The Art in the Mishkan: Joel Shapiro and Mishkan HaNefesh
One of the goals of the editorial team in creating Mishkan HaNefesh was to allow for many different doorways into the High Holy Day experience for participants. Based on the idea of different modalities of learning, we wanted to address different modalities of experience.
For some people the beautiful translations of the liturgy might be what speaks to them. Other people might find a way into meaning through the poems throughout the book. For others, the music is going to be what makes their experience meaningful. For still others, it might be the material meant for personal reflection and mediation, while for some it might the more intellectual or philosophical commentaries on the bottom of each page. And of course for some, it will be the rabbi’s sermon.
We talked for a long time about adding visual art, one more doorway in for the visually inclined worship participant. We considered many different ideas before deciding that abstract art would be the best fit for the machzor, and that if possible to use art all from one artist. Even once we narrowed it down, the question of art was still complex. We wanted art that would enhance the beauty of the text and be a fitting companion to it. We wanted art that would speak to the big themes of High Holy Day liturgy. Then we also had certain parameters set by the realities of printing and reproduction. For a time, it seemed like it was going to be impossible to find art that was just the right fit.
In our search, we were introduced to the artist Joel Shapiro. Joel is an internationally acclaimed artist with pieces in major museums and other settings throughout the world. He works mostly in sculpture, but also does other work including prints. We showed Joel some of the initial drafts of Mishkan HaNefesh, and he was intrigued by the project. During an afternoon spent in his huge, airy and art-filled studio in Long Island City, we were intrigued by him and by his work. A short while later, he told us that he was inspired and moved by Mishkan HaNefesh, and generously offered to create a series of original prints for us. It was an incredible offer and we accepted with great enthusiasm.
When Joel proposed creating wood block prints, we loved the idea. They would reproduce well on the printing press we were using for the book, but more than that, we loved the idea of using wood to create the art for the machzor. The associations were rich and plentiful – for example, Torah is a tree of life, eitz chaim, and the connection to earth and nature.
Joel spent months reading the drafts and studying High Holy Day liturgy. He worked first with paper, drawing, cutting and tearing shapes as he pondered the best way to represent the major ideas of the High Holy Days. To prepare for his work, we offered him a list of themes for each service. The themes follow below, along with some thoughts on each piece. All art is, of course, by its very nature open to interpretation. It will be meaningful and beautiful to some, and simply pages to skip over for others. The comments that follow below are some very subjective interpretations on the art which may be helpful when looking at it, but don’t be limited by these ideas. They are not what the art is definitively “about” – they are just some of the possible interpretations.
RH p. ii: This is the frontispiece for the Rosh HaShanah volume. There is a sense of it being a portal or doorway into the High Holy Days, especially with that piece on left folded back to create an opening, as well as also conveying the idea of parts coming together to make a whole.
RH p. xxxi: Rosh Hashanah evening: Avinu Malkeinu, renew us… This piece conveys a feeling a gathering, ingathering, and homecoming, a house of prayer.
RH p. 101: Rosh Hashanah morning: Hear the call of the shofar… The shape at the center is a heart, the biological kind, not the Valentines kind. Combined with the circularity, it’s an intriguing choice for the service that contains the shofar sections running throughout it, a sense of sound and emotionality.
YK p. ii: This is the frontispiece for YK. In this image there is a sense of brokenness and off-kilterness which emphasizing the uniqueness of the day, the idea that we are turned upside down on Yom Kippur, that we’re off balance. There’s also a hint here of the idea that the focus of Yom Kippur is in exploring our internalities – there’s a lot going on in the woodgrain inside the shapes.
YK p. xxxiii: Kol Nidre: I forgive, as you have asked… The slight bend in the image feels like a good metaphor for asking forgiveness, conveying a subtle sense of brokenness within the wholeness, as well as penitence. The very simplicity of this piece also feels like a fitting beginning to Yom Kippur, when we’re stripped down to our core.
YK p. 129: Yom Kippur morning: You stand this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God… This image embodies a sense of community, a oneness despite all the different shapes and types. There’s also a sense of tension between our internalities and externalities.
YK p. 321: Yom Kippur Minchah: You shall be holy… Parts of a whole are being brought together – each one individual but together forming a community.
YK p. 441: Avodah: May we ascend toward the holy… This is an abstract interpretation of the steps leading up to the Temple, an ascension toward holiness. There is also an unfolding of layers that take us back to the core of the Holy of Holies, and to the core of ourselves, imbueded with tension between holiness and the profane.
YK p. 513 : Eleh Ezk’ra: For these things I weep… This is a difficult, agonized image that evokes perhaps a tormented tear, a body twisted in pain, a display of deep mourning.
YK p. 535: Yizkor: These are the lights that guide us… These are the ways we remember… This image is strong and mournful yet also embodies a sense of peace and oneness. There is also the circularity of the life cycle and the fullness of life, the idea that we go around and around.
YK p. 609: N’ilah: You hold out Your hand… This is the end of the cycle. There is a sense of ascension, a path to holiness, and the closing of the gates, the light at the end of tunnel. We move back toward God and toward uplift as the gates begin to close.
In the end though, art doesn’t have to be understood in order to be felt and experienced. Art can evoke emotion that goes beyond words. Viewing these pieces is another way to connect with some of the central High Holy Days tropes, with the acts of reflection and repenting, remembering and hoping, celebrating and grieving, questioning and confessing, forgiving and asking for forgiveness.
Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press, and served as Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform Movement machzor for the High Holy Days.