Local Jewish artists mount show of works that heal

A clown nose is many things: It's rubber, it's red, it's round. But the age-old question comes to mind…Is it art? And more specifically, is it Jewish art?

Sarah Klein seems to think so. A basket of clown noses accompanies her video installation in "The Art of Jewish Healing" exhibit now on display at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

A sign tells viewers to push "play" on the VCR in order to learn more about clown noses. Books with titles like "The Courage to Laugh" and "The Healing Power of Humor" as well as others with motivational quotes by author Allen Klein are on the shelf behind.

And in the video, a friendly man with a sweatshirt that reads "Jollytologist" talks about, among other things, how a clown nose can diffuse tension, bring humor to a staff meeting or just add a good dose of fun into any given situation.

Allen Klein happens to be the artist's father. And as the artist says in her statement, "Together we have healed from a tremendous loss over twenty years ago. When I was ten my mother passed away…I wanted to honor my father, Allen Klein, with this piece. He has used humor not only to heal himself but has taught its positive effects to others as well."

For the exhibit, which is co-sponsored by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the Bureau of Jewish Education, 32 local artists were given Jewish texts about healing and told to create a work that speaks to that theme.

"In viewing a piece of art, or creating art, we are able to access the spiritual parts of ourselves," said Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the healing center. "Our hope is that these pieces will provide hope, comfort and inspiration to those struggling with pain or illness."

What is so striking is just how different every piece is.

The artists represented work in every medium imaginable, from watercolor and recycled metal to beads and lace, from glass and ceramics to wood and a pastel pink dial telephone.

Deborah Trilling evokes her mother, a holocaust survivor, in a work titled "Mother and Child." In it, a portrait of her grandmother who died at Treblinka is shown above a worn little girl's dress and a Magen David made from sticks, which symbolizes her mother's wartime experiences hiding in the forests as a young child.

Many of the works feature the healing words El na rafah na lah, — "Please God, heal her please" — a prayer attributed to Moses when his sister Miriam was ailing. Among them are Nancy Katz's "Healing Scarf"; Leslie Gattman's "Angel of Whispered Prayers," a mosaic in mostly primary colors; and Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback's "Healing Lamp." In the case of the lamp, the prayer is etched into a pale green piece of glass, which then emits a soft green light. It "illuminates a room with the mystical incantation for good health," the artists write.

Some works show the pain of illness, such as Carol Hutner Winograd's "Imprisoned." Winograd, who had to retire from the faculty of Stanford University School of Medicine when she came down with a rare illness, depicts herself as a dark figure through the bars of a jail cell. In a poem that accompanies it, she writes: "Pains reminding me of losses/ Keep me hostage/ Debility etches my spirit away/ A prisoner in my own cells/ I am exhausted/ Trying to escape into wellness."

One of the most interesting, as well as beautiful, pieces is "The Princess Bride," a collaboration by beadwork artist Barbara Cymrot and fabric artist Katz. Like Katz, Cymrot also has some of her individual pieces in the show. In this work the women joined forces to make a stunning white wedding dress as a Torah cover. Created as an entry in the Spertus Judaica Prize, it recently returned from six months in the Spertus Museum in Chicago. "Its creation was transformative for each of us," the artists write.

The material for the "dress" comes from Katz's mother's wedding dress. But the elder Katz had washed the dress, radically shrinking it. So daughter and the dress both went into the mikvah, "bringing healing and rebirth, in the spirit of Torah."

The lace adorning it is decorated with elements of the Sefirot, the spheres of the Kabbalah. Cymrot's beadwork in seven bands represent the seven wedding blessings, the seven days of the week and the seven species, which comes from a verse in Exodus.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."