As a teenage artist immersing in Judaism at a summer retreat in Connecticut, Ilene Winn-Lederer asked a friend if she could take his photograph before everyone returned home.
“He goes, ‘No! I can’t allow it,’” Winn-Lederer said, sitting in the dining room of her home in Greenfield, mimicking her friend shielding his face. “I go, ‘Huh? How come?’”
“He says, ‘Uh! Because of the Second Commandment!’” Winn-Lederer recalled. “And I go, ‘What’s that?’ And he said to me: ‘No graven images.’”
That admonition made a deep and immediate impression on Winn-Lederer; she didn’t draw or paint for a year.
Although Winn-Lederer now paints and draws prolifically, the echo of the Second Commandment still rings in her ears, especially as she approached her most ambitious project to date: “Between Heaven and Earth,” a new, illustrated Torah commentary that elucidates each parsha with images from midrash, kabbalah, folklore and legend.
Winn-Lederer is not alone in her concern. Generations of Jewish artists have struggled to reconcile their imaginations with warning of the Second Commandment. Cynthia Ozick, an author who contributed to Winn-Lederer’s interest in how mystical and mundane elements interact, once wrote, “Does the Commandment against idols warn even ink?”
Reading and researching led Winn-Lederer to the artistic path forged by Betzalel, the biblical artisan who built the desert tabernacle. “I decided here’s a guy who was gifted, by God, and was allowed to create this magnificent beis hamidrash, every beautiful item that adorned it, that was used in the rituals. How could that be wrong?” Winn-Lederer said. “And then of course I learned about chidur mitzvah, which was creating things for the beauty of worshipping God. So I said, ‘Can’t what I do be part of that?’”
Raised in Chicago, where she spoke only Yiddish for the first five years of her life, Winn-Lederer now lives in Pittsburgh and her work is well known here. Her banner proclaiming “L’shana Tova” currently hangs in the Jewish Community Center, as do her flags illustrating the 13 tribes of Israel. She has contributed numerous covers for The Chronicle over the years. Her work adorns gallery walls and the pages of many books.
“Between Heaven and Earth,” though, is her first solo book, and in looking over the finished work, Winn-Lederer said it feels like her decades of Judaic art all led to this.
“I tell people: This is my bat mitzvah and Ph.D. rolled up in one,” Winn-Lederer said.
She spent nearly six years actively researching and producing the book, and the previous 20 years dreaming about it, a timeline beginning in the 1980s, when she made a special invitation for her son’s bar mitzvah, a three-fold illustration inspired by the parsha.
The invitation Winn-Lederer created lead to commissions through the years, and eventually to an offer from her publisher to illustrate the entire Torah in similar fashion.
“Between Heaven and Earth” is split into two parts: first, illustrations of each parsha, and then explanations of the images. And each reveals nuances on subsequent viewings.
For Parsha Va-Yetza, Winn-Lederer represents the dream of Jacob’s Ladder as the string game of the same name. This Jacob’s Ladder starts with strands of Jacob’s hair, but becomes ethereal and translucent as it rises, culminating in a heavenly hand. This, Winn-Lederer writes, is “a metaphor for the mystical process of ascending toward and achieving spiritual inspiration and then descending to disseminate this learning.”
“Between Heaven and Earth” imaginatively sidesteps the Second Commandment, and nowhere more so than in its depictions of the divine. Throughout the book, Winn-Lederer represents the shechina, or the divine presence, as the invisible space behind a golden mask: a visible intermediary separate humanity from something it cannot physically see.
“I was a little bit afraid to pursue some of the imagery that I ultimately chose, but then I decided: If it appeared to me in my imagination, it’s got to be right. It’s got to be there. It’s got to come out. I decided I couldn’t be afraid anymore,” Winn-Lederer said.
Like any Torah commentary, the scholarship that went into “Between Heaven and Earth” is both its offering to the world and its own defense against criticism. Winn-Lederer said she gathered sources from across the history of ideas to not come across as an “ignoramus.”
“In years to come, people will read this and look at it and maybe come up with other ideas that I didn’t include,” Winn-Lederer said. “Which is the whole point: that it’s my contribution in the chain of biblical scholarship. It’s my link, so to speak.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)