High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part III: Better repentence through art and puns

This series is being crossposted to Jewschool. Here’s the Intro.

Rabbi Dan told me that it all started with a pun.

The New Shul is currently installing their new senior rabbi, and former assistant rabbi, Dan Ain. Being a congregation that revels in throwing off every vestige of what you might expect something with Shul in the name to be, they knew that they couldn’t simply have a luncheon and guest speaker and say, “Poof! Rabbi Dan has been installed.”

So they were attracted to the idea of a week-long art installation as the home of an ongoing installation festivity for Dan, who is currently installed behind the bar at the House of Awe and Repentence Cafe through Saturday, Sept. 26 every day from noon-8pm. Except for Thursday. That’s his day off. The Cafe is located on Manhattan in an otherwise vacant storefront at 13 E. 8th Street, somewhere between Broadway and the general NYU area.

Being as atypical as they can at every turn–and sometimes trying too hard–The New Shul appreciates Dan, a JTS grad who was once threatened with being ordained, but not given membership in the rabbinical assembly. As you might imagine, he quaked in his boots. He also ran intro trouble with the authorities at JTS repeatedly when he consistently refused the wear a kipah on the grounds that his female classmates didn’t have to wear one. Dan was behind the bar when I arrived, wearing white t-shirt with small, black text that said “Rabbi Dan.”

So here’s the installation itself:

There’s a holographic piece of 2D art mounted on the wall. If you lean one way, it says “The world was created for me alone,” and if you lean to the other way, it says “I am but dust and ashes.” It recalls the story of Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who kept these two sentences on separate pieces of paper, one in each pocket. It’s cool.

Then there’s the Repent-O-Gram, without a doubt the most thought-provoking piece in the room aside from Dan himself. It’s a booth, recalling the confession booths of Catholic churches. Inside, there’s a computer which invites the user to send a Repent-O-Gram, an apologetic e-mail, to anyone whose e-mail address they can remember off-hand. I was deeply compelled and troubled by this notion. I’ve written before about my feelings on electronic repentence. My fear is that this encourages a less personal form of apology. On the other hand, one may not have seriously sat down yet to think about who they need to seek forgiveness from this year. Perhaps this booth will offer some the chance to ponder the question for the first time during these Ten Days. The Repent-O-Gram was created and conceived of by a 17-year-old member of The New Shul.

All along one wall, are four antique desks and chairs. Each desk features a pair of headphones, a large metal sculpture of a human heart and a mirror. The mirror invites reflection–see how many puns they crammed into this place?–while the inside the hearts a video of a woman giving an overly heartfelt apology of generic nature to no one in particular. Put on the headphones to hear what she has to say. This was my least favorite of the pieces. I thought its symbolism was so up-front and simplistic, while the apology video in the heart was too saccharine to be taken seriously.

Behind the bar is a large, wall-sized piece. It’s background is a series maps. On top of the maps, a series of found objects and postcards with stories on them suggest a narrative to be pieced together, though I was unable to piece any particular story together. Each card is addressing someone whom the artist either wishes to forgive or is seeking forgiveness from.

And of course, the final piece is Dan himself, transformed for the week into a performance artist. When he’s not behind the bar, he heads twice a day to a nearby park where he has apparently been delivering quasi-sermons on a soapbox. I didn’t get to experience one of these, but he told me a bit about them and it sounds like quite the experience.

Also available at the Cafe is a full suite of The New Shul’s impeccably-designed advertisements and a little black pin that says, in little white type, “sorry.” I take it the pin is meant to be a joke.

The good news: People go to shul on RH and they go back on YK, but so often there’s nothing for them to do in between to encourage the repentence intended to fill the Ten Days. Luckily, this year, if you’re in Manhattan, The New Shul has created an open-door space in The Village where anyone can be confronted by the themes meant for exploration during this time, in new and creative way.

The bad news: As with many of the more bizarre things I’ve heard of The New Shul doing, there’s an air of smugness to the affair. The art itself is mostly spot-on in the way it confronts the viewer with the themes of the season. But Dan’s triumphant excitement about the installation pun and the funny little “sorry” pins trivialize the experience to some extent.

Do I think the “sorry” pins are inappropriate? Yes. Am I often guilty of the same religious snark and smugness I think that The New Shul may be guilt of? Yes.

Am I still going to wear my “sorry” pin on my jacket all week? You betcha.

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