Jewish Artist of the Week: Estee Ellis

March 27th – April 2nd  2022
כ”ג-כ”ט אדר ב’ תשפ״ב
Parshat Tazria תזריע

Piece Description:
The nine-page Dvar Torah comic for Parashat Tazria offers readers insights into the weekly Torah portion through an illustrated chavruta with Rabbi Jason Herman, as well as personal meditations from the author. Conversations and ideas are represented through image and text across space and time, as the author searches for meaning and explores the relationship between her learning and life experiences.

Discussion Questions:
1. The first panel provides exposition of a car driving through the Eilat desert. What function does this image serve in the comic, and how does this scene play with the messages learnt in Parshat Tazria?

2. In Panel 6, Estee has decidedly depicted the sin of malicious speech through the figurative depiction of feathers being blown in the wind. This is a direct reference to a story often attributed to Rebbe Levi Ytzchak of Berditchiv describing the irreversible nature of gossip. In what other ways do the image of feathers symbolize ill-speech?

3. In the last panel, our protagonist finds comfort in knowing that “the passage of time is an essential part of the recovery process”. Do you find this concept comforting? What was the struggle that she was grappling with?

4. What are the differences between panels with a thick outline, and those with a thin outline? How does the thickness of the line connect to the story of Tazria and the concept of containment? In your own life, can you identify areas in which there are fixed containers and places where those divisions are more fluid? How do you experience both and which structure do you prefer?

Artist Bio:

Estee Ellis is a Philadelphia based artist whose primary medium is comics. In the tradition of graphic novel memoirs, her work incorporates images and text to share personal reflections, with content often centering on Jewish learning experiences. Estee’s Dvar Torah comics participate in an existing mode of Torah discourse while presenting unconventional formats for engagement. Her work also reframes expectations for which kinds of stories are appropriate for the medium of comics.

To see more art by Estee Ellis:

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:
Jason Herman
New York, USA

Rabbi Bio:  Rabbi Jason Herman serves as the Senior Rabbi at the Hudson Yards Synagogue. Rabbi Herman also serves as the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. The IRF leads the Modern Orthodox community in engaging in a more open and inclusive discourse and has been an outspoken voice on many issues confronting the Modern Orthodox community and the Jewish people. Rabbi Herman is the founder and president of the Israel Academic Institute, an organization seeking to promote Israeli academia in the United States. He was an officer of the New York Board of Rabbis where he leads its Jewish-Muslim dialogue group. The NYBR is comprised of more than 750 members across the tri-State area. Rabbi Herman has lectured at AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, JOFA and others. He is also a former fellow at Rabbis Without Borders. Rabbi Herman received his semicha, Rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and is also a former investment banker.

Sermon of Rabbi: 
In the accompanying art piece, Estee Ellis brilliantly depicts two understandings to the things that are impacted by Tzaraat: skin and hair, clothing and houses.  In the first understanding, you will see that these are things that protect against the elements: bad weather, wild animals, disease, those with hostile intent.  It keeps the outside out.  The second understanding is that these are things that are meant to keep the inside in, they protect privacy. Skin and hair demonstrate that we have an outer appearance that we project to the world, but there remains our inner thoughts, feelings and persona which might not be revealed.  Clothing is intended to cover parts of ourselves.  We often call the most intimate parts of our bodies – private parts.  They are intended to be revealed only in the most intimate settings and not be exposed.  So too houses, maintain a sense of the privacy of our homes.  The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra speaks about the concept of Heizek Reiyah, damage that is defined by the ability to see into someone’s home, a seeing of something that is not meant to be seen.  This includes things like lowering a wall between two properties such that one neighbor might now be able to see into the other neighbor’s windows. This dual understanding of the things impacted by Tzaraat might well be reflected in the Torah’s full term for the condition: Negah Tzaraat.  A negah is something that is afflicted, impacted from the outside.  It comes from the word Naga meaning to touch.  It reflects that the person was touched/impacted by something external.   On the other side, the word Tzaraat, reflects something internal bursting out.  It is similar to word Zerah – a seed buried underground from which a plant sprouts forth.  Whereas zerah is positive, tzaraat is a negative.  It reflects that this condition is something internal that has pushed its way to the surface.   How is it that the condition can be both external and internal at the same time?  The answer that it is a focus on the boundary and when the boundary has been violated, either by not respecting it or by erecting a boundary when one shouldn’t exist.  In one sense, there is a need for privacy that is to be respected.  Boundaries and barriers are necessary.  At the same time, we need to not wall ourselves off or close ourselves from God and from community in need.  A balance is needed.   When the balance is not reached, affliction will occur – whether a Nega, an impact that is external, or a tzaraat bursting forth from an internal flaw.  Together this is a condition that is spiritual in nature coming from God reflecting an imbalance in our boundaries that needs correcting.

AMEN Institute Happenings

Jewish Artist of the Week Next Week:
Next week we will be featuring Judith Joseph, who studied Parshat Metzora with Rabbi Baruch Thaler.

Creative Articulation Featuring Estee Ellis and Rabbi Jason Herman
On Wednesday March 30th, we heard Estee Ellis and Rabbi Jason Herman show us how to use sensitive eyes to uncover a world of meaning in what may at first glance be perceived as an esoteric text. Though the conversation began by describing a biblical skin disease, the conversation quickly extended the concept to vulnerability and trauma. Here is the link to the conversation:

Yetzirah Circles
The Yetzirah Circle is a monthly gathering where we open up an online zoom room for Jewish artists to work on their crafts in a shared virtual space. Join us on April 26nd at 7 pm EST to meet kindred spirits and to partake in this Amen activity. Here’s the link:

Heal Over Head Retreat:
We hosted a Jewish experiential weekend of healing, growth, introspection and creativity for young adults. Participants ventured to a paradisiacal estate in the scenic backdrop of the Pocono Mountains to gain access to deep healing, clarity and self expression through workshops led by skilled facilitators. Stay tuned for updates on when our next retreat will be.                 

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