Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, 2014 Twersky Award Finalist
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves as rabbi/educator at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA, and lives with his partner, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, in Oakland. Rabbi Mike has received accolades for his spiritual and educational programming in synagogue, camp, and Hillel settings. He has also done extensive work with faith–based social justice organizations, including Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Network. Last summer he joined a rabbinic delegation to Ghana, sponsored by American Jewish World Service. An ordinee of the pluralistic Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, Rabbi Mike has appeared in several media outlets, including WAMC Public Radio, CNN, and WABC–TV. A sermon of his was included in the anthology Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition. When not spending late nights at the synagogue, his interests include fair wages, Bob Dylan, and manual transmission.
Lesson Plan: Selling Soap, Smashing Sexism, Seeing Ourselves
Finding our own voices in received images and received Torah through the work of Jewish artist Barbara Kruger
This lesson was part of a semester–long elective on Jewish art and artists at the Contra Costa Midrasha community high school. The lesson was taught over the course of three sessions. It was designed for Jewish students in grades 8 through 12.
- Students will develop a critical eye in looking at images of women in advertising.
- Students will be given an opportunity to discuss their reactions to those images.
- Students will become familiar with the work of Jewish artist Barbara Kruger and identify her use of advertising tropes to convey social and political messaging.
- Students will become more familiar with powerful “slogans” within our written Torah.
- Students will utilize Kruger–esque techniques in creating original artwork based on verses from Torah.
- Historical images of women in American advertising
- JWA bio of Barbara Kruger
- New York Times article about Barbara Kruger and her work
- Current magazine images of women and girls, old Hebrew school textbooks, posters
- Plain paper
- Quotes from Torah in “Kruger font” (Futura Bold, white letters on red background)
- Scissors and glue
- Introduction (5 minutes)
Ask: Have you ever been affected by a picture or message in an advertisement? Did it make you feel something about yourself? Explain.
- Images of women in American advertising (20 minutes)
Activity:Project the following images so that the entire class can see:
- “Show her it's a man's world”
- “This is no shape for a girl”
- “The Subaru GL Coupe. Like a spirited woman who yearns to be tamed.”
- “Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere.”
Questions for Discussion:
- How do these images make you feel?
- Who is each of these images talking to?
- Is there a unifying message in these advertising? What is it?
- Who is speaking in each advertisement? Where do they get their authority?
- Barbara Kruger and Her Work (25 minutes)
Have the class read the following information from Barbara Kruger’s bio:
Barbara Kruger was born in Newark, New Jersey, on January 26, 1945, into a lower–middle–class Jewish family. Her father was a chemical technician, her mother a legal secretary. Kruger studied at Syracuse University, the School of Visual Arts, and the Parsons School of Design. At Parsons, she took courses with photographer Diane Arbus and graphic designer and art director Marvin Israel. Although she never completed a degree in her chosen field, fine arts, Kruger’s association with Israel landed her a job with Condé Nast Publications. Within a year, at age twenty-two, she was chief designer at Mademoiselle...
A kind of propaganda in reverse, Kruger’s works grab one’s attention much as an effective advertisement does, with one significant difference. Where advertising conceals its methods of persuasion, Kruger draws attention to them, asking us to scrutinize these methods, so as to better educate ourselves about the power of the media. The artist uses advertising’s techniques—enticement, shock, provocation, and a direct address to the viewer—in order to teach us how the two languages of persuasion—photographs and words—influence us. Believing that no message is neutral, Kruger would have us be critical interpreters, rather than passive consumers, of the media.
Activity: Project the following images so that the entire class can see:
- Your body is a battleground
- I shop therefore I am
- You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men
- Who is free to choose? Who is beyond the law?
Questions for Discussion:
- How are these works of art similar to the advertisements we looked at previously? How are they different?
- How do these images make you feel? Do you like them?
- Is there a social message in each of these works? What is it?
- Are they persuasive? Where do they get their authority?
Received voices, and our own voices (15 minutes)
Explain: Barbara Kruger’s use of advertising techniques is part of a bigger criticism of society. She is asking us to question the assumptions that are unspoken in the messages we receive from public messages, both in advertising and other public spaces.
Have the class read the following quotes:
(Excerpts, “She Has a Way With Words,” LA Times, October 17, 1999)
“My work is about how people are with each other. It's about social relations. I'm using aggressiveness and direct address to foreground that. It's what we do to each other.”
“It's about fear of difference and wanting to destroy it. From road rage to war, the behavior is not that dissimilar. Whether it is a battle around issues of race or aesthetics, it's all nuts.”
“Humor is an important part of the work. I'm trying to create a collision between the hilarious and the tragic.”
New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says of Kruger, “What can sell soap can smash sexism.”
Questions for Discussion:
- Does Kruger’s work make you think about how people act with each other? How?
- Can a work of art be both funny and tragic?
- Do you feel that the works of art smash sexism and other social prejudices? Are they more or less effective than persuasive arguments?
Received Torah (10 minutes)
Explain: The original “text messages” for the Jewish people came from our Torah. In a moment you will look at famous quotes, each one of which come from one of the books of Torah.
Instruction: Take a look at these quotes from Torah, and find one that that interests you. When you find one, let us know and we’ll identify its context.
Display the following quotes, printed in 48-point type on paper, individually cut out, so that everyone can see them:
- Am I my brother’s keeper
- Hear, O Israel, Adonai is God, Adonai is One
- Let my people go
- Adonai regretted that He had made Man
- Choose Life
- Go forth from your land
- Cursed shall be the ground because of you
- The serpent tricked me and I ate
- They set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor
- Why doesn’t the bush burn up
- Pharaoh’s heart was hardened
- The waters were split and Israel went into the sea on dry ground
- May Adonai bless and keep you
- Love your neighbor as yourself
- I will assign this land to your offspring
- Take your son, your only one
- There is no god but Me
- Ask your father, he will tell you
- Her husband’s brother shall unite with her
- Remember that you were a slave
- Leave the corner for the poor
- A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him.
- The man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver
- When you approach a town to attack it, call out to it for peace
Questions for Discussion
- Does the Torah quote make you think about how people act with each other? How?
- Do you feel that the quotes smash social prejudices or enforce them?
- Can you think of an image that would support each quote? Can you think of images that would undermine each quote?
Creating works of Kruger Torah (40 minutes)
Instructions: In front of you there are numerous magazines, textbooks, and posters. Your task is to combine them with your quotes! Find images that you want to match up with your texts. Think: do you want to support the quote? Criticize it? Make a joke about it? Do the pictures inspire you or upset you?
The rabbis of our tradition would sometimes combine Torah quotes from different books to create new interpretations. Think about if you want to mix different parts of individual texts. How can you combine images and Torah text to make your own voice heard?
- Evaluation and Review: Hearing our voices, seeing ourselves (10 minutes)
Have students place completed work where everyone can see it.
Questions for discussion:
- Describe the emotions you see in the work. What language would you use to describe the qualities (i.e., tragic, ugly, funny)? What is the voice of the artist telling us?
- Does the piece remind you of emotions you have experienced in your own life? Do you agree with the message?
- How does the work relate to the Kruger pieces we have seen?
- How does it make you feel about the quote? About the artist? About the Torah in general?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, 2014 Twersky Award Finalist." (Viewed on February 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/twersky/michael-rothbaum>.