Art at the mikveh: “Vessels” at Mayyim Hayyim

By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent

Mosaic by Bette Ann Libby

Upright orbs of delicately colored raku ( Japanese earthenware) vessels line a counter in the Beit Din room, where clergy meet with those seeking conversions at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Educational Center adjacent to Temple Reyim in Newton. Nearby are similarly subdued raku chawan (tea bowls). They are part of “Vessels: Containing Possibilities,” an exhibit showcasing potter Steven Branfman and mosaic artist Bette Ann Libby that runs through December, with a second exhibit through May.

Branfman’s chawan are intricately glazed in geometric, abstract and fractured textures and patterns that intriguingly reflect what’s within. “I don’t see the surface of my pots as canvases to decorate, but rather as a skin that identifies and communicates what is underneath,” writes Branfman in an artist statement. His applications and materials draw from natural and urban images that he, as well as viewers, see and feel.

Pottery by Steven Branfman

We touch, connecting through physical sensation, mirroring the connection that occurs as we enter the waters of the mikveh,” said Donna Leventhal, an Art Committee member who co-curated the exhibit with committee member and artist Stephanie Reimer. “The exhibit emerged from the concept of the mikveh itself as a sacred vessel.”

Artist Bette Ann Libby’s vividly kaleidoscopic pieces begin with a literal blast. Following kabbalistic theology, she shatters dinnerware into fragments and incorporates them into two- and three-dimensional vessels patterned after biblical concepts.

Her ‘Genesis’ piece references the Kabbalistic concept of Shvirat HaKeilim, literally ‘breaking of the vessels,’” Leventhal explained. “When the world was created its limited physicality could not contain the Divine light, and ‘shattered’ into innumerable pieces. The Jewish people are challenged with tikkun olam – repairing the world, mending these broken vessels, creating vessels that are stronger. Bette Ann’s process is a physical representation of this mending.”

The mikveh, which marks events ranging from childbirth to marriage, to illness, divorce or trauma, helps to create a similarly new and stronger sense of being. “The pool is a vessel that contains water collected to hold human bodies - each one the vessel of a unique, sacred life,” said Leventhal, who noted that it is the intention, not the container, which makes it sacred.

Pieces are interspersed around the entrance and reception areas, in the Beit Din and changing rooms by the ritual baths, the bathrooms, and outside.

Beneath the whimsy and color, however, lies sadness. “Each used [his/her] art as a catharsis and an expression of grieving,” said Reimer. “And both incorporated Jewish ritual,” added Leventhal. Libby’s mythic “fetish pottery” are tangible representations of the misheberach prayer for the sick. Branfman’s sonJared was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s and worked with his father on the tea bowls. Following his son’s death two-and-a-half years later, Branfman made a tea bowl every day for a year. After the exhibit was installed, he brought in Jared’s yartzeit bowl, which still bears the imprint of his hands.

Everything in the exhibit, for visitors as well as collectors, is for sale, with 50 percent of the proceeds supporting Mayyim Hayyim.“In curating ‘Vessels,’ we never expected that these artists, and the vessels they created, would connect so deeply to the way a mikveh can bring shalom, completion and peace,” said Leventhal.

Executive director Carrie Bornstein said that to date, over 13,000 immersions and almost 2,500 conversions have been conducted at the center, which celebrated its 10th year on May 15. From the start, though, its mission has been broad. “Most people never get wet here,” said Leventhal.

As far as they knew, no other mikveh worldwide had an art gallery. Each year the center facilitates 1,400 immersions and offers over 110 education programs, as well as art exhibits and original films, consultation services, volunteer opportunities, and training. Bornstein cited expanding resources for people with disabilities, and wider mother-daughter programming.

Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters is located at 1838 Washington St. in Auburndale. For information, visit www.mayyimhayyim.org or call 617-244-1836.

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