Jewish Artist of the Week: Siona Benjamin

June 12-18 2022
י”ג-י”ט סיון תשפ״ב
Parshat Be’Halotcha בהעלותך
Siona Benjamin                                                                           Miriam and Tziporah

Piece Description:
Miriam the dancer, with her tambourine, light blue and fragrant
Gaze fixed, memory burned

Tziporah dark blue and tanned in the sun
My goddess, my girl, my eternity

Portraits framed in golden circles, watching each other and us
Lest we perform again that we should not, in this lifetime and the next

The dark one wears her turban in her glory, end tails reveal her future flag
In another land she will re-live the name Esha Kushit….the dark woman

Things are changing we all say as we defend ourselves
But the stories of our grandmothers, let them be not forgotten

Because we are who they were, and our daughters will carry the rest.

Discussion Questions:
1. In “Miriam and Tziporah”, we are given the profiles of the two eponymous figures. Though Miriam is looking directly at Tziporah, Tziporah returns her gaze with confident introspection.  What moment in Numbers chapter 12 does this exchange capture? What does this say about Tziporah’s character? How does seeing a portrait from a profile affect your role as a spectator?
2. Can you identify differences in Tziporah and Miriam’s garb? What is the significance of these distinctions? Along the sash-tail of Tziporah’s turban we can make out the stars of the American flag. What does this detail symbolize? What else do you make out of the way the end-tail sits on Tziporah’s shoulder?

3. The portraits of both our heroines are depicted inside a circle with ripples of larger circles reverberating outward. Why do you think Siona decided to portray both of them in their own bubble? What connotations do circles have for you? Does the story link in any way to these connotations?

4.  This painting reflects a sensitive story that the rabbis describe as one of the 6 remembrances. In the unpacking of such a fraught narrative often one character is depicted with an insinuated higher moral ground, while the other antagonized. Siona, instead gives both individuals dignity while holding the underlying pain points so present. What is advanced and what is lost by this creative decision. Can you describe an experience when you felt like a Tziporah or a Miriam?

Artist Bio:

Siona Benjamin’s unique perspective as an Indian-American-Jewish artist has inspired her to create art that represents her transcultural and multicultural narrative. Often featuring blue characters, Siona’s work illuminates vibrant colors, cultural & religious symbols in various mediums to create works that have synergy and meaning.

Her art has been shown in galleries, museums & sacred spaces around the world. She was awarded two prestigious Fulbright Fellowships to explore the theme of multicultural art in Israel and India. She creates art installations, art commissions, and artworks for private and public spaces. As an artist & speaker, she shares her personal journey through live speaking engagements.

To see more art by Siona:

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:
Alicia Magal
Sedona, Arizona

Rabbi Bio:  Rabbi Magal spent seven years in Israel working at the Israel Broadcasting Authority national television station and as a licensed tour guide for adult and youth groups. She met her husband Itzhak in Israel on Kibbutz Maagan Michael during her work study Ulpan program. They spent several years living in Jerusalem and when their two children were small, they moved to Los Angeles where Alicia continued her work in the Jewish community. Rabbi Magal developed interactive programs and museum tours as Museum Educator at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles; worked as Program Director for Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills; and served as Rabbinic Intern for Kehillat Israel, a large Reconstructionist synagogue in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. She received rabbinical ordination in 2003 from the Aleph Jewish Renewal Rabbinical Program and from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. Rabbi Magal served as spiritual leader for Makom Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Chicago before moving to Sedona in 2006 where she currently serves as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley.

Sermon of Rabbi: 
When we confront each Torah portion we can skim the surface for the “Pshat”- simple story, or we can dive into deeper layers.  In the months that Siona Benjamin and I explored the text of Behaalotecha together we had to put on each other’s glasses, as it were, to see through the lens of the other person. 

 I began by outlining the many elements in this parsha: raising oneself up to light the menorah, the fashioning of silver trumpets, the section separated by the upside down nun letters, the very moving element of healing in the prayer of Moses for his sister Miriam: El na refa na la, and the struggle between one’s personal vs. public roles that caused Miriam with Aaron to speak of their concern to their brother Moses.

I wasn’t sure which of these elements would be the focus of our combined study, and was surprised when Siona zeroed in on one phrase: Miriam’s description of Tzippora, Moses’ wife, as the Cushite wife, the “dark-skinned woman,” which Siona thought was not merely a description of the origin of Tzippora but casting aspersion on her skin color. 

 From there we veered to the historical denigration and discrimination of white Ashkenazi Jews against Jews of color who actually represent the “original” Jews of the Middle East who had been dispersed to Babylon and then grew as vibrant communities in India, Persia (Iran), modern day Iraq which had been the Empire of Babylon at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, and the Sephardic Jews who settled in Spain and then were expelled in 1492 and found their way to many lands like Greece, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, as well as Holland and the New World.  Siona suggested the book “Mother India Father Israel” by Ilana Shazor, containing many biographical stories of painful experiences by Indian Jews who were made to feel like second class citizens in Israel in the early years of immigration.  My husband Itzhak was born in Iraq, and calls himself “original Babylonian Jew” quite proudly, and tells of heart-rending stories of his first two years as a little boy in a tent camp in Israel before he was adopted by a kibbutz where he grew up. 

Torah is both a window and a mirror: It allows us to look on other worlds, archetypes, and relationships. It also reflects back elements of our own lives in new ways, and forces us to confront not only holy and aspirational teachings but also the difficult and dark areas to which we may have been blind in self-protection or arrogance. 

 In Siona’s powerful animation, we see Miriam’s face go white – showing the “tzaraat,” white scales that covered her skin – as a punishment for her lashon ha-ra, denigrating gossip, according to some commentators, but also perhaps in shame, getting pale from the realization that she has hurt another woman unfairly.  I had always ascribed a gentler motivation to Miriam, that she was scolding her brother for avoiding his responsibilities as a husband and father in favor of his weighty public role as leader of the Israelites, but during this time of study with Siona, I had to face this other possibility of possible haughtiness and discrimination on the part of Miriam, or at least, to realize what a button had been pushed by the phrase “Cushite wife,” which led us to a larger discussion of racism and lack of compassion for the “other” in our world.  Now in Israel there is burst of celebrating diversity in food, music, intermarriage, and appreciation of the very wide range of Jews from around the world, but that does not mitigate the pain that Siona and so many Jews from eastern lands have suffered. 

Siona is a brave artist who doesn’t cover up or whitewash difficult questions.  But she also doesn’t give in to an angry tone.  She makes her point with beauty and grace (and a punch!).  We will show her animation twice, once at the very beginning of our articulation. Then she will analyze the intricate parts to raise the consciousness of the viewer, and show it again, at which time the many interweavings of light blue Miriam and dark blue Tzippora, the elements of water ascribed to Miriam’s skill at finding sweet water wells and also the healing aspect of water, the inevitable darkening and sinking that happens with shame and anger giving way to lightening, and renewing and celebrating… these any many more emotions and transformations are represented in the animation that Siona has been producing and refining over many months. 

My original understanding of this portion has been expanded and enhanced by our honest discussions over these past months.  As a former Museum Educator with a background in art history I was delighted to be able to see more of Siona’s work and appreciate the skillful way she combines aspects of her identity in her extraordinary  work. See for a look at her “Transcultural Art in a Multicultural World.”

Behaalotecha speaks about raising ourselves (the priest persona in us) upwards toward the elevated light of the menorah.  That is what we did— we lifted each other up, and we were lifted up by the words, the art, the honest meeting, and together kindled light for the viewers and readers. 

Thank you, Dvir Cahana of the unique Amen Institute, for this opportunity to rise beyond our own vision and gain perspective through chevruta partnership.

AMEN Institute Happenings
Next Jewish Artist of the Week:
Next week, we will be featuring Melanie Siegel, who studied Parshat Shlach with
Rabbanit Aliza Sperling. Follow our facebook page to stay updated on the articulation time.

Creative Articulation Featuring Siona Benjamin and Rabbi Alicia Magal
On Monday June 13th at 7 pm ET, Siona Benjamin and Rabbi Alicia Magal will share a poignant examination of the visibly distinct in our communities and bring to forefront those that are often quieted on the periphery of Jewish society. Over this year they have cried, laughed and shared their experiences in the Jewish community and in this articulation we will go directly to the heart of their conversations. Sign up to join us for this wonderful articulation: 

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 June 27th 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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