The Color of Chicken Soup
This post discusses my BFA Thesis work, created in the Spring of 2017.
Throughout my life, one thing that has remained a constant is my love for chicken soup. All while living at home I took the liquid gold for granted. Only when I went to college did I realize the necessity of chicken soup to my well being. My grandma, Evelyn, would make chicken soup with tiny star or alphabet shaped pasta any time I was at her house (my dad and I lived with her for about a year, during which time I assume I ate this signature dish every day). My mom would make chicken soup for me too, and both she and my dad were sure to keep the pantry stocked with Campbell’s, Progresso, or Healthy Choice chicken and noodle. Sometimes I would branch out to chicken with stars or rice. As long as chicken broth was involved I was happy.
Chicken soup is often referred to as, “Jewish Penicillin.” Over the past few years I have been acting on my interest in becoming more observant of Judaism. In this process, I have been making, or at least eating, matzoh ball soup every week. However, Passover was my favorite holiday as a child. The primary reason for this was because on Passover my grandma would make matzoh ball soup. I would eat as many bowls as I could get away with — which became less and less as I got more cousins and a sibling — sometimes making it to five or six bowls, which became simple broth as the matzoh balls ran out.
So when I came to college I would have cravings for matzoh ball soup or chicken soup with stars. I was excited to get my first cold, as it was an excuse to go out and by a box of pastina and a few cartons of pre-made chicken stock. Still, nothing soothes me like a hot bowl of salty, chickeny liquid warmth.
During my last year of school I moved out of the dorms and began to feel like I could really explore my relationship to religious Judaism. For me, part of this was making matzoh ball soup every Friday night for Shabbat. While pouring myself a bowl of broth one day, I noticed how the fat glistened and shimmered, like the pearlescent pigments I had been using for painting. The golden broth was neither too yellow, nor too brown. The color was rich and the glittery sheen made the substance almost celestial. I knew then, that I had replicate this color in my art.
Around the same time as this chicken soup revelation, I thought about the changes in my life, the causes I was concerned about, and the art that I was making and how to bring that all together. How could I really synthesize everything going on in my mind in terms of feminism, sexuality, and Jewishness? I realised then, that I had not made any art about being Jewish, which surprised me. This was the impetus for my BFA thesis work.
The Color of Chicken Soup (2017) is a series of paintings exploring my journey through Judaism and feminism, using Jewish religious heroines as an armature for my own story. The series is meant to be read from right to left, like Hebrew text. It moves chronologically at first, from where I feel the beginning of this story is, with Lilith and Adam and Shabbat. I then move through the Jewish calendar with Purim and Esther, then Chanukah and Judith. Each painting rests on a ground of the color of chicken soup, just as my relationship with Judaism has been underscored by my love for chicken soup.
Painting by Painting
In the first painting, Lilith 1, I depict the beginning. Lilith and Adam standing under a pomegranate tree. Lilith is a Jewish character, traditionally considered a demon, who preceded Eve as Adam’s female partner. Lilith would not act subordinate to Adam and they both insisted their position was “on top,” hence the Lilith character laying on the left. The character of Lilith dates back to Babylonian times, primarily discussed in the Aphabet of Ben Sira and the Zohar. She is associated with the night and its various creatures, as well as with autonomy, sexuality, death and rebellion. She was appropriated by the feminist movement of the 1980’s, especially by Jewish feminism, as being a symbol for the sexually liberated, autonomous female. By depicting the relationship between Lilith and Adam, I wanted to begin by stating my own position as a Jewish woman and as a feminist. I wanted to explore this genesis of womanhood, especially in relationship to man. I feel that my identity as a woman is the one that guides my other identities and is the primary position from which I experience the world. In this way, I feel that Lilith and her relationship with Adam depict this kind of experience.
In Lilith 2, I associate Lilith with Shabbat. The transition from light to dark, from two to one, marking both the beginning and the end. In this piece, I focus in on Lilith’s exit from Eden and the physical world. Lilith lore describes a scene in which she speaks the forbidden name of G-d and whirs into the abyss where she finds her position as a demon. I associated the visuals of her becoming almost tornado like with the smoke and flame of Shabbos candles and the intertwined Havdalah candle. Two Shabbos candles for Adam and Lilith, one spiraling Havdalah candle for the twisting, escaping Lilith. Shabbat was my first strong connection and pursuit in Judaism as an adult. Shabbat marked my entry, it is a significant marker of time and mindfulness in Judaism, and it remains a constant throughout Judaism. Shabbat is, in my mind, a keystone of Judaism, just as womanhood is a keystone of my identity. Whatever is going on, through any endeavors, I always return to my feminine identity and in Judaism, I always return to Shabbat.
The second heroine I focus on is Esther, who is obviously linked to Purim, and who I feel is the ideal character through which to explore the question of Jewish identity and assimilation. The Purim story is really one of assimilation, as a tool for survival, as well as a symptom of oppression. It marks the insidious nature of ethnic/racial/identity based hate — that this kind of hate is based on stereotypes, is easily fooled, but puts a lot at stake to dismantle. As a child, Esther was my favorite heroine. She struck me as being the most regal, the most brave, the most seductive. She played a game and tricked the one in power. There is also a strong element of performativity in the Purim story, and in the celebration of Purim itself. At its core, I believe that performativity is what connects me to Esther and her story. I have been a performer my whole life — a dancer, a figure skater — I’ve always seen my life through the roles that I play, I see identities through how they are enacted, which of course can be positive and negative. Esther played the role of a Persian, of a seductress, of a niece, of a leader, and ultimately of a Jew. All of these roles were guided by her womanhood. This story has incredible duality, in that it shows both the power of women, as well as the precarious position of women at the time.
Esther 1 depicts an Esther figure in the middle, veiled as she may have been in her time. On either side of her are two Jewish women. The one on the right adheres to Jewish modesty — tznius/tzniut — wearing a long skirt, her collarbone, elbows, knees, and hair covered. The one on the left is modern, she wears jeans and slightly more revealing cropped top, her hair flows freely. In the background, the sun rises and sets, the circular, lunar Jewish calendar traces the evolution of the Jewish people through time. As I mentioned previously with the performance of identity, I have been very interested in the way people present themselves, which identity they most influences their dress. While Esther had assimilated into Persian culture, I can’t help but think of her being more so disguised as a Persian. Putting on the outfit, and saying her lines like a Persian, only to reveal that she is a Jew. The figures on either side of Esther represent the negotiation between the extremes: full assimilation versus tradition.
Esther 2 depicts a Purim feast, with Esther herself superimposed on table. In composing this work, I was pondering what it means to consume and to be consumed. Does a feast mean something different for a woman, who, in contemporary American culture, is often the one being consumed? What does it mean to feast in honor of a woman, who, in order to save her people and herself, had to participate in a beauty contest for the king, which in and of itself is its own kind of “feast.” The tables in the painting display a variety of foods, including Purim staples such as wine and hamantaschen. Hamantaschen are small, triangular cookies, which people say represents the ears or the hat of the Purim story villain, Haman. Many feminist argue for the cookie to be a vulval symbol. I find this interpretation especially interesting in terms of my aforementioned ideas of consumption. It is also specifically interesting to think about a hamantaschen filled with poppy seeds, as it carries the same symbolism as the pomegranate. Filled with seeds, it is reproductive and plentiful.
The last heroine I explore in this series is Judith, who is associated with Chanukah. In Judith 1, I depict her, along with the heroine Yael, whose stories are almost the same. Both women gruesomely killed the man attacking the Jewish people. Chanukah being another holiday that I associate with the question of assimilation, I see Judith as a symbol for finding strength to conquer difficulty and take the lead. Judith takes her fate into her own hands, self determination. Judith 1 includes a menorah, and an olive wreath, because after killing Holofernes, Judith and the other women wore olive wreaths and danced.
I finished Judith 2 with the prayer she recites before slaying Holofernes, “Give me the strength to carry out what I know I must do.” This prayer resonates with me, as it applies to the everyday, as well as to difficult situations and exciting situations. It is an ever-relevant request. For me, it is also a prayer for the future of my work. Life can be hard, and in one way or another, I think we are all saying this prayer constantly, even if subconsciously. I depict the Judith character here nude and somewhat abstracted, in an unidentifiable landscape, in order to show the omnipresence of this prayer. Since this work ends the series, it also looks towards my future, which I cannot predict, but can only try to shape.