Indian-Jewish artist’s vibrant mosaic at CRC aims to challenge viewers

Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin spent more than a year working on a painting that would be transformed into a 15-foot wide circular mosaic installed in the floor at Central Reform Congregation. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Susan Talve and Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin sat together in the back of a bus leaving Jaipur, India, and they began imagining.

What they dreamed about on that trip across the world early in 2014 were their plans for a circular mosaic floor for Central Reform Congregation that would be like those that adorn the floors of ancient synagogues in Israel.

But theirs would have an edge: It would celebrate traditional Jewish holidays but also feminism and racial, cultural and gender diversity. It would feature astrological symbols of the Zodiac wheel.

Now, those ideas that Benjamin and Talve envisioned on a back road in India have been transformed into a 15-foot diameter mosaic on the floor of the synagogue’s entrance lobby, where onegs are held.

“It’s edgy,” Talve says approvingly. “And there’s room on this circle for everyone.”

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CRC is selling tallits and silk scarves with some of the symbols and vibrant colors to members and the public.

Benjamin, who lives outside New York City in Montclair, N.J., spent over a year working on the CRC floor design and painting in close consultation with the rabbi. A scan of the painting was created, and 320 porcelain tiles with ceramic glaze were fired at a very high temperature. Numbered pieces were put together like a jigsaw puzzle, Benjamin said.  

Blue women and the Zodiac

On Shabbat on Aug. 14, the congregation saw the completed mosaic floor for the first time. While its holiday themes, laid out in chronological order around the circle, elicit feelings of warmth and tradition, the mosaic is provocative and challenging. 

Blue women and Zodiac symbols intermingle imaginatively with traditional Hebrew calligraphy, Yizkor candles and grains of Omer.  Full moons and new moons appear and hide.  The 12 traditional male tribes of Israel named for Jacob’s sons are represented, but there’s also a new 13th tribe in the very center for Dinah, Jacob’s daughter who traditionally did not get a tribe.  

A figure of a seated pregnant woman of color is placed on the wheel in advance of Rosh Hashanah.

“This woman of color is about to give birth to the New Year,” Talve explained.

For Rosh Hashanah, the face of Sarah appears with her handmaiden Hagar, who also gave birth to a child with Abraham.   Their story is part of the New Year Torah portion.

In the mosaic, the two mothers at odds in the Torah creatively share a third eye. 

A red drop of blood between them could be “for violent conflict or for the bloodline they share,” Talve said. “They share the challenge as women.” 

Directly across the circle is Miriam, Moses’ sister who helped lead the Israelites to freedom in the Exodus with spirited song. A seder plate doubles as her tambourine.  Hannah is among several other Biblical women. 

“This is a reflection of Siona’s deeply feminist way of thinking,” Talve said.   

Talve recalls her bus ride with Benjamin out of Jaipur, where they had visited an astrological park.

“We talked about the idea of the Zodiac,” Talve recalls. “When we got back, we decided to make the dream a reality.” 

Although many Jews may not think of astrological signs as Jewish, Talve said that a teaching in the Talmud connects the Zodiac with Hebrew months and the tribes of Israel.  Zodiacs were a decorative feature of many ancient synagogues in Israel, most notably the Beit Alpha synagogue, she said.

A rabbi’s wish fulfilled

Talve had wanted CRC to have a floor mosaic like those in ancient synagogues, even before CRC was built 15 years ago in the city’s Central West End.

Andy Trivers, the architect of the building, said that a space was carved out lower than the rest of the lobby floor and then covered up for 15 years in anticipation of a future mosaic.

Trivers, a founding member of CRC, said the mosaic worked well with the design of the building.

“It’s very colorful…and it looks terrific,” said Trivers, when he saw the completed mosaic.

Benjamin, the artist, was born in Bombay, now Mumbai, and brought up in a traditional Bene Israel Jewish home. Her mother used oil lamps on Shabbat while her father said prayers.  Yet she attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools and was influenced by her society’s Hindu and Muslim cultures and Indian art.

As a Jew in India, “I’d have to explain myself,” said Benjamin. “I was ‘the other.’”  Here, “being a Jew of color is being ‘the other.’  We Jewish people in general are ‘the other.’  All of us are in our own way ‘the other.’ “

The mosaic, she said, “is for anybody who feels like the outsider.” 

That otherness infuses much of Benjamin’s art, which has been exhibited in the United States, Europe and Asia. By creating art that’s inclusive of diverse peoples, she hopes to speak out against racism and xenophobia and contribute to the “repair” tikkun of the world.

Benjamin studied art in Mumbai before coming to the United States in the 1990s for her advanced college degrees. She holds master’s degrees in painting from SIU – Carbondale and in theatre design from the University of Illinois – Urbana.

She met Talve at a friend’s suggestion in the late 1990s.   Since then, Benjamin has created a megillah for CRC, run workshops and helped lead the congregational trip to India.

Their friendship and Talve’s understanding of “the other” has “given me more power under my wings,” she said.

In 2011, Benjamin traveled to India as a Fulbright Fellow to create “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” documenting with paintings and photographs the stories of more than 70 of Mumbai’s remaining Bene Israel Jews.   

To create the CRC mosaic, she read midrashes and studied with the rabbi.

“It started with characters – like in a Shakespearean play,” Benjamin said. 

A teaching tool

One way Benjamin veers away from the expected is to paint many of the faces of women blue. 

“It’s like the sky and ocean,” she said. 

To shake things up further, the artist gives one woman red hair. Another prominent color is gold for the dome of Jerusalem. 

On the Shabbat night congregation members first saw the floor, the rabbi walked the circle with them. “I always wanted to show how one holiday leads to the next and how they are connected, and a cycle,” she said. 

Just as Esther reveals her identity as a Jew to the king and saved the Jewish people, “Purim teaches that if we take off our masks, the world could be a safer place,” said Talve. “There are so many secrets.”

Talve walked toward Tisha B’Av, which recounts tragedies Jews endured throughout history.  Again there was a face of a woman. 

“The woman there could be a messianic Shekhina figure,” she said.

That night, as the congregation gazed at the mosaic and talked about it, Roger Lewis, a professor at St. Louis University and a congregant, said it offered great opportunities for religious school children to learn about the holidays and other aspects of Judaism. The less traditional motifs and juxtapositions also could spark new insights for adults. 

A Star of David with the word “Juif” for Jew reminded Lewis of the armbands that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. It was placed on the mosaic near Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah.  Close by on the circle, at a holiday celebrating the birth of nation of Israel, is another Star of David marked 1948.

Lewis said that for him this was “an artistic and moral statement about the resilience and vision of the Jewish people.”    

Talve hopes ideas and discussions will be sparked by the new CRC mosaic floor.

“It celebrates the intersection of cultures,” she said. “We Jews have taken from cultures wherever we are. It makes us richer.  It makes us more diverse.”