Choosing between her talent for writing poetry and her gift for painting, Marcia Falk took Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
The Berkeley poet also happens to be an accomplished artist. Though she has focused most of her professional energy on writing and teaching, her paint box was never far away.
Falk’s art will get a boost when her work graces the cover of the 2017 Resource guide, J.’s annual listing of all things Jewish in the Bay Area that is being mailed to homes and Jewish agencies next week and will be online by the end of the month.
The cover showcases Falk’s oil pastel depiction of a stand of trees, in shades of twilight purple, blue and green. The original piece was part of her 2014 series “Mizrach: Inner East,” Falk’s reimagining of the mizrach, a plaque that sometimes marks the eastern wall of a synagogue or Jewish home. As with traditional mizrachs, Falk’s also include inscriptions, always of her own invention.
The painting’s inscription reads: “In the clearing, where the mind flowers, and the world sprouts up in every side, listen, for the sound in the bushes, behind the grass.”
The Mizrach project — she did two series, comprising dozens of paintings — allowed Falk, 70, to blend literature and art together. Not unlike what English Romantic poet/illustrator William Blake did, only in a Jewish medium and with fewer tygers burning bright.
“I thought I could put word and image together in some kind of design,” she said. “Instead of a plaque on the eastern wall, it can be something that would stir a contemplative mode, awaken the prayer of the heart. I found a way to do what I always wanted to do: bring these two forms together and be in a kind of dialogue together.”
Born in New York City and raised in a Conservative Jewish home on Long Island, Falk is best known in Jewish circles as author of “The Book of Blessings,” first published 20 years ago. It was Falk’s re-envisioning of Jewish liturgy, 500 pages of poetically reinterpreted Hebrew prayers for Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh (new moon) and everyday life. A new edition will be published by CCAR Press in September.
Her book proved so popular, it was added to the bookshelves of synagogues across the country and has been used in services as an adjunct siddur.
“The Book of Blessings” evolved out of three of Falk’s loves: liturgical literature, Jewish ritual and Hebrew.
“I’ve always loved Hebrew,” she said. “I felt English was my mother tongue and Hebrew was the tongue of my blood. There’s something very profound for me about being Jewish. This is my tribe, my people.”
Falk’s intellectual journey took flight studying at art school (the Art Students League of New York), at Brandeis University (BA in philosophy) and at Stanford University (Ph.D. in English). She went on to become a Fulbright scholar in Bible and Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and taught English and Hebrew literature at Stanford, the Claremont Colleges and elsewhere for many years.
Falk underwent an additional philosophical evolution in the 1970s when she became what she calls “a dedicated feminist.” It impacted how she viewed Jewish practice and liturgy.
“It was more of a dilemma for me how to reconcile the patriarchy of this [Jewish] tradition I felt so deeply a part of. That was the start of ‘The Book of Blessings.’ ”
As for her twin pursuits, Falk says she has finally found a balance between writing and painting.
“For my whole life it’s been a back and forth between those two art forms,” she said. “I never felt I could do them both at same time, but when ‘The Book of Blessings’ came out, it happened to coincide with my 50th birthday. I took that as a sign from the heavens: It’s now or never. I went back to painting.”
Over the years, Falk has exhibited her artwork at several Bay Area JCCs and in Southern California Jewish institutions. The Resource cover might be the first time her art makes its way into thousands of homes.
As for making a living as an artist, that hasn’t happened — at least not yet — but that doesn’t mean Falk believes her poems, prayers and liturgical interpretations are in the public domain. Like any writer, she expects to be paid for her hard work.
“When I go to the grocery store,” she said with a laugh, “they don’t ask for a blessing. They ask for cold cash.”