A portrait of the Rabbi as an artist

Originally published on the Times Union Blog

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There are few things sadder, perhaps, than discarded deer hide. The tossed out scraps of skin speak of wasted lives, animals shot down by hunters, forgotten.

The indignity is doubled when Torah makers – who use animal hide to create parchment for the sacred scrolls – reject the skins because of flaws and holes due to faulty processing.

But this past Sunday, at Spring Street Gallery in Saratoga, Rabbi Linda Motzkin of Temple Sinai put the holy back in holey. On display from now until August 8, her “Sacred Scraps” collection of art turns these damaged deer hides into canvases for her unique and visually stunning blend of illustration, Hebrew calligraphy, and Jewish symbolism.

Ragged, pocked with holes, and stretched into bizarre shapes, the hides hardly seem the ideal canvas. But by redeeming these misfits as art, Rabbi Linda – a calligrapher as well as a trained Torah scribe — delivers a weighty message of hope and redemption for the tossed-out and bedraggled of the world.

“It’s not surprising her creativity would overflow the confines of religion,” says Gregory Spinner, an assistant visiting professor of religion at Skidmore College, who attended the gallery opening. “It’s the same way the water flows through the parched canals in the Negev,” bringing life to the desert.

Rabbi Linda’s epiphany for her collection grew out of a mistake.

Co-rabbi of Temple Sinai with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, Linda is one of the tiny handful of women in the world trained as a Torah scribe. And she’s the only female scribe to hand-make her own parchment, using deerskins donated by local Adirondack hunters for the Torah scroll she is currently writing.

One time, Rabbi Linda was soaking a deer skin in water mixed with lime, which makes the hair easier to remove.  But when she checked up on it later she discovered she’d soaked it far too long. The result was hardly suitable for Torah parchment. The lime had eaten holes in the hide and it looked like Swiss cheese. But something about it struck her. “You know, but it looks kinda cool,” she said, explaining her thinking to the crowded room of guests on Sunday at her art opening. Instead of discarding it, “maybe I’ll hang it up and do something else with it.”

One thing led to another, and she saw it as art – and a way to nurture her artistic side, building on her early training as a calligrapher. She saw the pocked and misshapen hide as in need of healing. She illustrated the hide with excerpts from psalms recited to help comfort the sick and encourage healing.

The resulting collection bridges Rabbi Linda’s dual passions in life – calligraphy and Torah making. While calligraphy is an expression of the artist’s vision and ego, a scribe gives up his or her ego and becomes a “channel for transmission of a sacred text you didn’t create,” she observes.

Now she’s visually combined these two pursuits. Several pieces, for instance, contain the crossed out Hebrew name “Amalek,” a tribe that attacked the Israelites just after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew scribes traditionally write this word on a scrap of parchment before starting work each day, to test the quill, ink flow, and the hand. The word is then crossed out, a metaphor for blotting out the memory of evil and remaining vigilant against it.

Rabbi Linda deepens this symbolism in her artwork. In one piece of parchment, the crossed-out “Amalek”s form circles of barbed wire, a visual and literal metaphor for oppression.

Each artwork is as individual as the person viewing it. Shawn Banner, an artist and educator who attended the opening, said his first response is “to the art of it, not the religiosity of it. That’s what draws me in first.” But after a moment, the text adds another layer of meaning. “That’s when the power of intent comes alive for me.”

Many of the art pieces are for sale; proceeds go toward Bread and Torah, a project of Rabbis Linda and Jonathan that teaches participants the related arts of baking Challah, the ritual Jewish bread, and of making and scribing a Torah.

David Kalish is author of The Opposite of Everything, named top literary novel in the Somerset Fiction Awards and finalist in the comedy category of the Next Generation Indie Book AwardsHe’s signing books on Saturday, June 21, 1 p.m. at The Open Door book store in Schenectady. Click here for more information.