Bishvili Nivra HaOlam, or, The two pockets

In October of 2018, an Etsy customer commissioned from me a design of the quotation Bishvili nivra ha-olam: “The world was created for me”.

This phrase is a quote from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37B), but it is most famously incorporated into a Chassidic story about Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (the Yiddish name for the town of Przysucha, Poland).

Rabbi Simcha Bunim teaches: Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “I am only dust and ashes.” When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created.” When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it. We are each the joining of two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of Adonai.
—Martin Buber, Tales of The Hasidim Later Masters, pp. 249-50

At the time of the original commission, it struck me that I ought to create a two-sided wallet card with one saying on each side.

Zazzle annually offers its Pro members (ProDesigners) a free batch of business cards (FYI!). So when it came time to order this year’s set, I finally sat down and designed the other side.

The cards arrived last Thursday and I’m quite pleased with them!

At that point, I also realized that by a happy coincidence, that week’s Torah portion was Vayera, the source of the “dust and ashes” quotation. It occurs in Genesis 18:27 when Abraham is bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah:

כז  וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-אֲדֹנָי, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר. 27 And Abraham answered and said: ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, who am but dust and ashes.
כח  אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם, חֲמִשָּׁה–הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה, אֶת-כָּל-הָעִיר; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא אַשְׁחִית, אִם-אֶמְצָא שָׁם, אַרְבָּעִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה. 28 Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous; wilt Thou destroy all the city for lack of five?’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it, if I find there forty and five.’

Genesis Chapter 18

Granted, there’s nothing like entering a battle of wits with the Eternal Creator to make a person mindful of their own base humanity. But the point is, maybe Abraham would also have benefited from keeping one of these two-sided cards in his pocket. After all, in a very real sense, the world was also created for him.

 

Further reading:

 

Selected poems from Sappho

As part of an ongoing (if halfhearted) decluttering effort, I’ve recently been posting some more books to PaperBackSwap.com… including a bunch of my old college books. (Goodbye, The Faerie Queen! Goodbye, Aristotle’s Poetics!)

One that I am shipping off tomorrow is a book of Sappho’s extant poetry and fragments, as translated by Mary Barnard in 1958. Leafing through them again, I am still struck by the luminous haiku-like quality achieved by these particular translations. I looked up other renderings of some of them, and they were just dead on the page by comparison. Much κῦδος to Ms. Barnard (1909-2001). (Better scholars than I am can peruse the Greek fragments here.)

I had dogeared a handful of pages in my copy, probably from my freshman humanities class in 1989, for the poems that I particularly enjoyed. So I wanted to record them for posterity before I send the book to its new owner.

3.
Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me

9.
Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal

12
It’s no use

Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
weaving
You may
blame Aphrodite

soft as she is

she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy

24
Awed by her splendor

Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver

47
I was so happy

Believe me, I
prayed that that
night might be
doubled for us

48
Now I know why Eros,

of all the progeny of
Heaven and Earth, has
been most dearly loved

61
Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop

and my overall favorite:

64
Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

Then there are a few later in the book that have an absolutely Dorothy Parker feel:

73
Yes, it is pretty

but come, dear, need
you pride yourself
that much on a ring?

84
If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

Wishing much enjoyment to the next reader!

The Jewish Advocate interviews me

My writer friend Michael A. Burstein sometimes writes for The Jewish Advocate, which is the local Jewish community newspaper in Boston. He is also a regular attendee of Arisia, so he pitched an article to the Advocate regarding the Friday night davening and the new siddur, and he interviewed me for it.

Observant Jews ‘daven’ long, prosper at area sci-fi con

The article made the front page of this week’s paper (!), but like all their digital content, it’s behind a paywall. (Boston locals please note: If you’re not an Advocate subscriber, you can still pick up an individual copy at the Israel Book Shop in Brookline… if the snow emergency ever ends!) So rather than the article itself, I give you the (slightly edited) text of my interview answers instead.

Continue reading

SCOTUS Angels update: Nonviolent (gun-free) edition

At last writing, I had recently released the original SCOTUS Angels design and promised (after many inquiries) to create a nonviolent, gun-free version.

Things that have happened since then:

  • On March 8, Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder/president of Whole Woman’s Health and lead plaintiff on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I would consider directing the proceeds toward the Center for Reproductive Rights (the nonprofit law firm representing WWH to the Supreme Court), rather than my go-to of Planned Parenthood. I was happy to agree to this idea. Ten percent of the royalties from this design (both versions) will now benefit the Center for Reproductive Rights.
  • Also on March 8, Zazzle pulled down every product using the first design, on the grounds of copyright (really trademark) infringement. Alas!
  • On March 12, I released the gun-free version. In this edition, justice is being served with the tools of law (symbolized by gavels, scales, and books) rather than with weapons. I posted both designs on an art site called Society6, about which I had heard good things. However, their product selection is more limited than Zazzle’s (no bumper stickers! no plus sizes!), so I also went back and posted the new design on Zazzle. So far, it’s remained up with no copyright issues.
  • Tangentially, but not for nothing: On March 16, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the SCOTUS vacancy. (Side note: if approved, his appointment would increase the count of Jews on the Court to 4 out of 9, joining Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.) Dear Senate Judiciary Committee: Approve or reject him as you see fit, but please, #DoYourJob and hold the hearings.

Anyway. Shop the collections:

 

New project: SCOTUS Angels

Hi. This is Erica. Apparently I won the Internet this weekend, with a little Photoshop riff on a classic tableau.

“Once upon a time there were three brilliant women who went to the Supreme Court. Two Jewish, the other Latina. And now they work for me. My name is Social Justice.”

Posted by Erica Schultz Yakovetz on Saturday, March 5, 2016

Inspired by Dahlia Lithwick’s March 2 Slate article on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, my friend Laurie asked for a T-shirt of Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor in a Charlie’s Angels pose. Saturday night, I released this:

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That’s the Notorious RBG in the center, with Elena Kagan at left and Sonia Sotomayor at right. The white jabots are based on the real versions sported by each of these amazing women.

Now you, too, can have that T-shirt, thanks to Zazzle. There are different variations for different background colors, so the product line is getting a little complex. I’m curating the full set at this link: SCOTUS Angels Collection.

I’m pledging 10% of my royalties to Planned Parenthood. UPDATE, 3/8/16: Amy Hagstrom Miller, the lead plaintiff in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, reached out to me today to ask if the proceeds could instead support the Center for Reproductive Rights (the nonprofit law firm representing WWH for this case). So, while the first $50 based on sales to date will still go to Planned Parenthood (my go-to, along with Medical Students for Choice and the ACLU, for my regular charitable support), I am happy to direct 10% of the future proceeds to the Center. Thank you, Amy, for your activism! And Happy International Women’s Day!

And after many requests, YES, I will be creating a nonviolent (gun-free) version in the near future. Gavels, law book, scales of justice. Something. Watch this space.

New for 2015: I’m in a book!

Last month, I received an email inquiry from a photographer named Susan Ressler, formerly of Indiana (she is Professor Emerita of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University) and now of New Mexico. elements

Susan was preparing to self-publish a book of her fine art photography from a recent trip to Israel, organized (as it happened) into sections based on the elements: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. She had come across my 2007 piece Elements: The Holy Cities and wanted to include it in the introduction to her book, as a way of setting the stage!

Her completed book, Understanding Israel (subtitle: “Jaffa is More than Oranges”), is now live on a print-on-demand site called Blurb. It’s available in two trim sizes: 8×10 ($45.99) or the more luxurious 11×13 ($99.95), both in a dramatic landscape format. If you click on the title above, you can browse through the entire book. For the curious, my contribution is on page 10 :-) but the rest is well worth a look.

Below is the official Blurb “badge” for the book:

Understanding Israel (8x10
Understanding …
Jaffa is More than…
By Susan Rebecca Ressler
Photo book

 
(And also, since apparently this is my first post in the new year: Happy 2015!)

New art piece: To Everything There Is A Season

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (which means only one month to Rosh Hashanah). In honor of the new Hebrew month, I’m debuting a new art piece!

As a young teenager, I was deeply into the music of the 1960s, and I still remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard the Byrds’ 1965 hit recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”.

I knew it was taken from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, though I didn’t know much more about it than that. Much later, I experienced Ecclesiastes as the Hebrew scroll of Kohelet, which is traditionally ascribed (like the book of Proverbs, or Mishlei ) to King Solomon, and in many Jewish communities is read aloud in its entirety at Shabbat synagogue services during the fall holiday of Sukkot.

A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I saw a framed calligraphy piece based on this same passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. That inspired me to want to do a version of my own.

The primary motif I had in mind was to set the English phrases as a sine wave or a helix, winding around the structure of the Hebrew. The above-and-below undulation would convey the duality in each of the pairings. Each Hebrew phrase is color-matched with its English equivalent to create a visual connection between the two levels. I chose to invert the Hebrew in these layers so that the text flow of both languages could run in the same clockwise direction — another way to echo the “wheel of time” feeling of the passage.

Ultimately, I arranged the text in a mandala of four nesting circles. The outermost circle is formed from the opening verse, which provides the conceptual frame for the whole passage. The second layer contains eight pairings, the third layer five pairings, and the last pairing forms the final circle with “peace” at its center… driving the whole composition, like Pete Seeger’s adaptation, toward an optimistic goal at its core.

One note on the translation: The well-known King James Version translates the second half of verse 1 as “and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. The Hebrew word used there, however, is cheifetz, which in other contexts is always rendered as “please” or “enjoy”. (Compare to Psalm 115:3, V’elokeinu ba-shamayim; kol asher chafetz asah. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”) Thus, some English translations give it as “to every delight” or “pleasure under the heavens”. Many other translations simply say “event”, “matter” or “activity”. I wanted to find a word that conveyed the semantic direction of “pleasing” without categorizing killing and destroying as “delights”, and settled on “to every impulse under the heavens.” I also tried to preserve the distinctions in the Hebrew between “a time to [verb]” and “a time of [noun]”.

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I created Version I using the classical Roman-style font Trajan for all of the English text, for a smooth and formal look. However, then I wanted to try to bring out the (literal) texture of the passage with a little more contrast, so I experimented with applying a calligraphic italic hand (a font called Aquiline) to accent the changing keywords in each English phrase. This resulted in Version II.

Both pieces are now available in my Etsy shop, along with a hi-res PDF download that includes both versions in case you prefer to print your own.

Which version do you think works best? Let me know in comments.

Chodesh tov!

How I make art, Part 1: Resources for Hebrew text

This week, I’ve been working on a new Judaica art piece, which I look forward to releasing next week! But before I get there, I wanted to talk about my process for making art out of text in Hebrew and English.

It starts where everything starts — with an idea. Some words catch my eye and fire my imagination. Most often, it’s either a Biblical text or a passage from the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook. (Frequently, it’s both, as Biblical quotations make up a significant portion of the wording of our formal prayers.) Occasionally, it’s a quote from the Talmud, about which more below.

But how do I get going from there? First, I go to the Internet!

… Why not start on my own bookshelf? I own numerous Bibles in both Hebrew and English (one of my favorite translations, incidentally, is Everett Fox‘s Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Schocken Bible). But here’s Confession #1: I’m not so strong on chapter and verse. So I start by doing a Google search for the English phrasing, in order to locate the verse I’m thinking of.

From there, I look up the Hebrew. Mechon Mamre maintains an excellent complete Hebrew-English online Bible, featuring the well-reputed standard English translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). I will usually go here to copy and paste entire passages. Note, though, that they provide “pointed” text, with the nekudot: vowel marks and other punctuation that are positioned around the actual letters (or, in the words of psycholinguist Dorit Ravid, “diacritics ancillary to consonantal graphemes”).* This notation is essential for study purposes, but I generally go on to strip out the nikkud, because I prefer to use just the un-pointed letters in my artwork.

* However, the Ancillary Diacritics is totally my new band name.

My next stop is, perhaps surprisingly, a Christian Bible site, one called Blue Letter Bible. While I tend to steer clear of Christian-sponsored sites, this one offers a spectacular feature that I haven’t found elsewhere: a word-by-word breakdown of the original Hebrew, as well as the Greek from the Septuagint, for every single verse of the Old Testament.

[Blue Letter Bible tools screenshot]

The language tools at Blue Letter Bible. Careful observers will pick up a clue as to the forthcoming new art piece.

My own Hebrew skills are normally sufficient to match up the corresponding words from an English translation; in fact, this is an important element in my artwork, where I frequently color-code specific words or phrases to create explicit visual connections between the texts. But sometimes I feel like the English in front of me doesn’t quite capture the nuance I’m getting from the Hebrew. When I want to refine the translation I’m including in the piece, it can be amazingly helpful to see a range of English translations side-by-side, or to click through to the Strong’s Concordance entry to see how the same word has been interpreted in different contexts. Plus, they provide a box to toggle the “vowel points” (the aforementioned nekudot) on or off, so I can copy a whole verse with just the unpointed letters. Priceless.

Now, what if I am researching a Talmud quotation? Certain sections are easy to find in translation, like the tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, or in English as “The Ethics of the Fathers”, which is reproduced in its entirety in most traditional prayerbooks. Often, however, I will see delightful quotes attributed solely to “The Talmud”… which may be technically accurate, but not very helpful! Google is my friend here again. Sometimes it turns out that quotes attributed to “The Talmud” (such as this one, identified here) actually come from Midrash Rabbah, which is a fantastic (and often fantastical) body of interpretive commentaries, but not part of the Talmud.

Once I can get a specific citation, I can look up the Hebrew in Mechon Mamre’s online Talmud Bavli (the “Babylonian” Talmud that is the version commonly studied). Some chapters are available in English at Halakhah.com, at Sacred Texts, and at the Jewish Virtual Library. If I’m looking for Midrash Rabbah, there’s a complete online Hebrew edition at Tsel Harim.

For Hebrew text from the prayerbook, I am more likely to turn to my actual bookshelf. However, there are several useful Web resources, such as the Online Siddur, the Open Siddur Project, and the Free Siddur Project.

There are many more great collections of links and scholarly resources at sites like the following:

One last technical note: I create my artwork in Adobe InDesign. Now, if I copy a line of Hebrew text from a web page, it is almost certainly in Unicode, which the browser knows to render right-to-left… but InDesign pastes in the character sequence from left to right. Because here’s Confession #2: I don’t actually use it to handle Hebrew properly. Now that I’ve upgraded to Creative Suite 6, its World-Ready Composer gives some built-in support for right-to-left sequencing at either the paragraph or character level… but the way it behaves still isn’t very intuitive for me, and I get frustrated after just a few minutes. It’s actually easier for me to cheat with an intermediate step: reversing the string in order to make it come out correctly. On a few old projects, I did this by hand (!), but these days I turn once again to the magic of the Internet, where there are handy web-based utilities for this purpose.

  • Reverse a String Online was my longtime quick-and-dirty favorite for single lines.
  • Text Mechanic’s “Reverse Text Generator” offers an additional option called “Flip Text”, which reverses each line (or technically paragraph), but keeps the lines themselves in the correct top-to-bottom sequence — just what I need for longer sections.

Once I’ve got all my text in place, in Hebrew and English, that’s my raw material. Only then can I start to play with it to create art. But that’s a totally separate process that I will try to address in another, less technical — and probably shorter! — post.

Shabbat shalom!

Poppin: Gorgeous office supplies for color nerds

I first saw it in a Facebook ad. I try to avoid EVER clicking Facebook’s sidebar ads, but the picture in this one was so appealing, I couldn’t resist: a spotless white office desk tricked out with a whole suite of beautiful, brightly colored, matching office supplies.

This was my introduction to Poppin, whose mission statement begins, “Poppin believes you should be able to surround yourself with objects of beauty everywhere you go and in everything that you do.” Founded in 2009 by NYC entrepreneurs with a background in fashion (explains the killer aesthetics, right?), the company was publicly launched in September 2012, but it’s only more recently that their impressive PR is really gaining traction.

The sheer glossy perfection of it was what got me. I was in awe. Not just visually, but technically: How do you even achieve that kind of color matching across a dozen different materials and manufacturers? (It turns out that this was, indeed, a nontrivial issue for them.) I emailed the Shop By Color link straightaway to my BFF (an avowed devotee of all things purple). I followed Poppin on Pinterest. And then on Twitter. I was hooked.

But it wasn’t enough for me to lovingly browse the color selections. I had to know: What were the specs for the 16 colors?? With a few minutes of poking around their website style sheets, I managed to uncover the official hex/RGB codes. But even more specifically, I wanted to know if they had officially designated corresponding swatches in the industry-standard Pantone Matching System, or PMS. Read more about Pantone here.

I couldn’t find any mention of Pantone in their FAQ, but luckily, Poppin also encourages you to email questions to their “Work Stylist” team. So I did. Not 45 minutes later, team member Shannon sent me a perky response email with an attached PDF document — an array of the 16 swatches with their PMS numbers. My respect for the company ratcheted up several more notches.

I asked her if I could share the breakdown, and she said “feel free to spread the info!”, so here it is:

Name Hex RGB Pantone
White  #ffffff  R: 255 G: 255 B: 255 n/a*
Yellow  #ffd200  R: 255 G: 210 B: 0 PMS 116C
Orange  #f47b20  R: 244 G: 123 B: 32 PMS 166C
Coral  #ff6666  R: 255 G: 102 B: 102 PMS 178C
Red  #d31245  R: 211 G: 18 B: 69 PMS 200C
Pink  #eb4498  R: 235 G: 68 B: 152 PMS 219C
Lime Green  #c1d82f  R: 193 G: 216 B: 47 PMS 382C
Mint  #abd2aa  R: 171 G: 210 B: 170 PMS 2254C
Aqua  #68c8c6  R: 104 G: 200 B: 198 PMS 325C
Pool Blue  #00a5d9  R: 0 G: 165 B: 217 PMS 639C
Navy  #00457c  R: 0 G: 69 B: 124 PMS 295C
Purple  #52247f  R: 82 G: 36 B: 127 PMS 2617C
Light Gray  #c5c6c8  R: 197 G: 198 B: 200 PMS 421C
Silver  n/a**   PMS 877C
Gold  n/a**   PMS 871C
Black  #000000  R: 0 G: 0 B: 0 PMS Black 6C

*Pantone does actually offer a selection of white shades, but Poppin didn’t spec one. :-)
** These metallics are represented on their website with background GIFs instead of solid CSS color blocks.

For now, the CMYK equivalents (for use in four-color process printing, including your home or office laser printer) are left as an exercise to the reader. (Pro tip: InDesign will give you a reasonable conversion right in your Swatches library if you create a swatch of your target PMS color, then convert to CMYK. This will give you a slightly better match than converting from an RGB swatch, since those can be tricky to render with the same vibrancy in CMYK.)

Guess what else? If your branding colors happen to be in the above set, you’ll be thrilled to know that you can also order your choice of custom imprinted products. (Some stellar product placement on that page, BTW. Internet cachet cuts both ways!)

So which are my personal favorite shades of the collection? If you’ve seen my design homepage, it’s no surprise that I’m torn between Lime Green (canonically the most “Erica” of colors) and Pool Blue.

I look forward to seeing what else they add to the menu as the company grows.