If the seder is a family drama around the dinner table, with the haggadah as our script, we are charged to be method actors when we play it out: to take a leap of spiritual imagination and see and feel our way into this story, as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt. There are stage props to help us out, sitting among the fine china and crystal–seder plates, cups, symbolic foods–what I like to think of as “ritual tools.” In my work as an architect, exhibit designer, and Judaica artist, I create these kinds of tools, paying close attention to the stories they can tell us.
Design is communication. Every design decision reveals an attitude, a story the creator wants to tell–how can this help us re-live the Exodus narrative? I’d like to share my designs for three Miriam’s cups that attempt to do just that at the seder.
Moses is famously absent from this telling of the story in which he is a pivotal actor–perhaps it is not surprising then that Miriam is absent as well. The creation of the new tradition of the Miriam’s Cup in the late 1980s enabled us, through a visual rather than textual reference, to give Miriam a place at the table. While this addition seemed a radical move, it fulfilled the Rabbis’ traditional charge to use the seder as a forum to evoke questions and to engage.
When I was first asked to design a Miriam’s Cup for an exhibition sponsored by Ma’yan, I was a bit stymied. My artistic process always begins with extensive text study–ferreting out all mentions of an object, act, or symbol in our literature (Tanakh, Midrash, Mishna and Gemara, modern commentaries, etc.). What was I to do with this new project that had no basis in the tradition? But although there is no mention of a Miriam’s Cup, (the seder plate is already mentioned in the Mishnah, and has a huge body of halachic and interpretive texts illuminating it), Miriam the prophetess is certainly present throughout these writings.
In these three cups, I wanted to highlight different aspects of Miriam’s character that emerge from our tradition, to communicate the ways in which she propels the Exodus story forward.
Miriam’s Cup I is a restless vessel, like Miriam’s ancient well dancing with the people Israel at the Red Sea. It is heard as well as seen; the cymbals on the bowl’s perimeter respond to the slightest vibration of the table. On the seder table, it echoes the sounds of freedom—the wind rustling through grasses, the murmuring of exiles, a joyous song with a tambourine.
The bowl is also a reflective hemisphere, technically ‘bottomless”: recalling the bottomless well of living waters associated with Miriam. And the thin reeds supporting the bowl’s rim remind us of Miriam’s role in rescuing Moses from his basket of bulrushes along the reeds of the Nile.
Miriam’s Cup II emphasizes movement. Dancing arms, dancing waves rim this cup: Miriam dancing to the Song at the Sea, her outstretched arms calling forth a well of living waters. The sterling vessel is a rippled mirror, like a watery surface touched by the wind. It invites interaction — participants at the seder can twirl the arms of the cup to create their own patterns.
Miriam’s Kiddush Cup again celebrates Miriam the musician. It is based on the ancient Egyptian percussion instrument, the sistrum, which perhaps she would have played at the crossing of the Red Sea. Its design was inspired by an archeology exhibition I saw at The Oriental Institute in Chicago which featured instruments of the Pharaonic periods. And its dangling timbrels recall the earrings of the noble women of Israel who donated their jewelry for the making of the tabernacle, later in the story of the Exodus.
The ability, indeed the mitzvah, to use our ritual “tools” as provocations to thought and action is especially apparent on Pesach. The seder is a very visual experience, and its emphasis on learning through seeing can engage the broadest possible community. Ritual objects, unlike texts, are trans-denominational. They can speak to everyone, no matter what their perspective or theology. They are also open to Jews of all levels of commitment and knowledge — even those who cannot ask a question. We can use them to bring all of our sons to the table. A Miriam’s Cup may help us bring our daughters there as well.
Amy Reichert is an award winning architect, exhibition designer, and designer of Judaica. Since 1996, when she won second place in the Philip and Sylvia Spertus Judaica Prize for her seder plate, she has participated in invited juried exhibitions in museums around the world. Her work can be seen on display at The Jewish Museum, NY, The Jewish Museum, Vienna, The Yale University Art Gallery, and The San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum. She received her B.A. and M.Arch from Yale University, and combines her studio work with teaching at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.
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