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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

Fasts: A Photography Project

Why would anyone want to create a visual project about a volume of the Talmud? That is a question that I am asking myself a lot these days. For a while now I have wanted to set Jewish religious texts to image. Even when I participated in the Atelier (a portfolio building class for photographers) a few years ago I remember talking to people about wanting to set the story of Jeftah's Daughter to images because the story was so disturbing to me.... That hasn't happened yet!

My project for the current Atelier at the Griffin Museum of Photography has been to focus in page by page at Masechet Ta'anit, the volume of the Talmud that looks at fasting during times of peril such as drought or plague. The Daf Yomi cycle happened to begin the daily study of Masechet Ta'anit just as we had to hone in on project ideas for our portfolios so it became a natural project to take on. It is 31 pages long, involves interesting texts and I was studying it for a second time while the Atelier took place when I had to begin to present images on a weekly basis. Each day I would learn a page and then get a photo that matches. Easy, right?

Before making the decision to focus on Ta'anit, I had looked at how various artists relate to sacred Jewish texts through their art. I explored the work of Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov and others to see how women interacted with text, especially when they felt conflicted with the teachings around women. Finally, though, I landed on Masechet Ta'anit.

It was early autumn when the class began and it concluded in the midst of winter, so rather than going out and finding new images to represent each page, I went back in time and looked for images that would be suitable for the ideas represented in the text. Thanks to the patience of classmate and patient teacher, Alan Kidawaski, I mastered the skill of adding text via Photoshop to images and I began my travel through Ta'anit. I searched through my own images of the past twelve years hoping to find images that would illustrate different phrases. I began to feel that these images of flowers, of moss, gardens, water and even of wedding dresses were being elevated in status because they were being used to illustrate rabbinic ideas. I still feel that way now; that images of the small and tiny moments can be used to illustrate ideas that are more global, such as the need for rain, the power of prayer and especially, the power of community.

Months later I had assembled 33 Photoshopped images, each representing one idea of one page and one Hebrew term that was integrated into the image. As time went on though and the images added up I realized that a page might have multiple ideas, so this project could have assumed so many forms and each image would bring the viewer to a different interpretation of what the rabbis meant in their discussion. Reflecting backwards, perhaps that is the greatest limitation of this project; that it is limited in its scope by the images presented. And the hardest question of them all, why should anyone not studying rabbinic texts care about what Ta'anit is saying? What would the viewer take away from this project?

Confusion? Inspiration to learn more? A offhand and interesting introduction to Daf Yomi?

All of these are questions that I am asking as this project goes up at the Griffin.

I guess what I hope will happen is that people will be intrigued by the idea that images can help the page sing. It can bring people to a quote or a term in a way that the plain text cannot. And, perhaps, that all of us who are interested in making images as a way of seeing the world can see that images can be elevated to a different level through their use in mining biblical and talmudic texts.

For the next month at the Griffin Museum in Winchester, eleven images are represented along with the most excellent images of my classmates. Please note, if you choose to visit the Griffin, that my eleven images are all in black and white, in order to unify them in some way on the wall. On my website, there is a combination of images including color and some black and white. For my next step, I hope to create a book where I can add short notes of explanation of what other discussions happen on each page so that the many gaps are filled in, at least a little. We'll see.....

A few images

Here are some links for you: A link to the photographs in Ta'anit A link to the Atelier (Atelier 35) and the other photographers presenting. (Their work is diverse and so interesting...a study of tree bark by Marc Goldring, a study of families in action by Francine Sherman, a study of thistle flowers by

Alan Kidawsky, a story of the immigrant church in Lynn, MA by Peter Balentine, a study of food production in MA by Albert Lew and a study of lost history of Peterborough, NH by Bob Holt) A link to the 31 pages of Masechet Ta'anit A link to an introduction to Ta'anit by the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Z"L.

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