Guest post by Rabbi Dan Wolpe
Great art takes us on a journey. The journey connects us to some aspect of humanity in a profound and deep way. Whether the journey is one of discovery, or one of reconnection, it moves us on an emotional level.
Jacqueline Nicholls’ Drop By Drop, an animation series inspired by the four cups of wine drunk at Passover sdarim (seders), fulfills that mission admirably. Both a tribute to Jewish tradition, and a recognition of the pain and suﬀering brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, each sequence tells its own story while also being part of a larger narrative.
The first animation is, naturally enough, based on the first cup of wine drunk at the seder. Nicholls begins with part of the Sheheciyanu, the traditional blessing recited before drinking the first cup, that thanks God for sustaining us so we could be there on that day. She then takes a hard turn and laments how each day of the pandemic had been the same. The same day, the same night. The dichotomy between thanking God for a day and lamenting that days have become meaningless is both powerful and aﬀecting. How do we thank God for a day when all of the days have become the same? Nicholls answers the question with the powerful statement, “I am here now.”
If the first animation was a personal statement about what the artist has gone through during the pandemic, the second animation is a recognition of the universal suﬀering COVID has brought. As in so many personal journeys, there is a recognition that there is both individual suﬀering and communal suﬀering.
There is a recognition within this animation that a new world will dawn and things will get better, “but not yet.” First, there must be an acknowledgement not only of the loss of so many people and loved ones, but of the fact that even our grief has been disturbed by our inability to grieve together. By connecting this powerful animation to the second cup of wine, the cup most closely associated with the telling of the story of the Exodus, she intimates that we are not done telling the story of the last year, and cannot move on until it is told.
After speaking about her personal pain, and then extending it to the pain of the world, she continues to the next stop of our journey—human dignity. Only the recognition of human dignity can heal what we have gone through. In this animation, she brilliantly covers not only the human dignity as a concept, but honors some of the people who brought dignity to the plight of the pandemic—blood donors, medical teams and carers. In this way, she reminds us both of the fragility of humanity and the great potential of humanity.
This concept is an integral part of the Passover seder. For what is shows humanity’s fragility more than oppression? When we destroy the dignity of others, we destroy our own dignity, as well. But just as the Israelites were able to retain and restore self-respect as God redeemed them, the artist shows how so many retained and restored the nobility of humanity during this crisis.
If the first two animations went from the personal to the general, the next two went from the general to the personal. The third cup animation was about those who restored human dignity, The fourth cup animation is about how each of us can contribute to that goal.
Using the famous phrase from Hallel, “the dead can’t praise,” the artist reminds us that we are still here, and have an obligation to the memory of the fallen. Here, the artist starts to show us the light at the end of the tunnel. While earlier, she concentrated on the past, now she slowly shifts to the future. She reminds us that yes, many have fallen, but we are still here and we can create a future that is brighter and that honors the loved ones we have lost.
So far, the artist has taken us on a journey from individual pain to universal pain, and from universal deeds of relief to individual deeds of relief. Now, she moves on to the cup of Elijah. Here, the artist celebrates— at least for the night—that we are here. There is an understanding that while the world is not yet perfect, for now, for tonight, we can drink and eat and be joyful that we are here.
And yet, with each animation, as the words appear on screen, wine pours over them like blood on a wound. It is a callback to the tradition of taking out drops of wine when the Ten Plagues are recited, to acknowledge the suﬀering of the Egyptians. The motif reminds us that even in the moments when we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, there is loss that can never be repaired or replaced.
The power of this piece rests in its ability to both remind us of the losses of the last year, and renew hope for the future. Picasso said, “Art is the lie through which we see the truth.” Nicholls has proven him wrong.
There is stark truth here, presented in a powerful way that is sure to move anyone who views it.
Rabbi Dan Wolpe is the rabbi of the Flushing Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, a noted educator, and a produced and published playwright.