I have witnessed her spiritual growth and deep engagement with the Hebrew language and Jewish religious texts, which she has beautifully woven into her own artistic and literary commentary. When Sara invited me to participate in an ongoing conversation about her installation, Illuminated Letters: Threads of Connection, both her keen spiritual intuition and her evolving passion for Jewish learning drew me in.
I have worked for many years with Jews with limited Jewish experience and knowledge. My passion is to share the experience of Jewish living with those who, in encountering Jewish community or Judaism, feel like strangers. Sara’s shared sensitivity toward Jews who feel estranged from their heritage of wisdom inspired her to create this artistic project, which springs forth from her Jewish learning. In creating Illuminated Letters: Threads of Connection, Sara brings together her creative gifts and probing spiritual insights to construct a unique entry point into Jewish life: a visually-immersive engagement with Hebrew language as the core tool for building a Jewish spiritual vocabulary.
The innate beauty of the shapes of Hebrew letters as hand calligraphed on the parchment of a Torah scroll, the text that contains Judaism’s most holy teaching, has long captivated Sara. These letters are usually only seen in the context of a synagogue, and then only by the few who are trained to chant an unvocalized text from a Torah scroll. One of Sara’s artistic innovations has been to design a Hebrew font based on actual Torah script using a draw program on her computer. This font became the foundation for her gold-leaf illumination of the Hebrew text. The transference from synagogue space to the space of artistic experience offers viewers a close-up encounter with Hebrew lettering as a holy art form, an awareness of Hebrew letters as a source of Jewish wisdom, and an understanding that these letters and words are filled with sacred Light.
In fact, Judaism teaches that Hebrew letters are so filled with Divine Light that the letters themselves and even the spaces between the letters are holy. While Sara draws the viewer to each letter’s intrinsic beauty, she also intentionally opens up the viewer to the spaces between them. In these spaces Sara has so artistically created an environment for fertile exploration, interpretation and experience of Divine-human relationship that even those steeped in Jewish living will surely find spiritual nourishment here.
The opportunity to view these illuminated letters, sewn by Sara onto luminescent fabrics in a gorgeous array of colors of symbolic significance, leads the viewer to become immersed in an inspiring environment in which Hebrew letters come alive. We see the letters in patterns —sets of three— with each set of three forming a basic concept/root (in Hebrew, shoresh). This project invites us to experience the Hebrew roots by engaging with a core Jewish mythology: Hebrew letters themselves are part of the act of Creation. According to Kabbalistic tradition, the letters and the roots that they form were released from the Heavens to Earth to become the expressed will of the Creator—to create a partnership with humans, to point the way, and to nourish our lives.
At the foundation of the project are eighteen (a symbolic number representing “life”) Hebrew roots. Visual and literary exploration of possible meanings of these roots within ancient holy texts envelop us. The Hebrew roots flourish as a series of eighteen ancient three-dimensional geometric forms. Each polygon has one more side than the previous one, each one is larger than the previous one, each one is embossed with three root letters that form an essential element of Jewish spiritual life.
These polygons are presented in sets of three. The Hebrew root meanings in each set relate to one another and thematically lead from one set to the next. All together, these polygons, or “particles” form elements of a human-Divine relationship and act as a character thread that runs through the installation.
This encounter with three-dimensional geometry is a universally accessible experience and allows the viewer to hold—or imagine holding — each core Jewish idea in their hands as well as their minds. As one Jewish holy text teaches, “[Hold it and] turn it over and over, for everything is within it.” Sara thus invites the viewer to join her on a pathway into discovery. The exhibit is set up in three sections. The opening section takes the viewer across a sweeping unfurled Torah scroll — the length of a room — whose parchment is a star studded sky. The beginning of this scroll invites viewers to contemplate highly symbolically tied holy knots (tzitziot) as they interplay with expansive imagery of Divine Light and of our universe. Sara placed these knots front and center of the exhibit, choosing them as a way to visually represent the Hebrew root (sin, reish and hei) that reflects a Jewish person’s ongoing struggle to truly live in relationship with the Divine. We then encounter the three letter Hebrew root “particles” formed from the Light of the heavens, grouped thematically to have us ponder Hebrew roots that emanate core Jewish values. At the end of the scroll, we see the holy knots once more, but now they are made up of the “particles” themselves, and are representing value concepts that a person chooses to make the essence of their lives.
In the middle panels, the “particles” appear below the ground, as nourishment from the heavens that has fallen to the soil, forming the source from which trees and all of life grows. Sara has overlaid these trees with Torah verses containing the eighteen root combinations of the project. We learn through these texts that as each of these Hebrew roots expands beyond its basic structure, varied literary meanings can arise, which become important sources for spiritual interpretation.
In the final panels, the “particles” hang in the air as motes of sacred sunlight. Beneath these particles, painted in gold leaf are eighteen hand painted Torah verses. The elegance of the Hebrew writing itself points to a higher realm, and to an opportunity to realize that inherent in the Hebrew letters themselves lies the power of the Jewish people’s spiritual story.
One of the joys of being Sara’s companion on this journey was to join her and poet Miles Hochstein in study sessions to deeply explore the Jewish texts overlaying the trees that contain the three-letter Hebrew roots in the middle panels of the installation. Sara, Miles and I met together over many months, cultivating and elucidating meanings within these roots to discern what we could unearth both about Judaism and ourselves. Our mode of discussion emulated the age-old Jewish practice of conversation and study called Hevruta.
Take the root with the Hebrew letters dalet, vet, and reish. The root could mean simply a lifeless “thing.” Or it could mean “a word,” or it could reference to one of the ten “commandments.” Every text we explored led us to a different way of understanding this root. Yet, when we came to a verse from Psalm 119 that uses the plural form of dalet, vet and reish,: “Your words (devarim) are a lamp for my feet and a Light for my path,” it became clear that the root letters — dalet vet, and reish — when referring to words emanating from the Holy One, contain the Holy One’s Light and are placed in the world for each individual to follow in their own way. This understanding might prompt one to ask: What Light might I find in each and every word of the Torah? How inherent in Judaism it must be for each individual to discern what the words of Torah mean to them! Our exploration of this root led Miles to retranslate the three letter root —dalet, vet, and reish—as “illuminated word.” [This translation led Sara to name the translation element of her project Illuminated Letters: Roots of Illumination.]
I join Sara in her hope that this installation will open a pathway for viewers of every walk of life and religious persuasion, schooled or unschooled in the language of Hebrew, to enter more deeply into the sea of Jewish wisdom. May you joyously wade in, and even begin to vigorously swim.
Rabbi Laurie Rutenberg, Rabbinic Consultant
About Rabbi Rutenberg:
Rabbi Laurie Rutenberg, has spent her life as a leader and innovator in Jewish outreach. Among the earliest women ordained as a rabbi, she became the first rabbi to serve as a chaplain at Yale University. Passionate about supporting young adults in their life journeys, she went on to serve as a Hillel director in California before moving to Portland, Oregon in 1990 with her husband, Rabbi Gary Schoenberg, to found Gesher – A Bridge Home.
For 30 years, Gesher has provided an innovative model of outreach and welcome to unaffiliated Jews. Experiences at Gesher— A Bridge Home, are designed to welcome Jews who feel like strangers within a Jewish context, and plant seeds of Jewish living, learning and belonging that can be brought home and experienced with one’s own family and friends. Many Gesher participants have gone on to become active participants and leaders in the Jewish community. In 2000, Rabbi Rutenberg and her husband were recognized as innovators in the Forward Fifty.