Midrashic Art

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Artist Ruth Weisberg's drawings can be found in The Open Door, a New Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell (CCAR Press). The book that accompanies and guides Jews through the order of the Passover seder, Haggadot have been illustrated at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Weisberg depicts humanistic, figurative images that reflect the Open Door Haggadah's sensitivity to gender-inclusive language. Her rendering of the story of the Exodus from Egypt includes aspects of the story that have not always been emphasized before, including the bravery of the midwives Shifra and Puah. Her midrash is an example of how art can affect ritual and prayer, in this case aiming to deepen the spiritual experience of the seder.          

Artist Beth Grossman has taken the idea of exploring biblical texts into a new direction; her work is about recontextualizing history and mythology--creating art that can turn assumptions upside down. While studying art in Italy, she found herself surrounded by images of an idealized, iconic Mary--the virgin mother. That experience, along with her interest in interfaith dialogue, inspired Grossman to explore the Jewish roots of this Christian icon. Grossman chose to revisit Mary's story and create art that portrays her as an unidealized, very human Jewish woman.

When her Mary works have been exhibited, she has invited both Jewish and Christian groups to view and discuss the meaning of her artwork. As an artist, she is interested in finding common threads among groups; in this case, she feels it is significant for both Jews and Christians to remember that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were known, historically, to be Jewish.

Her piece "Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," for example, features a  painting of a modern-looking Mary shielding baby Jesus. Mary is wearing a yellow star, as if she was a Jew in Nazi Germany. The painting is enclosed in a suitcase, filled with yellow stars. Written on the stars on the left side of the suitcase are stereotypes that the Nazis pinned on Jews, such as "greedy" and "useless." The stars on the right are qualities traditionally attributed to Mary, who is also a Jew, such as "angelic" and "blessed." The  piece's message or intention is to show the duality of human beings, how the same woman could have been worshipped or reviled simply by the time she lived in and the perceptions of those around her.

Beth Grossman's "Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," depicting the Mary and Jesus--both Jews--amidst Nazi-era yellow stars. Image courtesy the artist.

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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.