Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale

Photo by Martha Cooper

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

A story. Once upon a time in the old country, there was a tiny town in a wine-producing region of Eastern Europe. The villagers in this region heard that a revered and renowned rabbi was planning to visit their town on a grand tour. So they called a meeting and said, “We must host a great celebration in the rabbi’s honor.”

Then one of the villagers suggested, “Since we all make wine, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a wine festival where the rabbi could taste the very best of our wine?”

And then someone countered, “But each family only makes a little wine each year. A big celebration would use up a family’s entire supply of wine for a year.”

So they devised a plan. They put a big oak barrel in the center of town, and every week, just after sundown on Shabbat, every household was to bring a small pitcher of red wine and pour it into the cask. Then, by the end of the months, they would have a full cask.

If everyone thought the way that Mendel and Rebecca did, what would that mean for the protests? Perhaps that’s why the election turned out the way it did—so many people stayed home.

In one of the village families, Mendel went home and said to his wife Rebecca, “Listen, you know that everyone is going to be bringing wine, and we’re not a rich family. There’s going to be so much wine in that one cask, ours certainly will make no difference. Why don’t we just fill our pitcher up with water? When I take it to the barrel—I’ll pour it right at the lip—I guarantee you that no one will notice.” And that’s what he did, every week.

Six months later, the big day arrived. The villagers set up a stand in the center of town and put the cask on top of it. Right on schedule, the famous rabbi appeared. The townspeople were all very proud of their village and their wine, and they were anxious to impress the rabbi. They presented him with a beautiful, ceremonial kaddish cup to taste the wine and inaugurate the celebration. He put the lovely cup underneath the spigot, filled it up, and lifted it high.

Suddenly there was a gasp from the crowd: his cup was filled to the brim with water.

Live-Drawing from 2nd Ave. & 46th St., NYC Women’s March, January 21, 2017 © Flash Rosenberg 2017

This story, told to me years ago by Rabbi David Holtz and published in my book Because God Loves Stories, popped into my head as I sat on the bus on the way to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. If everyone thought the way that Mendel and Rebecca did, what would that mean for the protests? Perhaps, as my friend Barbara Dyer pointed out, that’s why the election turned out the way it did—so many people stayed home. It’s precisely that so many decided to “pour wine and not water” that we saw the numbers we did at the Women’s March and continue to see at other protests, such as those for immigrant and transgender rights. Though many through history have sacrificed more, their bodies and their blood, we all gave a measure of our time.

At the march in Washington, D.C., following Trump’s inauguration, I was struck too by the astonishing creativity we contributed collectively to the protests—from the puppets to the slogans and the imaginative signs: “We’re the witches you forgot to burn.” And the chants, this one heard from middle school children marching near the Capitol building: “We want a leader, we want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.”

We are inviting the public (you) to send us images of the signs and your stories to my email below. Let us know, too, if you saved your signs.

On my way home, my phoned binged and it was from the photographer Martha Cooper, who had also been at the march. “Why don’t we do something with all these signs?” She told me about the installation of signs created at the Washington Memorial.

We talked on the phone about how the magnitude and widespread dispersion of the signs and protests across the U.S. and beyond seemed as powerful an outcry as the memorials that cropped up nationwide after September 11th. At that time in 2001, City Lore, the nonprofit cultural center I direct on New York’s Lower East Side, worked with Martha to document the memorials and to produce both an online exhibit and an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society; fifteen years later, we had the opportunity to work with her again. We began to plan an exhibit in the City Lore gallery on the Art of Protest, and we are inviting the public (you) to send us images of the signs and your stories to my email below. Let us know, too, if you saved your signs.

As our bus pulled into Port Authority, another bit of Jewish folklore occurred to me—this time an often-quoted piece of wisdom from Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish sage:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

I began to spin a Talmudic gloss on the line to try to get to its deeper meaning. “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Yes, take action. “If not now, when?” Do it now!

“Painting, Hoping, Praying: Women’s March on Washington.” Artwork by Jessica Mongeon

But the first line made me think a little deeper. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” You cannot be only for yourself, but we need to find ways to channel our outrage into creative acts that mean something in our lives. We need to do it for our own sake and our own sanity, to avoid becoming depressed, and in that way, let the other side win. We are doing this so our own lives have meaning as creative beings at the same time as we try to effect change in the world. The signs and chants represent art for social change at its best, but they also speak to the poetry of everyday life. So do it for yourself, for your army of one—then let it become an army of two and then four, then 400,000. Let us protest creatively.

And so—as it happened in story—my wife Amanda and I decided not to skimp on the wine we poured into the cask. We got on the bus to Washington, D.C. Because we marched, 500,000 marched. Because you did, others did. Three million worldwide.


“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.”

Zeitlin’s blog continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. He is a folklorist, and wants to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to

Learn more about The Poetry of Everyday Life.

Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale