With haggadah art, rabbi helps forge deeper connections with Passover

Me’irah Iliinsky is a rabbi and a teacher, but for a recent class at the JCC of San Francisco, she brought along more than just liturgical references. She also brought glue, tissue paper, gold foil and paints.

Iliinsky was leading a haggadah workshop, teaching students how to create a collage. The March 25 class was called “lluminating the Haggadah,” and Iliinsky helped the students decorate verses from the haggadah in the style of medieval manuscripts.

But first, she asked them to consider what their favorite verses from the haggadah might be.

One person chose “I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day”; another, “Miriam the prophetess took a tambourine in her hand … and danced.” The most meaningful verse for one student was simply, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky’s “Fear Not!” depicts the Red Sea.

Iliinsky then asked them to think about how to illustrate the verses. She marked the borders on each paper, then lightly traced the shadow of the verses. And so they entered the richness of Jewish liturgy — not through scholarship, but art.

To do so forges a bolder link with Passover, she said.

“Any time you can invest part of yourself rather than just attend, where you do hands-on preparation, it enhances the holiday,” she said in an interview. Such an experience can also alter one’s understanding of the holiday.

“Every illustration is a commentary,” she went on, “and it has to depict what is not necessarily written in the text. ‘Does Miriam have tall plants around her? What is she wearing?’ Images connect at a deeper level in our brain.”



Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky

Iliinsky remembers the awe she felt when she first saw images from the medieval manuscripts, the elegant lettering and the gold leaf, and was transfixed — foretelling a life as an artist, and much later, a rabbi.

The medeival manuscripts might be the standard bearer, but she does not believe one haggadah is necessarily superior to another. One of her favorites is part of “The Rothschild Miscellany,” an exquisitely illuminated work commissioned in 1479, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But she also favors the work that came out of the early Bezalel school of art in Jerusalem some 430 years later.

Iliinsky grew up in Portland, Ore., in a bohemian but not Jewishly observant family. Her mother ran a ballet company, and her father was a skilled tradesman. As an adult, she became a clinical social worker, and later discovered Judaism, beginning with a powerful High Holy Days experience.

“I was like a dry sponge,” she said. “I took classes. I went to every service. I couldn’t find a Hebrew class, so I got a book and started teaching myself.”

Tapped to chant the prayers during an adult congregant’s bar mitzvah, she made the decision to study for her own — “the happiest day of my life,” she said.

“I was in my 40s when I decided to go to rabbinical school, but when I look back, I see it was coming all my life.”

Barbara Snyder (left) and Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky at the workshop

It would be seven years before circumstances would allow her to enroll in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia, and another eight to finish. She spent three years as a congregational rabbi in Williamsburg, Va., then the pull of family drew her back to the West Coast.

A member of San Francisco’s Reconstructionist Or Shalom Jewish Community, she performs life passage ceremonies and provides spiritual counseling. She held a chaplaincy at California Pacific Medical Center. She leads a conversation about each week’s Torah portion at the JCCSF, as well as classes connected with Jewish holidays.

Her work (which can be seen at www.versesilluminated.com) is featured in “The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary,” which won the top prize as book of the year in the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards.

She continues to devote herself to hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of mitzvahs.

“Most artwork began in a ritual setting, and was used in worship — a way to raise the mundane to become the holy,” she said. “When I find a verse that makes my heart sing, I want to paint it.”

Iliinsky has another workshop coming up, this one titled “Come My Beloved: ‘L’cha Dodi’ Illuminated.” It will delve into the historical context, source texts and meanings of the prayer/poem that welcomes Shabbat, and participants will learn collage using various techniques and materials.

It’s set to run three consecutive Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m. starting April 15 at Congregation B’nai Emunah, 3595 Taraval St., S.F. The cost is $36 plus $5 for materials. For more information, visit www.bnaiemunahsf.org or call (415) 664-7373.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.