Exchanging Supermom for Everywoman

by: Shimona Tzukernik
About a year ago I spoke to a group of women in Pittsburgh.  The topic was, “Will the Real Jewish Woman Please Stand Up?”  The energy was already upbeat and intimate by the time I made reference to the famous text, “Woman of Strength” which Jews customarily sing at the Friday night meal.  Before I could work my way into the point I intended to make, a woman blurted out something to the effect of, “I hatethat song.”  I turned to her inviting her to elaborate.
“Well…She’s just so…perfect!  I feel like a complete failure every Friday night.  I mean, do you know anyone like her?”  Laughter all round.
I love when that happens – a real, visceral response to the topic at hand (especially when it resonates with my ownself’s inner passion, hesitancy or conflict around a particular idea.)  How many times had I balked at the words?!  Using the Hebrew letters as a springboard it is a veritable Alphabet-Soup of Perfection.  I won’t overwhelm you with all the details but how’s this for starters?
·         Alef – She’s an Eishet Chayil, a “strong” woman.  The word chayilconnotes the power of war.  She’s a warrior.  And a spiritual one too, with all the attributes needed to carry out any task at hand.  Friday night rolls round, we haven’t even gotten past verse one and I’m up against “Jewish Tiger Mom!”
·         Beit – Batach bah lev ba’alah, her husband’s heart trusts in her.  Hmm.  I can count on one hand (okay, two fingers) the number of girlfriends whose husbands’ are at peace with their wives’ take on life and what’s best for them.  Verse two and I’m dealing with not only a powerhouse but someone who’s wise and gentle enough to inspire confidence in her mate!
·         Gimmel – Gemalthu tov, she imparts goodness and kindness to him, never evil.  Who is this gal?
In short, a brief read-through of the song reveals that Kosher Tiger Mom has a loving, trusting husband; she’s an entrepreneur and successful business woman; she’s industrious, charitable, wise, empathic and intuitive.  To boot she’s well groomed (read manicures, facials and Sacks Fifth Av if not Vera Wang) and even has the time and cash to buy gorgeous bedroom linens in mindful attention to her sex life.
Is it any wonder the second phrase, in breathless pursuit of the words Eishet Chayil, asks “Who can find (her)?”  She is not me!  All of which leaves me with the question of how to read and apply King Solomon’s song to my life – along with the implications it has for my role not only as wife but as daughter to my mother and mother to my own children.
It seems to me that Eishet Chayil is “Everywoman,” an archetype of us all.  No, I’m not just looking for a backdoor escape from my perfectionism, a way to avoid the reflections of my flaws which I encounter on a daily basis.   I ask myself whether she represents an attainable goal.  Certainly in a utopian era we may each come to embody the Eishet Chayil described by King Solomon but in the here-and-now of life-as-we-know-it, I’ve yet to meet the woman who lives up to the persona he portrays.  Rather than take the text as a description of Supermom, it seems to me, it serves to connect us with the universal image of wife and mother.  After all, the passage has been interpreted as a metaphor for the Shechina, the Sabbath, the Torah and the soul.  Doesn’t it make sense that the acrostic, spanning all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alludes not to one woman’s all-encompassing virtues (Supermom) but to our collective identity (Everywoman)?
Just before my marriage, a spiritual midwife told me, “King Solomon says, ‘The wisdom of a woman builds her home.’  The literal translation though states, ‘The wisdom of women (plural) builds her home (singular.)  You will build your home on the wisdom of many women.  Pay attention to how they live and what they have to say.”  How right she was.  I have enriched myself and my home through the collective wisdom and experience of the thousands of women I’ve merited to connect with.  I carry them within me and am personally empowered by who they are.  As Eishet Chayil is sung each Friday night, it affords me some brief moments of contemplation to rejoin with them and also to be eased by the knowledge that our physical and spiritual interconnectedness mitigates my own flaws, enabling me to bring their lights into my home.
By extension, I have access to the larger, cosmic Everywoman, namely the energies and insights of the women who have come before me all the way back to Sarah.  (In fact, one reading of Eishet Chayil is as the eulogy Abraham said for Sarah before he buried her.)  It may be a span of thousands of years between me and my first mother but it’s not more than around 175 generations.  That’s not an impossible divide.  I want some of the wisdom and joy of the women between the two of us.  I now know how far from the truth my youthful stereotype of the shtetel Bubby – naïve, somewhat simple, lacking emotional subtlety – is.  Today I’d love to have her over for brunch and glean her insights and tools on how to handle my life.  The same goes for all the women throughout those interceding generations each of who has her own shining letter from the Alphabet-Soup of Perfection to impart to me.  As their daughter and grand-daughter I am bound with their point of perfection.  Thereby, at some level, despite the fact that I’m no Supermom, Eishet Chayil is in my home each Friday night.  More so I even carry her, the collective “Everywoman”, within my own being.
In this way, I gain access to a dimension of myself that is way beyond my highest personal aspirations for if the totality of who I can be is purely a result of my own endeavors; I will be very small indeed.  Rather, it is in surrendering to my imperfections and humbly admitting the bigness of Eishet Chayil that I open the window to the full expanse of who I am.
But to me, the collective gestalt of Jewish womanhood embodied by Eishet Chayil allows us even more than access to this larger, truer self.  In addition to this priceless gift, she affords us the possibility to reconfigure our relationship with our mothers.  I know, easier said than done.  The most potent reaction I ever got to a presentation was a lecture called, “Moms, the Magic and the Madness.”  The audience – and yours truly – wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or weep.  Our relationship with our mothers is incomparably multi-dimensional, complex, overlaid with love and with anger.  It’s a real big one to navigate but one which we are nonetheless expected to manage and even heal.
It’s not that we can disregard the relationship if it’s uncomfortable for us.  “Honor your father and mother” made it to fifth on the list of the Big Ten!  Yet for many, this instruction on how we ought to relate to our parents is something they find absurd.  I can hear the disdain: “My Mom hangs out at the gym all day and gossips non-stop.  She’s dishonest in business, self-centered – nay narcissistic – and materialistic.  She never had the courage to face her wounds so I get to be the beneficiary of herdysfunctional inheritance!  Yadda, yadda…”  Alright, this is Everymom we’re talking about.  But you get the idea.  How are we to honor and respect our Moms despite their often startling imperfections?
Ultimately the reason we honor them has nothing to do with their personal or moral stature.  G-d’s directive is rooted in the fact that at the moment of conception, our parents take on something of the Divine.  They become co-creators with G-d in bringing us into being.  That’s why honor of our parents is immutable.  It’s not about the gym or manicures, how they do or don’t pay taxes and show up in life.  It’s about the fact that in relation to usthey are G-dlike in a certain respect.  That’s the ground-zero of honoring our parents and until we get it most nothing else we say or hear will be of use to us in moving the relationship forward.
But this immutable point of greatness aside, each Friday night Eishet Chayil reminds us of two key ideas which can change the way we negotiate our very first relationship.  The first is that, as mentioned, none of us is perfect – andthat’s okay!  The second is that in some mysterious way we can, if we choose to, receive what we need through the collective Everywoman.  In this way, we learn to lower the bar on our mothers.  We don’t have to hold them to an impossible standard.  Whew!  In fact we can begin to accept our mother for who she is and learn to get our needs met elsewhere if she is not able to do so.  We can stop blaming our unhappiness on someone who would not – or more accurately could not – come to the table in the way we needed her to.  Eishet Chayil, Everywoman, becomes a reservoir of healing and nourishment for our being.
Through this forgiving of her for her imperfections, we become able to put down the aspects of our own emotional and mental inheritance we’d rather do without.  One of the first things we learn about our father Abraham is that he smashed his parents’ idols!  I am embarrassed to admit it but it was only well into my thirties that I realized I had to do the same.  I’d spent decades bowing to my folks’ false beliefs, accepting it as fact that I was doomed for time everlasting to live with the limitations those beliefs generated.  Then one day the teaching about Abraham took hold in my mind with a vigorous vitality.  I took an inventory of what I’d inherited.  In addition to the abundant goodness and wonder, it included beliefs about how much I was likely to earn, how to respond when angered, what the appropriate response to suffering is, who I am and a whole lot more.  I trust you get what I’m talking about.  How liberating to realize that I could systematically smash those idols – without betraying my parents!!  I was not being faithless to them in subscribing to different truths and happiness.
The catch in doing so is to disown the false beliefs yet remain in the relationship.  Abraham smashed Terach’s idols but he continued to live with him – for another seventy-two years.  Granted Terach came round to Abraham’s way of thinking but our first father would have managed to negotiate the relationship regardless.  I believe that is because connection with G-d was the singular driving force in his life and as such he was able to a) see his father’s flaws but b) not take them personally and c) not feel limited by them, thereby being able to d) detach with love so that he could e) actually help Terach.  He was able to not own another’s dysfunction and yet remain connected to the one he loved.
To accomplish this mode of conduct, we must discover a new mental set and learn to shift our reading of the events and relationships in our lives.  Most of our pain in relation to our parents (and pretty much everything else) has to do with our own perception.  We interpret things to mean what they are not.  As such, we tend to live in the rather unhappy space between the way things are and the way we think they should be.  We walk around confessing the sins of G-d and others in our life.  And of course, we know our mothers’ sins best of all!  To be whole with her, we must find that new mental set which allows us to let go of the expectations we have of her as well as of our interpretation of the interactions between us.  For me, Eishet Chayil enables me to at least begin to navigate this.  It teaches me that I am not perfect but that that’s okay – and the same goes for my Mom; that I no longer have to hold her to an impossible standard; and that I can be enriched by my universal family of sisters and mothered by generations of women whose sterling qualities are inestimable.  In other words, although I’m not Supermom I have access to the superlative perfection of Everywoman.  Turns out that Jewish-Tiger-Mom liberates me through the abundant truth that although none of us is perfect, we have access to a flawlessness that is way beyond pearls.

Written for, “More Precious than Pearls,” edited by Mark Pearlman.  Check out his site   Sinai Live

Western, Ethnic, Jewish Art – What’s Your Gift?

by: Shimona Tzukernik

A couple of years ago, I conducted an interview with Mel Alexenberg, then Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute. He traced archetypes of creative expression back to the book of Genesis, meandering past the Giving of the Torah and deep into the Sanctuary whose construction we read of in this week’s Torah portion.
The first paragon of Jewish art resides, according to Alexenberg, in the Biblical persona of Noach. His three sons each exemplify a different sense modality, the specific interaction of which generates the Torah ideal of beauty. When spelled in reverse, noach reads chen, meaning grace or beauty. And chen itself is an acronym for chochmat nistar, hidden wisdom. Thus the word may be more properly understood as denoting inner beauty.
Of Noach’s three sons, we read, “God shall enlarge Yaphet. He shall dwell in the tents of Shem and Cham shall be their servant.”[1] The name Yaphet, the progenitor of Greek and Western civilization, is related to the word yafa, visible or surface beauty. Shem is related to the word shmia, or hearing, and Cham to chomer, or matter and tactility. Just as the family of Noach included the three of his sons, so too chen, true artistic beauty must incorporate each of these modalities, the visual and aural, and their manifestation in the physical world.

For the Jewish people at the foothills of Sinai, the world of the spiritual was as concrete as that of the physical.

In the art of different cultures, one or other of these modalities tends to dominate. Ethnic art is largely tactile and utilitarian, albeit symbolic and conceptual. It is art that requires a close proximity and interaction between object and observer. The principal modality of Western art is visual, necessitating a certain distance between the work and its viewer. And the art of Arabian countries, according to Alexenberg, functions primarily in an auditory modality. “Its symbol, the crescent, echoes the domes of its architecture, which like the repetitive fluid patterns, envelop one like sound.” The concept of hearing is actually embodied in the name of the father of the Arabian people, “Yishmael”, which means, “God hears.” Though the art of each of these cultures necessarily employs all modalities, in each case there is one that emerges to the fore.

Jewish art, Chen, requires a union of modalities, an equal incorporation of the visual, aural and material. An example of this complex relationship between sight and sound emerges from a close study of the Biblical narrative of the Giving of the Torah. Our commentators explain that at this climactic moment, occurring after years of oppression and their miraculous departure from Egypt, the people heard that which was normally seen and saw that which was usually heard. By and large, physical reality is perceived visually, and that which is more abstract is sensed aurally. Thus the implication of this kinesthetic inversion is that for the Jewish people at the foothills of Sinai, the world of the spiritual was as real and concrete as that of the physical.

That the senses of sight and hearing are understood to be intimately connected with the faculty of comprehension is evidenced explicitly in other places in Jewish writings. For example, asked at Mount Sinai if they would accept and follow the laws contained in the Bible, the Jewish people responded, “We will do and we will hear, “ which our Rabbis interpret to mean, “We will do and then we will come to understand.” Seeing too is not always understood as limited to surface perception. It is associated with insight. “Some people,” says Alexenberg, “see the external and hear the internal. In Judaism, the opposite is true. Panim, “face” and P’nim, “internal” are the same word.” This dynamic interplay between seeing, hearing and understanding of both surface and interior, is reflected in the way the command “understand” is translated in the Talmud and the Zohar. In the Babylonian Talmud (the revealed, legal aspect of oral Jewish tradition) we find the word tashma, “come and hear,” whilst in the Zohar (the concealed, mystical dimension of the Torah, the name itself connoting “glow”) we read tachazeh, “come and see.”


The Temple he built was the epitome of beauty because King Solomon had the ability to penetrate the interior in a way that echoed the the Jewish people’s perception of the spiritual at Mount Sinai.

The union of the aural and visual, a perception that penetrates beyond the surface to the interior, is as essential to Jewish art as it is in its religious literature. This vital interplay between surface and interior existed in the first Temple, one of the most glorious manifestations of multi-sensory Jewish artistic expression. We find it alluded to in the writings of Rashi, a foremost commentator on the Bible of the twelfth century. On the clause, “and God shall dwell in the tents of Shem,” Rashi states that God’s enlarging of Yaphet refers to His enabling Cyrus, of the descendants of Yaphet, to build the Second Temple. Rashi continues, “Nonetheless, there did not dwell in it the Divine Presence. And where did it dwell? In the First Temple, which King Solomon built.”[2] The First Temple is perceived as being on a higher level than the Second precisely because it housed the divine Presence. Yaphet, the visual, no matter how masterful, was not sufficient for creating a complete beauty. King Solomon, one of the most righteous of Jewish leaders, was able to actualize the ideal of “Chen.” The Temple he built was the epitome of beauty, because King Solomon had the ability to penetrate the interior in a way which echoed the Jewish people’s perception of the spiritual at Mount Sinai.

The interplay required in Jewish art is not only one between the different senses, but extends to the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives. This is not surprising given that dynamism is a fundamental aspect of Jewish consciousness in general. As Alexenberg notes, “The first time we read of a Jew, Abraham, in the Bible, is in the portion entitled Lech Lecha. Lalechet meanst to walk or go. The word for Jewish law too, halacha, coming from the same root, reflects this dynamism.” Commenting on an article sent to him by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he points out that the word for spirit, ruach (raysh-vav-chet) and the word for matter, chomer (chet-mem-reysh) are intimately related when inverted since the letters “vav” and “mem” are interchangeable in the Hebrew alphabet. “Unlike certain traditions where you have to renounce physicality in order to attain spirituality, in Judaism they are essentially one. All that changes is one’s angle of vision, the way we perceive. Jewish art is about the spiritual nature of one’s encounter with the physical world.” Since this encounter is constantly changing, so too Jewish art must be ever dynamic and responsive to its surroundings.

Jewish are is a multi-media, all involvement event.

Such dynamism entails an open-endedness and necessity for active involvement on behalf of both artist and viewer which is paralleled in the “happenings” of the art world of some decades back. Happenings attempted to break the passive observance of traditional western art by incorporating the audience into a process or event which was in itself, or out of which rose, a final “artistic product.” Alexenberg contrasts Jewish art with, for example, the more passive process of traditional Western theatre. “Jewish art is a multi-media, all-involvement event.” He perceives the Pesach Seder and the Sukkah as examples of Jewish “happenings.” “We follow a text, the Haggada, at every Seder. There is a narrative flow, but it is not linear in the sense of a classic text. We have the four cups of wine, the children running after the Afikomen, the Charoset, the bitter herbs which bring tears to our eyes. The audience and the performers are the same people. It’s a multi-sensory, multi-media happening. A Sukkah is the same thing. We have a chance to get out of the house, the world, civilization…and observe. Yet we are inside and outside at the same time. I remember discussing with Alan Kaplan, innovator of the first happening, as to how he developed the concept. It grew organically…I mentioned to him the parallels between happenings and the Pesach Seder and he saw the correspondences. Having himself sat around a Seder table, he subconsciously had the parameters of a happening there all the time.”

This idea of “happenings” in Jewish art has its original root in the building of the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary built by the Jews in the desert upon leaving Egypt. It is the paradigmatic happening. In the Mishkan is embodied the totality of service to God which was played out through the smell of the incense, the eating of sacrifices and the splendor of its visual objects. The Mishkan however, is more than a happening. It establishes not only the form, but also focus of Jewish art. Out Rabbis teach that from the textual juxtaposition of the Biblical portions describing the construction of the Mishkan and injunction to keep the Sabbath; we learn that the types of work that were involved in this construction are precisely those that are forbidden on the Sabbath. On the seventh day, we abstain from our creative activities to realize that we too have been created. The day serves to humble us to that we may reorient and purify our weekly actions. The Mishkan’s association with the Sabbath infuses Jewish are with these concepts. The Mishkan was the quintessential creative endeavor, the work of man solely for the service of God. As the essential prototype of Jewish art, the Mishkan then reminds us of the imperative to direct our creativity away from narcissism, away from the creation of art for the sake of art alone, towards the higher goal of revealing the spiritual in the physical, the ruach in the chomer. This is the true purpose of Jewish art – and life.
[1] Genesis 9:27
[2] Rashi on Genesis 9:27