Jewish Artist in Residence: Catalyst and Symbol Maker

Benny Ferdman


Barefoot, students spill out of the classroom, and gather on the field outside. Wandering about—slowly, methodically, each aware of how the surfaces they traverse each day actually feel—soft grass, squishy mud, concrete and gravel. Their meanderings lead them to a circle where slabs of clay have been prepared awaiting their bare feet.

Each student carefully sinks one foot into the soft clay with help from a partner. Now the space is filled with giddy chatter as the students get busy casting their footprints with plaster bandage, and preparing to search, with paint and words, for answers to their kushiot (challenging questions) about the Akedah (Binding of Isaac). When Abraham was ordered by God, lech lecha–go! and then kach na—please take!—he too must have left footprints on his journey.


Long ago my feet, sometimes bare but mostly sandaled, found themselves not too far from that spot where it is said that God commanded Abraham to take his only beloved son and sacrifice him on Har Moriah (the Mount of Teaching).

There on the western edge of Jerusalem, on the tense borderland between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, I had been wandering on a dirt road in search of a particular vantage point from which to sit and draw the Old City. I was suddenly confronted by a group of boys, running toward me, hurling rocks and screaming. Rather than run away, my instincts caused me to run straight toward them shielding my face with my sketchbook and growling. In an instant they were gone, scrambling down the hillside just as quickly as they had appeared.

Continuing on my way I finally found a good spot, at the bottom of a large sloping field, to sit and draw. No sooner had I begun my work than I heard distant voices coming from behind me. Looking back I saw it was that same gang of boys, only this time they appeared to have an adult with them. Undeterred, I kept drawing, occasionally glancing behind me. As the group came closer I noticed that the adult was carrying a tray with a teapot and glasses. Indeed these young “attackers” were now standing right behind me and offering me tea, which I gladly accepted. I happily continued my drawing while sipping tea, with my former antagonists sitting around me eagerly watching as my drawing unfolded.

This story of the rock-throwing boys became a springboard for several Jewish studies classes that I was collaborating with on a program and art installation to mark Kristallnacht. Employing the concept of “opposite response,” our students considered the idea of broadheartedness instead of hatred. They found support from the Mishnah (Avot 2:13), with the help of their teacher, Yonatan Rosner: Question: “Which is the honorable path?” Answer: lev tov, “A good heart.”


In the day-to-day life of most schools, where teachers are driven to cover predetermined curricula, and students are chasing after grades, what role can an artist in residence play?

I will answer that question with one word: surprise.

The children that threw rocks at me were not expecting my surprising response. By running toward them, I became the prankster, calling their bluff. And with that, the curtain dropped before us, like actors on a stage, now free to sit and share tea together, after the “performance.”

To be a resident artist is to be a kind of benevolent prankster, a trickster, or to use a Yiddish term, a vitsler (joker). Like Coyote in Native American lore, or Joha from Sephardic Jewish tradition, the trickster (i.e., artist) takes you through an experience that reveals, and makes tangible, that which was only conceptual, and makes visible that which was invisible. Likewise, the role of the artist in residence is to reveal the unexpected and become a catalyst for surprise.

Art “speaks” a language of its own. Whether the artist is faced with the balance of one form against another, or the implicit narrative of one image next to another, relations can play out
on the proverbial blank canvas or in real life, between all things and ideas with which we share our existence. As we step outside the walls of the ordinary, we are no longer bound by physics and logic. When action and expected reaction don’t line up, something new has just been created.


While talking about his life growing up in the Polish/Ukrainian town of Lutzk, my father told me that he “once saw a wolf floating down the river on a haystack.” I used that image for one of my paintings, taking it as a metaphor for his world that was about to collapse, and by extension my ancestral world too.

When students gather and make metaphorical connections, whether from personal stories or folkloric traditions, it can make profound their connection to the past. A journey has begun of collecting, interpreting and taking ownership of the bits and pieces that can still be found along “the river’s edge.”

The human impulse to collect and curate is probably one of those things that distinguishes us from other animals. The objects of wonder that surround us, and the documents of our experiences, constitute the essential substrate of human cultural creativity upon which we make meaning and achieve continuity. However, that “human” impulse to collect, when examined within the context of Jewish history, has been an imperative upon which our cultural survival rests.

In 1891 the great Jewish historian Simon Dubnow clearly and passionately articulated this imperative when he called on the Jews of Russia, “Come, let us search and inquire!” His call was not only to document the treasures of 4,000 years of Jewish history but also to collect our everyday folk traditions, stories, jokes, dilemmas and achievements.

Dubnow’s call to action inspired an army of young zamlers (collectors) to gather and preserve the pieces of our scattered and stateless cultural life. Artists and scholars, particularly between the two world wars, worked tirelessly to reclaim and reinvent what it meant to be Jewish in the face of industrialization and modernization.


Der Zamler became one of our yearlong themes; students worked on projects related to the modern Jewish tradition of collecting. They examined the efforts of a few courageous wartime zamlers in the Vilna and Warsaw ghettoes who were willing to risk their lives, in the darkest days, in order to hide and thus preserve manuscripts, works of art and other touchstones of Jewish life and memory.

An artist in residence can help create and frame a yearly theme for a particular department, or the entire school, which can be culturally transformative. In most cases the theme is something that is not already being taught, requiring research on the part of both the faculty and the students. This creates an out-of-the-ordinary environment encouraging a teacher-student relationship which is more of a partnership, where both teacher and student are learning together.



A trickster ring of rabbits is spun round by a circling leviathan, while an elephant lumbers under the weight of an entire kingdom. Geese with crossing necks, a deer reaching back to scratch its nose, a bear hugging flowers and foliage, lions and unicorns in battle, chickens, swans, squirrels, fish, a wolf with a baby goat in its mouth—while the rest of the herd watches helplessly, endless knots and sacred geometry. It may sound like a whimsical menagerie and cornucopia, but these are just a small part of the endless lexicon of Jewish symbols and motifs that once adorned synagogues, illuminated manuscripts, tombstones and all manner of Jewish ritual objects. All these images taken together with innumerable folktales, songs, jokes, curses, blessings and Jewish languages, constitute the deep well of cultural memory from which to draw.

As artist in residence, I bring this vast collection of wonders to my collaborations  with teachers. Likewise other artists make different connections, creating new ways to interpret and make vital, our cultural legacy.


The kind of “artist” that is most effective in the role of artist in residence is one that sees everything as art—someone who understands the world in deeply symbolic terms. This person sees forms, objects, words, ideas, events, all living things, and other people as having intrinsic “meaning,” beyond ordinary description and understanding. And it is this kind of artist that can help frame and nurture a school’s understanding of its vision in symbolic and metaphorical terms.

One example of this is a tallis that I was asked to design when our school was founded. It’s a gift that every graduate receives and wears during the graduation ceremony and beyond. Its primary motif is one that I interpreted from our Jewish folk art traditions: the endless or infinite knot. I adapted this maze-like confusion of lines as it fit well the perplexing nature of adolescence, whose challenge it is to unravel and learn the pattern of many “knots” en route to adulthood. It connotes continuity, connectedness,  or perhaps the kabbalistic idea of the Ein Sof (Without End), one of the many names of God. But if this motif is to endure, it will need to be understood in terms that are not describable in words—hence,  a “symbol.”

Another type of symbol-making is not by design, but rather by discovery. Our campus is situated near a large area of semi-wilderness. Among the many natural features, there is a very large and dramatic cliff face. Carved by nature into the rock, is the form of a perfect Hebrew letter, vav. Since discovering this, I have led many field
trips there with my colleagues and students where we make art at the base of the mountain. Our journeys to Vav rock have become akin to making a pilgrimage to a sacred place, which has led to many mystical interpretations. It is a letter that is also a word: and. It also represents the number six. The first time the letter Vav is used in the Torah is at the start of the sixth word, and the first thing it connects, is heaven and earth…

The stories we tell ourselves give us meaning and give birth to the symbols that bind us, one to the other, to times past and to the shared future we can create.

Whether you are primarily an artist, or primarily an educator, the approaches that I have outlined in this article—the journey, the opposite response, collecting, theme-based learning, the power of our folk art traditions, symbol making both by design and by discovery, and most importantly, surprise—are not just exclusive tools-of-the-trade available only to artists, but rather fundamental to how we make art, and how we make meaning, in essence, how we learn.


May we all continue to learn, inspire and play.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016