Exhibit Re-Imagines Jewish Ritual

An exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York has everything from green energy synagogues to a prayer shawl that doubles as an apron. Many of the works are influenced by environmentalism and feminism. There are menorahs just in time for Chanukah that invite people to look at lighting the candles in a very different way.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In a season filled with ritual, we're going to spend the next few minutes visiting an exhibit that challenges the notion that ritual has to be dry and repetitive. It's at the Jewish Museum in New York City. It's called �Reinventing Ritual,� and it shows how creative and alive ritual can be, even when you take something as basic as the design of a menorah that Jews will light on this the first night of Chanukah.

Here's NPR's Margot Adler.

MARGOT ADLER: Dealing with ritual is hard for many people. Daniel Belasco, assistant curator at the Jewish Museum, says here is a different way to look at it. Think of going to a museum as a ritual.

Mr. DANIEL BELASCO (Assistant Curator, Jewish Museum): You come through front door, you check your coat, you buy your ticket and you're also expecting a certain kind of transformation to occur. Maybe might be a visual or aesthetic one through beautiful works of art; or maybe if you're going to a science museum, you're going to learn something about the world that you didn't know before. And it's very much an experience.

ADLER: Not so different from a religious ritual. Ritual, in fact, is about the things one does. It's not really about thinking; it's about doing. And it's about awakening the senses. So, there are things in this exhibition that you smell, things that have to do with food, with dress, with the body, with space and with nature.

But the exhibition has clearly been informed by cultural changes that have affected Jewish ritual and life. In particular, changes in the role of women. There are now women rabbis and cantors, women donning prayer shawls. There's a film here of a woman who disguises herself and dances with Hassidic men. There's a prayer shawl or tallis shaped like an apron.

And there's a piece called �All Rise� by the artist Helene Aylon, which imagines the Orthodox Jewish religious court that women must go before to get divorced as if it was run by women. Pink flags stand on either side of three straight back chairs and the words, G-d We Trust, has the hyphen in fluorescent pink.

Belasco believes the piece is utopian, but he says:

Mr. BELASCO: Probably one day there will be women in orthodox courts, and women are becoming ordained as rabbis in orthodoxy in small groups and felt widely accepted. But that's the direction that we're moving in and this piece, I think, will become seen a prophetic in 20 years or so.

ADLER: There is also a video of an artist, Hadassa Goldvicht, very sensually licking honey off Hebrew letters.

Mr. BELASCO: What she's doing is trying to recover a ritual that observant Jewish boys will do. When they turn three, they start school and they will come and lick honey off of Hebrew letters with this notion that learning is sweet. It's a very beautiful idea, and she grew up in an observant community and did not participate in that ritual as a girl. And so here as an adult, as an artist, she creates her own version of this ritual.

ADLER: Adi Beran(ph) is a visiting Israeli artist who works in silver. He looks at the video of the woman licking honey and says:

Mr. ADI BERAN (Artist): It looks a bit sexy.

ADLER: But for Belasco and others there's a sadness to the piece. She can only participate as art, not as part of a community.

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah and there are many unusual menorahs in the exhibition. There's one by Joe Grand completely made of pipes and screws that you can buy at Home Depot. Another is three-dimensional and candles can be lit in any direction instead of the usual way of straight across. Another menorah by Matthew McCaslin looks like something you might find in your boiler room.

Mr. BELASCO: The guts of building material. It's like the mundane stuff that you never really see, and he makes it beautiful by rendering it as these big tangles of wires that leave from the eight different switches up to the exposed light bulbs.

ADLER: But what you come away with from this exhibition is the idea that you don't have to believe in God for a ritual to be meaningful. Daniel Belasco.

Mr. BELASCO: It's something that anyone can do and it's a way to bring meaning into our lives and to have a heightened awareness and a heightened consciousness.

ADLER: It's really about connecting, he says, whether with God, with people or with community.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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