As we enter Thanksgiving with mixed feelings—with equal parts appreciation and anxiety—a Jewish teaching from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Ancestors, has been playing in my mind.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
One good deed will draw to it another good deed.
There are a few ways we see this insight in action. When we do something good, it feels good. It makes us want to do it again. We exercise that muscle, and it becomes a habit.
But there is another way this insight plays out. When we see someone else do something good, we are inspired. It makes us want to be better.
In this time of constraint, with long lists of things we cannot do, Thanksgiving has traditionally been a time to catalog the good we have, the good we witness and the good we have done. Sometimes it helps to make that good dazzlingly visible.
A dear friend who lives in a senior community in Claremont was one of four hundred residents who had the pleasure of creating an inspiring art installation. Artist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Elizabeth Turk asked residents at the Mt. San Antonio Gardens, who had lived through many turns of the wheel, knowing both pleasure and pain, “What do you tell yourself when you face adversity?” “Be brave.” Be loving always.” “Breathe.” “Look for opportunity.” “Help others.”, they told the younger artist.
“Plunging into this project has been an act of grace, because it’s kept me optimistic…What better community to engage with to remind us of joy and resilience—vulnerable people leading us back to joy and togetherness?” Turk reflected.
She turned those words into moving images, creating an unforgettable multimedia installation. She painted colorful umbrellas with floral designs—of plants that thrive even in the face of adversity. She invited the residents, holding those umbrellas, to dance in rhythmic, choreographed movement on the 31-acre property. Anyone who wanted to participate could. Those without mobility, she photographed. Residents in wheelchairs had umbrellas affixed to them. Slow walkers were welcome in the slow dances.
Elizabeth Turk filmed the kaleidoscope of color and movement from above, calling it “Project: Look Up”. She intended both meanings. Bedecked in masks as colorful as the umbrellas they held aloft, the seniors moved to uplifting music, including the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, opening and closing their umbrellas in unison as they swirled and danced.
Many of us think of retirement communities as sleepy or gloomy, but these residents brought their vitality, their optimism, their years of triumph over hardship, their wisdom. While the pandemic kept spectators from viewing the performance, the New York Times featured the event, including a video so many more people could experience the power of art, ritual and community. Feast your own eyes on the beauty Elizabeth Turk and the Mt. San Antonio Gardens residents collaborated to create—it will draw more good into your own life.
(The article is found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/20/arts/design/artist-elizabeth-turk-retirement-community.html and video of the installation can be found at https://vimeo.com/481464739)
The late anthropologist, Barbara Myerhoff, taught that the power of ritual is that it is our own bodies that convince us of transformation. Think of two people under the wedding canopy dressed in their finery, standing before the clergy person who changes their status, pronouncing them married. They and all who see them are linked through that bond.
Not only Elizabeth Turk and her dancers, but those of us who hear and feel the music, see the dazzling colors unite, separate and change, and smile at their delight are able to look up, to imagine vistas beyond the ordinary.
As Louis Armstrong sings,
“I see skies of blue
And clouds of white
The bright blessed day
The dark sacred night
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
One good deed pulls another in its wake. Elizabeth Turk was inspired by the residents. The seniors were inspired by her artistry. And we can be inspired by the story.
As we welcome Thanksgiving in this atypical of years and circumstances—our own time’s dark sacred night—let us nonetheless look up—and lift up and inspire those around us.
“Be brave.” Be loving always.” “Breathe.” “Look for opportunity.” “Help others.”
Happy Thanksgiving. May our holiday be filled with joy, resilience, health, beauty, color, dance and music.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann
Senior Associate Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life