The Ginzberg Variations

The Ginzberg Variations

Mahwah artists tells some of the midrashic story of creation — in Brooklyn

Detail from "The Garden of Good and Evil," Joel Silverstein.
Detail from "The Garden of Good and Evil," Joel Silverstein.

The Bible tells the story of creation straightforwardly. God created the world in six days, we are told; on the seventh, God rested.

Beginning on Sunday night, on Rosh Hashanah, we will celebrate that creation, the birthday of the world, and on Simchat Torah we’ll read the story.

But that’s not the whole story.

Jewish tradition has taken the bare bones of the creation story and given it flesh, and clothed it in fine silks, and festooned it with jewels, and swirled all of it in cloaks of words and images and glittery phantasmagoric imagination. Those are the stories in the midrash.

Joel Silverstein of Mahwah loves reading midrash, particularly as it was compiled in Louis Ginzberg’s massive “Legends of the Jews,” which was published in 1909 and still remains both in print and firmly lodged in many readers’ subconsciousnesses. Mr. Silverstein is a painter and a member of the Jewish Art Salon; he is exhibiting a massive installation at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s “Fall In/Fall Out” show.

Joel Silverstein’s in his studio.

His show is called “The Ginzberg Variations.”

The BWAC — infelicitously pronounced “BEE-wack” — is a huge old brick factory building on Brooklyn’s waterfront, where it has stood since 1865 as the neighborhood changed over and over again. Now the neighborhood’s exciting and diverse and multicultural. As always, visitors there can see the Statute of Liberty, ever-evocative in the distance.

The Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s exhibit space overlooks New York Harbor. (Janice Weiss)

Joel’s show is huge — it’s 33 individual pieces — and each piece is about the seven days of creation.

“I am so very excited about this show, because it’s a non-Jewish venue and they were so so taken with it that they didn’t care that my work is so Jewish. In this day and age, that’s so unusual.”

The Sun

And the show is so very widely and wildly Jewish. The midrashim upon which it is based “are Jewish stories with bits from Muslims and Christians, great crazy stories, not all from the Bible, some from the Zohar. They aren’t all European; they  have a lot of philosophical implications.

“They’re crazy stories.”

So what are these stories like?

Here is the way the seven-volume work begins, with the heading “The Creation of the World — The First Things Created”:

“In the beginning, two thousand years before the heaven and the earth, seven things were created: the Torah written with black fire and white fire, and lying in the lap of God; the Divine Throne, erected in the heaven which later was over the heads of the Hayyot; Paradise on the right side of God, Hell on the left side; the Celestial Sanctuary directly in front of God, having a jewel on its altar graven with the Name of the Messiah, and a Voice that cries aloud, “Return, ye children of men.”

That, mind, is just the first paragraph. The Bible stories are like simple melodies hidden inside elaborate jazz improvisations; they’re detectably there, but you don’t necessarily notice them unless you want to.

The Crows

So why did Joel decide to create the Ginzberg Variations? “I have always been interested in the breadth of Jewish thought, which includes Greek influences, Jewish mystics, so much more — an incredibly rich panoply,” he said. The Bible by itself is so rich, he said, but “the Jewish commentators, influenced by so many other thinkers, from Aristotle on, permeated into Jewish thought. Ginzberg deals with all that storytelling in a way that is so creative. So free.”

With the whole world open to him, why does Joel keep coming back to Jewish themes in his art? Part of it, he said, is that he comes from Brooklyn. Jewishness was in the air as he grew up. 

But it’s more than that.

“I think that people see religion and culture as entirely separate,” he said. “So that anything that seems religious gets short shrift in the secular world. It’s thought of as not being creative. And vice versa.” Art often makes religiously observant people uncomfortable too, he suggested. “People get nervous. If I say that I am a painter who did 33 pieces on Genesis, they say ‘Why don’t you just hang it in a church?’ And Orthodox people say ‘Where are your references? Your citations? You got this part wrong and you got that part wrong.’

“There is a stringency on both sides.”

But Joel feels strongly that there is much for each side to learn and gain from the other. “I am putting this together because I think they go together,” he said. “I think that secular people should chill and be open to it. And religious people should be open to it too.”

The exhibit “is a really big wall — 10 feet by 18 feet — and two shorter walls, in the shape of a medieval altarpiece, topped with a crown — a keter, in the Jewish context. The form is of a Christian altar, but the iconography is all Jewish.

“It starts at the top, in the garden of good and evil. It’s a large painting, 24 by 38 inches, that shows a garden, but with a skull and a ribcage in the middle of the flowers. It’s human bones, because it’s about the knowledge of sex and life and death.”


The panels around it — 32 of them, 16 by 20 inches — “start with chaos, and then a big-bang panel” — creation! — “and then it goes on from there. Ginzberg writes about all the pre-creation stuff — it has to do with the celestial figures, the creation of the Torah, the Temple of the Soul, all the things that were done before actual creation. That’s in some of the panels. And then it goes into supernal forces — supernal space, water, and earth, and light — and then into the creation of the physical stuff, the constellations and celestial beings, the beginnings of the earth, the separation of the land and the water. And then what’s on the earth. There is a panel about Eve, and one of God standing in the Garden of Eden.”

Or, as Ginzberg tells us, there are seven heavens, and seven corresponding earths, “each separated from the next by five layers.”

Later, he tells us, “In the east, the west, and the south, heaven and earth touch each other, but the north God left unfinished, that any man who announced himself as a god might be set the task of supplying the deficiency, and stand convicted as a pretender.”

What Louis Ginzberg did with an exuberant proliferation of words, Joel does with images. “It’s a mix of painting and collage”; his sources include National Geographic. “It’s a weird mix of figurative expressionism from the 1920s with a collage element in the middle, with Adam and Eve, but blank-faced like robots.

Adam and Eve

“The last panel is the bride, which is a stand-in for Shabbat.” She’s the Sabbath Queen. She’s out of context in the series, because she’s at the end, but she was created on the seventh day, long before the story of the Garden of Eden. But “I wanted a good image to end the cycle,” Joel said.

He loves the reactions people have to his work. Viewers who know the Bible stories and the midrashim love spotting the allusions he’s made, he said, and “people who don’t know it say where did you get that?”

And now the stories that Louis Ginzberg collected from all over the Jewish world once again are back in Brooklyn.

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