When Sara Shalva, the chief arts officer of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, suggested to her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Shalva, that he submit a piece of writing to Hazon’s Shmita Prizes art competition, he was reluctant at first to do so, as he felt his writing needed to originate from his “internal drive.”
In the end, Sara Shalva won him over with a compelling rationale.
“‘That’s silly,’” Rabbi Shalva, a resident of Pikesville, recalled his wife saying to him. “‘Write the piece, submit it and then go back to writing what’s inside.’ And so I said, ‘OK, fine.’”
Sara Shalva’s argument would be validated in the end, as Rabbi Shalva, a freelance rabbi who has worked for a number of local synagogues, including Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Beth El Congregation of Baltimore, won first prize in the written word category for his short story “Thistle.”
This is the first year that Hazon has held the Shmita Prizes competition, which recognizes artworks that explore shmita values in contemporary life. The competition gave first-place awards and honorable mentions to artists in five different categories: ritual object, fine art, video, performance art and written word.
Last year, Hazon, a national Jewish environmental organization, merged with the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown.
According to Sarah Zell Young, Hazon’s director of strategic partnerships, the Shmita Prizes, and the larger Shmita Project they are a part of, grew out of an interest in exploring the traditional Jewish practice of shmita, which calls for land to be left unattended for one year out of every seven.
“We wanted to use the power of the art to explore the intersection of shmita teachings and contemporary Jewish life,” said Young, a resident of Highland Park, N.J. “The Shmita Prizes is a call for creatives to engage with shmita to bring focus and relevancy for shmita values in our contemporary world.”
The initial idea came from Nigel Savage, Hazon’s former CEO and current global ambassador, who heard an observation from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, founder of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, on how everything in Jewish life, except for shmita, has an associated ritual. Savage wanted to hold a contest to create a shmita ritual object, and so the Shmita Prizes were born, Young said. As planning progressed, four additional categories were built into the Shmita Prizes: fine art, performance, written word and video. More than 250 entries from 11 countries were submitted.
Rabbi Shalva said his short story “Thistle” is centered around an American couple who have made aliyah to Israel and are having difficulty conceiving.
“At the beginning of this struggle with fertility, because they see that it’s not going well, they make a promise to each other that they’re going to try for seven years, without kind of turning to any other possibility, like adoption or something like that,” Shalva said.
The story is made up of “snippets and reflections” from the husband’s perspective of the seven-year journey the couple undergoes, Shalva said. The story also looks at their lives as immigrants in Israel.
“I began the piece with this verse from ‘The Book of Nehemiah,’” Shalva said. “There’s this line that says, ‘We shall surrender the seventh year.’ And I really wanted to look at the emotional impact of surrender. What does it mean to give up, and what does it look like? Because shmita is all about, in some ways, releasing our agenda. You can’t cultivate the fields anymore, you have to let go, you have to surrender and you have to kind of let the land do what it will. And so this was a piece about doing that, but kind of in the realm of fertility, in the realm of marriage and in the realm of the emotions.”
Meanwhile, Bolton Hill resident Anna Fine Foer received an honorable mention for her fine art submission, “That’s Not Land, That’s Sky.”
Foer, a member of Beth Am Synagogue, recalled making a collage focused on the concept of shmita during a residency program for Jewish artists in 2015, though she was not satisfied with the visual quality of the final product and did not think much of it again for years afterwards.
When Foer learned about Hazon’s Shmita Prizes, she saw the opportunity to “simplify what I had made, and make it more graphic,” she said.
Foer took the original collage she had made years ago, cut out the parts she liked and combined those parts with other images saved in her files. In the shmita spirit of allowing land to rest, she chose to avoid printing any new materials for the collage.
Foer’s collage focused on the subject of hydroponic farms and how they represent the Jewish capacity to find ways around various religious strictures.
“The idea is, in Israel, shmita says you can’t grow anything in the ground,” Foer said. “So in my collage, I’m saying these are hydroponic growing fields that aren’t in the land, they’re in the sky. … It’s above the ground, the roots of the plants aren’t in the ground. So therefore it’s a workaround.”
When asked what Hazon hopes the Shmita Prizes might have on the wider community, Young noted how shmita invites people to rethink the world they live in and to focus on how they can live differently.
“We’re hoping that the more awareness that people have of shmita in the world, the more sustainable community we can create for all,” Young said.