check, non-request, non-scam mail we did get was a doozy: A package from Rabbi Ralph Ruebner in Skokie, IL containing our wimple!
What’s a “wimple” (apart from a nuns’ hat)? This:
The wimple is an ornate, embroidered or painted cloth used to bind up a Torah scroll after it has been read. It is made from swaddling cloth used to bind a baby at his circumcision. Thus, almost from the moment of birth, a direct link is established between the child and the Torah.
The custom of preparing a wimple—the word means “cloth” or “veil” in old German—began about 400 years ago in Germany and spread from there to Alsace, Switzerland, France and the Low Countries. As German Jews emigrated to other lands, especially America, they brought the custom with them but it has remained confined to a limited section of Ashkenazic Jewry. (source)
This wimple, our Torah’s wimple—originally used to bind “Robert Hessel (corrected from Hefsel, after learning about the “Long s” see comment below) Hambuch” measures roughly 11 feet long, and is hand-painted with text and other decorative elements. It has some … interesting discoloration whose precise nature—given its original ritual duty—I decline to meditate on.
Here’s a look at the full wimple (which, given its dimensions, is challenging to photograph) via video:
As you no doubt recall from your frequent perusal of the AARC Board Meeting Minutes (meticulously taken by your dedicated secretary), although we’ve had the same interestingly idiosyncratic Torah for several decades, its ownership was long unclear (due to leadership and administrative changes both in our little Hav and the congregation who loaned us the Torah to begin with).
Last year we had the good fortune to finally hear from the current Board of the Niles Township Jewish Congregation/ Congregation Ezra-Habonim of Skokie, IL. (Niles Township Jewish Congregation lent us our Torah ~20 years ago, shortly before they merged with Congregation Ezra-Habonim). Soon after we officially (and emphatically) purchased our Torah.
Rabbi Ralph Ruebner of Skokie was kind enough to send the wimple along to be reunited with our Torah, as well as these details about this wimple, wimples in general, and the history of the Niles Township Jewish Congregation/ Congregation Ezra-Habonim, and German Jews in middle America.
by Marcy Epstein
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.
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.
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.
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).”
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.