Drawing New Interest to the Talmud
by Edmon J. Rodman
On a journey into art and text that will take seven and a half years to complete, Jacqueline Nicholls is drawing the Talmud – one page each day.
Last August, in conjunction with the beginning of a new seven-and-a-half year cycle of “daf yomi” – the daily study of a double page of the Babylonian Talmud that is observed by tens of thousands of Jews worldwide – Nicholls inaugurated an online “Draw Yomi” project that day-by-day results in a hand-drawn response to what she has studied.
“Here I go. Full of optimism and hope that I will not be defeated by the daily discipline of learning,” the London-based Jewish artist wrote on her blog to initiate the project.
With drawings of a human heart, a scorpion, and the Hebrew word “Amen,” Nicholls introduces and explicates the often-arcane world of the Talmud.
“Drawing is a way to slow down and get the brain to take a different path,” she told JNS.org.
After several months, that path – which is available for view on her website, has illuminated with graphic and thought-provoking drawings a world of Jewish law, storytelling and contemplative thought that had previously been limited mostly to the word and textural study.
In Nicholl’s illustrations – each illustration is accompanied by a reference to the text from which she bases the illustration- Talmud study shifts to the visual as Hebrew letters anthropomorphize into fists, and a human skull helps to illustrate “the blessings on all the weird and wonderful things in the world.”
As a kind of warm-up to Draw Yomi, Nicholls had earlier created a drawing a day for the 49 days of the counting of the Omer. As it turned out, she missed the ritual of sitting down to draw every day. “I like the immediacy and deadline,” she said.
To create her illustrations, Nicholls, who describes herself as a traditional Jew, first studies the double page portion to get a “sense of what’s up on the daf (page)” and to search for a theme she can illustrate.
Sitting in her studio, she limits her time for the drawing to thirty minutes. “I use a kitchen timer,” she explained. “The drawings are not a finished piece of art – more like a sketchbook,” added the artist, who in September had a showing of her previous artwork at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.
Nicholls said she has found that drawing is not only a process of study, but also a “way of taking the daf out of the yeshiva.”
Moving even further from the yeshiva, Nicholls, who studied anatomical art and medical drawing, does not shy away from illustrating the female form. For example, to illustrate a daf that she interprets as being “all about life and babies,” she illustrates a pregnant woman in position for childbirth.
Each week, to further explore the text, Nicholls invites a learning partner to add another voice to the ongoing Talmudic conversation by engaging in chevruta – the time-honored method of Talmud study where two students bounce ideas, questions and interpretations off of each other.
“She has changed the medium for commentary,” said Rabbi Deborah Silver, who has been one of Nicholls’s chevruta partners. “She holds up a particular kind of mirror to the text,” added Silver, the assistant rabbi at Temple Adat Ari El in Los Angeles who studied with Nicholls before she began the Draw Yomi project. “I know her for along time, and this is her language,” she said.
Silver explained that the drawings are a “springboard” serving to “take the conversation deeper, quicker,” showing a more concentrated view of Nicholls’s thought process.
For instance, to illustrate a daf on what it means to forget, and specifically to forget Shabbat, Nicholls shows a woman missing the top of her head. “Is forgetting the same as never knowing?” she asks.
To capture a Talmud page on waiting for Shabbat to be over, Nicholls shows a clock overseen by three stars. On the belief that crying can cause blindness, she draws a tearful smoldering eye.
If there is humor in the text, Nicholls shows that, too. To illustrate a page that likens a city to a person with limbs, we don’t see a serious city with “Broad Shoulders,” as we might imagine from Carl Sandberg’s “Chicago,” but an animated town with bent arms, cartoony fingers, even a couple of feet.
But to illustrate another page of Talmud that speaks of “cities that are dangerous to enter if you are from the wrong neighborhood,” Nicholls’s buildings grow angular, and with raised arms, look ready for a fight.
After more than half a year of the project, Nicholls has received interest from several quarters, including “a fairly right-wing chasidic chap,” and others who are approaching daf yomi using social media and international conversation. There has even been interest from those wanting to buy the drawings.
In May, Nicholls was also invited to serve as a scholar and artist-in-residence at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, where she presented the Draw Yomi project and heard comments from people who had been learning daf yomi for years. She said she was “pleasantly delighted” by the feedback she received.
At this stage of the Draw Yomi project, Nicholls knows “a couple of people who like my art, check in and see my drawings quite regularly and have now started learning daf yomi themselves.”
“What she does is jump the language barrier,” said Rabbi Silver.