Deeply Rooted - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Deeply Rooted

Main Content

On View: August 24, 2012 – December 14, 2012
Opening Reception: October 17, 2012 at 5-7 pm

At our core, we strive to feel connected — rooted in something deeper and broader than ourselves. We desire love, community, and a sense of meaning. Deeply Rooted explores the connection between the two primordial trees in the Garden of Eden — the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It explores both the literal and metaphoric understanding of these powerful symbols as they have developed over the centuries and have been used in science, religion, and philosophy.

The Bible’s Tree of Life/Etz Chayim is often used as a metaphor for Torah — symbolizing the many ways in which Torah has sustained the Jewish People. Beyond just a Jewish context, the Tree of Life shares common roots with a common ancient Near Eastern motif of magical plants whose fruit confers immorality. This potent and widespread symbol is celebrated in the work of Maddy LeMel, who explores the many forms that a tree may take. Best known for her mixed-media constructions incorporating found objects, LeMel reclaims materials in order to give a second life to each new work — creating art from wire, thread, paper, and metal fragments that demonstrates a deep understanding of light and space.

In Kabbalah, the Tree of Life is associated with the sephirot, the ten mystical entry points of God’s emanation into the world. Kabbalists look to this powerful chart as a pathway to holiness and a diagram illustrating the process of the world’s coming into being. Like a mystic charting divine pathways Bonita Helmer intertwines spiritual images with those that stem from quantum mechanics, Kabbalah, Buddhism, and astrophysics to explore both the inner and outer realms of existence. In this exhibition, each selected work contains an image of outer space together with other symbolism, including pomegranates/rimmonim, branches, leaves, and the Helix Nebula (Eye of God).

Emerging artist Hillel Smith is utilizing contemporary media techniques to create Jewish posters infused with cultural resonance. His Aleph series reminds us of the mystical act of creation— in which God spoke and the world came into being. Thus, these images play on the Tree of Life as a metaphor for all of Torah. In another work, Smith continues his exploration of creation by developing Hebrew typography highlighting the night sky. The letters spell out the Jewish liturgical phrase, avinu shebashamayim, “Our Father in Heaven.” As part of this installation, the viewer is invited to take a copy of the poster with them, and in so doing to connect personally with the themes of creation found in the exhibition.

There was a second tree in the Garden- the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil/Etz haDa’at. The Kabbalistic Tradition explains that Adam and Eve’s sin of eating from this tree was the beginning of the blending of Good and Evil. Thus began the human responsibility of berurim, the sifting and refining of the material world in order to discover and elevate its hidden sparks of holiness. Gary Frederick Brown’s clay vessels embody this philosophy, acting as reminders that creation is fragile, tender, unknown, and potentially explosive. The robust curves, delicate openings, and beautiful glazes powerfully remind the viewer of the Kabbalistic notion that the scattered sparks of divinity were the result of the shattering of clay vessels, which once contained God’s pure light. Brown’s work is also a reminder that through our actions we can find shalom —a longed for wholeness.

The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, 1526-1609) explains that each human being is like a tree. Our body is the trunk and our arms are the branches. However, we grow “upside-down” as our roots are not planted below, but rather reach up to the Heavens. We are echoes of the first trees—seeking knowledge and the power to discern between Good and Evil and clinging to life and an ongoing connection to the Universe.

Members of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion community in Los Angeles have shown a steadfast commitment to remaining deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, values, and history. Our programs, scholars, students, and alumni strive continuously to unearth new ways to connect our teachings and ideals to the modern world. This exhibition is a celebration of their actions — reminding viewers to seek deep truths and to allow their roots to soar toward Heaven.

Artists in Deeply Rooted:

  • Gary Frederick Brown
  • Bonita Helmer
  • Maddy LeMel
  • Hillel Smith

Organized by Anne Hromadka, Guest Curator of the Art Collection and Exhibitions at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, in partnership with campus’ Enhancement Committee.

3077 University Avenue, Los Angeles

Entrance on Hoover Street between 30th and 32nd streets


Group Tours and Information:
213-765-2106 or