by Joyce Kahn
Currently gracing the walls of the sanctuary at Beth Jacob Synagogue on Harrison Avenue in Montpelier are six large paintings of individual letters of the Hebrew alphabet — part of a complete collection of the 22 Hebrew letters donated by the family of Montpelier resident, Ivy Zeller. This ambitious collection, ALEPH TAV, Paintings of the Hebrew Letters, a Kabbalistic Journey, was painted over a seven-year period, between 1986 and 1994, by Zeller’s cousin, artist and spiritual seeker, Suann Lasker.
The paintings are large — teeming with energy and vibrancy. Lasker painted with raw pigment, which she mixed with gel medium to attain the bold, rich colors employed in her abstract style. Twenty-one paintings are glazed, matted and framed and have a sight size of 29 square inches. The paintings were spread throughout the Kober-Zeller residence in Watermill, N.Y., before finding their new home in Montpelier.
Lasker painted them in order, one by one, from Alef – Tav. Her interest in Kabbalistic study began while on a week-long retreat at the high hermitage at the Lama Foundation in in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico in 1979. Lasker was investigating meditation practices, and on the morning of her ascent she was given Carlo Suares’ Cipher of Genesis. According to Lasker, “This book introduced me to the Hebrew alphabet as a way of understanding sacred and cosmic energy.” It was 10 years later that she began to paint the Hebrew letters, “once reserved for scribes and priests.” Included in each painting is its equivalent in Phoenician script, serving as a visual and spiritual contrast. The booklet that Lasker assembled to accompany the exhibit gives the artist’s interpretation of the letters and, in her words, is a way of “sharing my inspiration and ruminations.”
Throughout her life, Lasker searched for truth, meaning, and deepened spirituality. Each painting was started with a private meditation focused on the individual letter. She then studied various meanings of the Hebrew letters, according to rabbis, teachers, and other scholars. After much intensive introspection and research, she began to paint. Some canvasses were painted quickly, at lightning speed. Most paintings took a long time. She wrestled with each letter, like a person wrestling with unsettled parts of her soul.
It was through the creation of the Hebrew letters that Lasker repaired her severed relationship with Judaism. After the letters were finished, she joined the Taos Minyan, in Taos, New Mexico.
The artist believed that all human struggles stem from our inner fight to find acceptance within ourselves. Perhaps when we can forgive ourselves, we can break the chains that bind all humanity.
Discussions have been held about how to display these letters in a way that honors both the artist and the work. One idea is to rotate different letters through, to indicate different words and concepts that can be used as kavannot (intentions) for prayer…. to direct our thoughts for prayer. Currently, the letters on the back wall of the synagogue are the letters shin-mem-ayin, forming the word “Shemah,” which means listen. The Jewish prayer that begins with this word is the quintessential Jewish prayer declaring God’s oneness. In the front of the sanctuary on one side is the letter dalet, which is the first letter of the Hebrew word “din,” whose meaning is justice. On the other side is the letter chet, the first letter of the word “chesed,” which means loving kindness. Both words are central themes for the Jewish High Holy Days, which were celebrated recently.
Suann Lasker was born in White Plains, New York on July 16, 1948, and died on May 14, 1998 at the young age of 50. Suann attended Yale University where she received her MFA in 1982.
Information for this article was provided by Ivy Zeller and based on interviews with Zeller’s husband and family members.
A note on Kabbalah by Suann Lasker:
Some say Adam was the original Kabbalist. The word Kabblah means “receiving” or inner teaching. It is the mystical side of Judaism which combines wisdom and intuition. A traditional phrase, the world that is coming, is often understood as referring to a far-off messianic era, turns into the timeless dimension of reality available here and now, if one is receptive.
The true and original Kabbalah belongs to a cycle when knowledge of the cosmic forces playing on human consciousness was directly and intuitively perceived. Historical evolution has developed the brain’s so called “objective“ power of thought. It is time for those peers to break through some of our barriers so cosmic energy can once again penetrate our psyche.