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A Chilean-Jewish artist strives to capture the entire Torah in massive murals

(JTA) — As a child, Mauricio Avayu wasn’t allowed to pursue art — his father thought he should study something more practical, like math or engineering. Avayu grew up in the conservative Jewish community of Santiago, Chile, the capital city home to most of the country’s 18,000 Jews.

But by now, Avayu has seen his paintings — many of them Jewish-themed — shown in galleries around the globe, put on the walls in the homes of former presidents around the world and presented to Pope Francis.

Today he’s working on his most ambitious project yet: capturing the key moments of the Torah in 40 large murals.

“Forty is a sacred number in Judaism,” Avayu told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Forty years in the desert, 40 days and nights to receive the Torah.”

He has already finished the eight murals that comprise his depiction of Genesis, the Torah’s first book. The murals, two meters tall, were shipped two years ago to Taipei, where they will be permanently displayed at the Jeffrey D. Schwartz & Na Tang Jewish Taiwan Cultural Association.

Avayu, 55, explained that each book of the Torah takes him about two years to complete. So with four books to go, the project will be complete 8-10 years from now. He already has buyer interest for the entire set.

The majority of Chile’s Jews belong to the Masorti movement, but Avayu didn’t always know that much about Judaism, let alone the Torah. Several years ago he wanted an artistic challenge, and his lack of knowledge intrigued him.

“When I paint now, I always paint with a kippah,” he said. “But even though I come from a home where everyone is Jewish, I didn’t come from a religious family.”

Rather than be intimidated by the vastness of the text, Avayu said he was drawn to its many “hidden messages” and the variety of commentary available for every passage.

And when he looked at past master painters’ depictions of biblical scenes, he was struck by the inaccuracy. For example, in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo famously painted God as giving life to Adam by touching his finger. However, the verse in Genesis says God created man through his breath: “And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.”

Avayu gifted one of his Torah paintings to Pope Francis. (Courtesy of Mauricio Avayu)

Driven to be more accurate in his work, Avayu called the leader of Santiago’s Chabad-Lubavitch community and began intensively studying the Torah. He was drawn to Kabbalah too, and studied for about four years at a Kabbalah center in Chile.

“When we think we understand something about a certain passage of the Torah, it’s only at that level,” explained Avayu. “But then suddenly, at a different time, we are able to understand the same passage but at a completely different level.”

To illustrate this point, he gave the example of Moses at Mount Sinai. In Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses to take off his shoes because “the place upon which you stand is holy soil.”

Originally Avayu understood the passage to mean that the taking off of shoes symbolized leaving one’s current path, to pursue the path of God. But upon further study, he believed that taking off the shoes represents Moses leaving the physical body, which was necessary to do as, according to the Torah, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights. So in Avayu’s interpretation of the scene, Moses is barefoot and points towards the sky.

Before he sets out to paint a new work, Avayu not only consults his rabbi but also reads multiple biblical commentaries, from scholars such as Rashi and Maimonides, and chooses the one that resonates most deeply.

When he painted the tree in the Garden of Eden, for example, he consciously did not do what many other famous artists have done: depict the “forbidden fruit” as an apple. Some commentators posit that the fruit is an etrog, others a grape; Avayu prefers the interpretation that it was a fig.

“There’s not only one truth,” he said. “There are a lot of true interpretations.”

Upon seeing Avayu’s art for the first time, Gabriel Goldstein, chief curator at the Yeshiva University Museum, was reminded of the work of Archie Rand — a Jewish artist from Brooklyn who has also painted biblical murals in synagogues across the United States. Goldstein also places Avayu’s artwork in the historic tradition of artists painting “exhaustive series” of the bible.

“There have been for centuries illustrations done for biblical text,” Goldstein told JTA. “Both from very early periods in illumination to much later… in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

When asked if being from Chile has influenced his art, Avayu said that being a Jewish artist who paints Jewish themes from a small country like Chile made his career more difficult, seeing as there isn’t much of a market for his artwork in his native country. But Goldstein found aspects of Avayu’s art that he believes are influenced by his country of origin.

Avayu calls each of his works a self portrait of himself. (Courtesy of Avayu)

“At the museum, we’ve worked with Latin American artists frequently and have them in our collection,” Goldstein said. “I think that it’s a vibrant community with a vibrant artistic and cultural life. In [Latin American-Jewish art], there is a flavoring that comes from the local culture…as well as from traditional Jewish culture. And I think you can see that in his work — there’s a certain kind of vividness and palette and exuberance that may be more frequently found, but not exclusively found, in Latin American art.”

Since around 2012, Avayu has completed more than 120 paintings and has at least 30 more in the works. Not all of his art involves the Torah: He has also painted ketubahs, Jewish marriage certificates, and he has produced fantastical interpretations of mythological creatures, like the Greek Pegasus. Chilean businessman Tomas Munzer recently gave one of Avayu’s works to Argentina’s ambassador to the Holy See, who presented it to the pope.

Avayu doesn’t have a favorite painting — he calls each his “son” and described the pain he feels when he has to part with one of his children. But now Avayu is creating a different kind of “child,” by opening a studio in Florida where he now teaches aspiring painters. At the Mauricio Avayu Gallery and Fine Art Academy in Aventura, his classes incorporate lessons from the Torah and Kabbalah. And his students — mostly from the United States, but also from Russia, Argentina and Chile — don’t mind the mixing of Judaism and fine art, as almost all of them are Jewish.

“Regardless of my daily goal to be a better artist, to be as perfectionist as possible, I am never satisfied with a painting. I always try to see how I can make it a little better next time. The same always happens with the study of Kabbalah, where you learn something on a related topic, and over time, you realize you’ve learned a deeper level of that same topic,” he said.


The post A Chilean-Jewish artist strives to capture the entire Torah in massive murals appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Ends Faltering Reelection Campaign, Backs Harris as Nominee

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator Kamala Harris after the conclusion of the 2020 Democratic US presidential debate in Houston, Texas, Sept. 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Mike Blake.

U.S. President Joe Biden dropped his faltering reelection bid on Sunday, amid intensifying opposition within his own Democratic Party, and endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris to replace him as the party’s candidate against Republican Donald Trump.

Biden, 81, in a post on X, said he will remain in his role as president and commander-in-chief until his term ends in January 2025 and will address the nation this week. He has not been seen in public since testing positive for COVID-19 last week and isolating at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

“While it has been my intention to seek reelection, I believe it is in the best interest of my party and the country for me to stand down and to focus solely on fulfilling my duties as President for the remainder of my term,” Biden wrote.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said the American people will hear from the party on next steps and the path forward for the nomination process soon. It was the first time in more than a half-century that an incumbent U.S. president gave up his party’s nomination.

Biden‘s campaign had been on the ropes since a halting June 27 debate against former President Trump, 78, in which the incumbent at times struggled to finish his thoughts.

Opposition from within his party gained steam over the past week with 36 congressional Democrats – more than one in eight – publicly calling on him to end his campaign.

Lawmakers said they feared he could cost them not only the White House but also the chance to control either chamber of Congress next year, which would leave Democrats with no meaningful grasp on power in Washington.

That stood in sharp contrast to what played out in the Republican Party last week, when members united around Trump and his running mate U.S. Senator J.D. Vance, 39.

Harris, 59, would become the first Black woman to run at the top of a major-party ticket in the country’s history.

Trump told CNN on Sunday that he believed Harris would be easier to defeat.

Biden had a last-minute change of heart, said a source familiar with the matter. The president told allies that as of Saturday night he planned to stay in the race before changing his mind on Sunday afternoon.

“Last night the message was proceed with everything, full speed ahead,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “At around 1:45 p.m. today: the president told his senior team that he had changed his mind.”

Biden announced his decision on social media within minutes.

It was unclear whether other senior Democrats would challenge Harris for the party’s nomination – she was widely seen as the pick for many party officials – or whether the party itself would choose to open the field for nominations.

Public opinion polling shows that Harris performs no worse than Biden against Trump.

In a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, Harris and Trump were tied with 44% support each in a July 15-16 Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted immediately after the July 13 assassination attempt on Trump. Trump led Biden 43% to 41% in that same poll, though the 2 percentage point difference was not meaningful considering the poll’s 3-point margin of error.

REPUBLICANS QUESTION BIDEN CAPACITY TO STAY IN POWER

Congressional Republicans argued that Biden should resign the office immediately, which would turn the White House over to Harris and put House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, next in line in succession.

“If he’s incapable of running for president, how is he capable of governing right now? I mean, there is five months left in this administration. It’s a real concern, and it’s a danger to the country,” Johnson told CNN on Sunday before Biden‘s announcement.

Johnson in a separate interview on ABC signaled that Republicans would likely try to mount legal challenges to Democrats’ move to replace Biden on the ballot.

Biden‘s announcement follows a wave of public and private pressure from Democratic lawmakers and party officials to quit the race after his shockingly poor debate.

His troubles took the public spotlight away from Trump’s performance, in which he made a string of false statements, and trained it instead on questions surrounding Biden‘s fitness for another four-year term.

His gaffes at a NATO summit – invoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name when he meant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and calling Harris “Vice President Trump” -further stoked anxieties.

FIRST SINCE LBJ

Biden‘s historic move – the first sitting president to give up his party’s nomination for reelection since President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War in March 1968 – leaves his replacement with less than four months to wage a campaign.

If Harris emerges as the nominee, the move would represent an unprecedented gamble by the Democratic Party: its first Black and Asian American woman to run for the White House in a country that has elected one Black president and never a woman president in more than two centuries.

Biden was the oldest U.S. president ever elected when he beat Trump in 2020. During that campaign, Biden described himself as a bridge to the next generation of Democratic leaders. Some interpreted that to mean he would serve one term, a transitional figure who beat Trump and brought his party back to power.

But he set his sights on a second term in the belief that he was the only Democrat who could beat Trump again amid questions about Harris’s experience and popularity. In recent times, though, his advanced age began to show through more. His gait became stilted and his childhood stutter occasionally returned.

His team had hoped a strong performance at the June 27 debate would ease concerns over his age. It did the opposite: a Reuters/Ipsos poll after the debate showed that about 40% of Democrats thought he should quit the race.

Donors began to revolt and supporters of Harris began to coalesce around her. Top Democrats, including former House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime ally, told Biden he cannot win the election.

Biden‘s departure sets up a stark new contrast, between the Democrats’ presumptive new nominee, Harris, a former prosecutor, and Trump who is two decades her senior and faces two outstanding criminal prosecutions related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election result. He is due to be sentenced in New York in September on a conviction for trying to cover up a hush-money payment to a porn star.

BIDEN STRUGGLED BEFORE DEBATE

Earlier this year, facing little opposition, Biden easily won the Democratic primary race to pick its presidential candidate, despite voter concerns about his age and health.

His staunch support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza eroded support among some in his own party, particularly young, progressive Democrats and voters of color, who make up an essential part of the Democratic base.

Many Black voters say Biden has not done enough for them, and enthusiasm among Democrats overall for a second Biden term had been low. Even before the debate with Trump, Biden was trailing the Republican in some national polls and in the battleground states he would have needed to win to prevail on Nov. 5.

Harris was tasked with reaching out to those voters in recent months.

During the primary race, Biden accumulated more than 3,600 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held in Chicago in August. That was almost double the 1,976 needed to win the party’s nomination.

Unless the Democratic Party changes the rules, delegates pledged to Biden would enter the convention “uncommitted,” leaving them to vote on his successor.

Democrats also have a system of “superdelegates,” unpledged senior party officials and elected leaders whose support is limited on the first ballot but who could play a decisive role in subsequent rounds.

Biden beat Trump in 2020 by winning in the key battleground states, including tight races in Pennsylvania and Georgia. At a national level, he bested Trump by more than 7 million votes, capturing 51.3% of the popular vote to Trump’s 46.8%.

The post Biden Ends Faltering Reelection Campaign, Backs Harris as Nominee first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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An ‘Abject, Squalid, Shameless’ Debate at the Oxford Union

Oxford University students in formal academic dress, c. 2006. Photo: Flickr/James

JNS.orgIn an era dominated by social media and defined by short attention spans, it’s striking that longer, more involved debates hosted by elite institutions still matter.

The Oxford Union—a debating society created at Oxford University in the 1820s, immodestly billing itself as “the most prestigious debating society in the world”—is one of those institutions. During its forthcoming Michaelmas term, which covers the winter months, the Union is planning a debate on the motion: “This house recognizes that Israel is an apartheid state responsible for genocide.”

One of the proposed speakers at the debate is my good friend Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who teaches in the politics department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In 2002, Steinberg founded the Israeli watchdog NGO Monitor, which has since played an invaluable role in analyzing and exposing the role of non-governmental organizations in the war against Israel on the propaganda and legal fronts. The Oxford Union rightly assessed that Steinberg would be an ideal speaker to defend Israel’s reputation and duly sent him an invite.

An invitation to speak at the Oxford Union is commonly regarded in academic and media circles as a great honor and an affirmation of one’s expertise in a particular subject area.

Indeed, the invitation to Steinberg was dripping with the kind of self-importance that makes Oxford and Cambridge Universities the continual butt of dismissive jokes among the acerbically humorous, class-obsessed British. It ran through a list of speakers to have graced its hall over the past two centuries, including three U.S. presidents, the late Queen Elizabeth II, the Dalai Lama and the radical African-American advocate Malcolm X.

For good measure, the invitation highlighted two debates from the past century to entice Steinberg. One was from 1933, the year Hitler came to power and the Union shamefully voted in favor of the motion: “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The other was from 1962—five years before Israel unified Jerusalem and conquered Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War—when the Union debated the contention that the “creation of the State of Israel is one of the mistakes of the century.”

Despite his impressive credentials, Steinberg is a modest man who can be relied upon to do the right thing. He sent the Union a response that ripped the premises of their proposed debate to shreds. Addressing the reference in the invitation letter to the infamous 1933 debate as an example of the Union’s “tradition of confronting the boldest questions of our time,” he observed: “That tradition is also described as exploiting the Oxford Union as a platform for crude political propaganda. The histories of this event highlight the fact that the debate took place shortly after Hitler became the German leader and the Nazis launched the actions and laws targeting the Jewish population. Winston Churchill described the Union’s behavior in 1933 as an ‘abject, squalid, shameless avowal. … It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.’”

Churchill’s condemnation applies no less to the topic on which Steinberg was invited to debate.

“The gratuitous labels of ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ add to this edifice, and some might conclude that the leaders and members of the Oxford Union seek to repeat and reinforce the travesties of 1933 and 1962,” he wrote.

Steinberg then dealt with the frankly libelous claims of “apartheid” and “genocide” against Israel, highlighting the historical context and moral significance of both these terms.

Regarding “apartheid,” Steinberg correctly reminded the debate organizers that this term originally appeared in relation to Israel as a result of intensive Soviet propaganda efforts during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to strip the Jewish state of its legitimacy, with Moscow lobbing words like “Nazi” and “racist” into the brew as well.

On the invocation of genocide, Steinberg noted that this term—applicable to the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians during World War I, the Holocaust of six million Jews during World War II and more recent events of mass killing and systemic abuse in Cambodia, Rwanda and Myanmar/Burma—was now being distorted to “delegitimize responses to military aggression, asymmetric warfare and atrocities directed at civilian populations, such as committed by Hamas and its allies.”

Part of the problem here is that while the team at the Oxford Union is gushingly proud of the debate topics covered during that institution’s long existence, they appear to be less familiar with the underlying substance.

Had they examined the examples of genocide cited above, they might have noticed a common pattern: In every case, regimes targeted minorities simply based on their identity. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia, even wearing glasses marked one out as a candidate for death, because a pair of specs was seen as evidence of a bourgeois education. These regimes then used killing methods like mass executions and concentration camps to eliminate those they targeted.

Both before and during the killings, the victim groups were dehumanized in regime propaganda. The Nazis depicted Jews as “rats” and the Hutu killing mobs in Rwanda referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” Victim groups were at best poorly armed, at worst utterly defenseless, in the face of their killers.

Similarly, those who invoke the word “apartheid” in the context of Israel have little idea of what that system involved or the discredited racist ideology it was based upon. For most of the 20th century in South Africa, the Black population that comprises 90% of the country was subjected to humiliating restrictions in every aspect of their lives, along with the denial of suffrage.

While South African apartheid was unique, there are some ironic parallels visible in the Middle East—but not in Israel. In Syria and Bahrain, to take just two examples, unelected, heavily armed minorities engage in brutal rule over the majorities, as was the case in South Africa. In Qatar, less than 10% of the population are full citizens. Everyone else, including the vast reservoir of migrant labor toiling in conditions of slavery, is seen as a lesser being, deemed unfit to even enter the gleaming shopping malls and hotels built with their own sweat. In Iran, women and religious minorities suffer from discrimination rooted in the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of the Quran and other religious texts.

All of this is ignored because it contradicts the dogma that Israel lies at the root of all the conflicts in the Middle East and, in increasing numbers of fevered minds, the world. The Oxford Union is no less guilty of sacralizing this dogma than is some idiot on Instagram posting an Israeli flag juxtaposed with a Nazi swastika.

As Steinberg suggested at the end of his reply, if the Oxford Union is really serious about upholding its tradition of bold debates that pull no punches, it should consider the motion: “This house recognizes that its own history of Jew-hatred in different forms is fundamentally immoral and offers its apologies.”

The post An ‘Abject, Squalid, Shameless’ Debate at the Oxford Union first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Home or Synagogue?

A 1539 representation of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

JNS.orgHow ironic that some of our most famous synagogue prayers should have come from the mouth of one of our mortal enemies. In Balak, this week’s parsha, the heathen prophet Balaam attempts to put a lethal curse on the Israelites, only to be frustrated by God. Every time he tried to curse us out of his vile mouth came the most beautiful blessings and praises of Israel. Perhaps none are more famous than “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael“—“How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel.”

In his commentary, Rashi shares two interpretations of this verse. In the first, he says that Balaam was referring to the Jewish homes and the modesty the people demonstrated in their town planning. The doorways were designed so they did not face each other and thus protected the privacy and modesty of family life. In his second interpretation, Rashi explains that tents and dwellings also refer to our Sanctuaries and Temples of old—namely Shilo and Jerusalem.

In the Torah, a sequence is important and instructive. That Rashi first mentions the Jewish home and only afterward the Temple tells us something: First comes the Jewish home, and then the synagogue.

What are our priorities? What is primary and what is secondary?

Far be it from me to diminish the importance of my own profession as a congregational rabbi in a synagogue, but the truth must be told and I’ve said this in my own shul many times over the years:

We cannot depend on the synagogue for Jewish continuity. Neither can we rely on our Jewish day schools, for that matter.

Too many parents today have abdicated their role as educators to the school and the shul.

Our teachers’ biggest complaint is that parents do not support their educational endeavors. All too often there is a dichotomy, even a conflict, between the home and the school. Parents and teachers are frequently at loggerheads and our children are getting mixed messages. When the teacher encourages a student to engage in a Jewish practice, he may hear his parents telling him to ignore it because they are not comfortable with that practice.

Some parents have gone to shocking and disgraceful lengths, even criticizing and condemning the teacher to their children. I once heard of a boy who told his teacher point blank, “My father said you are a total jerk!” Actually, it was much worse, but I can’t repeat it here!

Kids may well forget what their teacher or rabbi said, but it is far more likely for them to remember what their mother and father taught them.

“In our house, we don’t do that.” “In our family, we do it this way.” Parental messages leave far more lasting impressions on children. A child’s own house and his own family traditions tend to count for much more than a school or synagogue routine.

The rabbi or teacher may teach or preach about Shabbat or Kashrut, but if parents tell their children that it isn’t that important, it is unlikely the child will buck family tradition.

Of course, parents should never be dismissive of what teachers tell their children at school or what the rabbi tells them in shul. But the reality is that the home and family value system will be far more important in raising the next generation than the shul or school.

Just consider how much of Jewish life is observed at home and how much is practiced in shul.

In shul we pray with a minyan, perhaps we attend a shiur or adult education. We may be called upon to assist with communal welfare or volunteer to visit the sick, etc.

But at home, we keep Shabbat weekly and the Yom Tov festivals throughout the year. We keep kosher, put up mezuzahs, practice hospitality by inviting guests, work at our shalom bayit to keep the peace in the home and much more.

Not only does charity start at home, but Judaism starts at home too!

I was at a rabbinic conference some years ago when one of the rabbis asked the eminent guest speaker, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, about the solution to the contemporary problem of “kids at risk”—children of religious parents who go off the path and leave their religious lifestyle. Rav Kamenetsky gave a two-word answer that sent a shudder through the audience: “Shalom bayit!”

The sad reality is that when parents are not ad idem between themselves, it rubs off on the children and they look elsewhere for role models.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it is entirely accurate to say, “The home is the factory of the Jewish nation!”

Once upon a time, the Jewish home was the envy of the non-Jewish world. I remember back in the 1970s and 1980s, several young women who were winners of Miss South Africa beauty pageants converted to Judaism. Interestingly, when interviewed by the press and asked why, they each gave the same answer: They shared their experiences with their Jewish friends and particularly the Friday night dinners and quality family time spent around the Shabbat table as something they truly appreciated and wished for themselves.

Let us restore the Jewish home to its primacy and we will safeguard Jewish continuity.

The post Home or Synagogue? first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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