Tag Archives: Art

Sefirat haOmer: The Inner Journey of Liberation


Taking steps daily on our journey towards freedom

We now find ourselves in Chol haMoed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover, the middle days of this ongoing eight-day holiday. After a gruelling week of preparation and a very energetic first two festival days, we are all physically spent, ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the week to come.

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: Mark Hurvitz wrote: "Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's father (Andrew Ross z"l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!"

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: In this Sefirat haOmer chart one envisions themselves taking 49-steps up the summit of Sinai in time for Shavuot. Designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

Still for many people the joy of the festival and that sense of momentum in our souls remains with us. As we each work through own personal exodus during this season. Now that we have determined to become free people, naturally there is a new passion to experience and actualize that freedom. And to continue this spiritual journey to become more liberated. A desire to push forward in this march of freedom still inspiring many of us.

So who do we do that? How do we become freer and more liberated people?

And how do we satisfy this expansive drive aroused in our souls, while also being amidst an exhaustingly vigorous season?

Our tradition responds to this with the mitzvah of the Sefirat haOmer – the commandment of counting of the Omer. And through this tradition we learn how everyday we can do a little bit of work on improving ourselves. That’s all it really requires to pursue freedom within yourself, just taking a small step each day out of whatever has held us back in our life’s journey.

In the procession of the Jewish year, we are on a journey from Pesach to Shavuot. A journey which takes us from freedom in Egypt, and brings us to celebration at Sinai.

We’ve talked before about the biblical commandment, to count seven weeks of harvest gladness in which our ancestors were to offer up their coarse barley growth. And how on the fiftieth day the ancient Israelites would offer up an offering of their finest wheat in the Temple,  in order to bring great culmination to this spring season on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival of weeks, celebrated on the 50th day from Pesach. (see “The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count“)

These two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, along with a third agricultural festival of Sukkot in the fall, they are called the Shelosh Regalim. These were the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, which in ancient times required people to journey all the way up to the capital of Jerusalem every year for these holidays.

This holiday of Shavuot has no fixed date, it occurs after 49 + 1 days after Pesach. Nor did this holiday historically have any fixed religious significance until the rabbis of the Mishna began to relate this holiday with the giving of Torah at Har Sinai.

The rabbis therefore understood these 49 days as a time of personal preparation for receiving Torah. A period which would come to be characterized by personal reflection and ethical introspection. In this way the rabbis made this period an inner journey for us. They helped us appreciate this extensive mitzvah of Sefrat haOmer as a process on a path to become worthy of receiving this revelation of Torah. In order to stand dignified at Shavuot and receive this Torah anew.

In this way we also come to appreciate the sefirah period as a way for refining and cleaning ourselves up along the way – as we shed our slave characteristics –  on our way to the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

This sense of devotion became even more stressed by the kabbalistic masters of the 16th century in Tzfat, and then later by the chassidic masters who followed them. These mystics also decided take the journey inward, but in a much deeper and more profound way.

According to their custom of meditating upon the prayers of their highly mystical siddurim, they gave practical application to the Sefirat haOmer for making it engage a personal tikkun – a correction, a repair in one’s nature. And to do so systematically and with motivated intention.

The mystics broke the sefirah period into seven cycles of seven weeks, seven being the number of completion and wholeness (i.e. number of days in a week; creation). Each of the seven weeks were set to correspond to one of the seven sefirot (Divine forces) which active in the physical world. Likewise each day of the week was set to correspond to a sefirah as well, making us look even deeper into each of these characteristics within ourselves.

This form of meditation reflects upon seven essential characteristics, and then makes us further consider how we operate those creative drives. We learn to focus on specific points of our character.

Let me give you a few examples of how this line of meditation works, and also demonstrate how one can reflect on these (with a few off-the-cuff meditative suggestions that come to mind for me during my personal reflection at this time, those are in quotes; to give us examples of how to work through these thoughts):

Day 1 of the Omer:

חֶסֶד שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Kindness within Kindness

“Do I display my kindness with acts of truly pure kindness?”

Day 2 of the Omer:

גְּבוּרָה שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Discipline/Judgment within Kindness

“Is my sense of discipline in-line with my sense of kindness?”

Day 3 of the Omer:

תִּפְאֶרֶת שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Beauty/Harmony within Kindness

“Do I use my expansive kindness for bringing harmony and balance?”

Day 4 of the Omer:

נֶצַח שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Endurance/Victory within Kindness

“Is my sense of kindness in-line with a love that is long-lasting and able to overcome the challenges?”

During the first week we start in Chesed (Kindness), which is an accessible point of reference for the soul as we continue on with the joy of celebrating Pesach and as are just starting out on our sefirah count. Then in the second week we move into Gevurah (Discipline/Judgement). The third week Tiferet (Beauty/Harmony), etc.

Each week we look at one part of our Divinely inspired nature, and then systematically examine how we can bring balance to it. Looking at each level of our consciousness, realizing there are elements of each impulse mixed-in with the others. Our challenge is to bring balance within ourselves so that none of these are in conflict, and so that we can achieve a sense of freedom within ourselves.

This might also be helpful for beginners of this form of meditation: Think of the daily sefirah as representing one aspect of your divinely inspired inner drives or ambitions, and the sefirah for the week as representing how you go about achieving that in your actions. There is certain ways we feel inside, but its all about bringing our outward displays in-line with that.

The kabbalists weaved other meditative elements into their counting of the Omer. They also assigned certain meditative words from psalms and letters to each day. As well as pieces of the highly mystical Aramaic prayer Ana Bekoach. All these textual overlays, to further inspire an inner journey.

Now there is a reason that I keep referring to the Sefirat haOmer as a journey. This mitzvah is one with many steps in order to fulfill it.  It requires us making the effort everyday for 49 days, taking many small steps everyday. We cannot move forward if we stop at any point. Which is what makes this mitzvah so much of a discipline to keep. However, it is a deeply rewarding journey of self-exploration and refinement for those who follow all the way through!

Modern Meditative Aids for the Sefirat haOmer

colorfulomerchart KOL ALEPH MINIOne of the best ways to help one remember the daily Omer count is to use a chart. Over the years many charts have been devised to help people remember and stay accurate with their count. Many communities and homes have unique ones which people festively display and refer to.

These clever charts are also very useful for helping people visualize this path and process. One contemporary chart posted by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is a personal favorite. See her entry at Kol Aleph:

This not only a great way to keep count, it is also a great way to meditate upon the Omer. To think of it as a journey moving inward, to examine ourselves in our deepest core. Or we can also see this as a path around a mountain, moving upward with a step each day until we reach the peak of Sinai. This lovely chart is also overlaid with other meditative elements which color and desktop formatting today allow.

Over the years I have made the case that the rabbis made intentional use of specific words, letters and sounds to deliver imagery. As they were limited in their means of presenting these ideas in a black-and-white world in which they produced their manuscripts,  the mystics used other schemas. I have always believed that had the mystics of old lived today they would layer meaning in color, which would also aid in showing relationships of one thing to another.

I’m glad to see that several scholars and rabbis of the modern age are utilizing color to expressed concepts in their works and materials. To help people visualize the lesson and their inner journey.

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartOne the finest examples of this is the Sefirat HaOmer Chart of Lieba B. Ruth (aka, Lauren Deutsch), which was originally created according to her own color scheme.

Aharon Varady also notes:

“Lauren Deutsch’s system of color correspondences for the sefirot mainly follows the light spectrum from red to deep blue, then black and purple. Her systems accords well with that of Mark Hurvitz’s 7×7 Color Grid for the Omer.”

My friend and colleague Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project, was able formulate a meditative chart which would alternatively correspond to the color schema innovated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

She has generously shared this Kabbalistic Sefirat HaOmer chart as free and redistributable resource through the Open Siddur Project. Please re-distribute!

DOWNLOAD: SVG (source) | PNG

Please also refer to the original post by Aharon Varady and Lauren Deutsch at Open Siddur Project:

This chart expresses how the sefirot – both for the corresponding week and day of the sefirah count – how they come together. Causing us to conceptualize and consider the relationship of one characteristic to the other, and helping us visualize the balance we are trying to achieve between these powerful forces inside us.

In like manner, Aharon Varady also created a variation of the meditative circles chart utilizing a classical and historically inspired color schema. A schema which was presented in Reb Seidenberg’s Omer Counter widget (Neohasid.org). Aharon noted that this color system corresponds closely with that of the colors suggested by the RAMAK in Pardes Rimonim,Aharon-Varady_-_Omer-Circles-(David-Seidenberg's-Color-schema) as cited in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Meditation & Kabbalah” (p. 181)  in the chapter titled “Colors.”

Having also taken personal interest in the color correspondences within classic kabbalistic literature, I had also tried to imagine this. To perceive how the mystics would have conceived of this. So this additional contribution has helped bring that to life for me. This color schema is very useful and meaningful to both Chassidic and Sephardic followers of the mystical disciplines.

The meaning of all this is also presented for us by Aharon in his detailed comments of the aforementioned post. The entry also wonderfully included the prayers, blessings, meditations, and even an updating counting widget… in addition to the helping you identify and visualize the interacting sefirot as you observe this special mitzvah!

Conclusion:

Many of us modern people don’t have the time or space in our lives make a religious pilgrimage like ancients used to during this time of year, therefore we have a long tradition of focusing on how to take this journey inward. We should utilize the many ways of teaching and thinking which helps take us on a journey for the soul.

Want to personalize your own journey? Here is a Do-It-Yourself help for making your own Sefirat haOmer Chart.

We have been learning about this inward journey through the soul we engage in during the sefirah period. One of the best ways is to visualize that journey as path up a mountain, as previously mentioned regarding another chart.

Aharon Varady also provides us with a subtle adaptation of a chart concept envisioned by Andrew Ross z”l. As noted by Aharon elsewhere:

 “Mark Hurvitz wrote: “Rabbi Amy Scheinerman‘s father (Andrew Ross z”l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!” (Please see: http://www.scheinerman.net/judaism/shavuot/omer4.html)

This wonderful chart is designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

The chart image shown at the top is a Creative Commons document, editable and redistributable design. Showing a spiral starting from the upper right, and moving counter-clockwise on its way inward. Indeed, all the items presented by Open Siddur are open-source licensed to edit and share! Feel free to personalize it with numbers or meditative thoughts.

What are you making your exodus from this year? Are you trying to leave bad traits behind? Are you making a journey out of addiction? Are you finding liberation from the effects of unhealthy relationships? Or are you just stepping forward in order to leave a sense of apathy behind? Personalize this chart and meditation for your goals. Whatever helps you visualize your journey inward to the soul and upward to Sinai!

Related articles:

Advertisements

Boyle Heights: Urban Heritage Vs. Urban Legend


Facing the past will help us face our future

Of all the topics I have explored over the years, none of them have I thrown more of myself into than dealing with the honorable history of the multi-ethnic Boyle Heights of yesteryear. The history of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles is the most fascinating blend of Old West and urban history. It is the topic I find the most captivating. Telling this history, the most fulfilling. But in the past couple years, it has also become the most challenging story to tell.

Boyle Heights’ Second Street Elementary School band in 1930, made up of Japanese, Jewish, Russian, Armenian and Mexican students.

This is our Multicultural Heritage: Boyle Heights’ Second Street Elementary School band in 1930, made up of Japanese, Jewish, Russian, Armenian and Mexican students.

The Los Angeles eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights has some interesting stories to share with us. And that is how up until recently I have learned the most about Boyle Heights. Through the personal stories shared by Mexican-American, Jewish, and Japanese people who have grown up in this historically multi-ethnic area. Nearly every weekend I spend my time walking the neighborhood, talking with people and swapping stories.

More often these days I’m being joined by a diverse group of people, most often with current locals and former residents. And every so often, with the children and grandchildren of the old residents who return here to get in touch with their roots. As an eastside native with multi-generational roots in Boyle Heights, I can relate to the deep affection people feel for the area.

This area has historically been home to the many minorities, who because of segregation – both of an ethnic and of a religious nature – where not allowed to buy property in the then more affluent, white and protestant suburbs on the westside prior to the 1950s. These then considered “subversive” groups struggled through the hardest of times together. Among them also being the Great Depression and World War II. Yet through it all they together forged a remarkable community with a noteworthy legacy here. The remnants of which remain in the physical architecture of Boyle Heights; synagogues, temples, churches, cemeteries, house, hospitals and cultural centers. I love nothing more than exploring these sites with the people to whom they matter most! With people who have stories to share.

Of course along the way I have absorbed a few facts, so when I go wandering through through neighborhood I also try to give my insights and observations too. Growing up here as a child and being a descendant of one of the oldest Mexican-American families in the neighborhood, I have many reflections on what makes Boyle Heights magical for us Latinos. But also as an observant Jew who also attends synagogue with Jewish former residents of Boyle Heights, I find much joy in sharing in the preservation of the historical Jewish past enshrined here as well.

Having a heart that beats for both communities has always been a blessing to me. Being just as comfortable in my skin as Jew and as a Latino, and speaking the language of both communities, I often speak and interpret for people across the cultural divide. I have always been the local kid that everyone drags along through the eastside to read some inscription, and to uncover the story behind some plaque or monument. For explaining the historical significance of something in the community. People often asking me questions about classic Boyle Heights and its former glory as a multi-ethnic community. Boyle Heights had its better and most memorial days as a mixed community, and this a fact not contested by anyone. People love to talk about their fond memories of that. For this reason my work in Boyle Heights was always well received.

I never received reproof or objection from anyone until recently. When I clumsily touched on one topic of dispute and misunderstanding between many people within the communities. When I began to write about the exodus of the former non-Latino residents, including the large predominately Jewish population, out of Boyle Heights. (see, “Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future“) In this blog I unintentionally upset a tour giving historian from the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California with some statements. And then in turn also greatly upset my Latino landsmen, by first wanting to be apologetic regarding my unwelcome observations and citations; people telling me I was compromising truth.

Under the stress of it all I uncouthly lashed out, while still struggling to understand the points of each side. And I totally fritzed out when I couldn’t sufficiently satisfy either community. I dealt with it badly out of frustration. I was wrong to be so harsh, unloading the complaints thrown at me upon this historian. I don’t feel it was his place to repudiate these statements, which weren’t his own anyhow. Yet, I also recognize that I dealt with it entirely wrong, and I apologize.

Now after months of doing nothing more than reconsidering and listening to the stories of both my Jewish and Mexican-American friends I have come to understand why I can’t fully satisfy all parties. Frankly, because some of us have been telling our urban legends and projecting our own mythos which simply cannot be harmonized with a fair and honest historical narrative. And its on all sides.

The story is not as neatly tied up as its most often been presented up until now. But the story can be rectified. And it needs to be, for the healing of the community of today. And for the peace of the neighborhood of tomorrow.

How I upset an established Jewish narrative

The point of contention came a couple of months ago when in my blog comments I was rightfully called to point by a board member of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, as I did not sufficiently acknowledge how great the influence the GI Bill played in providing upward mobility for many young people returning from WWII. As this act provided many people the first-time buyer home loans, which helped them settle in the communities newly opened to them in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley after the repeal of segregating “restrictive covenants.”

But he also took it upon himself to repudiate statement by another person who led a historical group tour through the neighborhood. Then made historical assertions that I am told are not entirely correct in light of real events and oral histories. And presented his much more politically correct story he prefers to tell. And in the end he very flippantly in tone dismissing my own observations as a native as some sort of propaganda and device from Fox News. Fighting words to use with someone like me who is a proud and active leftist in this community, not one of these people who is just left of the right. But I digress.

The point is, I built much of my original blog piece around the topic of community resources. How the decline of the institutions and the consolidation of resources within the Jewish community of the area rapidly accelerated their migration out of Boyle Heights out of practical necessity. I side-stepped all the issues of socio-economics, race, politics, the Red Scare, the riots, the levelling for freeways, etc. With the unspoken understanding of a local, that all these factors somewhat came into play in encouraging many people to move away from the area.

For reasons of tact I had quite intentionally tried to steer away from the topic of the historic racial frictions and even the inter-community conflicts. Only hinting at those things we all know well from history. I also decided not to directly bring up any of the issues of race, gangs or urban decline. Mostly because it has always been made well clear to me that the message which needed to be spread was one of friendship and brotherhood. I did my best, Yet I still upset the historian, and that really did perturb me.

Mostly because I had also gone to equally great lengths to sidestepped a competing local narrative, one often fed to our Latino youth. One that explains the demographic change much differently. A counter-narrative, one which is more well-known and most often blindly accepted on the streets of Boyle Heights. And that is what I need to address today. The conflict between two competing narratives .

The competing narrative of the local street culture

ChakaArtist

A few months ago in my weekly Torah study I talked about tribal and national symbols. And I then reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and talked about the intentionally divisive and racially charged way art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others.; including the African-Americans which local Latino racists are trying to burn out of the projects. And I also reflected how and why we need to move beyond that. It didn’t take long for this most infamous of graffiti artist to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

The narrative being told today on the streets today is not a new one. The narrative I hear today is exactly like the ones I heard hanging out in front of the Bonilla’s store at 8th and Mott as a kid. The bigger guys and our primos would tell their epic founding myths regarding Boyle Heights. Filled with their explanations for how this side of town became so throughly Mexican in character.

The street culture has always told the same spun narrative. That Boyle Heights used to be a mixed community with many Jews and Japanese people, and all kinds of ethnic groups. Often being beaten on by the other ethnic groups, Mexican formed gangs out of self-protection because the kids weren’t even safe enough to walk home from school. But that after the Zoot Suit riots the local Mexicans began to rise up, and then us Mexicans ran out all the white people out. Taking back the town back as a Chicano refuge. As this used to be Mexico anyway, we were just taking back our own land. And that this is the lesson of that supposedly revolutionary history, showing us how to take back and keep the neighborhoods that are ours.

I’m not going to mince words, nor beating around the bush. This explicitly nationalistic narrative which praises gang violence and terrorism is a total crock. In this area we have always had an ample amount of people telling themselves and others glorious Zoot Suit fantasies of how they “won” the neighborhood for us Mexicans. And on some level we all know it’s a full-load when we hear it. Nonetheless this is the most often heard story, and the one that people most often resort to for their racially charged ranting.

This dumb narrative is the whole basis of gang and racial violence in the area today. And it’s time people grow up and realize that this is just a myth. And recognize that insensible people are exploiting the fragmented history they know to suit their racist purposes.

Nonetheless this twisted view of history is the most widely accepted narrative among our young Latinos today, therefore it is incumbent upon me to address it. Even if, and especially if, it’s not true. Setting it aside for a more honest and healthy view of history.

Truth is, I don’t really need to tell this side of the story to any of the Mexican-American locals. We have heard this before plenty of times. And we are still hearing it from people who are more often using their street credibility and following for encouraging racial discord and intimidation. It’s disappointing.

People like the infamous graffito legend Daniel “Chaka” Ramos. He is one of the most well-respected street culture figures that many look up to. He’s another local-celebrity who speaks and then with awe the kids and the sycophants fall in line out of respect. But not all of us are willing to tolerate this tone anymore. He has a right to his views, but the rest of us also have the right to call such rants out as baloney and utter foolishness. We need to begin to demand that the talking heads in the community show more respect for the area, instead of asking us to devolve and literally trash the community in hopes of keeping people’s rent lower. And in hopes of scaring away other people from moving in.

It all boils down to gentrification

For those of you who live Boyle Heights at street level, you know why this topic comes to mind now. Because there is not a single conversation or topic taken on in town these days which does not inevitably descend into a battle for or against gentrification. Today it seems every change met with dislike within our community is blamed on this bogeyman known as gentrification.

As a side note, it’s also interesting looking back now at the original blog. Even as hopeful as my tone was at that time, I was also already showing my discomfort with the topic of gentrification. I even revealed my own fears surrounding an ominous “hipster invasion.” I’ll admit that as an old school punk rocker, I’ve never cared for yuppie-ish hipsters. I can’t relate to them. And I also have most certainly had my own fears about changes in the community eventually pricing-out many of the people I care for in the area, despite the safety of rent control many enjoy. I still felt obligated to fight for the preservation of the nostalgic characteristics of my most beloved neighborhood.

But a turn (or at least a conflict) in my sentiments came when the gentri-fear based hysteria broke out in full-force. And when I saw what many people explicitly meant by fighting gentrification. When I saw the tone of the populace go outright racist and antisemitic. When it turned to witch-hunting, instead of just mere protest.

The local talk on the streets and online turned clearly and outright antisemitic, after a Jewish sounding real estate agent named Moses Kagan clumsily set off the now infamous issue of the gentrification bike-tour flyer a few months ago. (see, “Gentri-Flyer Sets Off Storm in Boyle Height.”) Quite predictably, that one incident has now also made every other like events in town –  be it the Mariachi Run, or even CicLAvia – be colored as an invitation for white people to come see and “steal our homes.” Even odd rumors that Jews are wanting to take over the town again. Since the gentri-flyer incident there has been a growing suspicion of Anglos coming into town to gentrify the area, which is very much misplaced. People are literally calling for violence against those they perceive as “invading hipsters.” (see, “CicLAvia and Gentrification: Eastside expansion troubles some residents”)

In the case of this guy Kagan, I really know nothing about him other than from his blog. But I’m quite sure I don’t appreciate his views of struggling communities. And at the same time as being appalled by his views, I cannot help but be dismayed by the response of the local community. As in this thread, in the image below:

crossburningKAGAN

In this Facebook thread from a very popular Boyle Heights discussion group, someone shares a commonly passed around picture of Kagan. The picture characterized and defaced. With the posting party asking the community what we think of Kagan. Notice, people were more than comfortable to say what’s on their mind. And it’s not pretty. Calls for violence, uprisings and even a bit of antisemitic conspiracy theory thrown in. Rants that would ordinarily be laughable, if it wasn’t for the fact that people are irresponsibly spreading a picture of this Kagan guy around. Even as others have been openly threatening him, we still have people spreading his picture around, in what is often considered the most dangerous neighborhood west of Chicago. The last thing we need is for some angry people to be going out looking for some white, Jewish guy they expect to see on a bike.

These types of barrio incitement are dangerous. Descending to racism and violence, really? Near every post in the realm of local social media being flooded with race bating, really? This soils the honor of our community and the ethnic minorities who dwell here. We need to do better than this. We need to think better than this. This needs to stop now!

Of course, one doesn’t have to support gentrification. People have a right to be concerned. But we should never support racial discrimination and segregation in the community. We must call out the people who are using a seemingly legitimate protest against gentrification as their guise to spew racism. We also need to call out the passive sympathizers of that form of prejudice. This is the 21st century. People who are holding on to the old nationalism that has characterized this area for the past 45-years are on the wrong side of history!

Putting history in context and understanding the importance of a narrative

The reason it is important that I tackle this topic is because the local street culture is more frequently retelling the story their distorted way. This other narrative, that the Jews and other whites were run out of Boyle Heights. A gloriously exaggerated Zoot Suit and cholo mythology is being revived; as a response and solution to the future risk of gentrification.

Believing this myth, on the part of us Mexican is foolish. And the denial by many Jewish people of the reality of this alternative narrative is blind. It’s both our failures in not properly addressing this twisted story which the gangs and racists use as their recruitment material. Old urban legends that are as false as they are disturbing. A marginalizing view taking center stage in the oral histories as told on the streets and kickbacks of today’s Boyle Heights.

Quite honestly. I’m tired of the loud Mexican protesters of our community, my immature and hot-headed brothers, constantly badgering me that people don’t really tell, “the real Chicano side of the story.” The fact is these epic sagas they want to hear of are mostly fantasies. Their supposed gang and revolutionary victories are mostly in their own minds. So this story cannot be weaved into the fabric of our Boyle Heights history to their satisfaction. I am one who cannot “show proper respect” to the level which some people expect for their barrio narrative, simply because it’s a sham.

Actually, I have often discussed the topic of the Zoot Suit Riots. I even wrote about these events recently, when I gave some commentary on pachuco themed art in an exhibit here in town. And that’s the irony. If people knew the history of these events and the neighborhood well enough they would also see how the aftermath of the riots was not a descent into violent ethnic revolution, but instead became a rallying point in history for progressives of this community. Mobilizing Jews behind the cause of civil rights for Mexicans! (see “Experiencing INTERSECTION: Artists at the Breed Street Shul“)

Let me set the record straight. There is no way to put it nicely. These hood mistrals don’t know their own history, and are betraying their own barrio roots. How most of the gangs started off as useful things. The historical gangs we know were almost all started at the encouragement and mentor-ship of priests and coaches. Simple social and athletic clubs, according to the founding charters. To support and protect the kids of the neighborhood from idleness and the more seedy elements outside. To have a sense of camaraderie within the neighborhood.

We know the names of these gangs: White Fence, Big Hazard, Alpine Street, East Side Dukes, Breed Street, Maravilla and Macy Street. Gangs that have been around since the 1920 and 1930s, some even much further back than that. These groups were often segmented according to neighborhood, and most often divided by race.

But there were also the proud exceptions to the ethnic gangs, like the Wabash Saxons; a group that today we don’t really think of as a gang because they have more fully model their founding values as a community building social club to this very day. Often raising money for our community. That is not to say, pardon the honesty, that they were also a gang themselves at one time; some really good brawlers when necessary, by all accounts. Yet they more ideally modeled street culture of the community of their age during late 1930s to 1950s, with their crew being of mixed Jewish, Japanese and Latino membership. Multiracial and across all the lines. (see “Born in East LA: Through camaraderie and philanthropy, a group of friends stay connected to their past“)

Indeed groups like the Wabash Saxons and Macy Street social clubs; whose members grew up from their youth and returned to their essential goals as a social club and community service group, instead of as a street gang, makes them stand out to me as my type of heroes. Any group that follow such a path, I will honor and praise.

As we clearly see, the claim that gangs are a new thing the young people are doing is false. They have been here as long as people have lived here. But the gangs as they operate themselves today, are worse than they have ever been. Today they are divided not just by barrio and race, but also by nationality. Mexicans against Central Americans, and vice versa. American born against the foreign-born, and vice versa. Dumb divisions and blind hatred that just rips apart our community.

If the cliques, gangs and crews want to return to a more authentic golden age of Boyle Heights, they need to dig deep into their roots and return to their former social club ideals. To a time before they decided to take up guns, and before they became terrorist in our community instead of guardians. Before the racial friction of our area descended into full-on nationalism. Fact is that more and more people of the world are abandoning nationalism and racism, so if they don’t they are on their way to eventually being fully irrelevant.

Plainly, the barrio story tellers need to grow up and wake up to reality. Realize they were never as menacing and as impacting as they want to believe their efforts of intimidation and agitation were. They didn’t ever really scare all the white people of Boyle Heights away. Yes, some did leave because of gangs, but its foolish to believe it was most. The truth is most successful people just grew up, earned a bit of money, and moved on. Sadly though, in the barrio a great deal of people just refuse to grow up and let it go. And move on to the next level of existence, instead of constantly stirring a simmering pot of racial discord.

To understand why and which ways people have suggest you read the 2010 paper by Su-Shuan Chen, of UC San Diego who points out how this idealized narrative has propelled since the original “Boyle Heights” exhibit at Japanese American National Museum. The paper is titled, “History in the Making: The Construction of Community Memory and Racial Subjects in the Boyle Heights Exhibition” in 2002. In this 98-page thesis she explores the why, and which ways, people have had to downplay the harsher realities of Boyle Heights history. Discussing how only putting forth an image of Boyle Heights as a harmonious and model example of interethnic community has been intentional, and the silences an necessary device in order to bolster support for the community of Boyle Heights and deem it worthy enough of celebrating. She also asks us to consider, “what do these silences reveal about the workings of racial socioeconomic positioning in American society.”

To understand why and which ways people have sidestepped the racial frictions, I suggest you read the 2010 paper by Su-Shuan Chen, of UC San Diego who points out how this idealized narrative has propelled since the original “Boyle Heights” exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in 2002. The paper is titled, “History in the Making: The Construction of Community Memory and Racial Subjects in the Boyle Heights Exhibition.
In this 98-page thesis she explores the why, and in which ways, people have had to downplay the harsher realities of Boyle Heights history. Discussing how only putting forth an image of Boyle Heights as a harmonious and model example of interethnic community has been intentional, and the silences a necessary device in order to bolster support for the community of Boyle Heights and deem it worthy enough of celebrating. She also asks us to consider, “what do these silences reveal about the workings of racial socioeconomic positioning in American society.”

And to be brutally honest, my dissatisfaction is not just with the immature way the Latino community often deals with this narrative. I also think the Jewish community needs be a bit more mature in allowing people to tell their story their own way. No longer just dismissing nor getting all “oh well” with these old Jewish people when they mention their hardships surrounding the historical gang and racial problems. They should be allowed to make their reflections upon their life challenges, just as much as us Latinos, who are actually quite often given the community limelight to tell our barrio stories. Avoiding this dialogue is dishonest and robs the larger community of needed observations regarding the implications of the historical racial challenges and misunderstanding. We need to learn what the problems were and how they worked to overcome them, and not be deprived of that for reasons of political correctness.

It’s foolish for any Jewish historians to deny the frank reality that is presented to anyone who sits long enough to listen to the old Jewish residents of Boyle Heights. Many of whom are very dear friends of mine and very open with me. People who explain to me that they left the community for many of the same reasons other people did. This is the reality of it. The awkward avoidance of these facts, put forth in order to avoid the possibility of being labeled racist or being accused of “white flight,” is illogical and defective.

As well-meaning as it is, there is something that is very wrong with people continuously saying, “Racism didn’t exist here. No one had any bad feelings about the other person’s color, their religion, their beliefs.” Because that wasn’t true for everyone, and it was less true for and towards us Mexicans.

Now, I’m not saying that the Jewish community should feel obligated to take on our urban crisis. They are not obligated to drudge up the junk of the past. They aren’t obligated to delve directly into that narrative. But when people do give their oral histories about how those elements negatively effected them, we need to not silence them or clam up. We should at least have the sophistication to not get all nervous, and just simply explain how gangs were something ubiquitous to the inner city immigrant experience of those days for all minority groups (Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Latino, etc.). That while the gangs of today are deep-rooted in the history of this community, they are different in nature today. That yes, racial discord did sometimes exist, but that on the whole the community was actually more peaceful and respectful than people might imagine for such a community prior to the civil right movements. It’s an honestly simple and painless response.

As I’ve said it before, I think Jewish historical scholars are well-meaning in wanting to only show the harmonious and cooperative moments they had with minorities in the past, to show the overall leftist and non-racist face of American Jewry. But their sometimes rose-tinted view of history exposes a certain level of privilege Jews have to sugar coat their urban history that way, which us racialized minorities do not. That we cannot, because we still have to abide here and live under the shadow of these things. So the respectful thing to do is at least recognize that. There is a limit to how much we can pretend and explain away these things for other people.

Furthermore, the excuses that are often given to apologetically explain away our gang problems here by most of the well-meaning white progressives has always been to just call the gang terrorism a manifestation of the given “social contract” of the barrio. Now that is just a bunch of over-thought nonsense long ago formulated by sociologists from a safe position of privilege. Fed to us minorities, with the sad consequence of leaving us to feel like we have no chance or responsibility to overcome that challenge of the hood. Simmering it all down to an abstract concept. It’s rubbish to talk of any community that way. Its patronizing and a bit offensive.

It’s not right for people to trivialize or apologize for the causes of the hate us barrio dwellers suffer. Just because the narrating people are too squeamish to hear anyone admit that our often insular community still has deep-seated racial and religious prejudices our people here have never really overcome. Suffering which exists for us today, in the here and now.

Respect and balance in the way we tell our history is something I’m learning myself, as a Mexican and as a Jew. I shake my fingers at both communities when necessary, because I am both Mexican and Jewish. I know that I am rough with my confessions. But its a tough spot I’m in, being stretched between the two communities sometimes. This is my reality, not my mere study. Being called on more often these days to give some perspective and calm to the community as we explore our roots together. People calling on me simply because they know I’ll be honest, if not always tactful. And because I truly care for the whole community, even our knuckle-heads.

Recently I was called upon by some people with whom I often have group discussions with. They were really upset because they had some explosive interactions with urban explorers coming to visit Boyle Heights. After what did seem to be spats initially started by local people making sharp remarks about the presence of these white tourists, these guys snapped back about how their grandparents were original Jewish residents of Boyle Heights, “before there were any Mexicans here.” When I heard this I hit my head against the desk, because i knew what was to come. Accusation that this is what the area tour groups led by “outsiders” are teaching people. Followed by a whole torrent online of Mexican nationalism and feverish attacks on the foundational stories of the Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles and the Jewish community; nasty things which people felt was the appropriate retort to such an error on the part of these sharp-tongued white youth.

My resolve has since been to at least try not be so sharp-tongued myself, lest my own pointed statements also be misconstrued. (Yeah, wish me luck on that one!). In response I instead decided to post and discuss old pictures going back to the early days of the community. And showing maps of how the land was settled over time. Showing how the making of Boyle Heights into the place we so love today was a joint effort on the part of all the diverse minorities who flooded into the area together.

And in response to the equally false retaliatory assertion that Jews were not actually a sizable majority during the early days of the Boyle Heights community, I presented this very compelling article. Not just to verify that simple fact, but to reflect on the goods points this author made. In 1955 when Boyle Heights was still mostly only on the map as a well-known Jewish community, a Mexican-American activist named Frances Lym wrote of the community this way:

Boyle Heights is a section of Los Angeles with a tradition handed down by ‘old timers’ who made it widely known as a center of many different cultural groups. While it was predominantly Jewish in the beginning, a rapidly growing Mexican community has grown up in the area. People’s struggles for a better life have been carried on jointly by those two groups. Today the community is changing. Many Jewish people are moving out, particularly among the younger generation. On the other hand, the Mexican community, which has always formed a part of the area, is expanding rapidly.”

Brotherhood in Boyle Heights: Inter-cultural activity of Mexican-Americans

with other groups in a section of Los Angeles furthers local democratic unity

by Frances Lym

Jewish Life Magazine, September 1955

There are a lot of things we can historically debate. But the deep historical roots of Jewish people in this area is not one of them. What I can say for sure is that a lot of people did dwell together in harmony as a mixed community in old Boyle Heights. Our community saw better days as a mixed neighborhood. With a unique blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. We have a long standing tradition and heritage of multiculturalism in this neighborhood. A legacy that needs to be preserved and encouraged. This is a picture of our community we need to foster now more than ever.

But still I cannot agree with the revisionists who make old Boyle Heights out to be a haven of equality, where inter-racial respect was just a given. Nor fully agree with those writers who make grand statements, such as the claim that Boyle Heights was a place, “where integration was a fact before it became a cause.” (David Kipen. “Tales of a ’hood: An American Multicultural Mecca in Historic Boyle Heights”) These statements makes people feel better about the area’s mixed up past, but it’s just wrong.

How do I dare say its historically wrong to paint old Boyle Heights that way? How do I have the gall to call this view foolish? The final paragraph of that article from 1955 by this old school Mexican activist Frances Lym read this way:

It would be folly to leave the impression that full integration has taken place in Boyle Heights. The area is no Garden of Eden of brotherhood. But a firm groundwork has been laid. The people are aware of their own national culture and are developing interest in and respect for peoples’ culture. These developments make for better relationships between the groups and provide favorable ground for joint activity in the interests of the community as a whole, whether through participation in inter-cultural or political activities.”

Jewish Life Magazine, September 1955

Of course full integration was never fully achieved, as everyone else left the area in the few short years following that article. As we see, that work was left incomplete and its now for us to take up that charge. She made her point clear as to what we need to do here. Namely, that we need to have cross-cultural participation in joint activities for the betterment of the entire community of Boyle Heights.

Why does understanding this point matter? Why do I feel the need to point out this view of history now? Because it has been 59 years this month since that article was published, and we still as of yet haven’t integrated. Our community is more segregated than ever. In fact, current events show that we are even less able to hold mixed events on the eastside without people getting hysterical and protesting based on lines of ethnicity. But we need to get to that place though. You gotta wonder; if not now, when?

Now I’m asking all in the community to embrace heritage over urban legends. I am also asking people to get involved and learn about our past. Engage it and teach it to our children. Read books and go to lectures. Get involved in the community events and programs. Encourage and participate in cross-cultural events and political activities here. And of course support invaluable projects like the Breed Street Shul Project, which hosts the most inspiring cultural exchanges around. And even the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who I have so battered with my own responsive critique, as they are truly doing a good work; and in the bigger picture I agree with their vision and their aims.


My responses to the Facebook questions surrounding Moses Kagan

Who is he? This is the first I’ve ever heard of this guy. But based on the quote provided, I’m quite sure I don’t like his view of struggling communities. That said, it must be at least acknowledged that this quote is taken out of context. I assume that we are quoting this blog post of his?

Notice how in context he is talking about the Byzantine quarter between the westside and Westlake. This is the way he thinks of another community he’s not from, but not necessarily about us. He’s talking about people like us. Is it concerning that he has these views? Absolutely. But so far I see nothing more than a foolish guy that doesn’t get local charm or sentiments. By examination of his associations he seems to be a cookie-cutter liberal Democrat, not either a racist nor an extremist. By affiliation he’s apparently some sort of a typical well meaning anglo person who doesn’t have a clue that true racism exists in BH, so he thinks he’s helping. At first glance he appears to me to be a type of person that is unhelpful for this community because he is dispassionate about our problems of class and race and socio-economics, instead wanting to know how to help he thinks he has it figured out. But thats just my opinion and conjecture. As aside from his blog I just Googled, I know nothing about him. Has he been cited elsewhere? Has anyone spoken with him or even personally seen him out here in the community?

What is there to do about this guy other than engage him in a heavy discussion about his vision? Though notice that it doesn’t appear that this guy is an investor, buyer or seller. He appears to be a real estate agent, no? It’s not like we can bar him or people like him from the community, as that would a violation of the federal civil rights act and the fair housing act. Now I certainly don’t like the idea of real estate agents who sound like poachers coming into the neighborhood with half-baked and uppity ideas.

But I’m equally concerned at the lack of sense that locals are still showing in the face of this “threat” with their over reacting. In going after this guy you are essentially saying you would prefer that we went back to the real estate rules prior to 1948 and just have a “gentleman’s agreement” and “covenants” which pre-determine if the person is the right race to buy in our area. Are protesters essentially asking us to not allow real estate agents to show houses put up for sale in our neighborhoods to others unless we like the race (and religion, apparently) of that person? Like that doesn’t harm our proud homeowners! What makes this different from cross-burning?

We CAN respond to this in proactive ways which establish us and future generations. Maybe we need our own local real estate agents to help our locals and immigrant families become home owners. Help people buy the home they rent or elsewhere in this community of their choosing. In the past we had proud Latino organizations which offered a lot of help and mentor-ship in home ownership and small business making, like the American GI Forum. But since then those groups have faded into the background. Now maybe some friendly agents and agencies with some smarts in real estate can take up a charge in this time of need?

And btw, what is with all this antisemitic rant? You know what is really appalling is when we have people still running around with dumb conspiracy theories about Jews.

I can excuse that people don’t know much about the settlement of BH and how parallel the rise of Mexican-Americans was with the Jewish people in permanent residential settlement here. How shared our experience was. We all know the urban legend following people, who are living off some mythic golden BH past that never existed before the mid-to-late 19th century. But thats excusable as it’s far off. Thats beyond view of our own eyes and lifetime.

But it’s really inexcusable to be ignorant of how much the local Jewish community has done to help promote the equality of minorities in our own lifetimes. A community of Jewish progressives that were on our side even when no other group would help or fund our cause. Right here in this community. Before most of us minorities even had a clear vision of civil rights these people helped us rise to political reckoning by strongly helping us elect Roybal to office even over and against another Jewish candidate, understanding we needed a voice and sense of self-determination in our shared community as well. That’s their relationship to us. The Eastern European Jews have been our allies, its foolish to paint them as el cucuy.

Their contribution is not just the past. Laying the foundation of many of our youth centers. They are still funding many projects and providing for many needs in our community. You notice a Jewish sounding name when it comes to this guy, but do you ever notice on the donations checks and on the donor walls of our institutions? Who do you think RHS calls upon when they need new gear, because they know they will come through? It’s not because they are stingy. It’s because they have a religious mandate to give charity and to help the “stranger and immigrant” as the bible says. And even more so because of their horrible experiences as battered immigrants themselves all over the world, they have loudly promoted immigrants rights out of complete sympathy.

If you don’t know about the deep interdependence of the Jewish community with the Mexican-American community in Boyle Heights, you can pick up whole books on the subject. Also see “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews,” by USC Professor George Sanchez.

I am not unknown to take on someone from the Jewish community that is being insensitive and wrong, but that is not what we have here is it? I will happily engage a hearty discussion when the communities have misunderstandings, but this supposed influx of Jewish settler “hipsters” is a phantasm and therefore unaddressable. He is not some Jewish missionary coming into steal our lands. He’s certainly not affiliated with any Jewish projects or causes in the area. How is he representative of the Jews? What does one mean by profiling and going after this guy because he has an Eastern European sounding name? Do you hate him because of his race or his religion? Which do you think makes him evil and a money grubber? What type of bigots are you asking us to be?

Recommended articles:


Experiencing INTERSECTION: Artists at the Breed Street Shul


Celebrating Art Culture in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

After being extended a second week due to the excitement surrounding this exhibition, the latest open house of the Breed Street Shul Project cheerfully closes as a great success. Running from May 31st through June 13th, this gorgeous art show featured local Jewish, Japanese and Latino artists – representing three of the foundational historic communities of Boyle Heights.

"Nigun for Peace" by Lori Shocket and Seigfried Knop

“Nigun for Peace” by Lori Shocket and Seigfried Knop. With the mostly holy Jewish confession, the Shema written in Hebrew cursive script

This stands out as a major milestone in what has become a nearly 20-year restoration and revitalization effort at this historic site. With their hard work now being realized with such gorgeous and stunning results.

In recent years the Breed Street Shul Project has been celebrating the historical roots of the community of Boyle Heights through a series of special events ranging from lectures to historic banquets. And in celebrating life by hosting special events ranging from bar mitzvahs to pre-Grammy celebration parties. And welcoming festivities ranging from Israel Independence Day events like Fiesta Shalom, to the revelry of the Dia de los Meuertos celebrations. As well as giving guided tours of the historic eastside immigrant community.

This latest installment of Boyle Heights culture focused on art, and resulted in the stunning temporary transformation of the Beit Midrash – the original 1915 wood-framed study hall which first housed the synagogue, in the back – into a stunning art gallery. Professionally balanced in both light and tone.

The range of art and the subjects of inspiration also masterfully balanced. This show presented amazing pieces of mixed media art and fine painting. Using touching and striking images, to present the glory and  the tragedies of the Boyle Heights experience.

Portrait of Breed Street Shul, imaged upon recycled pages of Jewish prayers

Portrait of Breed Street Shul, imaged upon recycled pages of Jewish prayers

Immediately on display, viewers are greeted by a large portrait of the Breed Street Shul. One of the oldest known images of the larger brick synagogue which graces the front of the property. This larger sanctuary opened for services in 1923. The shul is shown in all its original splendor, before southern California’s notorious earthquakes destroyed the ornamental brickwork and cast stones. However, if you look closely at the portrait one will see the portrait has been imaged over recycled Jewish liturgical texts by artist Lori Shocket.

This show, which ran up until the Father’s Day weekend, touchingly displayed the collaborative work of physician Lori Shocket, and her artistically acclaimed father and holocaust survivor Seigfried Knop.

The duo’s “partnership paintings” are breathtaking blends acrylic and pastels. Each baring the timeless words of the most holy Jewish confession in Hebrew script, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Echad / Hear oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” (Deut. 6:4) Each depiction is of the grand stained glass windows of the shul. The abstract “Diffraction,” the somber “Defacement,” and the bright “Niggun for Hope.”

"Prayer for..."As impressive as the painting are, their mixed-media presentations also offered deep Jewish cultural and religious themes that should not be overlooked.

“Prayer for…” breaks the concept of canvas as a box display of the Kotel – the most holy Western Wall in Jerusalem. With a crack in the wall filled with prayers, as is the custom of the site. The surface of the wall is in the hue of Jerusalem Stone, met with a faint representation of a section of closely toned Torah Scroll parchment. This work pulls in the viewer, almost daring them to leave a hope and prayer of their own.

613 Mitzvot“613 Mitzvot” reminds us of the 248 positive and 365 negative commandments of the Torah; the do’s and do not’s of the scriptures which govern Jewish religious life. The partially covered magen david – the star of David – reminds us of the grand window of the shul once again. Raised from the canvas is the expression of a tallit – a ritual prayer prayer shawl. The four-cornered garment itself bearing a light display of handwritten Hebrew text, with the Torah prescribed tzitzit tasseling off the canvas. The four-cornered garment hints at the concept of being wrapped in the holy thoughts of Torah, whereas the tzitzit represent the commandments of Torah put into practice and action. We must have both the meeting of thought and action to accomplish mitzvot – good deeds.

Local Latino artist and muralist Fabian Debora also connects with the Jewish character of the site in the truly amazing and richly painted “Graffittied Rabbi,” which layers themes of urban Jewish life and barrio artistry. The chassid facing a wall of graff-styled Hebrew.

"Graffittied Rabbi" by Fabian Debora

“Graffittied Rabbi” by Fabian Debora. The art of this exhibit so nicely blending in with the historic art surrounding the bima and the Torah Ark

Fabian Debora was raised in Boyle Heights and created his first artwork as a young gang member on the walls of the Breed Street Shul itself. He has since grown, rehabilitated himself and gone on to become one of most well-respected of the local artists to take their inspiration from the Chicano muralist tradition. In addition to his professional artistry he is also active with Homeboy Industries Inc., as a drug counselor and helping others also emerging from the hardships of gang life. It seems only right that his evolution as an artist and resident is celebrated in this exhibition. And that his art once again return to these halls in a positive way.

It is important that viewers take notice that it was not just synagogue and Jewish themed art which took the spotlight at this art show.

Fabian also joined fellow Boyle Heights resident Mike Saijo in delivering themes apropos to the surrounding neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Some of these works bringing to remembrance times of hardship and social upheaval significant to all members of this community.

Mike Saijo is a well-respected and recognized local artist, as well as the artistic brainchild who helped bring this group of diverse artists together for this unique show. Siajo’s work often touches on issues of diversity and racial prejudice, focusing on the experiences of the Japanese, Jewish and Latino communities circa WWII. He once again delivers a wonderful presentation of ethnically diverse themes.

"The Portrait of Natsuhara Family" by Mike Saijo

Portrait of Natasurah Family,” by Mike Siajo

Saijo’s work “Evergreen” is a framed piece of layered mixed-media art, depicting the eerie beauty of the Japanese section of the local Boyle Heights cemetery just blocks away. It is one of the most beloved of cemetery sections in the local community.

The piece “Portrait of Natasurah Family,” is a gleaming and classy presentation of mixed-media art. The handsome family portrait is imaged over the pages of “Story of an Issei Pioneer.” This piece gives us a small glimpse into the lives of the people who struggled as first generation Japanese-Americans from the 1880s through the 1940s.

Fabian Debora delivered another homage to the Japanese community of Boyle Heights, while touching on one of the most darkest points of this community’s history; the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. His use of canvas and paint to carry this story is nothing short of tremendous, here in his pieces titled “In Torment.”

Story of the interment of Japanese-Americans

“In Torment” by Fabian Debora, tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans

The internment of the Japanese-Americans. It cannot be overstated just how much this event scarred those who lived through it, and how this episode tore at the fabric of our community. Especially traumatizing the youth of the community who saw their classmates taken away and placed behind fences. Calling into question for each immigrant group their own safety, by seeing people as American as themselves taken away under suspicion.

This historic tragedy is something many people in Boyle Heights still discuss, as for some this event still calls into question the veracity of ones own American citizenship to isolate them from injustice and xenophobia. However, so traumatic and so great were the losses of both pride and property that I know local Japanese families who do not ever talk about their experiences with their children so as not to cause them to think ill of the USA. Not all the wounds have healed yet.

The Japanese community here was never fully restored to its former glory after the war, and is much smaller yet today. It’s important we do not forget them and tell their story. And that we express just how shared this pain was for the rest of the Boyle Heights community.

This is not the only shared pain which is vividly presented in this art exhibition, Mike Saijo present us with, “Orpheum (Theater of War).” He uses a mixed-media once again, along with mechanical motions, to tell the brutal story of the Zoot Suit Riots which ripped through the minority communities of Los Angeles 1943.

While the riots are part of the oral history of the area, and central to the foundation myths of the Chicano street culture, few young people today understand the details of this deeply traumatic time for both Latinos, and the many Jews of Boyle Heights.

"Orpheum (Theater of War)" by Mike Siajo. This talented Japanese American artist touches on the Zoot Suit Riots

“Orpheum (Theater of War)” by Mike Siajo. This talented Japanese-American artist touches on the Zoot Suit Riots

In this piece we get to peer into the pages of history, to see the horror of US servicemen attacking Mexican pachucos in the historic Orpheum Theater. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. It only took the rumor of a gang stabbing and petty crimes to set in motion a brutal wave of violence against these young Latinos. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

The Zoot Suit Riots. As displayed in this piece, servicemen undressed and beat their victims. Defrocking Mexican youth of their infamous baggy dress suits and tearing them to shreds as a protest to the supposed appearance of excess and opportunism during the lean times of war. An orgy of violence against those they perceived as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and for this reason threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community.

The first vestiges of a viable Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949. Kicking off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities.

"I'm a Pachuco Bastard" by Fabian Debora

“I’m a Pachuco Bastard” by Fabian Debora

But at the same time this period also sparked the birth of the modern street-gang culture we know today. The pachuco gangs being the precursors to the cholos we know today. The lingering sentiments after the riots would further propel the rebellious impetus for national self-identity within the street-gang culture. A need to self-define and stand distinct in response to one’s feeling of otherness, which is still present in gang life today just as much as then.

Fabian Debora vividly and credibly takes us into an even more sublime thought. In his work “I’m a Pachuco Bastard,” which also looks back to the Zoot Suit Riots. His work is more than just a bold affirmation torn off the slur. It takes a look at one person, and tells a classic Mexican-American story of conflict for him. Conflict with the society which one would hope to embrace him, and the fear of being the victim of that society as well. As we all ask the same questions looking at this piece, is he going to be embraced or is he being handcuffed? And which does our subject really want for himself anyhow? Does his face show sadness, hardness or indifference?

Both “I’m a Pachuco Bastard” and the final piece of this collection titled “Meet on Brooklyn Avenue,” beautifully display how well Fabian can intertwine the elements of high art with graffiti texture. And he’s even more exceptional at using his images to tease a story into the imagination of the observer. As in this final piece, with the meeting of three men whom we cannot identify except by a cropped view of their suits. We are left to start building a story: is this a pachuco, a chassid and Japanese man on good old Brooklyn? And what do we think the news of the day was for the corner gossip? We are drawn into wanting to ask so many questions. This is one of the many reasons I find his work so captivating.

Now I’m not an artist, and I don’t really have any artistic knowledge. I’m just an eastide boy who knows I like and what moves me. I really think that all the pieces of this show are just bursting with sentimental feelings of heritage to share. I appreciate being able to go on this artistic journey through the history and spirit of Boyle Heights with these fine artists.

"Meet  on Brooklyn Ave" by Fabian Debora

“Meet on Brooklyn Ave” by Fabian Debora

As I did my walk through I got a chance to grab a chat with Breed Street Shul Project Executive Director Sherry Marks, and she shared her deep excitement to finally see an art show at the shul. As this is one of the most expressive and dynamic of the events in this open house series. She also expressed how hopeful she is as they branch out into new areas of art and cultural expression as well. She mused of the idea of even possibly hosting drama and theater here one day! As there are so many wonderful possibilities that will open up for this site as it continues to be renovated to serve as a community cultural center.

Visiting the Breed Street Shul is always an exciting time for me. But I think more that just being appreciative of the beauty of the site and its rich history, I think one of the draws for me is how much I learn from the community interaction to be found at these really spectacular events hosted by the project. This site draws so many different people together. It is a meeting spot where both old and new Boyle Heights folk get the chance to exchange heartfelt stories and memories about the neighborhood they love.

One of the reasons we need the Breed Street Shul is this site charmingly brings people together and remind us that our various minority groups have been in this boat together for a long time. And that our historical pains, they have been shared pains. And this site also bears witness to how much we have all benefited from the diversity of our glorious past. And these events here, they help us remember and retain the multiculturalism and diversity of that Boyle Heights experience.

…To be continued, with a story of the Wabash Saxons Reunion! For more images or the art, see video below!

Recommended articles and points of interest:


Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

boyle_2994

Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

2234392892_eca3a88029

The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

tour

breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

dscn4238

The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

Related articles:


Parshat Pekudei (5774)


Exodus 38:21-40:38

What Moses Teaches Us About Blessing People’s Accomplishments

mosesblessingChagall

What is this blessing really for? The objects or the people? And why does Moses bless them at the end of their task, and not at the start?

Do you think our religious communities do enough to honor and encourage artistic contributions? What examples does the Torah have for us on how to respond to people’s creativity?

We are going to discuss creative artistry again this week. Are you proud of your craft and trade? Are you a person who takes pride in the beautiful and goodly things which you have helped create?

This week we are completing Shemot (The Book of Exodus), with the reading of Parshat Pekudei. We are also going to begin to look at our parsha from the point in which the people have just completed their work on the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

In the fourth aliya we read that after the people made everything, “now they brought the Mishkan to Moses, the tent and all its furnishings…” (Exodus 39:33) Everything, all the items, including the items to be housed inside. They are all accounted for as they are brought before Moses in this fourth Torah reading.

Now that these items are completed, the objects and the people are blessed, as our text reads:

“Moses saw all the work

and behold, they done it;

just as the L-rd commanded,

so they had done it.

So Moses blessed them.”

| Vayar Moshe et-kol-hamelachah

| vehineh asu otah

| ka’asher tzivah Hashem

| ken asu

| vayevarech otam Moshe

Exodus 39:43

How notice it might appear that Moses was blessing the items. The people had made them just so, and now he blessed them – the items of the Mishkan. However, many of our rabbis contend that the final blessing is primarily for the people, and not necessarily for the items themselves. The people made good in actualizing the vision of the Mishkan as delivered through Moses, so he blessed them.

Their reason for seeing it this way is because this type of application of “vayevarech” is quite often used for people. From the beginning of the Torah, the phrase “vayevarech otam” is used in relation to people and living things; otam means them, them people. After man and woman were created, we see that G-d blessed the people. Our Torah reads, “vayevarech otam elohim vayomer lachem elohim peru urevu umil’u et-haretz / And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” (Genesis 1:28) The “them” is the people, not the objects.

As students of the rabbinic tradition, we choose to see it this way because we are aware that we have a living Torah. When we look into the lessons of Torah, they are not just existent for one distant point in history. We are able to, and indeed we must find, an application for our lives today. In a post-Temple reality, the true focus is the building up of people and not shrines.

However, in all honestly I must point out that we do actually see the term vayevarech used to mean a blessing for people, as well as conveying a blessing upon their possessions by extension. We see this was even true already in the time of the Judges, and even in the presence of the Tabernacle items themselves: “And the Ark of G-d remained with the family of Obed-edom in his house three months; and Hashem blessed (vayevarech Hashem) the household of Obed-edom, and all that he had.” Because of their act of hospitality to the Ark they were blessed, along with their possessions.

Now just for a second, I want to hit on that topic of sacred space. Making space for G-d in our lives. In fact that is what the whole point of this Mishkan is for, in order that people make a dwelling place for G-d. As commanded, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (veshachan’ti betocham).” (Exodus 25:8)

When we consider it, our understanding of the Divine is that G-d is beyond any understanding or representation. Nothing created, in fact not even all of creation, would be able to contain G-d’s type of raw energy. G-d is just that awesome and transcendent.

So why are they doing this? We actually don’t need to ponder too much. We act like what the Israelites were doing here is so strange and weird, making this Mishkan. When in reality they were just doing what we also do today, taking ordinary things of a mundane nature, then making something holy and extra-ordinary out of them. By taking what they had and making a mitzvah out of it, the Israelites elevated their possessions and raw materials to a level of sacredness that wasn’t there for them before.

The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls our attention to the human element over the physical relics even more so:

“’Let them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them’ – not ‘in it’ but ‘in them‘ — not in the building but its builders, not in wood and metal, bricks or stone, but in those who build and those who worship. It is not objects, buildings, or places that are holy-in-themselves. Only acts of heart and mind can endow them with holiness.” [emphasis added; to show how the Rabbi is directing our attention to his understanding of the ב in this phrase]

G-d does not just ask us to make Him a place to dwell with us, but to dwell within us. G-d is not One to merely dwell in objects, He is manifesting in us through the creative acts which we dedicate to His service. In our handiwork we are able to create things of holiness and sanctity. We are able to make sacred space in ourselves, and through toil actualize it as a physical reality as well. The more we create, the more presence of the Divine we have in our lives.

Through our skills and creativity, we make a space for the Presence of G-d to dwell with and with-in us.

Now to bring us back to the blessing itself. As the people finish bringing forward all the fixtures, now Moses blesses the people and the items they have made for the Mishkan. Let us take notice of how Moses responded to their handiwork. He didn’t just give them a “thank you,” nor did he merely praise them. No instead, “vayevarech otam Moshe / Moses blessed them.”

Now what is the difference? And why does he bless them here at this point, after they created everything? This is actually a curious question, because as we know, in nearly all cases we bless before we perform a mitzvah. (Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7) One ought to bless first, but here we have their blessing last.

It’s even more curious to many of us Sephardim and Chassidm, as we are most often used to asking our Rav and Rebbe (our personal rabbi) for a blessing before we embark on any big venture or task. Seeking a sign of approval from our Rav, which also comes with a blessing to help us along in whatever our pursuits are. But this is something different here, when Moses blesses them last. So why is this?

First off, we should take notice of how G-d Himself blesses. As we spoke of in Genesis chapter 1 with the creation of people and animals, they are worthy of blessing upon their completion. Humans being blessed after their creation was complete. After they were completely formed, “vayevarech otam / [He] blessed them. Moses likewise blessed upon the completion of the Mishkan items. Something is especially worth of a blessing once it is completed.

Actually, if we consider it. The fact that we accomplish something is a reason in itself to bless. Many people, myself included, have put their hand at many projects. But few of them actually get completed in the end. Be it circumstance or just a matter of our own waning enthusiasm, completing a project is not as easy as starting. Many of us can look back over the years and see numerous half-built and incomplete endeavors along our journey. For this reason it is even more appropriate that we should also bless after a completed project. To start a great task is honorable, but to complete a task is really worthy of blessing.

As a community, we should recognize and receive the creative and artistic works of the people in our communities with our blessings. Taking notice of skill and complexity of people’s contributions. Embracing their imaginative forms of Jewish expression, especially through the arts. Honoring the dedication and skill that went into producing them. Blessing the items, but also blessing the people as well. But how should we then bless?

Though the Torah does not tell us how Moses blessed, Rashi tells what the rabbis believed he said. The commentary surrounding this reads:

So Moses blessed them: He said to them:

May it be His will that the Shechinah should rest in the work of your hands.

And may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and establish the work of our hands for us, and the work of our hands establish it.” (Ps. 90:17)

This is one of the eleven psalms in “A prayer of Moses” (Ps. 90:1).”

ויברך אותם משה: אמר להם

יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתִּשְׁרֶה שְׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲשֶֹה יְדֵיכֶם:

וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ: (תהלים צ יז)

והוא אחד מאחד עשר מזמורים שבתפלה למשה:

Rashi to Exodus 39:43, from Num. Rabbah 12:9

As we look at these blessings we are presented with one phrase which was handed down through our rabbinic tradition, and we also have another verse from one of the eleven Psalms attributed to Moses.

Now what do we notice about these blessings? As I have asserted, they do also seem to apply to when one blesses actual items; mere objects. This is obvious from the use of the phrases “bema’aseh yadechem / in the works of your hands” and “uma’aseh yaddeinu / the works of our hands.”

But its is also completely logical for the rabbis to make the assertion that we are talking about a blessing primarily for the people right now, as later on the items are actually consecrated themselves. By looking at it this way, the tone of the statement changes. So that we are asking G-d to bless others and ourselves in our ma’aseh yadeinu – in the works (ma’aseh; the actions, the deeds; the positive actions) of our hands.

In such a blessing as this one it is asking for a person’s creative abilities and actions to be blessed, so that we will see many more good deeds to come in the future. From Moses’ example we learn that we should spring forward to bless people for the works of your hands. This is more than just a mere thank-you, and acknowledgement that one did a good job. When we bless a person we are doing so much more. We bless them with the hopes that G-d gives them the strength to continue to be a blessing to the whole congregation of Israel.

So now as we complete the book of Exodus, and move into the next book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik / Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen!” May we take strength is our completion of this book of Torah and be strengthened with blessings for the journey yet ahead!

Things to Consider: Can you say that you truly take pride in the things which you have completed? Can you identify some projects and goals that you have not yet fully actualized yet? How do you keep momentum up while working on long projects? What helps you keep focus, so that you follow through until the end?

One of the reason it is important to complete our goals, and not just shy away from them because of distraction or even boredom, is because as we fulfill our goals our confidence increases. The feedback from our accomplishments and the pride we have in the final deeds, this nurtures our self-confidence. Just by virtue of completing what we start, we reinforce in ourselves that we have what it takes to complete our goals in the future. However, leaving incomplete goals scattered about can be demoralizing,

Related articles:


Parshat Terumah (5774)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

G-d Asks for the Work of the Artisan

This parsha is about beauty and closeness to G-d. It is displayed for us through the story and details surrounding the creation of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – as well as the holy ritual objects of the sanctuary. Today our chumash reading explains the work and artistry that went into the creation of the first temple compound. So this week’s lesson is about the work of the artist as well.

This iotti tailors one of the most loved of the parashiot for the artists and the craftsman. This parsha lays out the details of the holy place and items that were to be constructed. We read not just of the holy tent, but also learn the details concerning the most sacred and precious items such as the Ark of the Covenant and Menorah. For this reason architects and artisans alike have often turned to this parsha for grand inspiration.

So I come looking for something to speak to that creativity deep in me. And most surprisingly I find myself lingering here in our fifth reading.

At the top of our text it presents us with the instructions for certain items that needed to be woven for the mishkan. Among them are the parochet and the masach – the dividing partition and the screen-door to the inner-sanctuary.

This reading begins by detailing the first of these items that secure the tent sanctuary. It starts with the parochet – the cloth partition wall, the so-called “veil” of the tabernacle. We read:

“And you shall make a dividing curtain

of blue,

purple,

crimson,

and fine twisted linen –

the work of a master weaver.

And woven on to it shall be cherubim.”

| Ve’asita parochet

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh choshev

| ya’aseh otah keruvim.

Exodus 26:31

Near the end of our reading we have an almost identical verse as it describes the masach. Here we also read:

“And you shall make a screen

for the door of the tent

of blue,

purple,

crimson,

and fine twisted linen –

the work of an embroiderer.”

| Ve’asita masach

| lefetach ha’ohel

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh rokem

Exodus 26:36

These verses may not seem very deep, but they speak a lot to me. Of course for the scholar and the masters there are many deep and amazing things that can be brought down for these verses. About the colors spoken of (tichelet!), about the use of linen and the use of wool, or even the glory of G-d that they are supposed to be shrouded within. But today I’m not talking to scholars or tzadkim – I’m talking to the ben-oni, the common man like me, who face the everyday hardships and sorrows. I’ll tell you what I see.

When I look at this verse, even in my very common ways, I can’t help but be struck by the beauty of these verses. Me of all people, who is known for being rough. Yes, the punk exterior of me and my pals often comes off as boorish and untamed to some people. And then I sit and ask strangers to entertain the beauty of weaving and needlepoint, as with this text. That’s just my way.

They listen to me because of my sincerity as I ask them to practically consider crochet and doilies. With an attention to the delicacy that is so polar opposite to the role I’m supposed to play in their mind.

I can talk about it with passion because in this I see more than the facts and the Talmudic connections that slice through this text in my mind as I read. I get caught in the colors and the texture of it all.

And truth is, this text also touches me in a way that even I least expect. Not just because of the frilly and froufrou nature of these works. But also because these verses talk about division and separation. The protecting of the sacred space, by shrouding its inner sacredness from the outside. My rebel nature doesn’t like the idea of not being let in, I want to see it all and right now. That is how my anxious and curious nature normally works.

And so it is in the minds of many anxious and inspired readers as they read this parsha. We notice of all the wonders of the holy space and the sacred objects, and just when we get to the good parts, we then read about the partitions and screens that only the priests would be allowed to pass through.

Now notice these partitions are of wool threads and the screens of linen. The parochet is woven, the masach is likewise of cloth though it is embroidered. On the parochet we are told there were keruvim – cherambim, the forms mystical creations – woven into it.

What extra details can our tradition give us about this type of craft? The Talmud, and Rashi in-tern, describe this type of work more clearly when expounding upon verse 36. We are taught that the embroidery of the screen-door was blue, purple and deep-red like the parochet, but here Rashi also tells us that the needlepoint was done on the face and on the reverse as well. Both sides of the screen were covered with matching embroidery running through them, made of the richest threads they could produce. This wasn’t just a hollow-set or poster approach, it was adorned and decorated for appreciation outside and within, both front and back.

Yes, my restless mind wants to go inside, as there is something yet to be seen. So what stops a person here? Nothing more than the beauty of the threads and boldness of their colors. Even though one’s mind should tell them to rush forward in curiosity, the patterns catch my attention and mentally draw me back. You see the body and spirit wants to rush forward, but the soul stops it all at the patterned threads. And so in the face of these holy, royal and cautious colors I stop to consider the art instead.

Now there is a part of us all, which in the face of this type of example, wants to ask, “Why?” Why can’t I go inside to see what it looks like? Is it really the same? What are they hiding in there? We can’t help but ask why this is so, as the tabernacle veil is the archetypal example of spiritual barriers and limitations.

So what is this partition which drapes the sanctuary? We don’t really need a difficult explanation delivered to us. We know what is being protected. And when we consider it, the Holy of Hollies isn’t being protected from us. Quite to the contrary, we are being protected from the wonders within. From the amazing glory of Hashem. We are all aware of the safety measures taken for the priests, for when they are allowed to go there, and of their care in order to preserve their lives.

Yet our master Rashi, always in his tone as personal teacher, points this out again with care. He demystifies the masach as being a viylon – a curtain or a drape, not much more. Citing Job 1:10, Rashi tells us that this is like a hedge of protection; he uses his understanding of a mutual meaning as shared by the similar sounding, yet differently spelled, root words. By focusing on this thought, he asks us to consider the protection that G-d sets around those whom He blesses. This is what we understand as he says this, that by masach (screen-door) we are actually talking of lishon magen – a term for a protection, a shield.

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

These screens and partitions bore symbols of warning blazoned on them in brilliant threads. But not the “magen David” – the Shield of David, the “star of David.” No, instead they bore the symbols of the cherubim, the angelic creatures which guarded the inner chamber. This artistry was a warning to the outsiders of the danger and the glory within. Inside and out, they were woven and embroidered in this matching way to scream this in shocking colors.

However, as I look over the text I can’t help but entertain a thought. Could it be that there another reason still? Another reason to give a vision of this wonder on these partitions, one aside from warning people?

It appears to me that G-d did not just shut out the people from the Holy of Hollies without giving them a glimpse of the amazing and terrible realities within. On the very barrier instituted as a safety, on it G-d asked for the artisans to display a presentation for what was inside. These patters mirrored the golden standing cherubim within the Holy of Hollies and over the Ark of the Covenant.

For those who were not able to go inside and witness for themselves, it was displayed on the exterior. So that the average Israelite wouldn’t be left wondering and ever longing to see the deeper things.

In these so-called veils, we see the most exquisite craft works of the finest materials. Of the highest quality, and of the most delicate skill. But for as rich and precious as these works are, they are not really made for the benefit of G-d. They are made for us, for the benefit of the people. To protect us, and give us vision.

G-d doesn’t really need yarn crafts and needlepoint. It’s for people like you and me.

So when I see this barrier instead of wanting to mentally yank it down and march on in philosophically, I get stopped by the texture of the brilliant threads. The gentle artist in me demands I consider the layers of truth symbolized through these many loops and pulls woven into the pattern.

Now the artist in me also finds his eye lingering and his mind settling around another point. One which we first notice in the wording of verse 31, and that is then rightfully touched upon in the commentary for verse 36. Rashi’s commentary brings our attention to the final word of verse 36, and reads:

An embroiderer: Heb. רֹקֵם, the name of the craftsman, not the name of the craft. Its Aramaic translation is עוֹבַד צַיָיר, work of an artist, but not עוֹבֵד צִיוּר, work of artistry.”

רקם: שם האומן, ולא שם האומנות, ותרגומו עובד צייר.

Rashi to Exodus 26:36

Our teacher points out to us here, that when Hashem gave this command to the people He did not ask them to make art works for Him. Nor did He asked them to make crafts. What He asked the Israelites to do is make “maaseh rokem,” – works of artisans, the works of craftsmen. It mentions rokem – craftsmen, though not the craft itself.

In this view G-d is actually more interested in the artists, more than the art itself. After all, it wasn’t really for Him anyway. Though this artistry and toiling was done for the honor of Hashem, it was primarily prescribed in order to give us security and inspiration. G-d calls people to do this work, creating these screens and adorning them. He wants the works of artisans and craftsman – but the crafts are just the product, though not the impetus.

Here in the most unlikely of lessons, one seeming as exciting to a grown man as talking about frills and lace, we end up getting a touching lesson on how to reach the hearts of the restless masses.

I wish more of us were like Rashi and able to understand art in a deeper away. But not just “art for arts sake”, but art for the sake of the artists. For the interest of the people. Art which displays both the wonders and dangers of spiritual exploration. Here we are challenged to use ones skills and gifts to take people mentally and spiritually beyond what the physical limitations normally allow. A closeness to the spiritual other-side that can’t be safely achieved by any other way. In vivid and stylized forms, G-d asks the artisan to give his art.

In this lesson the Torah reaches out to people like me who are tough, and often hard to reach by any other means aside from art. And likewise, Rashi as a wise teacher reaches out to the seeming “youth at risk” and gives us art to display our creativity through, as opposed to rushing to do damage.

So now I hand this over to you. Take a good look for yourself. What do you see in the pattern?

Art Project Possibility: After I posted this lesson I came across this project in the newsletter of my hometown synagogue, it’s a communal art projects called “Torah Stitch By Stitch” started by Canadian artist Temma Gentles.

She explains the project this way, “Torah Stitch by Stitch is a project of ordinary people who want to experience the purpose, rigour and spirit of producing the holy texts. Rather than quill, ink and parchment, cross-stitch embroidery is used – a traditional method in many cultures for teaching young women to sew and to read.”

Their mission is described as follows: “It is possible – with 1463 volunteer stitchers plus fabricators and other helpers – that we will will produce the text of the Five Books of Moses. When these are assembled into 248 columns that comprise a Torah scroll, the artwork will occupy a space approximately 2 meters high by 86 meteres long. That would be a spectacular sight! And one tha tis sure to interest several prestigious museums.”

 See their website to sign-up for the $18 registration starter-kit!

Related articles:


Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei (2013)


Exodus 35 – 40

Illustrating Our Symbols of Faith and Freedom

Rashi Manuscript

Rashi Manuscript: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, early 13th century

In these final readings for the book of Exodus we have displayed for us the most awesome symbol of the Jewish faith, the symbol of the Menorah. It can be argued that historically the only true symbol of the Jewish faith and Israelite sovereignty is the Menorah, the candelabrum of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Temple sanctuary.

When most people think of Jewish symbolism they first consider the use of a star. The Jewish adoption of the hexagram, popularly known as “the Star of David,” only dates to around the 17th century. The star was likely chosen from among the general mystical symbol utilized in amulets and ornamental designs in manuscripts, but it was not uniquely Jewish in origin and has great significance in Hinduism and Islam as well. Though not all examples of mystical stars were hexagrams (six-pointed stars), use of the pentagrams (five-pointed stars) was also common in the middle-ages. The use of geometric shapes hails back to a time when geometry was considered a display of divine harmony and natural balance. Though geometry appears in everyday life most often its practical applications are ignored, to the illiterate ancients it was a knowledge mostly held by the philosophers and mystics who celebrated it the architecture of the people’s palaces and temples to their gods. Thats how they would have recognized this type of iconography, these shapes transcended sectarianism.

However in the symbol of the Menorah we find a purely Torah based sign that is uniquely Jewish, its origins are found in Exodus. It also seems to be a display of natural harmony. Seven arms that correspond to the planetary spheres of geocentric astronomy, and seven lamp bowls corresponding to each day of the week. Seven is a number that represents creation, there are seven words in the first verse of Genesis that begins the expression of the creation of heaven and earth. There are twenty-two reservoir cups, one for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet; mystically we are taught the whole universe is created by combined letters of the alphabet.

The Menorah does have symbolism implied in its composition. But as a whole it is a symbol that is more recognizable to us as a religious sign of the presence of G-d and also as a nationalistic symbol in the secular culture. It is historically the primary symbol of Jewish identity, and therefore is also the seal of the modern State of Israel.

The Salvia Palaestina: did you know that the Menorah is thought by many scholars to be modeled after an form of a native holy land flouring bush?

The Salvia Palaestina: Did you know that the Menorah is thought by many scholars to be modeled after a native holy land flouring bush? Even in its form it testifies that it is a native Israelite symbol.

Though a description of the Menorah’s construction is found here in this section of Torah, we are not exactly sure what it looked like. The Torah does describe the item in almost anatomical detail, but unlike the other items of the Mishkan we do not receive the exact dimensions. Even in the finer details we find that the Torah just gives us approximations and figurative speech. The only thing we are exactly sure of is its weight, it weighed one mass of gold that was beaten into shape. Hollow in form, it was one mass piece of gold weighing one talent (approximately 100lbs), hammered into shape. It descriptions is ambiguous at best, despite all the words it uses to deliver these instructions.

Probably for this reason we find that this isn’t the only occasion that the Menorah is described, as we will also find it spoken of in detail in a few short verses of Parshat Beha’alotecha. There the commentary of Rashi will shed greater light on the form and shape of the Menorah. There it will detail more about the actual lamps, because in that section it will deal with the actual lighting of this candelabrum. The lamps were ordinary oil lamps, a bowl with a tip for the wick (along the lines of Aladin’s lamp, for those of a childlike imagination). The wicks were made to face the center, the three left and three right all turned to face the center light. The lights would shine off the body of the Menorah, further reflected by the Table of Showbread that stood opposite it. All the golden instruments, including the winged cherubim were designed to reflect and defuse this light to fill the entire chamber and shine outward from the sanctuary. It would stand in the midst of the people like a lighthouse flooding the camp. (see Parshat Terumah (2013)

However the bulk of the description of the Menorah was previously found in Exodus chapter 25. In that chapter we find that G-d describes it in full detail, and Rashi likewise describes out each part meticulously in his facing commentary. For all the detail we have regarding the Menorah, and the wealth of commentary to further clarify for us, we still find that it is terribly hard to imagine the true form of the Menorah. For that reason we find G-d telling Moses in summation:

“Now see and make

according to their pattern,

which you are shown on the mountain.”

וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה |

בְּתַבְנִיתָם |

אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה מָרְאֶה בָּהָר: |

Exodus 25:40

Rashi makes the following commentary regarding this:

Now see and make: See here on the mountain the pattern that I am showing you. [This] informs us that Moses had difficulties with the construction of the Menorah, until the Holy One, blessed is He, showed him a [model] Menorah of fire.” [from Talmud, Men. 29a]

וראה ועשה: ראה כאן בהר תבנית שאני מראה אותך, מגיד שנתקשה משה במעשה המנורה, עד שהראה לו הקבה מנורה של אש:

Rashi for Exodus 25:40

The fact that it was hard to understand and took more than one take in order to comprehend is excusable, in fact our rabbis say that Moses also had a hard time understanding how it was to be formed until physically shown in a vision of fire on Har Sinai. After this Moses was able to teach Bezalel, Bezalel then instructed his craftsmen as we read in this weeks parsha, “ul’horot natan b’libo,” which loosely means “He gave him the heart of a teacher” or simple “G-d gave him the ability to teach.” (Exodus 35:34)

The Arch of Titus, Rome

The Arch of Titus in Rome (constructed 83 CE)

Comprehending the Menorah by description alone is so difficult that in Rashi’s final note of commentary regarding it he is going to raise the Midrash Aggadah that claims the Menorah was formed at the command of G-d, the gold was thrown into the fire and it formed itself in the appropriate manner. (see Midrash Tanchuma, Beha’alothecha 3) It’s as though the rabbis cutely assume because with all the instruction Moses gave, if they couldn’t figure it out it’s because he couldn’t figure it out either, so he got help. This part of the task therefore becomes like the school science project where most of the work is done by the parent, and the kid is seemingly clueless as to how to describe it when it comes time for presentation.

The fact is there has always been some level of ambiguity about the Menorah’s form from the beginning. Oddly when the Temple of Solomon was constructed it doesn’t appear to have Menorah at all. Instead we are told he had 10 individual lamps made that stood in the sanctuary (2 Chronicles 4:7). During the Second Temple period it appears that the symbol of the Menorah returned and stood in the Holy of Hollies until it was taken as booty by the Roman conquerors. Most of what we assume about the form of the Menorah actually comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome that memorialized that defeat as a Roman victory.

The Rambam's Menorah

The Rambam’s Menorah: Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (1135-1204 CE), taken from the original manuscript of his commentary for Mishneh Torah, Menachot 3:7.

However, this image of the Menorah is contested by the rabbis. You see is also painstakingly detailed by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah. He explains the finer details of the Talmud regarding it. Unlike the Roman depiction which displays the arms as round, the Rambam presents each of the protruding arms as straight and then adorned with the flowers, buds and cups. The Rambam is very clear about this. And when I say he presents it in this fashion, I mean he actually offers more than just mere words. He has also provided an infamous diagram for us in his manuscript.

Though many editions of the Talmud and other authoritative rabbinic works are known to occasionally have diagrams, they are quite rare in the classical age. We are not sure exactly how far back the Talmudic drawings of things such as gates, arches and eruvin go back. However, most of us naturally assume that they are compiled along the way as additions, thus explaining why even in manuscripts they are scribbled in the margins. However, we do know that the Rambam’s drawing both here, and possibly another that depicts the layout of the sanctuary surrounded by the tribes, as authentic in his own hand.

Interestingly, the Rambam is not the only rabbinic commentator that seems to have accompanied his teaching with drawings. In the margins we find that Rashi also included pictures. He seems to have included depictions of the Temple instruments and the Land of Israel. Though the drawings do tend to vary in shape and size from one copied manuscript to another. We do not have what we would consider an “artists original” to draw from for Rashi’s diagrams. Nor are we sure if they are original in the works, there are many scholars who attest to drawings being present in the manuscripts of their day. However, strangely they are almost never mentioned in the most famous commentaries upon Rashi that are generally known of today. One may figure that his most attentive followers would have mentioned them if they were authentic. We just aren’t sure one way or the other.

Rashi Menorah

Rashi Menorah: Parma de-Rossi Manuscript, 1380 CE

As critical observers of rabbinic literature we can get a great deal of leading by examining the diagrams that have been handed down to us. Whereas the Menorah drawings do seem to have a niche in the margins carved out for them making them appear intentional as an accompaniment of the text, the maps are less embedded and seem more like embellished diagrams by later students of the commentaries. This is especially more so for the Rambam’s maps that appear to drop into many manuscripts in the mid-13th century.

Even if the drawings and diagrams of the classical commentaries are not ancient, only dating back to the middle-ages, they do tell us a lot about the mentality of the commentary they accompany and the values that were in the mind of the scholars that helped compile these texts.

When I was a new student in college one of the first classes I took was Art. I wasn’t artistically gifted myself, mostly taking the class for general education credit. I arbitrarily started with gothic and middle-ages, the age spanning right about the time of our master rabbis the Rambam and Rashi. I was intrigued as I watched art turn from crude vagueness to vibrant realism. I didn’t learn a lot about how to put art together, the skill of art. But what I did learn was the theories and history of art. One of the things that was stressed was for me to learn about the motivation, even more than the composition itself. My professor constantly stressed to me, “Art is never created in a vacuum;” meaning that the way art is displayed in any given age is a reflection of the values and philosophical process that brought that to fruition as an artistic concept. That idea didn’t come out of nowhere, and just for nothing.

I am reminded of this when I read the following insightful observations made by a former doctoral student at Bar Ilan University (see a most excellent work by David Shneur, titled “On the Making of the Menorah,” 2011, Bar Ilan University):

“The late Prof. Elazar Touitou has repeatedly stressed the importance of being aware of the historical setting for our understanding of exegetical works. Several of his articles on this subject deal with the historical setting of Rashbam’s times and of others in Rashi’s era.[1] Prof. Abraham Grossman mentions Touitou’s findings in his articles and books on Rashi and stresses the importance of studying Rashi’s commentary in the light of the momentous changes taking place among the Jews and gentiles of that era:[2] ‘One cannot fully appreciate the work of men of letters and public leaders without being aware of the social and cultural setting of their times.’ [3]

“Although Grossman was referring to Rashi’s interpretations that deal with love and esteem for the land of Israel, nevertheless it appears that also with regard to his interpretations about the Tabernacle furnishings, including those accompanied by various sketches, Rashi had a clearly didactic bent: to endear the subject of the Tabernacle to those studying the biblical text and to make the form of the Temple closer to the hearts of Jews by visual illustration, especially in a time when the Crusaders were massing for the first crusade to the Holy Land, while its Jewish owners remained in exile.”

The author here makes note in his paper that other rabbinic authors dating back to ancient times attest to sketches of the Temple and its sacred instruments (see Z. Vilnay, Ha-Mappah ha-Ivrit shel Eretz Israel, Jerusalem 1945, p. 6.). This goes back all the way to the Talmudic period, even if drawings were not always present in our bibles. Artistic depiction for instructional purposes is well established in our tradition, it’s not a new invention by booksellers and graphic artists. He asserts that the reason is to validate ones beliefs and offer concrete evidence for the Temple. It appears in this case this is only possible by displaying these sacred objects in a way that shows they are not merely imaginations but true constructible shapes.

I find it very interesting this week to take notice of the rabbinic art regarding the Menorah, during a set of parashiot that talks about the craftsmanship of Bezalel and his artisans. This Torah is wonderfully refreshing, especially after we consider how fiercely the Torah has railed against graven images and idolatry up until now. Our tradition does warn against normative religious iconography and live depictions, but it does not reject artistic expression. It is not just in Bezalel that we find the employment of artistic skill for spiritual purposes, we also find our rabbis doing the same in depicting the instruments and holy land. Their depictions not only demonstrated the clear practicality of their commentary, but they also served to help draw the lessons passionately close. And sometimes this can only be done through artistic expression.

Questions for this week: What type of skill or natural ability do you have? Do you have artistic skill? How can you use these skills and abilities to help deliver the message of Torah? What modern mediums of art do you think best present the Torah for you?


1- E. Touitou, “Ha-Reka ha-Histori shel Perush Rashi le-Farashat Bereshit,” in: Zvi Steinfeld (ed.), Rashi – Iyyunim be-Yetzirato, Ramat-Gan 1993.

2- A. Grossman, Hakhmei Tzarfat ha-Rishonim, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 204-207; A. Grossman, Rashi, Jerusalem 2005, pp.

3- Grossman, ibid., p. 11.

Are you an Artist? What is your craft? Poetry, drawing, photography, what are you good at? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!


%d bloggers like this: