Midrashic Art

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A 2003 exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum called "Microcosmos" featured a series of Kahn's abstract paintings inspired by the first chapter in the Book of Genesis. Evocative of the cosmos and elements of the earth, Kahn interprets Genesis in a meditative, minimalist series that invites the viewer to think about his or her own place in the vastness of creation. His paintings are metaphors for creation, examining the simplicity and beauty that begins with each a single cell.

"Crossroads," a 1988 midrashic work by Renata Stein, is a depiction of the Torah portion Lekh-L'kha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). Its central figure is Sarah, with Abraham and Hagar in the sidelines. Image courtesy the artist.

Adding Women's Voices

As best we know, the sages who created our classical midrashwere all male and many of their commentaries reflect an understandably male-centric view. In many cases, it is only in the last 50 or so years that Jewish women have been given equal opportunities to learning sacred texts, and many have started to create commentaries of their own. A number of prominent female fine artists and sculptors have added their voices and visions to the midrashic process by creating contemporary work commenting on the Bible.

Suzanne Benton is a sculptor, mask performer, and print maker who has traveled the world exploring myth, ritual, and archetypes in many cultures. Her mask-making series includes one of Jewish women from the Hebrew Bible, including the matriarch Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. Benton is both a visual and performing artist, using her mask performances to examine the complex tale of these women and their struggles around fertility and motherhood. Benton has taken this performance to countries around the world, using this particular biblical story to explore universal issues.          

Renata Stein is an artist who works in mixed media, especially using everyday found objects to create a new visual language the reflects images of ordinary life. Her midrashic works include mixed media art commenting on the stories of the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), Leah and Rachel, and Jacob's ladder. Using stones, branches and other found materials takes her work out of the literal realm and into the symbolic one, which opens the viewer to his or her own imaginings about the stories.

One of Stein's mixed media pieces, called "Jacob Set up a Pillar (Tree of Life),"recalls the moment in Genesis when Jacob--fleeing from his brother, Esau--stops in a new place to rest and sets up a pillar, before having his auspicious dream of angels climbing up and down a ladder from heaven. Stein's envisioning of the pillar is a mixed-media piece that uses found objects to create a tree with branches stretching toward heaven and roots dangling down toward earth.           

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.