Over the past year, the Jewish community around the world has come together to celebrate in unconventional ways. For Passover, we have selected three artists to develop new projects reimagining the stories in the Haggadah and giving us new ways to engage with the rich themes of this holiday.
Hip Hop Haggadah
Joshua Walters’ Hip Hop Haggadah is an audio storybook highlighting the story of Passover told with Hip Hop. Narrated by Joshua who grew up with hip hop as his first love, and came of age in the Bay Area as a beatbox artist, this 20-minute audio collage of beats, rhymes and Hebrew examines Passover as a story about slavery and being set free. Much in the same way Egyptian Pharaohs or American slave traders sold people into bondage, this storybook directly connects the relationship of African-American and Jewish history as similar struggles. Just as a traditional Haggadah has the same overarching story, in the Hip Hop Haggadah there is a re-mix of storytelling from a multicultural point of view. Guest Tiffany Harris of Moishe House shares her own experience and the significance for her of this religious narrative.
Seder. Conspiración Femenina.
Michelle Wejcman’s SEDER. Conspiración femenina. (Female conspiracy) is a performance project that invites the audience to engage with the female characters in the Passover story, whose roles are often minimized, but are a crucial part of the narrative. SEDER. Conspiración femenina. brings a Latin American Jewish perspective (videos will be in Spanish with subtitles) and traditions to the retellings through a performance video and live event. At the live Zoom event, viewers will be invited to immerse in the Seder to explore new rituals hosted by Miriam, Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, Tzipora and Batia as a closing to the Passover holiday on April 3 at 7pm. The event will be in Spanish. REGISTER HERE.
Conceived and Directed by Michelle Wejcman | Writers: Michelle Wejcman and Natalia Slovediansky | Actresses: Gal Groisman (Uruguay), Jennifer Frank (Argentina), Natalia Slovediansky (Argentina), Iael Gabay, Muriel Taks (Uruguay) and Kineret Serebrinsky Duek (Chile) | Music: Paloma Schachmann (Argentina) and Martina Trost (Argentina) | Illustrator: Judith Hilen Mugrabi (Argentina) | Editing: Peiping Studio | Text Study: Rab Karina Finkielsztein (Argentina)
Drop by Drop
Jacqueline Nicholls’ Drop by Drop is a series of animated drawings taking inspiration from the Haggadah’s stage directions to spill wine when mentioning the plagues. This project explores the grief and loss we have all experienced during this global pandemic. The four cups of wine punctuate the seder’s journey, marking the ceremonial beginning that sanctifies this ritual meal, kiddush; to pouring out wine for Elijah, the mythical prophet who will herald an ultimate redemption. But we also use wine, specifically the spilling of wine, as a performative gesture to acknowledge loss and destruction during the plagues. These animations follow this progression. In each short animation, wine has been used as ink to draw with, taking as their starting point the relevant passages in the Haggadah. The wine-soaked writing distorts and plays with the text as it falls into illegibility and reveals its shadow self. Jacqueline’s art practice uses handwriting to take ownership of, subvert, and play with traditional rabbinic texts, in a contemporary critique and interrogation.
“you have given us life, kept us, and we have reached this time”
My days have become the same
My nights blur together
But tonight I am here now
I will raise a glass, mark this time
I will try to remember & be happy
The first cup of wine is the traditional kiddush, the blessing that acknowledges the moment in time. It is said for the Sabbath and on festivals. On Seder night the kiddush concludes with the Shehechyahn blessing. I was struck by the phrase “we have reached this time.” In the longer kiddush text it links to marking time with happiness, moadim l’simcha. During this pandemic, the lockdowns and reduced socialising has left me with a sense of boredom, and confusion. Each day was a tedious repeat of the one before. There are no big experiences that are markers in time with which to form memories. So, without external stimuli, awareness of time is created by ritual, marking the moment with physical act, the kiddush. Not just saying the words but also lifting the cup, drinking the wine, marking the moment in time, and with shaky hands we unintentionally mark the objects around us. Our haggadot carry the wine blots of seders past, of other shaky hands who held a cup of wine and became aware. In the Talmud, M. Brachot 40, grapes are suggested as one of possible fruits of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, because wine unlocks knowledge and brings awareness to our world.
The 2nd cup of wine is said after the long section that is pretty much the bulk of the formal part of the seder. During which the story of the slavery in Egypt is told, wine is spilt when mentioning the plagues, and the number of plagues is debated and magnified. Much more wine than 10 drops needs to be spilt. But the text for the 2nd cup acknowledges that whilst we are doing this seder with matza and marror, something is missing. Due to the destruction of the temples and exile we do not have the Pesach sacrifice, and so our redemption is not yet complete. This focus on what has been lost reminds me of the story of Noah, who after leaving the ark, plants a vineyard and gets drunk into a stupor. One midrashic interpretation is that he wanted to numb the pain of seeing the world that has been devastated by the flood, and not yet rebuilt. This pandemic has radically changed our world. The global death toll is heart-breaking, we have lost loved ones and we were not able to mourn and grieve them together. We have lost our way of living and gathering. So before we find new ways to come together, let us acknowledge that so much, and so many, are missing.
“And we will be thankful and sing a new song”
But not yet
Right now something is missing
We have lost & grieved,
We are flooded by tears for the world we once knew & loved.
“Grant that our needs be supplied with dignity”
We are vulnerable
We are flesh & blood, bones & breath
We need food, water, rest, oxygen
Blood donors, medical teams, carers
Kindness love dignity life
The third cup of wine is said at the end of birkat hamazon, the Grace After Meals, which describes God as supplying our various needs, and the needs of all living things. It also contains the phrase that our needs should be supplied with dignity, and in an earlier paragraph, that we should not be fully reliant on flesh and blood. Implying that to be reliant on others makes us vulnerable to mistreatment and indignities to our basic humanity. This pandemic has revealed our fragility, and how much we are interconnected and reliant on others to look after us. Preferably with respect and dignity. In M. Shabbat 129 the Talmud advises to drink red wine after a blood letting session, red to replace red. Whilst blood letting is not how we treat our bodies today, I wanted to use the visual link between wine and blood to evoke the vulnerability of our physical selves.
The 4th cup of wine is said at the end of the Hallel, the section that is full of poetic praises and thanks to God. In this text the physicality of our bodies is acknowledged, and it is precisely because we are physical and alive we have potential to create, transform, imagine and have agency. In the Talmud in M. Shabbat 88, the angels argue with God about giving the Torah to humanity. God points out that the angels do not have bodies, do not physically experience the world, and therefore cannot participate in ritual acts. For the mystics, it is only through physical acts, in this world, that can affect change and transformation in the upper worlds. In other words, heaven needs us to drink up.
“The dead can’t praise”
We are still here others are not
And for them we won’t be silent & still
We have hands to make & do, transform & touch, care & give
We have breath to speak, sigh, scream & shout
sing, thank, praise & hope
We have endured, we are done, finished
We have sung, remembered, grieved, & guarded
We cleaned, we ate, we drank perhaps too much
We cleaned, we ate, we drank perhaps not enough
have we done enough to be safe
for now for tonight
We drink 4 cups of wine on Seder night, but we pour out a 5th, set aside for Elijah. The prophet who heralds the end of days, resolving disputes and bringing clarity and certainty. The Talmud in M. Pesachim 110 a demon warns of the dangers of drinking an even number of cups of wine, and the king of the demons, Ashmodai could attack those who act in pairs. So, when drinking it is advisable to pour out another one, just in case one stops at 2, 4, 6, etc… There is a discussion about the 4 cups of wine at Seder night, and it is suggested that they aren’t considered fully dangerous because Seder night is considered leil shimorim, the night of guarding. We are doing something that is potentially threatening, but we hope that we have the necessary protection to be safe. This pandemic has been a time of anxiety, of changing guidelines and infractions into our daily lives. Lockdowns, hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing – have we done enough to be safe? Is there any way to be certain? For now… are we safe?
MEET THE ARTISTS
Jacqueline Nicholls is a London-based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. Jacqueline’s work considers handwriting as a form of drawing. Her interest led to explorations in touch, embodied language, the affect of illegible traces, and the aura of absence. The work shifts between representation to abstraction as she considers the emotional potency of ambiguity. This interest is informed by Jewish heritage, a tradition that values scholarly word-play and textual interpretations. Her recent drawing project, Draw Yomi, completed in Jan 2020, Jacqueline drew the Talmud, following the Daf Yomi schedule. She co-ordinates Arts & Culture events at JW3 London, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline has an MA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, and a BA in Architecture from Leeds Metropolitan University. She has exhibited internationally, and her work is in public and private collections. Recent Jewish art residencies include Beit Venezia, and the Centre for Jewish Studies at Manchester University.
Joshua Walters is a storyteller, podcast producer, and wellness coach who “explores language, creativity, beatboxing and madness” -TED.com. At the moment Joshua is on a quest to launch Mad One Media an audio magazine highlighting stories of mental health experience. He is a regular contributor to Snap Judgment, a weekly storytelling radio show on NPR with TV broadcasts on PBS. Walters is best known for his work on TED Talks, for his talk entitled On Being Crazy Enough, which explores the bipolar spectrum and is now at 2M views and counting. He is involved in mental health advocacy nation-wide and takes part in mentoring youth on the creative spectrum.
Michelle Wejcman is an Argentinian theatre director and cultural manager creating unexpected experiences and alternative ways to surprise audiences. She co-directs and co-produces La Caja Negra Argentina, a social impact theater company that offers unique performances for Jewish institutions and companies. Michelle directed and produced Proyecto Posadas and Proyecto Garage, staged at a unique antique barber shop and a small parking lot, both unconventional theater locations. As a corporate social responsibility consultant, she produces cultural and educational projects that mix traditional education with innovative ideas that include technology, audiovisuals and, of course, theatre. She directed several educational plays and videos for children and adults for different companies such Nestle, Astra Zéneca, YPF and Pan American Energy. She is a member of the Lazos Network and ROI Community. She believes that every cultural or educational space is an opportunity to make a real difference and transform others, creating unforgettable experiences.