‘Build me a sanctuary’

‘Build me a sanctuary’

Local artists draw on Torah for a mishkan blueprint and an exhibit inspiration

Leslie Adler & Alexandra Schoenberg’s Ascento, made of wood, linen, yarn, cork, and paint, provides a personal sanctuary.
Leslie Adler & Alexandra Schoenberg’s Ascento, made of wood, linen, yarn, cork, and paint, provides a personal sanctuary.

What is the Mishkan?

It’s the Tabernacle!

Does that make it more comprehensible? Probably not. (Just as it’s hard to imagine how the theoretically English word “phylacteries” makes the word “tefillin” any clearer …)

The mishkan is the portable sanctuary that the Torah tells us could be God’s home as the Jews wandered in the desert, and God lived among them. It was the place that God could dwell, to use the old-fashioned word that’s often used in this context.

We have the mishkan’s measurements and an elaborately detailed description of how, of what, and why it was built. We have details so specific as to be nearly a blueprint, although we seem not to have the precise definitions of its terms to allow it to work. We are awed by the concept of God living in the midst of the people, with the idea of a tangible structure housing the ineffable.

Debbie Schore’s GOD x IKEA. “The specificity of the building instructions in the text of Exodus 25 can be described as the Biblical version of a set of IKEA instructions,” she writes, and explores the analogy.

There’s a lot to think about on many levels.

If you’re an artist, one of those levels is the physical. Artists imagine things and then they make them; they take abstractions and embody them concretely.

So what about the mishkan?

That’s what Miriam Stern of Teaneck and Harriet Finck of Montclair talked about in shul. Specifically, they were at the Koleinu minyan at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck; the two women, both well-established artists and good friends, have co-taught the artists’ beit midrash there for many years. As they listened to the Torah being read, their imaginations were caught by passages that often don’t spark such interest.

The parasha, that week’s Torah portion, was Terumah, in Exodus, which details the mishkan’s construction, its furnishings, and its funding. Two parshiot on, in Ki Tissa, we’re told that the artisan in charge of the construction is Bezalel. “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, and ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of craft,” God tells Moshe in Exodus 30:37.

Leslie Nobler’s “Refuge Reboot,” of mixed media, “explores ideas of refuge for those who are political or environmental refugees, or unhoused, not unlike the ancient Jewish community.”

The two artists thought about what they were hearing; they’d both heard it every year, year after year, but this year it hit them differently. “Then, I don’t know which one of us poked the other one of us and said, ‘This is interesting,’ ” Ms. Stern said. “What would have happened if Bezalel had been a woman? What would have happened if there were a woman in charge, instead of a man?

“Because the parshiot are quite dry,” she continued, “some people would say they are boring. They give very specific measurements and instructions. But as artists, we saw that some great materials were being used. And there are such dazzling, shiny colors in it — colors you rarely hear about in the Bible.

“So our imaginations took off.”

What if they tried to make physical the vision of the mishkan that dwelt only in their imaginations then? What if they asked other artists — mostly, but not only, women — to contribute their own newly created mishkanot?

That was the origin of “And I Shall Dwell Among Them: The Desert Sanctuary Reimagined.” The show will open in the Vila Gallery in Jerusalem on June 19 — there’s an opening reception at the gallery at 6 that evening — and close on August 17.

Rachel Kanter’s “With Our Hands,” of vintage quilt blocks, cotton, vintage tallit, rope, and clothespins, “celebrates the nameless, anonymous women who
are the builders and keepers of sacred spaces.”

Ms. Stern and Ms. Finck noted that in the parasha, “Moshe gives Bezalel and his assistant, Oholiab, the blueprint, but the artisans are asked to carry it out, and the people are asked to participate. Not just the men, but the women, too, and not just with goods, but also with action.”

The two women studied the parshiot about the mishkan for “almost a year, line by line,” Ms. Stern said, seeing more and more in those lines as the familiar words unfolded in new patterns. “The mishkan is portable,” Ms. Finck said. “It’s not anchored in any one place. It’s lightweight. It’s ecologically sound. There are so many things about it that interest us.”

“That’s when we decided to express what we saw in a show, and to open it up to other artists, who might see some of what we saw, or see other things that we did not see,” Ms. Stern said. “Points about ecology, women’s participation, donations — those were just some of the questions we put out when we requested that artists submit work.

“We wanted them to think out of the box. We didn’t want replicas of what we saw. We wanted them to work on what they saw, in ways that would stimulate not only the artists, but the viewers.”

Once the two women had the idea, they had to recruit participants and find a gallery that would show their art. That’s hard work; it’s a combination of persuasion and logistics — applied art and science — and luck. Artists had to be sparked by the idea; galleries had to be both interested in it and available to show it. They were open to having it in either the United States or Israel, but nothing worked out. Eventually, they just about gave up on the idea.

Harriet Finck’s Keruvim.

But then Ms. Stern, in Israel with her husband, Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick, met Judith Anis, the curator of the Vila Contemporary Art Gallery at the Emunah College for Art and Design in Jerusalem. Ms. Anis also is an artist. “She understood what we were trying to do, and our frustration,” Ms. Stern said. Ms. Anis asked for and received a proposal, her board accepted it, and the show started to come together.

Most of the pieces in the show are paintings or sculpture; two are videos, and there’s a recording by a cantor.

There’s also a piece that Ms. Finck and Ms. Stern made together. “We decided that we wanted to do that, even though our styles are very different,” Ms. Finck said. “We’ve taught together, but we have not created together,” Ms. Stern added.

“First we decided that what we wanted to make was the two keruvim that were on top of the holy ark.” In the western artistic tradition, keruvim — or cherubs, as they’re more commonly known in English — are adorable, rosy-cheeked, literally angelic small boys who signify love. In the Tanach, they are the fierce angels whose duties include guarding the ark in the mishkan, God’s own inner sanctum.

According to Exodus 25:18-20; the cherubim are made of hammered gold, placed at each end of the golden ark cover, with spread wings that shield the ark. The instructions are precise, if hard to follow. “The keruvim face each other and they look at each other,” Ms. Finck said. “The holiest  thing happens inside the shape they make.” And the instructions about working with all that gold are in the Tanach “right after the incident of the golden calf.”

Miriam Stern Keruvim. The Keruvim are two sides of a work that will float between the floor and the ceiling, the same but very different.

“We decided to make our own,” Ms. Stern said. “Since they were multidimensional, and we weren’t going to do that — we weren’t making sculpture — we would make one side be my responsibility, and the other side was Harriet’s.

“We wanted them large — about five feet tall, almost life-size — and they were fabricated in Israel, because it’s easier to make them there than to ship them there. We created them using Photoshop. They will be attached to the ceiling and the floor, and they will float in the air. People can walk between them.

“They’re genderless, as they are in the Torah,” she added.

“Harriet is an abstract painter; my side is a bit abstract but a little more figurative,” Ms. Stern continued.

The piece, simply and logically, is called “Keruvim.”

Ms. Stern and Ms. Finck “are dedicating the whole venture to a close friend who died during the year,” Ms. Stern said. “Miriam Holmes was a neighbor of mine in Teaneck, and a close friend of Harriet’s.” Ms. Holmes was a book publisher, a gifted storyteller, and a close and careful listener, as well as being a mother, wife, and shul-goer.

“With this dedication, we accept and welcome her continued presence in our lives,” Ms. Stern and Ms. Finck wrote. “‘Vishachanti bitocham’ indeed,” they continued, quoting Exodus 25:8. “She will dwell among us.”

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