Encounters with the divine
Barbara Pelman speaks at the opening of the exhibit Encounters, which is at Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria this summer. (photo by Frances Aknai)
On June 3, the exhibit Encounters opened at Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria. It is the culmination of the most recent Calling All Artists exchange, a project that has been going on for more than a decade.
“Bible has to be interpreted to be relevant,” said Barbara Pelman, coordinator of Calling All Artists since its inception. “All Renaissance art is Bible interpretation. That’s what we do with this project.”
In 2004, Pelman was the head of the adult education committee at the synagogue.
“Rabbi Harry [Brechner] came up with the idea to gather a bunch of artists and writers for a few study sessions to teach them a particular theme and its rabbinic interpretation,” she recalled. “I thought it was a wonderful idea. The sessions were conducted once a month for five months. Afterwards, the artists would offer their own interpretations of the theme, and the synagogue would have an exhibit of their works.”
While the congregation also produced colourful chapbooks – mini catalogues of the exhibitions – in previous years, they did not do so this year.
Over the course of the project, the artists have studied a variety of subjects. The first exchange was based on the topic of Paradise, and the exhibit was held in 2005. In subsequent years, themes have included dreams and prophecies; creation; the Book of Ruth; death and afterlife; and reinventing rituals.
“We missed a few years since the beginning,” said Pelman. “Once, we thought that maybe we are finished with the project and won’t do it anymore, but everyone involved said, ‘No! No! We should continue.’ Another year, holidays interfered.”
This year’s theme examines divine-human interactions.
“What happens in these encounters? What does one look like and how is it reported and remembered? What are some examples in biblical and rabbinical tales? How do we understand divinity and how does that understanding affect our worldview? These are some of the questions the artists of different genres have been exploring,” Pelman explained.
She said that not all participating artists are members of the congregation, or even Jewish. “The project is open to the community,” she said. “This year, 30 people signed up for the project; 17 artists remained to the end to exhibit their works. Five of them are not Jewish, but all of them are interested in learning.”
Studying with the rabbi is a mandatory part of Calling All Artists, Pelman said. “This entire project is about learning from those who know more than we do. The point is not to exhibit but to learn. That’s why the art is not vetted.”
Participating artists represent a wide variety of media and genres, as well as skill levels. Some participants are professionals; others do art as a hobby. The exhibits feature photographs and paintings, fibre art and pottery, sculpture and poetry. Every piece is accompanied by an explanation of the work by the artist.
Pelman is a poet, so her involvement in every year’s project has been a poem. For her, divinity is not an all-knowing old guy somewhere above. “It’s the biggest and best part of you, of us all,” she said. “How do we find it? How does it inform our muse?” This is what she contemplates in her poem for this year’s explorative journey.
Pelman worked as an English teacher for many years. She taught high school, college and university classes, and she has been writing poetry for a long time. “I have three poetry books published,” she said. “The last two by Ronsdale Press, a Vancouver publisher.”
Another frequent participant in the project, artist and writer Isa Milman, said, “I participated in the first Calling All Artists, The Paradise Project, in 2005. It was a spectacular experience. The combination of Rabbi Harry Brechner’s teaching, the group of artists who gathered and learned from each other, wrestling with text that most of us were unfamiliar with, was truly energizing. The process involved five sessions spread over a few months, to learn from Harry’s teachings and engage with one another, as we entered a spiritual quest for meaning. Then we went off to put our learning into practice and create our responses.”
Milman has taken part in a number of Calling All Artists projects. “I’ve written poems as well as created paintings for these projects,” she said. “Learning with Rabbi Harry is an inspiration. He’s a gifted teacher and a wonderful spiritual guide. My Jewish education was extremely Orthodox and doctrinaire and I rebelled against it. Learning Torah with Rabbi Harry is so different. It’s an invitation to engage and converse, which I so welcome.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].