One of the world’s most famous and beloved artists will now have an even larger platform to share her work, with the sky as her canvas. On the morning of November 28, a balloon by Yayoi Kusama will soar over New York City as part of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a collaboration between the artist’s studio, which conceived the work, and Macy’s balloon specialists, who built it. It will fly among the many famous cartoon characters. “Her work lends itself to that playful whimsy that we like to see in the sky,” Susan Tercero, the parade’s executive producer, told ARTnews. “What’s fantastic about her art, and why I think she’s so world-renowned, is that it is so accessible. Everyone can look at her art and appreciate it, understand it, and feel something from it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” The parade organizers have wanted to work with Kusama for years, Tercero said, and with an exhibition of her work set to open at David Zwirner (gallery owner) in Chelsea on November 9, felt that now was the right time. Kusama, who is 90 years old and lives in Japan, will be the first woman to take part in this collaboration. Kusama’s balloon – which will carry one of her signature poetic titles, “Love Flies up to the Sky,” is a face of an animated sun with numerous reddish-orange tentacles that are covered with more than 300 white polka dots. Dots and more dots are the Kusama trademark. According to Wikipedia: When she was ten years old, she began to experience vivid hallucinations that she has described as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” These hallucinations also included flowers that spoke to Kusama, and patterns in fabric that she stared at coming to life, multiplying, and engulfing or expunging her, a process she has carried into her artistic career and which she calls “self-obliteration.” Kusama’s art became her escape from her family and her own mind when she began to hallucinate. She was reportedly fascinated by the smooth white stones covering the bed of the river near her family home, which she cites as another of the seminal influences behind her lasting fixation on dots. “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm, round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity,” Yayoi Kusum claims about her self-obsession.
Who could imagine that a simple dot could hold such meaning in a person’s mind and artistic creation? Are dots really that “pashut”?
The Torah doesn’t think so at all! As a matter of fact, dots can alter a meaning behind an entire sentence. It can completely change a sound pronouncement of a Hebrew letter. It can change everything you thought it meant or didn’t mean at all. What I mean to say is a dot says a lot! These particular dots are significant as they concern an odd placement of printed points preserved in the Torah. To appreciate these dots, though, you need to return to the actual Hebrew text in which the Torah was originally written by G-d. Hebrew is a beautiful language, but since it is in the Semitic family of tongues it is markedly different from English. It does not require complete vowel markers in order to be read. In fact, the Hebrew alphabet is typically considered to not be possessive of true vowel letters, even though vowels certainly are employed in pronouncing the Hebrew language. Such a detail makes for a unique reading experience. There is a system of vowel marks added to the Hebrew text to aid the reader in properly identifying the words contained therein. They are constructed of dots and dashes that are placed above or below the letters, which allows the reader to pronounce the terms written with precision, yielding an accurate reading comprehension. These vowel markings have faithfully preserved the general pronunciation of the ancient Hebrew text for us to this very day. The Hebrew name for these marks is nekudot. What is interesting, though, is that while texts with vowel-points are allowed to be used in Hebrew books, when it comes to an actual scroll of the Torah it is strictly forbidden. A person must know how to pronounce the text or else you might easily make a mistake (and he will be publicly corrected!).
A sofer (scribe) who writes a Torah parchment is commanded to include dots in a few very specific places. The dots are placed above a letter always and are inked-in enough to clearly distinguish them as intentional rather than a slip of the feather! These dots are also referred to as nekudot but have a more compelling significance than common Hebrew pronunciation. One famous example occurs with the most dots appearing in a parshah, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). The phrase “lanu u’l’vaneinu ad – for us and for our sons unto…” has nekudot over every single letter except for the last letter of the word ad. The reason for the strange use of dots is answered in the Talmud Bavli, tractate Sanhedrin 43b. “Why are there dot over lanu u’l’vaneinu and over the ayin in ad? To teach that He did not punish for the secret [sins] until Israel crossed the Jordan. [These] are the words of Rav Yehudah. Rav Nechemyah said to him: ‘And did He ever punish [all] for secret [sins]? Does it not say, “unto everlasting?” But as He did not punish concerning secret [sins], so He did not punish concerning that which is revealed until Israel crossed the Jordan.’”
Dots are hugely significant in their placement all over the Torah. I’m not approaching any of this with an ability to truly understand why they are positioned where they are. I leave that to the great Torah scholars throughout the centuries. As an artistic expression steeped in emotional pain or multitude impressions of a sofer’s quill, dots have a powerful message to relay to us. Maybe it’s a life lesson to never underestimate the smaller things in life. Maybe it’s a reminder that your small choices are important because they allow you to make the bigger ones, but maybe it’s G-d telling you that the small mitzvot are just as important as the big ones. Find your personal dot, understand its worth, big and small, pronounced or silent, simple or complicated, and then let it soar in the sky like a big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloon.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.