For an artist, a blank wall represents myriad possibilities.
And for a Jewish artist, preparing for her bat mitzvah at age 62, such a wall cries out for a rich tapestry that marries history and culture.
During today’s Friday Shabbat service at Temple Beth Israel in Redding, 17 original collages – in a stunning splash of blues, reds, greens and browns – will be unveiled on the formerly white wall at the back of the main room. (The public is always welcome to attend the monthly 7 p.m. Friday services at the Placer Road temple.)
The exhibit is a thoughtful labor of love for Barbara Enochian, Redding artist and longtime member of Temple Beth Israel. As a mitzvah project (a “mitzvah” is a good deed), she invited the congregation to participate in one or two weekends of collage-making at her home studio.
Sixteen people, representing an age span of at least 50 years, accepted her offer and embarked on an exploration of storytelling through art. At least half of them had never done real artwork before, Enochian said.
“I told them to bring anything that represented Judaism to them – old photos, documents, passports, things their family left them, old prayer books, newspapers,” she said.
She provided materials such as canvas and paint and offered gentle instruction.
“I told them, ‘See what comes up for you,’” she said. “I felt that they had a lot of joy in the process, even with some struggles along the way.”
Joy and struggles – an apt description of the human experience; and the stories represented by the collages are heavy with both.
“Almost every single person had grandparents who escaped because of persecution,” said Enochian, whose own grandparents were Russian Jewish emigrants in the early 1900s.
The result? Beautiful patchworks of intricate detail, with titles such as “The Immigrant Experience” (which contains original family documents from Lithuania), “The Course of Life” (which honors the artist’s husband), “Exodus” (by a woman from Morocco), “The Family Table,” “Peace,” “Shelter Us Beneath Thy Wings,” “Beginnings,” “Celebrating Judaism” (by the group’s youngest artist, an 8-year-old boy), and “Stars of the Torah” (highlighting a joint mother/daughter b’not mitzvah).
As the group worked, members shared stories about their pieces.
“I felt a great connection with people I didn’t know very well, and now I do,” Enochian said.
Enochian’s collage, titled “Tree of Life,” is in haunting shades of brown, tan and a reddish-tinged backdrop reminiscent of burnt umber. She included a piece of the Torah (in Hebrew) that she will read aloud Saturday in her bat mitzvah ceremony. The faces of Holocaust survivors are faintly visible in open archways.
A trip to Israel in 2001 inspired her choice of colors. “The whole country was tan, brown, and khaki,” she said. (Enochian’s trip was to watch her son compete on the U.S. rugby team in the Maccabiah Games – the Jewish Olympics – held every four years in Israel.)
Enochian, who describes herself as a reformed Jew (rather than orthodox or conservative), is one of six people who will participate in a b’nai mitzvah (b’nai is plural) ceremony Saturday at Pilgrim Congregational Church. According to Jewish tradition, a bar (son) or bat (daughter) mitzvah is celebrated as a coming-of-age ritual, usually at age 12 or 13.
When Enochian was 13, growing up in Southern California, the bat mitzvah wasn’t an option for her yet, she said.
Her motivation to undergo the ceremony now was driven largely by her desire to learn Hebrew, she admits. “I was motivated by age,” she said. “I figured I’d better get going on it.”
As part of the ceremony, the six will take turns reading from the book of Leviticus (chapter 26, verses 3 through 20) in Hebrew. They will also lead prayers and give speeches.
For Enochian, a UC Berkeley art graduate who moved to Redding in 1979, merging her art with the ritual and tradition of her Jewish heritage – and opening that world to others – was immensely rewarding.
“There was that community feeling,” she said. “It’s just what I was hoping for.”
View the exhibit at the unveiling ceremony today at 7 p.m. at Temple Beth Israel on Placer Road in Redding, or check for future temple services at www.tbiredding.org.
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.