Saturday, October 28, 2006

This Wednesday, Nov. 1, the exhibition "Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" will open at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. I had the privilege of being one of the rabbinical students in the midrash class that participated in the process with the artist, Victor Raphael, and the further privilege of introducing the artist and part of the work at the school's Opening Day, on August 20, 1996.

This is the speech that I gave that day, and the picture to the right is one small part of the installation in Room 105. If you are in or near Los Angeles, I strongly recommend you come to HUC and see Victor's work; it is transcendant.


What do you get when you combine one teacher of midrash, eleven rabbinical students, and a world-class multimedia artist?


How do you put windows into an HUC classroom without blowing holes in the wall?

The answers to those questions lie behind the copper-clad door of Room 105.

Last year eleven unsuspecting students signed up for a one term class on “Homeletical Midrashim” taught by Dr. Lewis Barth. We did not know that we were embarking on what would become a year-long project, indeed, that four members of the class would be ordained before the work was complete.

The class studied the 16th Pesikhta of the Pesikhta de Rav Kahana, a 5th c. collection of midrashim. Pesikta #16 is a homily on the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami” [Comfort, Comfort My people]. About two weeks into the course, Dr. Barth told us that this was not an ordinary midrash class. Donors Nancy Berman and Alan Bloch had offered HUC the commission of a work of art. Our task was to learn Pesikta #16, and then teach it to an artist named Victor Raphael. He would then create an interpretation of the midrash, a major work of art, for permanent installation at HUC Los Angeles.

In the process, we learned and taught midrash, but we also learned about the nuts and bolts of working with an artist on a commission from an institution. Victor came to our class to teach us about his work process, a fascinating multimedia journey involving digital photography, computer-based techniques and hand-painting in gold and metal leaf. We made a presentation at the Bloch and Berman home, to teach the midrash to them and to Victor, following with a discussion of the structure and imagery of the homily.

Some months after the class was officially over, we met again with Victor to see the work in progress and to help with some of the decisions about the artwork. Victor, Dr. Barth, and our class met with Dax Clark to look at the project from the point of view of building maintenance issues.

Over this time, the initial “work of art” became instead an installation that would, we hoped, transform one of our HUC classrooms into a space for sacred study. Another anonymous donor made it possible to upgrade the lighting and the wall-covering.

This midrash class was an education for all of us. It is our hope that the result of all this work is a worshipful study space, a room that offers comfort and inspiration for both teachers and students. The images are grounded in Jewish texts, and they emerged from a conversation among many different members of the Los Angeles Jewish community: Nancy Berman, Dean Barth, our class, Victor Raphael, Dax Clark, and others.

The title of the work is,

“Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl.”

Now, I would like to introduce the artist who has carried out this remarkable work, who worked with us so patiently and generously: the artist Victor Raphael:

Victor was born and raised in California, earning a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. His artwork has been collected by numerous private and public institutions, including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and exhibited internationally, from Denmark’s Museet for Fotokunst to Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Please welcome our artist, our friend, our companion, and teacher, Victor Raphael.

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