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Reimagining the Holidays: Eileen Levinson and the Miracle of Infinite Light


Like all the best Jewish high holidays, Chanukah is all about the food. Eight nights of family meals and traditional texts center around an ancient story of a one day supply of lamp oil that lasted over a week, allowing a city to survive a deadly military siege. Through the centuries and especially into an increasingly secular modern age, Chanukah traditions have expanded and evolved, yielding a general practice of meditation, good works, mashed-up theatrical and musical genres, and exuberant visual arts along with sophisticated fusion cuisines giving the matzoh and Manischewitz much needed makeovers as exciting as feminist-themed or artist-designed haggadahs (the famous dinnertime books containing all the Chanukah dinner ritual texts).

Artist Eileen Levinson has been among the most intriguing practitioners of this kind of modern hybrid practice of Judaism, in which the traditional principles and specific texts and rituals of daily and holy-day Jewish life receive cheeky, engaging, and conceptually profound updates that resonate with a youthful zeitgeist and a broader audience. With a degree from CalArts and a background in merging principles of avant-garde design with strategies of community living and daily social practice. For example, her eclectic "On Ritual" series itself is overtly Judaic, yet in her reimagining of basic tenets into party games and conversation starters, one clearly sees the same strategies employed elsewhere in her overall design practice which is very often interactive, multiplayer, and collaborative, informed by her avowed affection for the crowd-sourced structure of Wikipedia where everyone can augment and personal interpretation is legit.

Eileen Levinson, "Dress Me Up in Jew," 2007. 8.5 x 11 inches. llustration for PresenTense Magazine.

Projects like her "Deck of Prayer Cards," "Commandment Scorecard," alternative seder plate, conversion paper dolls, Haggadot.com, and "Facing East, Walking West" gently make hay of Jewish traditions like the 600 plus daily commandments for good behavior (or mitzvahs), the potential misunderstandings surrounding conversion, and the penchant for asking questions and personal storytelling that characterize ritual dinner conversations. In this spirit, Levinson has designed a new interactive sculptural installation which crowd-sources the very essence of hopeful holiday magic.

Her singular original work "Great Miracles Happen Here" graced the scene of the First Night launch event for L.A.'s Infinite Light -- a unique Chanukah festival with eight-plus days of food, music, meditation, fashion, cocktails, and comedy happening at some 40 venues all over the city. "Great Miracles Happen Here" is an interactive lightbox where people can write their everyday miracles and over time, create a luminous community sculptural mural. There will also be traveling pieces that are canvas and back-lit with a similar theme that will be at all of the other events across the city.

The series also reimagines the communing and festivities that usually occur around the Holidays, including a seder with artisanal thematic cocktails, hipster latkes, challah tastings, crafty candle-making, yoga, live concerts in living rooms, and a specially programmed Jewish edition of Mortified's uber-hilarious shame-sharing storytelling evenings. The series also includes Gelty Pleasures LGBTQ ally industry mixer, a citywide Instagram scavenger hunt, and a fashion show with looks created exclusively from the racks of the Jewish Federation's charitable Council Thrift Shops.

Eileen Levinson, "Great Miracles Happen Here."

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Top image: "Liberal Haggadah" by Haggadot. Created on Haggadot.com, the site is an online workspace for Jews of all backgrounds to upload, exchange and personalize Passover Haggadot.

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