November 18, 2018

All night with God: Picturing revelation

In a City of Angels, with murals and figures of the agents of heaven fluttering everywhere, as we approach Shavuot and the time of Matan Torah — the receiving of the Torah — you would think that finding a place to have a revelatory moment would be as easy as stepping outside.

There are angel sculptures in the Farmers Market on Fairfax Boulevard, and there is one painted several stories high on a building across from the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Pico Boulevard; there is even a pair of wings on the side of a Oaxacan restaurant on Olympic Boulevard, ready for you to just step inside and, presumably, fly away. There are also angels’ wings in Union Station downtown, sheltering us on our journeys.

In anticipation of Shavuot, all these wings seem to beat the air with a question: Are we ready, like Israel in the Bible, to receive the Torah?

On Robertson Boulevard, a few blocks south of Pico Boulevard, and at the center of a large swath of Los Angeles’ observant community, there’s even an “Angel Wall” of a more contemporary sort. Artist Barbara Mendes has painted Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, as well as her own daughter Oma “Annie” Kunstler, who died in 2006, on a pulsating mural on a street-facing wall of a corner building that houses her artist’s studio. Radiating from one area, surrounded by a brightly colored wing-suggesting form, is an image predating pop culture: a personification of the Shechinah — the feminine attributes of God — painted with a smiling face and welcoming arms.

Recently, Mendes, standing on a gold-colored ladder, was touching up her mural, readying it for a commercial that will use the image as a backdrop. In L.A., even the Shechinah gets a close-up.

The image “is a metaphor,” said Mendes, who identifies as Orthodox. “Women need to experience spirituality as full-fledged creations of God.” Mendes became deeply religious at age 45 when, by chance, someone at the Pinto Torah Center on Pico Boulevard asked her to paint the synagogue’s courtyard. 

When asked if Shavuot was in her mural, she responded by climbing down from her ladder, walking over to one side of the work and pointing up to a man in a striped caftan climbing a blue, pink and orange mountain. “It’s Moses at Sinai,” she said.

On the night of June 3, many Jews here will celebrate the first night of Shavuot by traveling to their own Mount Sinais, climbing a metaphorical mountain of ideas, impressions and words that will be presented to help them imagine what it means to receive the Torah. 

Some will attend specially written plays, others a full-on sermon-slam. All over the city, Jews will stay up all night at study sessions called Tikkun leil Shavuot — repairing the night of Shavuot — seeking if not a high, then a perspective that will allow them to look out over the vastness of Jewish learning.

According to a midrash, the Jewish people slept the entire night before receiving the Torah. “God had to come in the morning and wake them up to tell them, ‘Hey! I’m giving the Torah,” said Moshe Hildeshaim, who came to Los Angles five months ago from Crown Heights in Brooklyn to open a Chabad in the Carthay Circle area, northeast of Pico-Robertson. “To rectify the fact that the Jewish people prepared themselves by sleeping, we stay up all night and learn Torah,” Hildeshaim said.

“There are different customs — some people stay up and hang out with people. Our custom is that we learn a little bit of every parasha [weekly Torah portion], a little bit of Mishnah, a little bit of the Talmud and little bit of the Zohar, kabbalah,” said Hildeshaim, who will be hosting an all-nighter.

Within the history of Judaism, Tikkun leil Shavuot is a relatively recent development. Jewish history records that the first all-night Shavuot study session happened in Ottoman Thessalonica in 1533, a “kabbalist paradise and a flourishing city, where Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found a safe haven,” wrote Mor Altshuler, a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

That night was organized by the famous author of the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Karo, and was attended by Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (author of “Lecha Dodi”), who later wrote about the night in a detailed iggeret (epistle).

“Karo and Alkabetz envisioned themselves as Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, and their kabbalist flock as the Israelites leaving Egypt,” Altshuler wrote. “That Shavuot evening in 1533 presented an opportunity to recreate the revelation on Mount Sinai, when the heavens opened and the entire people heard the voice of God.”

It was a night of text study and singing “so wondrous that the angels fell silent and an invisible wall of fire encircled its members,” Altshuler wrote. Then, at midnight the group heard a voice speaking out of Karo’s mouth, which they took to be the voice of Torah-Shechinah. “It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong.”  

“We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him,” Altshuler wrote, quoting Alkabetz.

Karo and Alkabetz soon moved to Safed, in what is now northern Israel, and their night “became a model for the kabbalists of Safed, including Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his disciples,” Altshuler wrote.

Though he did not have an “otherly” voice coming from his mouth, Mark Rothman, who lives in the Pico-Fairfax area, recounted what he calls a “transformative moment,” at a Shavuot leil Tikkun, held at YULA (Yeshiva University High School) several years ago. “I had never been to a Tikkun, and I decided I wanted to stay up all night,” Rothman said.

Throughout the night, he went from study table to table. “There were all these guys lecturing. They would open a page of the Talmud and start reading in Aramaic, then translate into English,” said the former director the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who currently serves as director of the U.S. Campaign for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Then, sitting at one table, he heard a story that he recalled his grandfather had told him — “the story about the old man who planted a carob tree,” Rothman said, adding, “I never knew where the story had come from.” 

In it, a holy man approaches an old man planting a carob tree. Puzzled, he asks: “Old man, why are you planting this tree, when you know you will never see the fruit?”

The old man responded: “My ancestors planted for me, knowing they would never see the fruit. Now I, too, am planting for future generations.”

“It was amazing,” Rothman said. “My grandfather had planted a seed in me that took 20 years to grow, and the experience helped compel me to be more religious,” said Rothman, who attends the Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson.

As if taking a cue from Mendes, on the first night of Shavuot, the Conservative Temple Beth Am will offer an opportunity to experience how revelation may be reflected through art in a program called “Revelation Is Art Is Revelation … Is Art!” 

“Here, Torah can be experienced,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Beth Am’s senior rabbi.

“Some people need to experience what wakes them up so that their souls can wake up,” said Kligfeld, whose synagogue is co-sponsoring the evening along with the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (AJU); Pico Egal, an independent congregation; and Reboot, an organization that aims to revitalize Jewish practice.

That evening, to “wake the soul up” a photographer will use images to ask, “What is revelation?” and a Zumba presentation will show another approach “to what it means to bring Torah into your life,” said Kligfeld, who is calling for a night of “soul-ignited Torah.”

“We’re trying to deliver meaning in an interactive way,” said Kligfeld, who also said there will be a session on “Chevruta [one-to-one study] as a spectator sport.”

The plan includes a “SermonSlam” and other sessions lasting until 4:30 a.m., with Shacharit on the roof, said Kligfeld, who himself experienced a revelatory Shavuot Shacharit while a rabbinic student in Israel:

“We were up all night studying in our apartment and at the Hartman Institute [in Jerusalem], and then we went to the Kotel [Western Wall] for morning prayers,” Kligfeld said. The year was 1998, and the group that went included both men and women. The experience was “revelatory in another way,” Kligfeld said.

Although the group stood far back from the wall, a group of ultra-Orthodox surrounded them and began to shout and throw things at them.

“If you receive the Torah with too much certainty and absolutes, then there are some pretty ugly things that can be done in the name of that revelation,” Kligfeld said.

At Sinai Temple, where a giant Torah sculpture dominates a corner of the Wilshire Boulevard façade, a different approach is being taken to the Tikkun leil Shavuot, as well. According to the synagogue’s Atid [young adult] coordinator, Ariela Emery, in a program called “Unscrolled,” adapted from a book of Torah interpretations put together by Reboot, actors “will perform a stage reading of three parashiyot: Bo, Balak and Vayera.” 

“The ways that we experience culture are not what they used to be,” said Emery, who mentioned that the author for the portion “Bo” is Steve Bodow, the executive producer and a former head writer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” 

Rabbi Elazar Muskin aims to spark curiosity with his lecture, “Fact or Fiction: Is the Menorah in the Vatican?” during a Shavuot leil Tikkun at Young Israel of Century City (YICC). “There have always been rumors,” Muskin said of the disappearance of the menorah from the Second Temple, which is depicted being carried off on the famous Arch of Titus in Rome. “Is the Menorah in the Vatican?” asked Muskin, who plans to explore talmudic passages for clues.

And, in a presentation also at YICC, Rabbi Zev Goldberg will address a question that on Shavuot night will be asked by other late-nighters: “How much was revealed at Revelation?”

“There’s just an energy of Torah learning that’s palatable,” Muskin said.

In terms of revelation, Muskin said “Matan Torah” is the essence of the holiday, and Shavuot celebrates the “centrality of Torah in our lives.”

For those interested in something more intimate, such as home study, either in groups or solo, Rabbi Patricia Fenton, manager of Judaica and Public Services in the Ostrow Library at AJU, as well as a teacher of Talmud at the Ziegler School, has a few books in mind. She suggested “The Book of Legends” edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, which includes sections on Shavuot, as well as the “Shavuot Anthology,” by Philip Goodman. Also, “There’s ‘Sammy Spider’s First Shavuot,’ ” she added, half-jokingly.

The first night of Shavuot is, she said, “an important time to come together without a lot of guidelines. Shavuot is a moment of revelation and receiving a great gift.” She recalled one Shavuot evening she attended at the Movable Minyan, “where people were encouraged to share their own ‘first fruits,’ ” poetry, songs, things that they had been working on.

Mendes has been sharing for years, bringing the Torah to life with her paintings and murals — book by book.

Hanging on a wall in her studio is a 16-foot-by-6-foot mural of Vayikra (Leviticus). Divided into 10 weekly portions, each containing even the smallest of details, if one is looking for a place to lose themselves in the text, this is it.

The artist, who in the 1960s worked in the underground comix movement, has shown this work to innumerable young school kids, Orthodox students and high-school kids from Hamilton High School, and more. Recently, another guest, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who was attracted by the mural on the outside wall, came to call, as well.

“Do you have a picture of Noah?” the director of the blockbuster movie of that story asked Mendes, who, fortunately, had been painting scenes from Genesis.

“I remind people of their pintele yid (Jewish spark)” she said.

In 10 minutes, the artist, pointer in hand, fervently took this reporter on a journey through the 859 verses in Leviticus, revealing in the text and, through her imagery, a different way of studying Torah.

“God has a special word balloon” she began, explaining how she used a simple illustrative device to delineate which drawings are directly inspired by God’s words.

Defined by balloons, but rushing out of them, are sacrifices, laws of kashrut, and cloves and hooves and scales and fishes; birds that are tamei (unclean) and four cartoony — but somehow elegant — grasshoppers that “the Jewish people can eat.” There is a cure for house disease, Tzaraat: “Two live birds, living water, cedar, hyssop and red thread.” And in the portion Kedoshim, she reminds us that “you gotta be holy because God is holy.” Then she revealed a stack of showbreads that never grew stale. “A miracle,” she said. Pointing at the shekels she had drawn for Vayikra’s last portion, B’Chukotai, she asked: “How much is an individual worth?”

“God gave us the Torah and we are really excited about learning it and sharing it. Everyone can connect with God,” said Mendes, connecting with the intention of the coming holiday. 

“The angels would be singing.”