Detail from "You Don’t Get to Know" by Terri Friedman, 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Friedman)
Detail from "You Don’t Get to Know" by Terri Friedman, 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Friedman)

At CJM, a dense (and very pink) tapestry of joy and pain

This essay is the third and final installment of a collaboration between J. and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to interpret artworks through a Jewish lens. The series features reflections on works in the San Francisco museum’s 2022 Dorothy Saxe Invitational, “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves,” for which 30 Bay Area artists created new work inspired by the idea of repair.

In Terri Friedman’s textile artwork “You Don’t Get to Know,” joy oozes through the seams. The gestures of pink are so complex, so exquisite, that we almost feel how potent life can be, laden with misery, joy and everything in between.

The tapestry’s attention to the denseness of human experience and emotion is echoed in Jewish practice — for example, in the full arc of a Shabbat evening service: from ecstasy to misery, from exaltation of a queen to immersion in grief. To work to repair the world, to create meaningful experiences and heal that which is broken, to engage truly with tikkun — the theme of the exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum where Friedman’s work is currently on display — we must not shy away from the good, the bad and the ugly of being alive.

According to Psalm 30, “One may lie down weeping at nightfall, but at dawn there are shouts of joy.” Similarly, in Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, we proclaim, “Those who sow in tears, will reap with songs of joy.” It is in times of great happiness, deep fullness and immense gratitude that as Jewish people we are called to remember the relationship between grief and mourning and suffering, and the sweetness of joy and laughter that will soon accompany them. It’s as if we remember collectively, over and over, that to go up, we must also go down, and when down, we will eventually rise back up.

"You Don't Get to Know" by Terri Friedman (center) on display at CJM's "Tikkun" exhibit. (Photo/Impart Photography-Courtesy CJM)
“You Don’t Get to Know” by Terri Friedman (center) on display at CJM’s “Tikkun” exhibit. (Photo/Impart Photography-Courtesy CJM)

“[They] go along weeping,” Birkat HaMazon continues, “carrying the bag of seed; [they] will surely return with songs of joy, carrying [their] sheaves.” We are a people of remembrance. And this act of remembrance is what sews our seams together; it is what heals a people from repeated rupture and loss. Tikkun is synonymous with grieving, and subsequently coming alive because of that raw acknowledgement of the depths of despair.

This knowledge of emptiness, of times of great sorrow, somehow accompanies the capacity for fervent happiness. Celebration is not lost in this psychological model. Knowing history, knowing times of barren fields, knowing nights of weeping — this is not detrimental to personal satisfaction. Facing every element of the experience of being alive in a single moment is a Jewish value. In the simplicity of gratitude after a meal, we recall times we sobbed wishing for that which we have right now. We are not asked to rip misery from the seams of our lives, but to embrace ecstasy and misery as necessary twins.

So, too, in the tapestry’s singular hot-pink expanse, we see the explosiveness of human experience, a joy so wild it appears almost saccharine. But this is just a reminder that in times of abundance, we recall deprivation. And in times of deprivation, too, we must remember that abundance will again return. “For he is angry but a moment,” Psalm 30 proclaims, “and when he is pleased, there is life.”

Merissa Nathan Gerson

Merissa Nathan Gerson lives, writes and works in New Orleans, where she is Professor of Communication at Tulane University. She is the author of “Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman's Guide to Grieving,” was a consultant on the Amazon series “Transparent” and founded to address the need for consent education in Jewish spaces.