study participants are seated in a circle in the "living room" area of the studio
Rabbi Adina Allen (center, in red) leads a “Creative Commentary” Torah study session at Studio Am. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Songs of praise, art of resistance at newly open Studio Am

Early last Tuesday morning, a dozen people gathered to welcome the month of Nisan with song, study and art at Studio Am, the recently opened space of the Jewish Studio Project. JSP’s mission is to offer ways into Jewish spirituality and texts through creative endeavors.

Each Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Jewish month), Jews sing Hallel, a cycle of several psalms of praise. Typically, this happens during Shacharit (the morning service), but at Studio Am, we sang Hallel on its own. Hallel is also said on festival holidays, such as Sukkot and Passover.

interior of the studio: chairs around a table, "welcome to the studio" banner on the wall
The interior of Studio Am (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

The interior of Studio Am is bright and sunny, with a full wall of windows facing west. A colorful banner reading “Welcome to the studio” draws one’s eye upon entering. In the center are a few folding tables and chairs, with shelves and racks of art supplies around the room.

We gathered around the tables, standing and swaying as we sung. We were led by Renna Khuner-Haber, whom I have previously encountered at Sukkot on the Farm and Nigun Collective, which she co-leads.

By way of introduction, she told us about a tape of Hallel tunes she used to listen to as a kid and how excited she was later in life when she realized we get to sing Hallel at least once a month. I fondly remember going to festival morning services as a kid; like the tape that I’m sure Khuner-Haber hears in her head, I always hear the voice of my childhood rabbi during Hallel.

“We’re just going to do straight Hallel,” she said. That is, fairly standard Ashkenazi melodies; nothing fancy. Suits me fine. Her voice is smooth and sweet; powerful, but nothing fancy.

The others present, in their 20s, 30s and 40s plus one small child, all seemed to know the tunes, which included Shlomo Carlebach’s Pitchu Li (Psalm 118); Mordechai Ben David’s Mah Ashiv (Psalm 116), which I can never get enough of; and other Hallel standards. I recognized most in attendance from the East Bay Jewish community’s progressive, independent spiritual scene — spaces like Wilderness Torah, Nigun Collective and Urban Adamah.

I like stand-alone Hallels like this on Rosh Hodesh because they’re a quick and easy way to bring awareness to divisions in the Jewish year that are easy to miss in the daily Gregorian grind. Last month, Adar, is known as a time of great joy because it includes the overflowing silliness of Purim. The move from Adar to Nisan, which includes the more somber celebration of Passover, marks a significant shift in tone. Plus, it’s a wonderful way to begin a morning.

My love of Hallel aside, it was also an opportunity to check out Studio Am. Jewish Studio Project co-founders Rabbi Adina Allen and husband Jeff Kasowitz translate Studio Am as the People’s Studio, a great name for a progressive art space in an era of blooming artistic political resistance. (JSP has a regular event called “IrRESISTable,” which Allen tells me provides “creative nourishment for activists and other resisters.”) The studio will be a physical home for JSP’s many programs, which include art workshops and community events for all ages.

Services are enough for me, but I’m thrilled that Jewish experimenters like Allen and Kasowitz are creating new pathways into Jewish tradition.

The studio is small, just 1,400 square feet, and already covered in art from recent JSP programs. It is slightly hard to find, with an entrance around the side of a mixed-use building that includes both studio spaces and residential units in South Berkeley. I hope they will do more singing and services there; it is a great space for it.

We concluded Hallel standing in a circle, going around offering “intentions” for the month of Nisan. “May we understand that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of others,” one person said. Another hoped that Nisan would bring “clarity and rejuvenation.”

All of that said, Hallel was not intended to be the main attraction that morning. It came about because Khuner-Haber wanted to sing Hallel, and JSP was already going to hold an event, so they combined forces.

It was, in fact, one of the first advertised community events held in Studio Am, which opened about a month ago. Creative Commentary — what a great name! — will be a weekly morning study session focused on the week’s Torah portion. After some free-flowing group text study, a creative exercise is led by a different artist. This first week, it was Allen.

For Creative Commentary, we gathered in the “living room” area of the one-room studio, with a bright rug, coffee table and eclectic furniture. Bookshelves, not yet entirely filled, display several books on Kabbalah; classics like “The Jew in the Lotus” and “Torah Queeries”; and something called “Photographing God.” The wall is covered in a large fabric diptych featuring a flaming heart flanked by trees; birds flutter overhead holding aloft a banner that says “bruchim haba’im” (welcome).

At the end of Exodus, construction of the Mishkan, the earthly dwelling place of God, has been completed. Vayikra, the portion we studied that morning, marks the beginning of Leviticus, a book that lays out how Israelite society will function. How appropriate: Studio Am has just been completed, and now JSP gets down to the nitty-gritty of how the space will function.

In our text study, we barely made it past the second verse. In fact, we spent about half the time hung up on the first word of the portion. Then it was time for the creative activity, which was to be spent in reflective writing. I excused myself at that point — I had some reflective writing of my own to do, back at the office.

By the way, if this has you itching to do Hallel, go to services any morning during Passover.

Studio Am, 940 Dwight Way, Berkeley. jewishstudioproject.orginfo@jewishstudioproject.org

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send religious, ritual and spiritual goings on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.