November 20, 2018

Artists wrestle with own visions after studying story of Jacob’s Ladder

Struggles aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes they can even provide inspiration. 

The inspiration for a new group art exhibition at The Braid in Santa Monica was a much-interpreted dream and a wrestling match that nobody witnessed. 

In the apocryphal passage in Torah, Jacob, grandson of Abraham, successfully wrestled the guardian angel of his brother, Esau, and ended up receiving the angel’s blessing. The concept of Jacob’s struggles — both his bout with the angel and throughout his life — resonated with Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre, which operates both an art gallery and performance space at The Braid.

“From a contemporary point of view, you could look at the concept of wrestling with angels, wrestling with God and wrestling with man. What are those moments in our lives that we have to wrestle with something?” Spinak said. “Maybe it’s choices about the people we live or don’t live with. Maybe it’s our careers or choices about our children. What do we wrestle with in our life morally or ethically? That was a subject we could spend a lot of time with.”

Spinak did just that. Gathering a group of artists from around the Los Angeles area, she brought in Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso from Indiana for two days of Torah study. Lynne Himelstein, director of JWT’s Story Archive of Women Rabbis, underwrote the cost of the workshop. 

Collectively, the artists wrestled and struggled, both with Jacob’s choices and with their own. After the two days were over, the artists went home to develop their own modern take on the theme.

The fruits of their labors are on display through March 20 in “Beyond Jacob’s Ladder: Mapping the Story” at the Gallery at The Braid. Participants in the mixed-media exhibition include photographer Julie Bram, writer and sculptor Robin Russin, portrait painter Laraine Mestman, ritual spaces designer Laurie Gross, textile artist Peachy Levy and poet/artist Eve Brandstein. Although the gallery’s director, Marilee Tolwin, herself a painter, missed the Torah study session, she also contributed a piece for the show. 

As the exhibition’s title suggests, group members were by no means restricted to depicting the most celebrated parts of the Jacob story: the ladder to heaven that appeared in his dream, the struggle with the angel or the theft of his father’s birthright from Esau. The conflict over Jacob’s marriage to sisters Leah and Rachel and his unfair treatment by their father, Laban, were also fair game.

“I came with a certain amount of material and, at first, I was concerned that maybe I didn’t have enough,” said Sasso, who was the first woman rabbi to be ordained in the Reconstructionist movement. “I didn’t have to worry about that at all.”

Santa Barbara-based Gross raved about the two-day retreat, saying the experience took her back to the early 1980s, when study of text would feed her work.

“You forget how much you get by spending time with colleagues and scholars studying,” Gross said. “For me, it was such a treat and an unusual thing in my life to be invited to sit and study for two days. I absolutely loved it.” 

Sasso had participants delve into the implications of Jacob’s ladder dream. In the dream, Sasso said, God gave Jacob the opportunity to ascend to heaven, but he was distracted by the angels descending. When the dreaming Jacob was ready to climb the ladder, it was too late.

“We talked about when those moments of opportunity come around — do we take them? And if we don’t, do they come around again?” Sasso said. “We created lots of opportunities to imagine where their lives fit into this narrative.” 

As weighty as the issues and the discussion often were, the gathering had its light-hearted moments, as well. In honor of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal of lentil stew, one of the artists cooked a lentil stew and brought it to the second day of the gathering. 

“So not only did we read and listen to the story, we tasted it, too,” Sasso said.

Gross, who also runs the Avi Schaefer Fund in memory of her son, as well as her art studio, said she ended up wrestling with a different type of struggle — availability of time and finding an inspirational concept.

Nearly a month before the deadline to finish her work, Gross says she panicked, fearing she would not be able to complete the assignment. She refocused and spent some time with the concept and remembered a work that she had begun 20 years ago: a ladder with winged messengers attached.

“I sat with that for about a week and I thought, ‘I can’t do this. It doesn’t reflect anything I gained, the richness of that exchange [with her fellow artists],’ ” Gross said. So, she “gave myself the weekend, and I began to figure out a way to create the circular ladder out of fabric. A week later, the piece came together.”

For her part, Tolwin created a textual oil painting for the exhibition, drawing from elements of Jacob’s dream and the concept of wrestling. She took inspiration from circumstances in her own life, most notably reconciling her less secular approach to Judaism with that of her Orthodox husband.

“We wrestled with that for five years. I wrestled with him and he wrestled with God,” Tolwin said. “We went back and forth. Finally, I realized it’s OK for me to be what I am. I’m a good Jewish person. I am who I am, and that’s fine.”