Tosafot | Women Drawing Talmud

Rashi (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki, 1040 –1105, France) was the foremost Talmudist of the Middle Ages, whose influential commentary forms the basis of all Talmud study to this day. Rashi’s grandchildren undertook to expand and elaborate his commentary; their explanations (and of other of his students,12th-14th centuries, France and Germany) became known as “tosafot”, literally, “additions”; hence the designation of the authors as “Tosafists”. This show offers a continuation of the tradition of adding to the Talmudic text. The juxtaposition of the texts with the artists’ interpretive drawings creates a unique form of visual commentary that is radically different from traditional, written commentary. The artists take the liberty to imagine the physical setting, the scenery, the clothing, and anything else that does not actually appear in the written text. They are free to imagine whatever they like.

Raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, and currently living in Sweden, Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli chooses the accessible medium of comics for her quirky, creative, and human narratives based on passages in tractate Berachot. Jacqueline Nicholls, a London-based artist, uses thought-provoking graphics to illuminate a world of Jewish law, storytelling, and contemplative thought. Her original drawings are exhibited in sketchbooks, with notes giving a summary of the text on one side and the drawing on the facing page.

Both women create a new visual language that integrates pop-culture sensibility with serious investigation of Talmudic dilemmas, challenging the viewer to imagine how these texts relate to one’s own moral and spiritual predicament. Although these artists have never met, their work brings them together in creating a virtual “chevruta” (fellowship). “Chevruta” is the traditional method of studying Talmud – in pairs, struggling to understand each passage and perhaps applying it to one’s own life. Most often the “chevruta” experience takes place in the bet midrash (study hall) together with other “chevrutot”, in an atmosphere filled with sounds of discussion and debate. Our wish is to bring this same atmosphere into the pristine rooms of the Museum, encouraging spectators to grapple with the exhibited texts and illustrations.

Ancient Jewish texts serve as the basis for the artists’ creations, yet their language is that of contemporary art. Their work includes details of contemporary life, transporting the classic Jewish sources to the 21st century and exposing elements in the text that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, eliciting questions and enriching our understanding. In both of their works there is a certain expectation that the spectators will first read the text featured, so as to better comprehend the image illustrating the words. Jacqueline Nicholls and Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli create with that same inner understanding and passion for the Jewish experience. Their artwork is a vehicle for their own personal journeys; through it they seek out and forge their Jewish identities.

Video Tosafot - Women Drawing Talmud

Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli

Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli was born in Northern Ireland and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada. When she was 18 her family moved to Toronto, where she earned a B.A. in classics and a B.Ed at the University of Toronto. It was during her university years that she first became interested in Talmud. She studied Judaism at the conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem and at the Pardes Institute. In 2010 she made aliyah. Currently and temporarily she resides in Sweden with her husband, who serves as rabbi of Gothenburg. She works as a Soferet (Torah scribe).
Lavery-Yisraeli grew up in a family of artists but never received formal training in art. She began drawing comics while studying Talmud at the university, to help her remember the material. While she is very interested in the legalistic passages of the Talmud, most of her drawings relate to the stories it recounts (aggada). The process begins by looking through the actual text and choosing a central image and a story that she can tell in a single page. She uses the visuals as commentary, fully aware that much is left out. The drawings are done with ink pens and black watercolor in a 14.8 x 21 cm. notebook. All text translations are taken from the Soncino English Talmud.

The artist often chooses the quirky, human, and sometimes bizarre stories in the Talmud. Her desire is for people to “become familiar with the gemara’s intense, beautiful imagination, not just as impressive legality but as important material that might be initially strange to our modern minds.” She does this all with tremendous respect and love for the text.

Lavery-Yisraeli uses the text as a springboard to discuss social issues of the day. On the challenging relationship between the baal teshuva (newly religious) and his parents, she quotes the following text from Berachot:

A favourite saying of Raba was: The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that a man should not study Torah and Mishnah and then despise his father and mother and teacher and his superior in wisdom and rank, as it says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a good understanding have all they that do thereafter. It does not say, ‘that do’, but ‘that do thereafter’, which implies, that do them for their own sake and not for other motives. If one does them for other motives, it were better that he had not been created. (Berachot 17a)

Lavery-Yisraeli draws for us a severely distraught mother who has just witnessed her newly religious son throwing down his bowl of broccoli soup in fear that his mother did not meticulously clean the broccoli before being cooked; thus, insects might have infested the produce, making it non-kosher and not fit for him to eat.

In 2008 the conversion crisis in Israel was escalating. The laws concerning the qualifications of rabbis whose conversions would be recognized by all religious streams came into question. As a reaction, Lavery-Yisraeli drew a portrait of Avtalyon (rabbinic sage, first century), who was a convert. He is shown drinking the bitter water of the “adulterous woman” (Heb: sotah): the woman was put through an ordeal of drinking bitter water so that the priest could determine whether she was innocent or not. Avtalyon, in the drawing, drinks the bitter water to determine whether or not he is a real Jew.

The anachronisms are an important part of Lavery-Yisraeli’s work. Her characters wear a variety of modern clothes, from T-shirts to suits, and Rava even wears a frilly apron. They talk on telephones and are racially diverse (this turns out to be historically accurate, she claims). Most of the characters have no beards, very much like her own teachers, for whom she has great respect.

According to Lavery-Yisraeli, comics can “punch you in the face with a message or emotion and still leave you feeling like it was subtle; the line between explicit and implicit is blurred.” The artist has chosen to relate her work via the mass culture “lowbrow” form of comics – a stark contrast to the study of Talmud reserved for the “highbrow” elite male intellectual and written in an esoteric foreign language. In a postmodern way, this show attempts to abolish the distinction between “high” and “low” and offer the visitor a peek into the exciting world of the Talmud.

Jacqueline Nicholls

Jacqueline Nicholls is a London-based fine artist who uses art to explore and challenge traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways, bringing together the bet midrash and the art studio. She employs different media and craft techniques – drawings, print, embroidery, tailoring, paper-cutting, knitting – to express her ideas.

“In the artwork I will often quote the texts that have inspired, challenged and motivated me to form a response. The text may be a starting point for the work, but while I am working the thoughts develop as my hands are busy with the process of making. And from this very hands-on engagement I will often arrive at a different understanding of the text. The texts and ideas that have most inspired me have been those which deal with the sanctity of individual human life, that we are all created in the image of God b’zelem Elokim.
A large part of my work has also been to examine the tradition from my contemporary, feminist, perspective. I question the traditional roles that women are expected to fulfill. Through the arena of my artwork I can be thoughtfully challenging and confrontational, and explore the text that is both my intellectual inheritance and alienating from my female standpoint.”

In conjunction with the beginning of a new seven and a half year cycle of “daf yomi”-the daily study of a double page of the Babylonian Talmud that is observed by many Jews worldwide-Nicholls inaugurated an online “Draw Yomi” project that day by day results in a hand-drawn response to what she has studied. She illuminates the world of Jewish law with graphic and thought provoking drawings, storytelling, and contemplative thought that had previously been limited mostly to the word and textual study. The original drawings are in sketchbooks, with notes of the summary of the text on one side and the drawing on the facing page. Here in the exhibition we are showing five of the original notebooks from this project. Masechet Berachot is drawn in pencil, Masechet Shabbat in pen and ink wash, Masechet Eruvin is drawn with pen and ink with watercolor wash, Masechet Pesachim is drawn with pen and ink wash with white highlights on brown paper and Masechet Shekalim is a collage. The artist chooses different drawing materials for each masechet to make each section distinct and unique.

Jacqueline Nicholls grew up in a traditional Orthodox home and after graduating from Architecture School, she studied at Nishmat — a women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then returned to London to study Fine Art at the Byam Shaw School of Art. She teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies, is a regular presenter on Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2, and programs the Art Studio and other events at JW3, a new arts venue in London. She has participated in many group and solo shows in the UK, U.S.A. and in Israel. In 2012 she participated in the group show Matronita at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod.

Yonah Lavery-Ysraeli, Jacqueline Nicholls

Tosafot | Women Drawing Talmud

Curator: Dvora Liss

December 2013-August 2014

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