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Spiritual recovery
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Spiritual recovery

Art probes healing power of Jewish ritual

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Susan Kaplow with part of the installation of her work at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. 
Susan Kaplow with part of the installation of her work at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. 

shimmering silver woman lies back on purple waves, connected through color, to the silver constellation above her. The image, sewn on fabric, pulls the casual viewer in, demanding to be examined and enjoyed. 

Not far away in the exhibit space at Congregation Shomrei Emunah hangs another portrait of a woman. She is partially immersed in an ocean of blues, as shimmering beads of water rain down onto her hair from above. 

The two images, both by artist Susan Kaplow, are part of “Art and Healing in the Jewish Tradition,” an exhibit at the Conservative synagogue in Montclair.

Kaplow’s 2013 book Hard Blessings: Jewish Ways through Illness forms the heart of the exhibition. The collection of stories shows the ways Jewish rituals and ceremonies have brought comfort and healing — at least the spiritual kind — to individuals struck by illness, and to their friends and families. Kaplow’s own battle with cancer provided the inspiration for the project, which includes 19 of her original art works. 

When she had cancer, “I was flooded with inspiration and help from Jewish sources,” Kaplow told NJJN in a phone interview. “It was 12 years ago, but I am still amazed and surprised at how many things helped me.” 

One of those sources was Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s famous song that contains the lines: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, vha’ikar lo l’fached klal — All the world is a very narrow bridge, and what’s important is not to be afraid.” 

In her book, Kaplow recalls crossing a long bridge over the Hudson River just days after her cancer diagnosis. “I was so gripped by fear that I had trouble driving,” she writes. “[M]y legs began to shake and my palms became so sweaty they nearly slid off the steering wheel. All of a sudden, a familiar melody began to play in my mind, and I started to hum along.” It was Rabbi Nachman’s song. 

“This became my anthem during treatment,” she said, “my theme song for allaying fear.” 

Kaplow, a psychotherapist as well as an artist, also included entries about how she found comfort in her tallit, in text, and in prayer. In her introduction, she describes how people facing illness often feel “spiritually disconnected” or have difficulty accessing Jewish tradition and sources, and as a result turn elsewhere for comfort. So she began soliciting stories from people who relied on Jewish practice to help them through illness. She created artwork to accompany many of the stories. 

Creating sacred space

After 30 years as a therapist, Kaplow gave up her practice when she got sick and now works full-time as a visual artist. She’s been part of a visual art beit midrash group at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York City for about seven years.

Also participating in the Skirball group was Rachel Kanter, a Shomrei Emunah member whose works are also included in the show. Kaplow had included one of Kanter’s pieces — and the explanation of the inspiration behind it — in her book. Kanter curates the synagogue’s art space and included her own work in the exhibit at the insistence of Kaplow. 

Kanter, a fiber artist, is best-known for creating women’s tallitot in the form of aprons. In the exhibit, several of her “spiritual mikvaot,” crafted from fabric, are on display. 

Kanter said she developed her first “spiritual mikva” five years ago when a cousin became sick with lymphoma. “Her sister wanted to plan a healing ceremony for her,” said Kanter in a phone interview. “I started doing research, and there were lots of healing ceremonies that involved using the mikva. But she couldn’t go to the mikva” because the ports embedded in her body could not get wet. “So I decided, I’m just going to make one myself.” 

The objects are in the form of a quilt or blanket, which wrap around the wearer. “When you immerse in the mikva, you’re solo, in a sacred space, that is womblike,” she said. “I wanted to really create that sacred space for her.”

“Art and Healing in the Jewish Tradition” is on display at Shomrei Emunah through June. 

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