Artist’s Lab Explores Shmita Year

When author and Jewish educator Meryll Page started planning for her next artist’s lab, she wasn’t sure what subject to pick.

“A lot of times I look to the calendar for some kind of inspiration,” Page said. And she realized — the current Jewish year, 5782, is a Shmita year, when Jews are supposed to let the land in Israel rest. “I thought, well, that would be interesting [to cover].”

So together with Jewish arts organizer Robyn Awend, Page is running a Shmita year study group at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Participants will meet virtually for two hours on Wednesdays in March, May, and June for a discussion with Page, and meet in-person on June 12 for Awend’s program with MCBA’s new Hebrew wood type.

The study group is part of MCBA’s “History in the Making” series about printed word in Jewish culture, and is supported by a range of Jewish organizations like Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, the Minnesota JCC, and Jewfolk, Inc’s JCreate initiative. (TC Jewfolk is a product of Jewfolk, Inc.)

Just like Jews are commanded to work six days and rest with Shabbat on the seventh, ancient Israelites were commanded to farm for six years and let the land of Israel rest on the seventh, called the Shmita year. Shmita is also associated with laws about forgiving debts and redistributing personal wealth.

After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the concept was kept mostly through Rabbinic law and interpretation. In the modern state of Israel, though, Shmita has seen a practical resurgence.

“We’re trying to keep in mind that the audience may have no knowledge of Shmita,” Page said. “But we’re trying to look at it for all the symbolism that it carries.”

Page relates Shmita, and its reimagining over the centuries, to how Jewish life has had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. When cities and states went locked down in 2020, isolation pushed many Jews back to old traditions.

“One example is challah baking, [which] became enormously popular,” Page said. Other old traditions had to be adjusted on the fly, like “figuring out a way to take a [Passover] seder and put it onto Zoom.”

In some sense, Page said, the pandemic is like the destruction of the Second Temple, which allowed modern Judaism — Rabbinic Judaismto evolve. “That was the original kind of re-jiggering of Jewish practice,” she said. So it’s not the first time Jews have “had to do that.”

Re-jiggering is, in some sense, the point of the study group.

“I want to empower people to take a look at biblical traditions that seem wacky, and see, you know, ‘what does it say to me,’” Page said.

Page’s study group will start each meeting looking at a visual that has something to do with Shmita, like a postage stamp from Israel, to kick-start conversations. Then comes text study from sources as old as the Torah and as recent as the early 20th century.

Teaching over Zoom is a unique experience, and Page credits Awend with helping her make the best experience for participants.

“Robin really is my guide, we sort of rehearse before any class, and then very gently, she’ll push me into a direction that helps make everything work,” Page said. “And if I’m teaching and something’s not working, and I’m not cognizant of that fact, she’ll gently come in and make sure everything goes smoothly.”

At the end of the study group, participants will make a letterpress poster with Hebrew wood type that was recently commissioned by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

“Typically type is acquired with an unknown provenance,” Awend said. “In this case, our community has the unique opportunity to create the provenance of this new type.”