One of the things I remember most distinctly from Freshman English in college was the question, “How do we read this?” Most often, it was applied to a text — a poem or a passage in a novel or essay. At times, however, the question was directed to a visual image. We would study a piece of art, or a photo from a newspaper, and “read” it. The professor was teaching us to be readers of signs, symbols, and visual imagery, pushing us to analyze the world around us and not just the written word. His goal was to enable us to become nimble critical thinkers, able to explore, probe, and question anything we confronted.
“What do we do with those pictures in the machzor?” is a question I’ve been asked about the art by Joel Shapiro that appears in Mishkan HaNefesh. This question brings me back to Freshman English.
When we read a text, by necessity we bring ourselves to that text. Our reading, our understanding, is a meeting of our particular set of experiences and references, and those of the author. There is a midrash which teaches that the manna which sustained the Israelites while they wandered in the desert tasted different to each person. Just as each person tasted the manna differently, so too does each of us process and understand a text uniquely. Indeed, each time we read a text, we read it differently based on who we are in that moment.
So it is with reading art. More relevant that what the artist meant is what we see. Each of us will have our own understanding of an image. All the various elements that are in a piece of art become part of the language of that art-as-text. The colors, the white space, the border or lack thereof, the texture, the particularities of the wood grain, the density of the ink, the shapes – all of these form the language of each piece of art. And just as with any written text, there is no one right interpretation.
Art is a language – each image creates a new world, a singular and uninhibited space for experience and interaction. Abstract art, like that of Joel Shapiro, may at first glance seem hard to read. It may seem like a completely unfamiliar and incomprehensible foreign language. But the question we must ask is not, “what does it mean,” but rather “what can it mean?”
How do you read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh? Reading art is like reading poetry, only with visual language rather than verbal. Look at the image. What does it evoke? What sense does it tug at in you? Rather than trying to understand what it means, try to read it, that is, try to experience it. Does it feel full or empty? Does is evoke a sense of hope, or sadness, a sense of communality, or a sense of being alone? Does it feel tortured, or twisted? Does it make you think about fear, or courage, or buoyancy? Is there a sense of rootedness or eternality? Does it reach out joyfully into the future or does it feel tentative or grasping? Is it turned back on itself, or does it seem open and inviting? Does it feel like an opening into a new beginning, or perhaps a closing off from the past? Does it feel uncomfortably raw, or breathtakingly beautiful, or both? Is it sure of itself or perplexing? And then ask, how can these these images be visual translations of the overarching themes of the high holy days? How do these images convey awe? T’shuvah? Forgiveness? Redemption? Chesbon nefesh? Majesty?
Start by simply letting yourself read the art. Let yourself experience it. Move beyond the discomfort of not knowing what to do with it, and just look it. Read what the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh thought about the art, and read what Joel Shapiro himself has to say about it,but remember that the artist’s intent is only one part of the experience. What you bring to it is also part of what it “means.” Our prayerbook is full of metaphors and imagery that don’t necessarily make rationale sense, but nonetheless move us and connect us with the divine and with the big questions of life and eternity. Think of the art as visual metaphors that helps move and connect us through a different modality.
Our tradition teaches that the Torah was a combination of black fire and white fire. The Talmud even discusses the importance of the white space around the black letters, considering the white to be another, albeit hidden, kind of Torah text (Menachot 29a). Both texts are critical to the whole, and elicit different ways of reading. The art then is like the white space around the written text – it is an invitation to experience the metaphors and imagery of the high holy days using a different kind of language, a different kind of metaphor, perhaps even a different part of our soul.
There is no right way or wrong way to read the art in Mishkan HaNefesh. Just like the beautiful poetry in the machzor, or the challenging sublinear commentary, it is there to enhance our experience of the high holy days. The art gives us another language with which to engage with the big ideas of these Days of Awe. It may not be a language you’re familiar or comfortable with, but that’s all it is, another language, another way of reading.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press and the Executive Editor of Mishkan HaNefesh. Before attending rabbinic school at HUC-JIR, she received an MA in Fine Arts from NYU/International Center of Photography.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down and talk with Joel Shapiro, the artist behind the images in Mishkan HaNefesh. We met in his bright, airy studio in Long Island City to talk about his work.
Hara: Joel, can you tell me a little bit about why you were interested in being part of Mishkan HaNefesh? From the outset of the project you expressed excitement at the prospect of your involvement.
Joel: How could I say no? I loved the challenge of coming up with meaningful imagery to match such deep content. Visual art can be tricky – the goal is not simply to illustrate, but, in this case, to create images which correspond to profound and historically significant prayers and material. My role here is that of mediator – attempting to capture the meaning I see in the material, and translate it into form.
Hara: Could you talk about your process? How did you prepare yourself to craft a visual response to the content of Mishkan HaNefesh?
Joel: I tried to read the prayers carefully in order to understand the meaning and value of each word and image throughout the text. I wanted to connect the prayers’ implications to abstract form through woodcut — the medium we decided on together when you first approached me.
Hara: And why woodcuts? Why did you choose that format?
Joel: Woodcut is a very unusual process, one that involves creating a kind of visual typeface from scratch. I felt that I needed a kind of looseness to do this. So I began to draw on paper and then cut the paper out. Sometimes I wasn’t even drawing; I would just use the scissors and find a form that connected to the content or feeling of the prayer. Basically, I was cutting paper to find the form, a technique I have used in the past. (I don’t think I was influenced too much by the Matisse exhibition that was happening at the Museum of Modern Art at the same time, but you can’t cut paper and not talk about Matisse!) Then I would take the paper, scan it, and try to transfer the image to the wood block. In the beginning, I didn’t know exactly how I would transfer the paper image to the block, but ended up taking a low-tech Xerox of the image and then using acetone to transfer the image from the Xerox to the wood. From there, I would cut the form into the wood to be printed. Once I had an initial print, I would then reduce and eliminate any excess. The challenge here is to decide how much wood you want to remove – do you want the image to function independently of any kind of frame or background?
I’m really excited by how the woodcuts came out. Even though in some cases it feels antithetical to the feel of the metal type used in the rest of the book [to set the text throughout the book], the materials are comfortable together.
Hara: One of the things we, the editors, love about the use of wood as part of the materials, and part of the reason we were excited about your choice to create the art as wood block prints, is that wood has so much rich metaphoric weight in our Jewish traditions – Eitz Chayim, the Torah is the tree of life, the tree in the Garden of Eden, and so on.
Joel: I thought of that too. I was also moved by the connection between wood and the natural world. The typeface, however, does not share that same connection to nature, creating a kind of balance or conversation within the text.
Woodcut also allows you to use the grain in interesting ways.
Hara: Could you talk more about the choice of wood?
Joel: I mostly used cherry, walnut and mahogany. Cherry is very precise and prints softly, while walnut has a more pronounced and often wavy grain. Sometimes I wanted one sort of wood that gave the cut a complexity and texture. I would pick a piece of wood based on what the grain would mean in relation to the print.
Precision was critical to this project. The dimensions of the page made for a very narrow space in which to work. I was afraid because woodcarving is very dangerous; if you make a mistake it is relatively fatal to the image and you may have to start from scratch.
Hara: Could you talk about the choice of the blue color, in part because at the beginning of the planning process, we were talking about different colors, and we hadn’t settled on blue ourselves yet in terms of the overall design and typesetting of the book.
Joel: Were you talking about red at one point?
Hara: Yes, we were talking about red, maroon, or a purple.
Joel: Blue is so lively and it so prevalent in nature. It is the color of water and the sky, and functions as a contrast to black. I really like red, but red always has some negative connotations for me. And red and black, in a Jewish book, is problematic historically.
Hara: And that particular shade of blue is such a unique shade.
Joel: Blue has a sort of life reference. I did a prior print where we used multiple colors and I did not like it as much, I really like the use of one color – the blue – along with the black and white. The blue that I used is full of energy. It’s basically ultramarine.
Hara: Yes. It’s very close to the color Klein blue, right?
Joel: Oh yes, everyone says it’s Klein blue, which is ultramarine with a reddish tint. Yves Klein was an important, radical artist who used a lot of pure pigment. And he seems to have co-opted blue as a color, so I hear it all the time; I’m used to it. I think you’d find that specific blue in lots of paintings. Ultramarine is a synthetic pigment that was developed as a replacement for lapis lazuli, which is a real pigment from the natural world.
Hara: We had given you phrases for each of the services upon which to base or anchor the art. Was there one piece that was particularly challenging for you in terms of how to respond artistically?
Joel: All of the phrases presented challenges. In order to properly understand these conceptual themes, you really have to be a Talmudic scholar (which I’m far from). Consequently, though I tried to broadly understand the intent of the phrases, it was not easy.
I did the first image for Rosh HaShanah based on a connection to the shofar, and you thought it was too scary. And then not only was it scary, but I’d also have to spend a year carving it… There were just so many lines, it was an intimidating task! And so then I came up with another image that we all liked better, but it seemed to be maybe too anatomical.
Hara: With the human heart in it?
Joel: Yes, the heart was a little too sacred.
Hara: I loved the heart imagery. It’s still in there, but now it’s much more subtle.
Joel: Then the second version wasn’t robust enough, and I thought that the blowing of the shofar was such a unique aspect of the holiday – I wanted to convey that. Having listened and listened to it over and over, I initially tried to do something with the actual sequence of blasts – to incorporate that idea in some way with the image. But I wanted to have the sense of its far reach. I thought the sacred heart was just too tender and fragile. So I thought the revised version was much more robust. It still has the subtle heart image in it but better conveys the sense of the shofar blasts.
However, they were all tough to do; there wasn’t one that wasn’t tougher than the others.
Hara: Another image that you redid a few times was the piece for Eilah Ezkarah, the one that’s like a tear or a cry of pain.
Joel: That was a relatively easy piece to conceive of, and then I changed and altered it.
Approaching these prints, I didn’t have a visual preconception of what to do, and I didn’t have an agenda. I would read the prayer and then fall into a more suspended place, and draw it, cut it, and refine it. Cutting, which is a very good way to work, has an immediacy to it – there was not a lot of downtime during the process.
That specific image was hard to create, and then I switched it around. It was like a tear of sorrow and misery, and not just misery but also a kind of brutality. I think that the way you cut the wood is significant in terms of each form. It affects what you actually do. I kept this in mind when I created the other one image, which depicts the little gate: the black and blue one [the frontispiece in the Rosh HaShanah volume].
Hara: That’s the opening image for Rosh HaShanah.
Joel: Yes, I think that’s really good. And that was about trying to find a gate or an expanse and flipping the wood around. The change in the wood grain reflects this, it’s what it would be like to literally open the window or door. I tried not to be too fussy about it and to stay away from illustration.
Hara: Do you have a favorite?
Joel: I really don’t, I like them all. I was also surprised by how refreshing they were to me. I like the two frontispieces. I love the one for Rosh HaShanah. But I couldn’t redo that again; once you find out what you’re doing, it’s impossible to replicate.
Hara: So I’m going to ask you to help explain one thing because I’m getting a lot of questions about the edging, people are asking: why does the artist do that? What is that there in the margins? I understand the power of it visually, I love it, and I understand how it’s done. But I think that the question is more about what is the visual meaning of keeping it there as opposed to having a clean edge or no edge. Why make that choice?
Joel: I think the edge functions as a window and as a frame. With a frame, you could have a clean edge, but here I was able to establish the edge. I chose a block of wood, and then I decided what size I wanted the image to be. I then proceeded to maintain the size of the image while adding some edges that I wanted to keep rough. The frontispiece for Rosh HaShanah purposefully has no edge, I wanted to differentiate it from the page. I wasn’t interested in making an icon or a single iconic image; I wanted the piece to give some sense of where the image came from. To accomplish this, I let some residual wood into the white area, because I felt that that this added meaning to it by making the image less grand and giving it a certain humility. This is not the icon of Rosh HaShanah by any means. Perhaps humility is not even the correct word to describe this.
Hara: I like the idea of humility, but isn’t it also about anti-perfectionism?
Joel: Yes. The process and the whole project were really important and meaningful to me. It wasn’t about coming up with an absolute image; there’s nothing absolute. The image leaves you with the sense that it could have been different. It could have been something else; it’s made by hand. Somebody’s thought about the whole thing. And I think the edge helps — it amplifies the meaning. This is a relatively small page, and I had a certain boundary established in the beginning of the project that I rebelled against. I’m not sure if that had much to do with the printer, and it took me some time to work beyond that. Does that help?
Hara: Yes, that helps a lot.
Joel: The edge really frames the image, allowing for greater concentration in its viewing.. Seeing just the image in the center of the page is too much. You really need the edges on these images in order to emphasize their content. As a result of seeing its source in the edging, you know that it comes from a block of wood, and this reinforces a certain type of reading. Did you have this response?
Hara: Yes, that’s good. Do you have any overall reflections now that the process is behind you?
Joel: I was anxious because I hadn’t seen the prints in the finished book until now. It’s one thing to do a print and then another to see the print. And, by then, it’s in someone else’s hands. I did see the layout, and I was impressed. But I still didn’t know about the overall quality and what they looked like in the book. A book is an object; it’s really thrilling to see it. I think it’s exciting though…I feel that I barely tapped the subject; there’s so much more to do. My work on this project has expanded my own understanding of these concepts.
Hara: You talked earlier about your grandchildren seeing it.
Joel: Yes, I can’t wait for them to see it.
Hara: There’s a sense of legacy.
Joel: Yes, it’s deeply meaningful. I was raised in a very secular family. We had Passover and Passover Seders, but it was not a religious family to say the least.
Hara: Did you grow up in Manhattan?
Joel: No, I grew up in Queens, Sunnyside, a mile and a half from here. And my family moved further out.
Hara: We’re very grateful to Jo Carole Lauder for connecting us with you.
Joel: I’m grateful that she did. She’s smart and certainly knows what’s challenging. She has a big vision; I thought it was great; I’m happy to have done it.
Joel Shapiro (born 1941, New York City) is an artist of international prominence. He has executed more than thirty commissions and publicly sited sculptures in major Asian, European and North American cities and has been the subject of more than 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally. He is represented by the Pace Gallery. His CV is available here.
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 piececonveys 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.