Monday, March 26, 2018

The Four Children of Metropolis

Four times the Torah tells us to teach our children about the redemption from Egypt, and from this comes a midrash that there must be four types of children who each learn in a different way. That midrash has become part of the Haggadah; every year we talk about these four types of children: the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One and The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

Today that sounds like an internet quiz: “Answer these four questions and we can tell you which child from the Haggadah you are!”

Pop culture can give us new ways to connect to our tradition. The main characters in Superman, when taken together, can give us new insight into the four types of learners that our midrash teaches about.

The Wise One
Lois Lane is the wise child. She is an investigative reporter, whose job requires a depth of knowledge and ability beyond the average citizen… but which also requires her to constantly ask questions in hopes of finding deeper meaning. Lois wants more – she actively seeks out knowledge, and she wants to share it with others. She knows so much about the world; what can we tell Lois that will add to her understanding of the Passover story?

The Wicked One
Lex Luthor is one of the smartest people in Metropolis, but as with any villain he makes everything about himself. “What does this have to do with me? Why should I care?” He fears what Superman brings to the world, and sees himself as better than everyone else. What can we tell Lex to help him understand that he is a part of the story, but not its center? How do we help him connect to something bigger than himself?

The Simple One
Superman is a stranger among us. No matter how much he learns about Earth and the humans who inhabit it, he always struggles to understand the strange world he landed in as a baby. He wants to understand what it is to be human, and how he can be a part of our story, but he doesn’t always see how he fits. How can we tell him our story in such a way that he will understand, and find his place within it?

The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask
Jimmy Olsen is always just trying to keep up. When something happens he’s right by Lois’s side with his camera, ready to point it at whatever’s happening to capture it, but he doesn’t understand what it all means. He’s easily distracted, and a bit of a goofball. He is willing, but needs our guidance. How we do we give him the tools to engage with the story? How do we help him to learn how to use his voice to ask questions and seek answers?

There are, of course, many other people living in Metropolis. Who would you pick as each of the four children?

[Written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik]

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Do Not Stand Idly By

Wonder Woman + Barbara Kruger = "Do Not Stand Idly By"

Leviticus 19:16 tells us, "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." We can't continue to look away – to do nothing while children are being killed by gun violence.

I'm not going to outline all of the reasons to support sensible gun laws and regulation – if you're with me, you get it – and if you're not, I'm not sure my blog is going to change your mind. But I can't do nothing – and so I've made this poster. The image is from Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942, drawn by Harry G. Peter), and the design is an homage to Barbara Kruger.

I've done this in a few different sizes and have PDFs available here for you to download and print and share and make into posters and whatever you want to do with it – just get the message out there. Want to use it in your school protest? Walkout? At a family picnic? At Passover seder? Go for it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A taste of summer camp in winter: paper midrash in San Jose

Rabbi Shawna and I spent last weekend with Temple Emanu-El in San Jose as part of "Machane Emanu-El" – what they called "a Camp Newman Shabbat experience." We were joined by Camp Newman songleader Robin Kopf, who co-led Erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning services with Rabbi Dana Magat. (Big thanks to Rabbi Magat and Director of Education Phil Hankin for bringing us up!)

In addition to enjoying Shabbat brownies, Israeli folk dancing, and chuggim (just like you'd expect from Shabbat at camp), Shawna and I gave a "visual sermon" — a d'rash on the week's Torah portion, Mishpatim — which led right into some hands-on art workshops for the community. We bring pop culture Torah and Jewish fan fiction to Camp Newman every summer, so it made perfect sense to bring it to Temple Emanu-El for this special weekend.

The first workshop was our "paper midrash" papercutting, with a camp theme. And since that's designed for high school age kids and adults, the younger kids got to make our "Fold-and-Cut Torah" project (made for smaller hands, with scissors instead of knives).

Rabbi Shawna showing participants the finer points of papercutting
Selecting comics to fit a papercut

Look at that great Camp Newman sweatshirt!

A Machane Emanu-El counselor helping a camper with the fold-and-cut Torah project.

 The finished papercuts were GORGEOUS, as usual – all inspired by camp experiences, camp memories, and hopes and wishes for the future of Camp Newman. I brought some special comics featuring camp themes and storylines just for this weekend – such as Lumberjanes (a wonderful all-ages comic about a girls' sleepaway camp) – from my friendly neighborhood comic book shop, Brave New World Comics.

Camp Newman is set amidst beautiful, rolling, colorful hills
Papercutting fun for all ages, with knives and scissors!
This pieces evokes memories of lighting Shabbat candles at camp

Our rule is, if you've got a baby strapped to your chest
you still have to make art – but you can use scissors.
What's camp without a campfire? Not camp!
The family that cuts paper together, stays together
Gorgeous representation of the mirpeset (patio) at Camp Newman
After papercutting and a hearty camp-style lunch, Shawna and I set up for the NEXT art activity – this one for everyone from toddlers to seniors: a giant mural, camp style, with enough canvases for everyone to make a piece of a "Tree of Life" modeled after the Temple Emanu-El logo.

The prepped canvases in my studio, ready to be transported up to Temple Emanu-El

Hard at work, wondering what the finished mural will look like

Gathering around the finished canvases, admiring our work
The finished mural is now hanging
in the "Temple House" building at Temple Emanu-El
The last part of our group papercutting projects is usually finished off at in my home studio: creating a digital poster featuring all of the papercuts created in our workshop.

And remember: if you want to bring "paper midrash" to your community, check out

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Parting the Sea of Reeds... Under the Mighty Redwoods

The "dynamic duo" under the Redwoods
We're back from our "paper midrash" weekend in the woods with Peninsula Temple Sholom – praying, studying, and cutting paper. It was lovely being brought in as artist-and-rabbi-in-residence for PTS, and we're grateful for the opportunity to share our world with them. Bonus: they also had Cantor Rosalie Boxt as an artist-in-residence for the weekend (an incredible team at PTS put this incredible weekend together)!

Friday night after services we shared our presentation on "Pop Culture Torah and Jewish Fan Fiction" (also known as "Intro to Midrash"), with a focus on the weekend's Torah portion, Beshallach – which includes Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea from which the "Mi Chamocha" prayer comes.  Rabbi Shawna shared SO MUCH great midrash, including a text that delved into the many meanings of a particular sentence that started with the word "then." Seriously – "then." And a team-up between Spider-Man and Moses. (We have a lot of fun.)

Exodus/Shemot 15:1 starts with: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord..."

Saturday morning we led a meditative tefillah with emphasis on the prayers that make up the Amidah section, using large projected images of my "Paper Tefillah" series to encourage deeper thinking about personal meaning in the words.

And the rest of the day was set aside for workshops and learning. Cantor Boxt led sessons on music, while Rabbi Shawna and I led papercutting workshops, all inspired by Shirat HaYam.

Hard at work, cutting up comics

Rabbi Shawna discussing the mechanics of papercutting

It never ceases to amaze me how a room full of people can all start with the same story and find so many different meanings and foci for their artistic expression – some very deep thinking about the words of the portion and how we can connect to them.

Cut! Tape! Cut! Tape! (Repeat until done.)

You think the tables look messy? You should see the floor.

From explorations of the shape of the parted sea, to the emotions of the Hebrews fleeing to freedom, to contemplation of the nature of Divine presence and protection.

Finished work by workshop participant: Parting the Sea

Finished work by workshop participant: Egyptian in Peril

Finished work by workshop participant: The Parted Sea as Heart

We ended the weekend on Sunday with a particularly special experience: a "teach-back" session in which the workshop artists explained their work to the rest of the community, walking them through the midrashim they studied and the inspirations for their work.

We wish to thank Rabbi Dan, Rabbi Molly, Rabbi Lisa and the PTS community for bringing us up to "Happy Valley" for this year's retreat; we enjoyed praying and studying and creating with you.

(Interested in bringing us out to *your* community? Visit for details.)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Three Dreamers

I've got three new papercuts I wanted to share with you – inspired by the story of some "dreamers."

If you're not familiar with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), here's the shorthand: it's an American immigration policy that allowed some people who entered the country as minors (and remained in the country illegally) to receive a renewable two-year deferral from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. As of 2017, about 800,000 individuals were enrolled in the program created by what was popularly referred to as "The Dream Act," and so the people in question are known as "dreamers." But DACA is in danger, and we must speak up – in support of the people that come to our shores in search of freedom and refuge and opportunity.

I'm a second-generation American, and this has always been an issue of great importance to me. We've got a statue at the edge of our country which welcomes all those who need refuge:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– excerpt from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus
These three dreamers I've created are papercut representations of the Jewish tradition's dreamer, Joseph, known for his coat of many colors... and his long journey from favorite child to near-death to servitude to prison to leadership and, eventually, to sustainer of the children of Israel. All three papercuts include biblical references to "welcoming the stranger"; they're what I call "paper midrash."

A.K.A. Bunker
6" x 6"
Mixed media

A.K.A. Bunker is made of cut-up comic books featuring Miguel Jose Barragan, known to the world as the super hero "Bunker." Originally from Mexico, he now lives in San Francisco (a sanctuary city) as a member of the Teen Titans. His coat of many colors features the purple bricks he creates with his powers, and bits and pieces of the costumes of his teammates.

Here I Am
6" x 6"
Mixed media
Here I Am is made of cut-up America Chavez comics. A queer latina from the alternate dimension known as the Utopian Parallel, America's powers of teleportation led to her "undocumented" arrival in our dimension, where she started her super hero career as a member of the Young Avengers. In the background behind her are the words "All it takes is a second of trust" and two hands stretching out towards each other.

The Alien Superman
6" x 6"
Mixed media
Superman is probably the most famous undocumented immigrant super hero, and The Alien Superman is made of cut-up comics featuring the Man of Steel. When his birth planet Krypton was on the verge of destruction, his parents put baby Kal-El (his Kryptonian name) in a rocket and sent him to find sanctuary on our Earth. In this papercut he stands against a desert background with a hint of a militarized and fortified border wall.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Maccabees and Other Super Heroes:
A Weekend with Congregation B'nai Israel

Rabbi Shawna and I spent our Hanukkah weekend at Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento for  three days of praying, studying, and creating – and what a great weekend it was!

Getting ready for services (from left: Cantor Julie Steinberg, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, and Rabbi Mona Alfi)
Friday night after a delicious latke dinner, Rabbi Shawna led services with Rabbi Mona Alfi and Cantor Julie Steinberg, using the "visual tefillah" service we crafted which is built around my "paper tefillah" series of papercuts. For the drash we explored the idea of Jewish super heroes – what makes a superhero Jewish, and what we can do to be heroes. (BTW, sometimes the only way you know a comic book super hero is Jewish is they have a menorah at Christmas time, but sometimes — such as with Kitty Pryde and The Thing – you get a narrative inspired by the lessons we learn from Judaism).

CBI has a beautiful prayer space – light and airy and bright and open
Saturday we led two workshops, making papercuts to be displayed together in the synagogue. In the morning we worked with CBI's teens and in the afternoon, adults. The workshops were centered around the idea of worship and observance in the synagogue – reflecting on the meaning of the hagim and life cycle events that are the fabric of Judaism, with participants leveraging their personal experiences and memories as inspiration for their papercuts.

With a group of our teen workshop participants and their finished work

With our adult workshop participants and their finished work

Inspired by Rosh HaShanah

Mask, grogger and hamantashen for Purim

Hand holding a yad to read Torah

Rabbi Mona Alfi and her Sukkot papercut

Saturday night the temple hosted an evening of arts and entertainment, bringing in three local artists to show their work (while I showed mine), and then Rabbi Shawna and I gave a "dynamic duo" presentation on "Maccabees and Other Super Heroes."

Sunday every class in the CBI religious school made papercuts with a special lesson we prepared so even the youngsters could participate (WITHOUT KNIVES). Meanwhile Rabbi Shawna and I gave a presentation to the pre-b'nai mitzvah kids and their parents on "Midrash: Jewish Fan Fiction" – and led a mini-workshop with the same papercutting activity, exploring ideas of Jewish values and the heroes who exemplify them.

Working with the pre-b'nai mitzvah students

Students making Torah papercuts

Even the younger grades were able to make "paper midrash"

And one last thing before we got on the road to get back home – a dedication ceremony in the entrance to the synagogue, where we had installed the papercuts from our workshops. Rabbi Alfi said a few words, Cantor Steinberg sang a few songs, and a good time was had by all.

Dedicating the new art in the synagogue entrance

Isaac and Rabbi Shawna with one of the walls of art

And of course, if you're interested in having me and Rabbi Shawna come to YOUR community, check out more info about what we do on our webpage:

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Legacy of Giving and Art in Orange County

JCFOC's official post-event post
Congratulations to the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County on a wonderful day – the fifth annual "Endowment Book of Life" Community Celebration was a great success, and it was a pleasure to be with you!

Not pictured: the incredibly cute and delicious
mini falafel served at the luncheon.

Rabbi Shawna and I were so honored to be the featured speakers at the celebration, talking about the confluence of art and Judaism and legacy, and also presenting the final artwork from the workshops we led last month.

As my my wife said in her portion of our remarks, “We continue to create spaces for God to dwell in when we come together as a community. The work that you are doing to ensure the future of the Orange County Jewish community helps create opportunities for people to come together, to work together, to celebrate together, and to continue to build the places where God will dwell.”

Participants in one of the JCFOC workshops pose with their finished art
So much incredible art was created by volunteers from the many organizations that comprise the JCFOC – all dedicated to strengthening the OC Jewish community and leaving a lasting legacy for the future.

The guiding theme for the workshops was the yearly cycle of holidays and observance, and we started with a simple task: we asked everyone to share a memory about a holiday, whether from the past or the present. We were so moved to hear all of the traditions that — for many — went back generations and shaped their love of Judaism.

All of the workshop participants were given a particular holiday to focus on and some texts to spark their creativity; we asked everyone to spend some time thinking about the holiday and the objects and symbols connected to it — to think about what sort of legacy had been passed on to them or what they hoped to pass on in the future.

Each of the artists — so many of whom were with us at the celebration — designed a papercut which expressed this sense of celebration and legacy that they felt in connection to their holiday, expressed in myriad ways. And behind the menorah, and the dreidel, and the lulav, and the candles, and the wine – behind all of this beautiful holiday imagery — they placed images of heroes, bit of stories, colors and textures and words they helped them to communicate their vision — the wisdom of their hearts.
Papercuts created by people from the same volunteer organization
were framed together for display in their offices

One last thing – we made a poster featuring all of the papercut work from the workshops, and unveiled it at the celebration.
Isaac with the poster featuring everyone's artwork

The JCFOC also made sets of greeting cards for everyone
featuring the papercuts from the workshops

Shawna and I once again extend our thanks to Wendy and Anne and everyone at JCFOC who invited us to work them to create a wonderful celebration of the work they do! (For more information about what we do, check out website at