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December 8, 2016 / 8 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph’

Siona Benjamin’s Blue Angels

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin


October 15, 2009 – January 29, 2010


Washington DC Jewish Community Center


1529 16th Street, NW, Washington



 

 


A blue-skinned woman with at least one wing carries a caged dove in her right hand and has just released a golden bird from her other hand. Her hair is covered by a shawl that rests over a curved dagger (like the Yemenite jambiya) with a sheath decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. A corner of the shawl becomes a pair of tzitzit whose strings are wrapped around a lion’s arms and midsection, perhaps restraining it. The woman, who represents a self-portrait of the artist Siona Benjamin, stands on a white ball, which unravels to reveal not string but floral patterns that border the painting. Beneath her yellow skirt, the woman wears striped pants that evoke either the uniform of a prisoner or a concentration camp inmate.

 

Benjamin’s Jewish-Arab-American take on the cat playing with a ball of string is packed with symbols that could either bear fruitful metaphorical subtexts or dead-end red herrings. The lion could refer to Judah (called a “lion cub” in Genesis 49:9) or to Samson, who killed a lion and, upon seeing honeycomb in its mane, learned the lesson: “from the powerful ensued sweetness” (Judges 14:14). Or it could just be a lion. The strings of the tzitzit could protect the figure from the ferocious cat, or they could be the woman’s undoing, if the lion is pulling the woman down by her garment. Doves sometimes suggest peace, but a caged peace symbol could be ominous. The floral borders could suggest a beautiful garden, or a barrier that keeps the golden bird enclosed in an arena with the lion.

 

The work, Finding Home #9 (Fereshtini), is part of Benjamin’s larger series called Fereshteh, Urdu for “angels.” The angels of the series are the women of the bible, whom Benjamin positions as contemporary protectors who tackle modern problems: wars and violence. Benjamin, who grew up as a Bene Israel Jew in India, was educated at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools and lived in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society. Now based in Montclair, New Jersey, Benjamin brings this hybrid identity into her works.

 

 


Finding Home #9. 2007. 9″ x 11″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on board

 

 

Another work from the Fereshteh series is Finding Home #86 “Chavah,” which represents the world’s first woman as the symbol of her sin which led to her banishment from Eden: a tree.

 

The tree is blue (of course), and it has seven female, human heads – six attached to the branches, and one in the roots. In Benjamin’s painting, Eve has become one (or seven) with the tree. In a statement, Benjamin notes that misogynistic accounts of the biblical text often focus on Eve as “empty headed” and a “temptress.” But Eve is thus named for being “the mother of all life” (“Chava” from the root “chai,” Genesis 3:20), so she cannot be viewed as a destroyer. “The eating of the forbidden fruit can be looked upon as not negative or impulsive,” Benjamin writes, “but as a woman full of curiosity, who reaches out for the gifts of life: pleasure, beauty and wisdom.”

 

Miriam, depicted in Finding Home #73, is a very different sort of woman. She lies (asleep? dead?) in a large wine glass. She is blue-skinned and wears a golden sari. Behind the glass is a grey mushroom cloud of demonic faces, and a wire is plugged into the base of the cloud. The wire winds around the stem of the glass and emerges as part of the intravenous therapy being administered to Miriam. Two needles seem to be drawing blood from Moses’ sister, who holds a switch in her left hand. “Will she turn off the switch in time to stop the violence, the demons?” Benjamin wonders in a statement. “Is she asleep? Sick? Oblivious? Controlled?”

 


Finding Home #73, “Miriam.” 2006. 10″ x 7″. Gouache and gold leaf on wood panel

 

 

Although Benjamin suggests there is hope that Miriam might turn off the mushroom cloud – surely a reference to nuclear weapons – one wonders if the nuclear power is not also fueling the biblical character, who had the boldness to address Pharaoh’s daughter, to lead the women in song at the Red Sea, and to criticize her brother Moses (for which she was struck with leprosy). Miriam was also responsible, the midrash tells us, for well filled with water that traveled with the Jews in the desert. Instead of supplying her people with the water necessary for survival, Benjamin’s Miriam does not have control of her own bodily fluids.

 

The Miriam of Finding Home #72 is only in slightly better shape. In the triptych, Miriam lies tangled on a spider’s web. Even her wings are stuck in the web. In fact, Miriam’s wings, arms, and legs seem so carefully and intentionally tied that she could not have simply flown into the web. In the bottom right corner, a demonic figure with a tail, fangs, and sharp claws sleeps. She is flanked on either side by Jonah, who holds an American flag as he is strung upside down in front of a fish, and by Joseph, who stands on a podium dressed in bright colors. The two figures are in poses reminiscent of the soldiers tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

 

 


Finding Home #72, “Miriam.” 2006. 18″ x 15.3″. Gouache and 22K gold leaf on wood

 

 

It is not clear what Miriam has in her character that makes her the patron saint of tortured prisoners, but even if she could help Joseph and Jonah, she is trapped in the demonic web. That’s what I find most impressive and exciting about Benjamin’s angels. They have been summoned to respond to modern problems – which are of course timeless problems at the same time – but it is hardly clear that they will succeed. Just because angels have been dispatched to respond to a problem does not immediately resolve the problem.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Menachem Wecker

Time To Retake Joseph’s Tomb

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

It was supposed to be temporary.

Nine years ago last month, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli army to withdraw from Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus) in one of the most humiliating retreats in the nation’s modern history.

The move came after Palestinian policemen and Fatah terrorists had launched a coordinated assault on the Israeli soldiers who were bravely guarding the sacred burial ground of our biblical forebear.

Displaying their customary respect for Jewish holy sites, the Palestinian attackers had surrounded the compound, strafed it with automatic-weapons fire and attempted to seize it by force.

Rather than standing firm in the face of the Palestinian onslaught, Barak chose instead to make history of the most dubious sort. He issued an unprecedented order for the IDF to pull out under fire and surrender territory to the Palestinians as a direct result of violence.

The abandonment of Joseph’s Tomb, we were assured at the time, was not permanent, but rather a tactical move dictated by the situation on the ground. Back on October 7, 2000, just hours after the last IDF soldiers had evacuated from the area, the website of Yediot Aharonot reported in a banner headline, “Israel pulls out of Joseph’s Tomb – ‘Temporarily.’ ”

But here we are, nearly a decade later, and the Tomb still remains “temporarily” abandoned by the Jewish state, in what has become a mark of shame for our people and our country.

Indeed, who can forget the painful scenes that followed the withdrawal, when a frenzied mob of Palestinians armed with sledgehammers hacked and smashed the tomb to pieces?

And what about the prayer books and other Jewish religious objects that were set alight, as the throng celebrated the destruction they had wrought?

Coming just a week after the start of what came to be known as the Second Intifada, the pullout from Joseph’s Tomb fanned the flames of Palestinian rejectionism, which continue to smolder to the present day.

The withdrawal set a dangerous example for the Palestinians that resorting to carnage and terror does pay, which only continues to inspire them to dream of ejecting us from the region through violence and mayhem.

And that is precisely why it is so crucial that Israel reassert control over Joseph’s Tomb. We cannot and must not allow this affront to Jewish history to stand, especially now when so much pressure is being brought to bear on Israel to make still more concessions to the Palestinians.

It is therefore time to turn back the clock and reclaim this part of our ancestral patrimony.

Don’t believe those in the media and on the Left who cast doubt on the authenticity of the tomb, mockingly suggesting that it belongs to an unknown Arab sheikh. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, the late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost archeologists, described Joseph’s Tomb as “one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since Biblical times” (Tombs of the Righteous in the Land of Israel, p. 365).

The Book of Joshua (24:32) states explicitly, “The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.”

Ancient rabbinic texts such as the Midrash mention the site, as did the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who visited it nearly 1,700 years ago. Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and even 19th- century British cartographers all concur regarding the site and its location.

Prior to the Palestinian takeover in October 2000, the tomb’s compound was host to a yeshiva, and it was visited by thousands of Jewish worshipers annually.

So there is no doubt that Joseph’s Tomb really is the tomb of Joseph, son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. And we owe it to him – and to ourselves – to take it back and raise the Israeli flag once again over the compound.

Twice in Jewish history, Joseph was forsaken by his brothers and handed over to foreign control. The first time was in the biblical story, when he was tossed into a pit and sold to traveling merchants. The second time was in October 2000, when his tomb was surrendered to Palestinian rioters.

It is not too late to right this historical wrong. Doing so will send a message to our enemies that we shall never again retreat under fire, and that we will defend our right to live and worship in this land as we see fit.

So let’s at last do what should have been done long ago – take back Joseph’s Tomb, and with it, our self-respect as well.

Michael Freund served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999. He is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

Michael Freund

Time To Retake Joseph’s Tomb

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

   It was supposed to be temporary.
 
   Nine years ago last month, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli army to withdraw from Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus) in one of the most humiliating retreats in the nation’s modern history.
 
   The move came after Palestinian policemen and Fatah terrorists had launched a coordinated assault on the Israeli soldiers who were bravely guarding the sacred burial ground of our biblical forebear.
 
   Displaying their customary respect for Jewish holy sites, the Palestinian attackers had surrounded the compound, strafed it with automatic-weapons fire and attempted to seize it by force.
 
   Rather than standing firm in the face of the Palestinian onslaught, Barak chose instead to make history of the most dubious sort. He issued an unprecedented order for the IDF to pull out under fire and surrender territory to the Palestinians as a direct result of violence.
 
   The abandonment of Joseph’s Tomb, we were assured at the time, was not permanent, but rather a tactical move dictated by the situation on the ground. Back on October 7, 2000, just hours after the last IDF soldiers had evacuated from the area, the website of Yediot Aharonot reported in a banner headline, “Israel pulls out of Joseph’s Tomb – ‘Temporarily.’ “
 
   But here we are, nearly a decade later, and the Tomb still remains “temporarily” abandoned by the Jewish state, in what has become a mark of shame for our people and our country.
 
   Indeed, who can forget the painful scenes that followed the withdrawal, when a frenzied mob of Palestinians armed with sledgehammers hacked and smashed the tomb to pieces?
 
   And what about the prayer books and other Jewish religious objects that were set alight, as the throng celebrated the destruction they had wrought?
 
   Coming just a week after the start of what came to be known as the Second Intifada, the pullout from Joseph’s Tomb fanned the flames of Palestinian rejectionism, which continue to smolder to the present day.
 
   The withdrawal set a dangerous example for the Palestinians that resorting to carnage and terror does pay, which only continues to inspire them to dream of ejecting us from the region through violence and mayhem.
 
   And that is precisely why it is so crucial that Israel reassert control over Joseph’s Tomb. We cannot and must not allow this affront to Jewish history to stand, especially now when so much pressure is being brought to bear on Israel to make still more concessions to the Palestinians.
 
   It is therefore time to turn back the clock and reclaim this part of our ancestral patrimony.
 
   Don’t believe those in the media and on the Left who cast doubt on the authenticity of the tomb, mockingly suggesting that it belongs to an unknown Arab sheikh. Nothing could be further from the truth.
 
   For example, the late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost archeologists, described Joseph’s Tomb as “one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since Biblical times” (Tombs of the Righteous in the Land of Israel, p. 365).
 
   The Book of Joshua (24:32) states explicitly, “The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.”
 
   Ancient rabbinic texts such as the Midrash mention the site, as did the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who visited it nearly 1,700 years ago. Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and even 19th- century British cartographers all concur regarding the site and its location.
 
   Prior to the Palestinian takeover in October 2000, the tomb’s compound was host to a yeshiva, and it was visited by thousands of Jewish worshipers annually.
 
   So there is no doubt that Joseph’s Tomb really is the tomb of Joseph, son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. And we owe it to him – and to ourselves – to take it back and raise the Israeli flag once again over the compound.
 
   Twice in Jewish history, Joseph was forsaken by his brothers and handed over to foreign control. The first time was in the biblical story, when he was tossed into a pit and sold to traveling merchants. The second time was in October 2000, when his tomb was surrendered to Palestinian rioters.
 
   It is not too late to right this historical wrong. Doing so will send a message to our enemies that we shall never again retreat under fire, and that we will defend our right to live and worship in this land as we see fit.
 

   So let’s at last do what should have been done long ago – take back Joseph’s Tomb, and with it, our self-respect as well.

 

 

   Michael Freund served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999. He is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

Jason Maoz

Part 21 – Therapy For Marriage And Parenting Issues

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

There are some marital issues that are too sensitive for a couple to handle alone.  These issues might include mistrust; lack of marital satisfaction; conflict involving in-laws, friends, siblings, and children; verbal abuse; and so on. When dealing with such problems, the best course is to ask a professional outside party for advice and opinions.

 

Why You Should Receive Expert Advice

Many people hesitate to receive expert advice because they are unfamiliar with it and feel uncomfortable. But professional advice is helpful and important because relationship experts have studied and dealt with similar or identical situations to yours, and can assist you in seeing your situation from many perspectives with several solutions, of which one or more will best suit you and your marriage.

No matter what your marital trouble may be, always remember these important steps:

 

  • Acknowledge and accept the problem.
  • Ask yourself why the problem troubles you.
  • Approach your spouse with your thoughts and feelings.
  • Talk it out.
  • Stay rational.
  • Seek an expert’s opinion and advice.

 

If after evaluating your marriage, you have found unresolved areas of tension, it’s important to try to resolve them before they spill over into the life of your children.  Improving your marriage may be the most important thing you can do to help them.

Therapy in Action

A few years ago, a couple, Sarah and Joseph, came to see me about their son, Moshe, 16, who was experiencing extreme difficulty in school. Moshe did not have any serious learning problems.  In fact, he was exceptionally bright and capable of succeeding in school.  His problem was that he was frequently missing class.  Recently he had started leaving school and spending time in an unknown location. Moshe’s parents were naturally concerned for his future.

When I first met Sarah and Joseph, I was immediately struck by how unhappy their marriage seemed to be.  Joseph was quiet and reserved, compared to his wife, who was extremely worried about whether everything was all right with her son. When they tried to explain to me why they thought Moshe was in trouble, the discussion always seemed to turn into an argument. Joseph believed that his wife’s inability to nurture their son was the cause of Moshe’s school issues.  Sarah, on the other hand, believed that the source of the problem was Joseph’s inability to communicate in a warm way with their son.

Here is a dialogue from one of our sessions:

Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Tell me more about the general atmosphere in the house.

Sarah: Well, our family time is not very enjoyable.  I would say that Shabbos meals are the most difficult time of our week.  To start with, Joseph doesn’t run a very nice Shabbos meal. He is so tired from work that when Shabbos rolls around, he goes to shul, makes Kiddush, and then totally withdraws into himself.

DS: Is Shabbos that hard for you?

Joseph: Look, it’s not that I don’t care about my family; it’s just that I feel so burnt out after work.  When I come home, the kids are always yelling and I just want some peace and quiet.  I guess on Shabbos I just need a break.

Sarah: It’s worse than that.  You never have time for the kids or for me.  When you’re home, you just surf on the Internet, and on Shabbos you read the newspaper. Don’t you realize that Moshe needs to talk to you?

DS: I guess things are hard during Shabbos. What about your own relationship outside of your children?  How well do you get along?

Sarah: To be perfectly honest, we don’t have much of a relationship.  Joseph isn’t very excited about talking to me and we never go on vacation anymore.

Joseph: That’s not true. Last Pesach we went away to Florida for the first days of Pesach.

Sarah: We barely talked the entire week. I think you enjoyed being with your friends more than you enjoyed being with us.

Joseph: What do you want from me?  I tried my best.  I can’t stand when everyone is nagging — your parents, the kids, you.

DS: Have you been having trouble relating for some time?

Sarah: Yes.  I would say for about the last three years.

DS: Why?  What was going on in your lives three years ago?

Sarah: Well, my husband is in computers, and after 9/11 his company started downsizing and he lost his job.

DS: What did you do?

Joseph: I was on unemployment for about four months until I found another job.

DS: Are you happier now?

Joseph: Not really.  It’s an average job, and I don’t really enjoy the work I am doing.  However, it does pay the bills.

DS: That’s a big burden, having to support your family doing something you don’t enjoy.

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch

Poland’s Jewish Ghosts

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky

Through July 12, 2009

The Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit

www.dia.org  

 

About 2,500 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah, having predicted Nebuchadnezzar’s imminent destruction of the First Temple, composed the famous line, “Why did I leave the womb – to see toil and pain – that I may live out my days in shame?” About 500 years later, Joseph ben Matthias, also known as Josephus, observed and recorded the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman emperor Titus, claiming in Book VI of the “War of the Jews”  (chapter nine) that 1.1 million Jews were killed and 97,000 were enslaved in the siege.

 

Jeremiah was a prophet who communicated with G-d; Josephus was not. The Jewish general was something close to a historian, albeit prone to exaggeration and to various biases, including the belief that Greco-Roman culture could and should embrace Judaism. Jeremiah wrote the book on Temple mourning, while Josephus simply came up with a sequel.

 

The same could be said of the pair of photographers featured in the exhibit “Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Separated by six decades rather than half-a-century like Jeremiah and Josephus, Vishniac and Gusky both captured the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

 

 

Roman Vishniac, Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, gelatin silver print,

Menachem Wecker

Peace at Home And Among Our People (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Special Note: In my last column, I discussed the tragic consequences of  Sinas Chinam jealousy and hatred of the brothers toward Joseph that cast us into our first exile in Egypt, which continues to plague us to this very day. The following is a continuation of that column:

It is well known that the story of “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” was pivotal to our exile but we have yet to learn the lesson of that shameful tragedy. The very title of the story is puzzling, since the controversy was not between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, but between Bar Kamtza and the anonymous host of the party. Why is Kamtza implicated?

To refresh our memories: A gentleman in Yerushalayim made a party. He had a best friend named Kamtza and an enemy whom he despised named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to his party, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to his enemy, Bar Kamtza. Happily, Bar Kamtza came to the party only to be ordered to leave.

Mortified, he pleaded to be allowed to stay. He even offered to pay for the cost of the party, but his host remained adamant and had him thrown out. So, the question remains – why is Kamtza, the good friend, who never even made it to the party, implicated? Why is he named as a central player?

As a best friend, Kamtza had to be aware that his friend’s heart was filled with animosity and hatred. It would have been his responsibility to warn his friend not to allow such venom to overtake him. So too should the rabbis and all the other guests at the party have taken a strong stand and protested. But everyone remained silent and thereby countenanced this shameful act. Those same people would surely have protested had they seen their host serving treif, so how could they have remained impervious to his reprehensible behavior, which was a pure manifestation of sinas chinam – a treif manner of behavior?

We are all familiar with the teaching of Chazal that calls upon us to be among the disciples of Aharon, Kohen Gadol, and pursue peace among our fellow man. In Judaism, the pursuit of peace is so critical we are even permitted to bend the truth for its sake. When there is a conflict between emes and shalom, emes must take a back seat, for there is no greater good than shalom. So, it is that Aaron had no problem telling two warring parties that the other regretted his actions and wanted to make peace even though that may have been far from the truth.

We, however, not only fail to generate peace, but consciously or unconsciously, we often incite further discord. It behooves all of us to ask ourselves whether we are among the disciples of Aaron or those who attended the infamous party from which Bar Kamtza was ousted.

This question is all the more pertinent to us, for we are the generation that has been destined to live in this trying period of Chevlei Moshiach when, with every passing day, our trials and tribulations intensify. So the question remains B how can we spare ourselves this intense pain that is endemic to this period and speedily bring about the geulah?

But how do we go about making peace and fostering it among our family, our community and our people? Obviously, every conflict, every situation, is different, but the first step is to unlock the heart sealed by hatred. Experience has taught me that the best way to accomplish this is through Torah study and a story that has the power to reach the heart.

In one of my books, I tell the story of the Maggid of Kelm. On one occasion, he challenged his congregation and asked, If, chas v’shalom, Moshiach does not come in our lifetime and we are buried here in Kelm and then one day, we receive an invitation to arise from our graves and return to Kelm for half-an-hour, what would you do? Where would you go? And what would you say?”

Very often, I challenge my audiences with this very same question. What would you do? Where would you do? And what would you say? Would you check on your business, go shopping, to the gym? Would you visit your family? And if you did, what would you say?

On 9/11 we found out. For the very first time, something happened on that day that we had never encountered. Thousands of people were trapped in the Twin Towers. They knew that they were going to die, and somehow, they succeeded in sending out a last message. Tragically, there is nothing new about people being killed and dying, but this was the very first time that we had a recorded message from those facing death. Amazingly, they all got through on their cell phones.

Incredibly, they all left the same message B three little words, I love you…I love you Mom…I love you Dad…I love you, my husband…I love you, my wife…I love you, my children… I love you Grandma I love you Grandpa – I love you all so much!

I allow the people to digest the story and then I ask, Should we not say, “I love you” before it is too late? All the things that we fight about – money, kavod…Is it really worth it? In the end, when all is said and done, it’s all shtuot – nonsense. So once again I ask, Is it really worth it? Is it really worth destroying those who are nearest and dearest to you?” When these two preparatory steps are taken you can anticipate that you will succeed in making shalom. I learned this lesson long ago from my revered father, Harav HaGaon Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l.

At the end of WWII we were taken to a DP camp in Switzerland. A group of Polish young men, all of whom had undergone horrific, torturous experiences in Auschwitz arrived at our camp. They were orphans, angry, bitter, and openly expressed their hostility toward Judaism and Hashem. No one had much to do with them, but my father could not bear to see Yiddisheh neshamos so affected. He didn’t argue with them or admonish them, nor did he give them mussar. Instead, every night, my father went to their dormitory and said the Shema with them. Then he would go to each bed, give each boy a brachah and a kiss. Thus, my father converted their anger, and bitterness into faith, commitment and love.

The lesson of my father has guided me in my efforts to make shalom and unify family members. But those lessons should guide all of us, for they belong to our people.

(To Be Continued)

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Siona Benjamin: Finding Home  (www.artsiona.com)

Siona Benjamin’s works can be seen at:
‘Lilith in the New World’
Solo Exhibition at Flomenhaft Gallery, New York.
(Oct 23- Dec 4, 2008)
 
www.flomenhaftgallery.com
 212 268 4952

 

‘Gathering Sparks: The Midrashic Art of Siona Benjamin’ solo exhibition 

The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (Dec 11, 2008 – Feb 11, 2009)

 

Siona Benjamin is a most unusual artist determined to recast Jewish art as a dynamic, cross-cultural phenomenon.  At first glance, she seems more at home in the art of the East and yet manages to forge her visions into our consciousness regardless of our cultural orientation.  Her works are deeply influenced by her personal experience as an Indian Jew, raised and educated in the predominately Muslim and Hindu culture of Bombay, India and yet fully savoring the contemporary American culture that she has made her home.


Siona’s work is driven by Torah narratives, especially of women, that are inextricable from her personal experiences.  Her Bene Israel Jewish family inculcated a deep sense of Jewishness, even while she was educated in the rich cultural diversity of Catholic and Zoroastrian primary schools within the predominant Hindu and Islamic culture of Bombay. 


This background was in many ways typical of the Bene Israel because of their accepted place within the Indian Hindu caste system.  They did not experience anti-Semitism and were simultaneously fully absorbed into Indian society and yet, because of the caste system’s intermarriage prohibitions, were kept culturally distinct. According to Dr. Shalva Weil of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, this experience is unique among all contemporary Jewish communities. 


One can well imagine the cultural dislocation Siona experienced as a Jew not quite fitting in the polyglot Indian society, a visual artist in Jewish society and as a South Asian woman in Midwestern America where she received her graduate college education.  Israel wasn’t much more comforting again, as an outsider and witness to Jewish/Muslim hatred that was largely unknown back in Bombay. 

 

 


Vashti (2006) 10″ x 7″, gouache & gold leaf on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

All of this was simultaneously liberating and daunting as she set down cultural and artistic roots.  Her journey to uncover her artistic self has been fascinating, as she finds inspiration in the disparate styles of Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts.


A particularly extensive series of works (2006 – 2008) is collectively titled “Finding Home” and is dominated by symbolic portraits of Biblical women that address, on one level, many aspects of Siona’s complex background and subsequent experience. One image is Tikkun ha-Olam and is based on a conflation of Hebrew manuscript illuminations and the image of an Indian multi-limbed divinity in the shape of a menorah.  Under Benjamin’s guidance cultures morph and blend into hybrid amalgamations.


Within the same series there are marginalized Jewish and non-Jewish women: Dinah is seen floating above a languid landscape entwined in a red fiery cloth that evokes her terrible fate; Tziporah is violently clutched in the air by a euphonious bird echoing her encounter with the “bridegroom of blood” and finally an amazing image of Vashti, forever the outsider looking into the palace that she had every right to possess.


The revealing title of last year’s exhibition at the Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College; “Blue Like Me” summarizes Siona Benjamin’s approach to her subjects.  She states that, as an Indian Jew, she is ” a colored Jew,” which has subjected her to negativity and racism from other Jews.” (Catalogue essay by Cheryl Kramer, “Blue like Me.”)  Beyond this, her radically different cultural background automatically gives her outsider status within the Jewish community. These elements are always present in her choice of subjects, the mini-narratives she weaves and the fact that, almost all her figures are blue- skinned much like some Hindu divinities.


The scope of Siona’s explorations is impressive as she depicts the myriad women of the Bible, each of whom she subtitles Fereshteh (“angel” in Urdu).  Miriam is seen in at least three versions; one as a traditionally-clad Indian woman trudging along with a suitcase, perhaps leaving Egypt, another Miriam is terribly sickly and surrounded by nightmarish demons suggesting the punishment of tzara’as and finally, a vision of her as an Islamic Persian angel tragically caught in a spider’s web. 


Tamar, Asnat and a double portrait of Rachel and Leah are rendered in fascinatingly complex details while, not surprisingly, there are at least three Pop Art inspired versions of the grand feminist rebel Lilith.  In another Lilith she is seen as an Islamic woman dressed in striped concentration camp clothes watering the ground filled with budding embryos.  Siona exploits her status as an “outsider” to view midrashic figures from as extreme a perspective as possible.

 

 


Esther (2006) each 6 ½” x 5″, gouache on paper by Siona Benjamin

 

A triptych of Esther re-envisions the ordeal that Esther had to endure as a secret Jew in the Ahashverosh’s court by presenting her as Hear No Evil (Pilot’s Helmet), See No Evil (Blindfold) and Speak No Evil (Gas Mask), each attribute resonating with one aspect of a Jew’s experience in modern Israel.  Until now, we have never imagined Queen Esther through this kind of contemporary political lens. 


While the vast majority of Siona Benjamin’s images are of women, the few depictions of men are equally arresting, especially since all these images are of female figures in the guise of male characters.  A triptych of Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac brings these Biblical figures boldly into the modern world.  Ishmael is seen as a flying Persian warrior, blindfolded and threatened by arrows and spears from all directions.  Abraham is leading a white ram against a background that seems to be raining blood.  Finally Isaac is stretched out in concentration camp clothes, flames rising from behind him as tortured Abu Ghraib prison figures prepare to lift him into their realm.  Grim, shocking and contemporary, Siona’s interpretations rivet the imagination and challenge traditional understandings.

 

 


Joseph (2006), 22″ x 17″, gouache & gold leaf on museum board by Siona Benjamin

Siona Benjamin’s Joseph seems to be an equally iconoclastic image depicting him turning back toward us to reveal his elaborately ornate coat.  It is curiously drained of color allowing us to see many scenes of animals and men in violent struggle.  Joseph’s blue face stares at us, passive and a bit defiant while he opens the front of his coat to reveal that it is lined with knives ostensibly for sale.  The figure is surrounded by four Persian angels and five giant daggers.  In the background, wheat fields summon both his prophecy and his success at managing the Egyptian economy in time of famine.  A spilled glass of blood red wine completes the symbolic narrative.


Perhaps more than most of the images reviewed here Joseph actually echoes many traditional interpretations of the Biblical figure.  Joseph’s feminized face reflects the midrashic understanding that he was exceptionally good looking in a captivating way especially for Potiphar’s wife – as the midrash tells us, “painting his eyes, curling his hair, and walking with a mincing step;” Genesis Rabbah 84:7; 87:3.  The daggers surrounding him may indicate the deadly malice his brothers felt for him while the Persian angels easily connote the Divine protection he surely benefited from. 


Finally, the overwhelming atmosphere of violence reflects Joseph’s role in the future time of the Moshiach.  As evidenced by the Talmud, Succah 52a, and later midrashic literature the Moshiach ben Joseph will, if necessary because of the sorry condition of the Jewish people, precede the Moshiach ben David. In the ensuing terrible war of Gog and Magog the Moshiach ben Joseph, brave and skillful at war, will be tragically slain. 


Siona Benjamin’s work establishes a singular place in contemporary Jewish art, forcefully demanding a multi-cultural perspective of Torah, Jews, Judaism and women.  Her work forces us to radically broaden our horizons beyond the Middle East, Europe and America and very likely engineering a confrontation with the Islamic East within our very familiar Torah narratives.  Given the crisis between Islam and the West, it might seem that her art is a first tentative step towards a common ground.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/siona-benjamin-finding-home/2008/10/08/

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