Paying homage to beginning and renewal: New exhibit at BJE

One of Jackie Gleason’s famous lines on the old TV show “The Honeymooners” was “To the moon, Alice! To the moon!” And the best way to get there? Well, for the next four months anyway, the quickest and easiest route might be found at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco.

Claire Sherman

The BJE Jewish Community Library recently launched an art exhibit titled “Rosh Hodesh: Beginning and Renewal.” It features more than 25 local artists’ interpretations of how the lunar cycle — especially the first sliver of the new moon that occurs at the beginning of every month on the Hebrew calendar — is important to Judaism.

“It’s something that has great importance in setting the Jewish calendar,” exhibit curator Elayne Grossbard says of the monthly observance, which means “head of the month.” “It represents beginning and renewal, which is the subtitle of our exhibition. It has a lot of resonance on many levels in Jewish culture.”

Grossbard, who has curated many BJE exhibitions, will give a curator’s talk April 3 that will focus on how the moon’s renewal is a metaphor for Jewish religion, culture and ritual. Her talk will come at the beginning of the month of Nisan, which includes Passover on Nisan 14 (always the night of the first full moon after the spring equinox).

Claire Sherman, a Berkeley artist who has participated in many BJE exhibitions, created one of the pieces in the exhibit. Titled “Rosh Hodesh Shvat,” it is a small wall quilt depicting the silhouette of a tree against a blue sky. However, the tree has no leaves or buds on its branches.

“This is how many trees look on the first day of the month of Shevat [end of January, early February],” says Sherman, daughter of the late Ursula Sherman, one of the co-founders of the JCC of the East Bay and the founder of the Jewish Music Festival.

“By the 15th, Tu B’Shevat, some have buds or blossoms,” she says. “Shevat is one of my favorite months, because Tu B’Shevat is one of my favorite holidays.”

Claire Sherman’s quilt “Rosh Hodesh Shvat”

For Sherman and many other artists in the exhibit, the feminist themes of Rosh Chodesh are central to their artwork.

“I am in a quilt group with five other women [who have a group piece in the exhibit], and when the group thought about Rosh Chodesh, the most powerful image was of the Women of the Wall, who come together to pray with a Torah every Rosh Chodesh,” she says. “The quilt we made together has a screen-printed image of an Israeli policeman trying to take away the Torah that a woman is holding, before arresting her for praying with a Torah at the Wall.”

Artist Ruth Caprow of San Francisco also incorporated feminist themes into her piece for the exhibit, although “Luna” is more directly related to the moon than Sherman’s pieces.

“In Spanish, the moon is female — hence the title of the painting is ‘Luna’ not ‘Moon,’” she says. “The night is seen mostly in black and white — this is the time for mystery.”

Ruth Caprow

In trying to focus on what she wanted to do for the exhibit, Caprow tapped into some powerful memories, and even remembered a dream from long ago.

“I dreamed that I met my sister in a moonlit forest at a time of great need,” Caprow says. “The moon hides and glows and swims in the clouds. Sometimes there’s a blue halo around it and sometimes it just can’t be found. Maybe [in the dream] the moon is my soul.”

Grossbard began organizing the exhibit in November, with invitations going out to many artists who had participated in past BJE exhibitions — although new artists also were encouraged to contribute.

Most of the pieces were created specially for the exhibition, but some artists had already created relevant pieces, and some of those works are included, too. Many materials and media are used.

Ruth Caprow’s quilt “Luna”

Feminism is a theme that flows through many of the works. In some Jewish communities, women refrain from working on Rosh Chodesh, seen as a reward for their refusal to participate in the worship of the Golden Calf. And women at many synagogues and in various Jewish circles get together monthly in Rosh Chodesh groups for text study, art projects and spiritual renewal.

Grossbard says she was pleasantly surprised with the range of the participating artists’ pieces, from “specific, physical descriptions of the moon in nature all the way through abstraction.” Some artists focused on components of Rosh Chodesh (such as ritual) or aspects of the Jewish calendar (which is both lunar- and solar-based).

And for those artists who opted to swoon directly over the moon, a special bond emerged.

As Caprow says, “I looked at the moon as though it were mine.”

“Rosh Hodesh: Beginning and Renewal” runs through July 31 at the BJE’s Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Elayne Grossbard’s curator’s talk is set for 2 p.m. April 3, with an artists’ reception from 1-3 p.m. Free. Information: (415) 567-3327 or www.bjesf.org/adults_events.htm.