Friday, May 18, 2018

Shavuot: Our Origin Story

Superman is the last son of dead planet, raised by salt-of-the-earth parents who taught him to use his power to help others, in support of “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Wonder Woman lived her entire life on an island of peace and prosperity; learning of the injustice and imbalance in the larger world she commits herself to being an ambassador of peace and defender of the weak.

Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportional strength and abilities of a spider; he chooses to be a super hero because of the lesson from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt and in fear for their lives, the children of Israel escape their bondage and travel to a mysterious desert mountain, where they are gifted with a moral code and a mission: to be a holy people.

On Shavuot we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, and our acceptance of our unique destiny. On Passover we reenact our liberation from slavery, but on Shavuot we understand what it means for us to be free and how it shapes us and guides our actions in thew world.

Comic book origin stories are familiar to many of us; they tell us not just what happened to these characters, but why they choose to be heroes. Michael Chabon, in his fictionalized history of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, points out that what many of the superheroes do is very similar — they fight crime — but the important thing is not if they fly or have super strength. What makes superheroes interesting, the reason people read comic books and come back to these stores over and over, even knowing that the plot follows a pattern (the hero will defeat the villain and save the world), is that even superhero characters have depth. We are intrigued by the why: why do they do what they do?

Shavuot is tied to the giving of the Torah, connected to Pesach from the counting of the Omer. Our “why” is because we were slaves in Egypt. The first commandment is our “why”: “I am Adonai your God who led you out of Egypt to be your God.” Our sense of commandedness is far more than just the first ten commandments — it comes from our often complex relationship with the Divine.

Much has been said about the “Nones”— the growing number of people who, when asked about religion, reply “None” — and there is an argument that one does not need to be religious to be moral… which is true. There are lots of paths to ethical behavior, but what makes Judaism interesting, and relevant today, is our struggle with the “why.” Does it matter if I am donating to a food pantry out of a sense of fairness, or because I feel commanded to, or because this mitzvah fulfills my Jewish soul? Ultimately, if everyone contributes no matter what the reasons, the food pantry will be full, but if I am obligated to do this mitzvah, if I see myself as a partner with God, it will not matter if I feel like it, or if I’m feeling generous or fair or sympathetic — I will continue to do this mitzvah even when I am not in the mood, because Torah is my reason why.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman offers this translation for the first commandment: “I am the One who frees people from what enslaves them” — our origin story and our mission, our moment of realizing what we must do and how we should strive to act in the world. Yes, anyone can be ethical. Everyone can and should work to make this world a better place. On Shavuot, we affirm that it is our Judaism and our commitment to Torah that shapes us and we invite the depth and complexity and meaning it adds to our story.

[Co-written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik]

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Revelation and the Hero Code

What does Superman's commitment to "truth, justice, and the American way" have to do with the Torah? Find out this Saturday evening (May 19, 2018), when Rabbi Shawna and I bring Paper Midrash to Tikkun4Change in the San Fernando Valley. We'll be leading a fascinating discussion on Shavuot and what makes a hero... and there are going to be blintzes as well! Reserve your place today at

Monday, May 14, 2018

You Only Think That

My head is in the West, but my heart is in the East. And my heart aches.

This is "You Only Think That," a 2014 papercut portrait of the Old City of Jerusalem made of cut-up war comics — a mixture of sun-drenched golden walls and darker passageways and shadows. The presence of helicopters and jeeps and part of an ad for war-themed toys undermines the city’s dream of peace. The city's golden walls are dark with the stain of war.

I dream of peace for Jerusalem, and Israel, and all of the world. I dream of peace for all that seek it. And the news from Jerusalem today pains me.

The title is taken from a speech bubble at the top of the papercut – it's one of the things that maddens and saddens me: that from over here in the West I can't truly know what's going on, and I can't truly contribute to making Israel what I want it to be.

I dream of peace, and my heart aches.


You Only Think That
18" x 24"
Mixed media

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Oak of the Golden Dream

In My Dreams
12" x 12"
Mixed media

This is one of the papercuts that I'll be premiering in a new local show this fall, courtesy of Santa Clarita Arts. It's not up on their calendar yet, but here's the scoop: September 17 – October 12, 2018, with an opening on Thursday, September 20. You'll be hearing a lot more about it once we get through the summer... but I've already started putting together work for the show, and couldn't resist sharing a little something out here.

Most of the work in the show is inspired by "dreams, prophecies, and visions" – and this piece in particular is inspired by the Oak of the Golden Dream, the site of California's first discovery of gold – in 1842, right here in Santa Clarita. (Take that, James Marshall!) Francisco Lopez and two friends were herding cattle on his niece’s ranch and took a midday nap in the shade of an oak tree. Lopez dreamed he was floating on a pool of gold; when he awoke he stuck his knife into the ground, unearthing some wild onions, and found chunks of gold stuck amidst the roots.

I love the twisty, winding trunks of the oak trees out here, and how lost you can get underneath the spreading branches. This one, incidentally, is California Historical Landmark No. 168.

The comics I cut up for "In My Dreams" include some Justice Society of America (with the original Sandman, Wesley Dodds) and Neil Gaiman’s 1990s Sandman comic which had a very different take on the character.

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