New Jersey Jewish News
Local artist and teacher combines art and Torah in her life and work
Miriam, Moses sister, holding a tambourine aloft, led the Israelites in song and dance at the Red Sea. As Pesach approached, artist and teacher Cathi Robinson marshaled her own talents to lead members of the Rosh Hodesh womens group at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in decorating tambourines with dancing images of the biblical prophetess. Guided and encouraged by Robinson, each workshop participant, with paint, brushes, and much enthusiasm, made two tambourines. One was to be used as a table centerpieces at the Rosh Hodesh groups annual womens seder and then sold for tzedaka, the other to enliven their own dancing at the seder.
That notion of hiddur mitzva aesthetically enhancing the performance of mitzvot permeates Robinsons life and work.
Art is in everything you do how you serve food, decorate your home, Robinson told NJ Jewish News, and the Miriams timbrel project, like everything she does, was designed to drive that lesson home.
Robinson speaks with animation, hands tracing ideas in the air as if to illustrate her words. In her own art and in the classes Robinson teaches at Agudath Israel, a few themes repeat themselves in different contexts. When Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the congregations religious leader, spoke from the bima of his wish to commission artwork to invoke Israel and its message of rebirth for the synagogues sanctuary, he tapped into one of her deeply held beliefs. Every synagogue needs to have something artistically done to recognize our link to Israel, she said.
To illustrate that link and fulfill the rabbis wish, Robinson created two large multimedia wall hangings that now occupy places of honor in the sanctuary. The Seven Species illustrates the richness of the land of Israel grapes, olives, and figs along with a grapevine and a tallit. Both keep us wrapped and tied to unity and faith, said Robinson. On the opposite wall hangs Eretz Yisrael; it depicts an almond tree the first tree to blossom in Israel in the spring and it carries the words of Hatikva, hope. Everything we do is symbolic, she said. In terms of the Judaica that I do, I look at the hope that Judaism stands for.
Hope has had special significance in her own life. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver when her daughters were seven and nine at the same time that she was being treated for breast cancer. I battled it twice thats part of who I am, but hope is what sustains us. Thats the essence of Judaism, she said with conviction, a determination reflected in her own paintings dealing with cancer and women.
At Agudath Israel, the West Orange resident teaches students from preschoolers to senior citizens, using the same approach regardless of age a combination of art history, self-expression, and Jewish values an artist a week, she said. In one session, she had young children examine Lynne Feldmans She Blew the Shofar, a painting full of movement and action, and guided them in incorporating those elements in their own work. Before Sukkot, her classes studied Cezannes famous still-lifes bowls of fruit on colorful tables as inspiration for their own paintings celebrating the harvest festival. Not for the first time in the interview, she repeated her guiding principle: I believe every person has art within them.
Judith Tabs, director of Agudath Israels nursery school, has known Robinson personally and professionally for many years. Shes an excellent teacher, she said. She researches everything thoroughly. Everyone she teaches, she changes their life.
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