Cut-ups with a serious purpose
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Cut-ups with a serious purpose

Paper Midrash combines Jewish art and thought

Rabbi Shawna and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik hold their implements of choice — a yad and an Exacto knife — as they talk about their Paper Midrash.
(Paper Midrash)
Rabbi Shawna and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik hold their implements of choice — a yad and an Exacto knife — as they talk about their Paper Midrash. (Paper Midrash)

For the last four years — beginning with a successful presentation at a Limmud conference in England in 2016 — Isaac and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik of southern California, the creators of Paper Midrash — have been using art to “look at traditional sources through a secondary lens.” But they have worked together at conferences and as scholars-in-residence much longer than that, combining teaching and art “not just to create craft but as a way to study text critically and deeply.”

Since the pandemic, they’ve also given Zoom workshops to teenagers and adults. Last week, as part of a longer engagement at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, they gave an online workshop to the synagogue’s teens.

It was a success.

One young woman said that she liked learning about the impact the golem has had on movies and comic books. Another said she enjoyed making her own golem out of pieces of comic books. A third said he enjoyed using the seemingly very different pieces to create one coherent piece.

Their youth leader was equally enthusiastic.

Together, Rabbi Shawna and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik created Paper Midrash. (All art courtesy Paper Midrash)

“Learning that Frankenstein’s monster, from the book by Mary Shelley, was inspired by a golem gave me a new perspective on the text,” Amanda Eastman said. She’s an elementary and special educator at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, which hosted Sunday’s 90-minute golem-making workshop.

The 15 teens, most of them from the congregation’s confirmation class, joined several high school seniors and a few adults not just to make their own golems but to learn about, and understand, the subject of their art. The Teaneck shul’s virtual workshop was part of the Paper Midrash initiative created by Isaac and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik.

Assuring participants that “no art experience, clay, or magic skills” was required, the couple explained that in Jewish lore, the golem was summoned to protect the community in difficult times. Participants in the workshop — also living in challenging times — were invited to learn more about the legend of the golem, and to use their hands to create their own symbols of protection and safety.

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is created entirely from inanimate matter, usually clay or mud. The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague, who summoned a golem into being to protect the Jews in the ghetto from expulsion or death.

“Every participant received an envelope of materials that included two pieces of cardstock/art paper, sheets from comic books, a one-time-use cutting mat, an instruction/set-up info sheet, an Exacto knife, and templates for two golems,” Ms. Eastman said. “We started the program with a presentation about golems — their origins and how they appear in comic books and media. Both Isaac and Rabbi Shawna gave the presentation, with Rabbi Shawna taking the lead. Isaac showed us how to cut the cardstock to the template they provided. We chose the one we wanted, and also we mixed and matched pieces from the templates.

The yad and Exacto knife represent the skills they combine.

“When we finished cutting, the cardstock looked sort of like a window. We then found pieces of each comic we liked, cut those out and taped them to the back of the template so that only the parts we wanted to show were showing in the cut out parts of the template. Isaac mostly did the tutorial of how to make the golem. While we worked, Shawna and Isaac taught more about golems and checked in often on our status.

“The whole program was presented clearly and was easy to follow.

“The program leaders gave us a very detailed and engaging history of the golem and made the entire experience highly enjoyable,” Ms. Eastman added. “With the world in the state that it is, it can be hard for people to connect to Judaism the same way they did this time last year. This program offered a unique way to connect with and experience our Judaism.”

When they were able to visit congregations in person, they offered visual sermons, “using a lot of slides and visuals to give it depth,” Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik said. Fortunately, that also works well on Zoom. During Temple Emeth’s Friday night services on Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat before Purim), the team will present a visual sermon called “Purim, Masks, and Secret Identities.”

“They have a powerful one-two punch, bringing deep Jewish scholarship together with a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional art of papercutting,” Mona Rubin, the evening’s volunteer chair, wrote. The service will include prayers displayed in “a visual tefilah format” that Isaac designed for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The golem artwork created at Sunday’s workshop will be on display as well.

Last Sunday, some of Temple Emeth’s teenagers joined Rabbi Shawna and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik for a Zoom golem-making workshop.

There are a few reasons to have brought the Brynjegard-Bialik’s program to Temple Emeth, according to its rabbi, Steven Sirbu.

The synagogue’s scholar-in-residence program runs every other year. That should have brought a scholar to Emeth in 2021, but the pandemic made the “in-residence” part impossible. “We were looking for something that could work with remote learning,” Rabbi Sirbu said. He thought of Paper Midrash; although the synagogue’s board decided that the program couldn’t really be called scholar-in-residence, still it was well worth offering for “the kind of creativity and new ways of looking at Torah that it presented.”

What are those ways? “From my perspective, art often tells a Jewish story, but it is very rare that a rabbi and an artist can tell a Jewish story together and integrate Torah and art seamlessly as part of a single presentation. Paper Midrash can do that.”

The sermon that Rabbi Brynjegard-Bialik will deliver, the look at masks, is particularly timely in 2021, Rabbi Sirbu said. “This year, there is a threefold approach. There’s the Purim mask, the superhero mask, and now the social-distancing aspect of masks.”

Rabbi Sirbu and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik have known each other for a long time, Rabbi Sirbu said. “We go back to college together. To UCLA, where we both worked on the Jewish newspaper, Ha’Am. He did design for it, so I knew his talent going way back.”

These three golems include Rabbi Steven Sirbu’s, at right; he made his at the workshop for Emeth students.

Because his wife is a Reform rabbi, as is Rabbi Sirbu, they’d often see each other at CCAR conventions.

In 2016, Rabbi Sirbu celebrated his bar mitzvah year at Emeth, and his congregants gave him a present. It was an artwork by Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. “The primary comic book Isaac used was Captain America, because we are both named Steve — he’s Steve Rogers,” Steve Sirbu said. “So Isaac even found a little voice bubble that said Steve, and he worked it in. He created a globe with New Jersey in the middle, and then, below the globe, he took the key words from the quote from Pirkei Avot — ‘On these three things does the world stand, emet, tzedakah, and shalom.’ And the name of the temple is Emeth, and that’s also what’s written on the golem’s head. So it had a triple meaning.”

He is not an artist, Rabbi Sirbu said, but still he made a golem at the workshop last week. “It gave me a window into how much work Isaac does, and how much training goes into it.” Was it fun? “Yes,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Rabbi Dan Medwin, director of digital media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, explained that visual tefillah — prayer — uses slides specially formatted to be shared on screens.

“To oversimplify it as a PowerPoint service is to not do it justice,” he said. “It’s more than that because it uses traditional text and liturgy. It’s the next phase of ‘Jewish text containers,’” which began with the tablets and moved on to books and even stained-glass windows.

Pre-pandemic, Paper Midrash participants were able to work together.

“Art and imagery help members of the community connect more with meaning,” enhancing both prayer and prayer spaces, he said, and this connection is especially necessary during the pandemic.

The media used in such services may vary, Rabbi Medwin said. His mother, Rabbi Michele Brand Medwin, who leads a congregation in Monticello, in the Catskills, creates special videos for her congregation using a combination of music and images. “Once we start using this medium, it’s essentially a blank canvas,” he said.

Rabbi Medwin has worked with Mr. Brynjegard-Bialik before; he’s used his art pieces for book covers and “to design a line of visual art services in which the community can add its own visuals,” he said. “Generally, I believe we’re in a time of great creativity and experimentation. The pandemic has allowed us to question a lot of things we have taken for granted.”

The Brynjegard-Bialiks are very involved in the Reform movement, as is evident from a bio on CCAR’s website, which describes Isaac as a Jewish artist “who cuts up comic books and reassembles them into work made of clean lines and patterns, sinuous shapes and sharp edges, large fields of color and small intimate spaces.”

Shawna, the bio says, was Isaac’s “high school sweetheart” — now she’s a Reform rabbi who works fulltime on the Paper Midrash project.

Steven Sirbu, left, and Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard have known each other for more than 20 years.

They both grew up around Los Angeles; “I was a city boy, and she was a Valley girl,” Mr. Brynjegard-Bialik said. She was the Brynjegard — “it’s a Swedish name, granted in a special declaration from the Crown to her great-grandmother, who then immigrated to the United States,” he explained — and he was the Bialik. And he really is a Bialik — the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik was his grandfather’s great-uncle. “We make sure to stop by Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv every time we visit,” he said. “And I’ve been working on some ideas for a series of papercuts inspired by his poetry.”

“I have been reading comics for about 40 years, cutting paper for 25 years, and combining them in my work for the past decade,” he said. He trained in graphic design, and his paper-cutting started when the couple was living in Jerusalem as Shawna did her HUC year in Israel. He first showed his work at a Yom Yerushalayim arts fair in Jerusalem and has exhibited in galleries across the United States. He also maintains an annual summer residency at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, where he leads workshops teaching campers about papercutting. He and Shawna have three daughters, two in college, one in high school.

The Brynjegard-Bialiks said that they are “having a lot of fun with golems. One must be willing to be vulnerable in art, to share the emotion of creating it,” Rabbi Brynjegard-Bialik said. “We’ve been able to do that over Zoom. It gives people an opportunity to find themselves in Torah.” Generally, they tie the Torah portion to art and pop culture, so that their audience will look at each in a different way. For example, when they work with Parashat Lech L’cha, in which Abraham is told to “go forth,” the couple may tie it into Star Trek and its catchphrase, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

“Using Jewish legends and stories is an authentic Jewish way to deal with anxiety and uncertainty,” Mr. Brynjegard-Bialik said. “When the lockdown started, I made golems.” Then he had what he calls “a revelation.” He realized that if making these symbols helped him deal with feelings of powerlessness, they might help others as well. Thus, the workshops, which are offered only to older teens and adults “because we use razors.”

“Hand someone a paint brush or pencil and they’ll say they can’t draw,” Rabbi Brynjegard-Bialik said. “But hand someone a tool and it gives them some freedom to explore their creativity. The comic books do all the painting. They have color, depth, and texture.”

The couple works collaboratively, “teaching as if we’re in a conversation.” They believe audiences respond well to people who are clearly engaged and passionate about their subject.

Isaac credits Shawna with adding to the depth of his work and inspiring him to try new things. “My work is always inspired by my interest and engagement in Jewish tradition,” he said. “My best ideas come from Shawna, who shares interpretations that intrigue me so much I have to play with them.”

For more information and to see more of the couple’s work, go to papermidrash.com. To see more of Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik’s, go to nicejewishartist.com.

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