Art for a Change:
an under-tapped tool
by Yael Miriam
Over the past 10 years, Jewish arts initiatives have been expanding – with the potential to engage us in new and meaningful ways, support the expansion of a diversified community, and deepen understanding of our culture. Yet while the opportunities for those already engaged in both their Jewish and artistic identities are flourishing, there is even greater potential to develop educational opportunities and outreach – to allow art to be the great tool of social change it has the potential to be.
For those interested in Jewish exploration, engaging with Jewish art has many advantages. The shared experience of engaging with art and artistic programming provides a focal point which brings together Jews from a variety of backgrounds. This offers the potential for developing pluralistic, diverse communities. Furthermore, art provides a center for our Jewish life and identity, which is an alternative or compliment to religious observance or political affiliation regarding Israel.
“Art presents a nontraditional way of relating to Jewish values; for young people to whom the traditions are not compelling, art offers a way to cultivate a Jewish identity that, while itself new, is grounded in deep Jewish values,” Elise Bernhardt, CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Culture, states.
Art allows us to develop our own identity more deeply and holistically around Jewish ethics and ideas without being dogmatic or exclusionary. “Good art is more about the questions than the answers – a very Jewish quality in itself,” Bernhardt explains.
Once art is integrated into a communal narrative, proponents of art’s place in Jewish life believe that it is not just an internal force holding the community together, but that it can be a force affecting the wider world as well. One such leader in Jewish art nonprofits, Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub Records, a Jewish record label and key contributor to the world of Jewish arts which is soon closing, states, “Art can play an important role in social change within a community, as both a prophetic voice catalyzing a new vision as well as a mirror reflecting the needs, desires, hopes, and heartache. At its most powerful moments, Jewish culture can serve in these roles for the Jewish community.”
Having the opportunity to connect with Jewish life and creative life simultaneously offers opportunities for an expansive Jewish network as well as an exciting cultural experience. Yet simply the creation of, and access to, art is not enough when the work is often left without contextualization. Resident Artist of The Jewish Agency’s educational program Makom Robbie Gringras comments, “Just a piece of art may do a particular structure, it allows for a way to look at your lives and engage with it.” We are lacking the critical debriefs and educational opportunities following an artistic event that can expand upon the content of the work in a profound way, utilizing the power of the arts to consider new philosophies we have not previously entertained.
Not only can education be applied to the world of art with great results – the reverse is true as well. The dread that far too many of us are familiar with as we enter Hebrew school or synagogue or even Jewish summer camp is often felt because the learning does not appeal to all of our senses and meet us where we are. In this digital age, we require kinesthetic learning and creative, active involvement. The arts are a powerful and underused tool in this field.
“What we consume is what we become, and the more we can do so with Jewish and Israeli art, the closer we are to our own Jewish identity. It’s all part of our discourse, our language. To be able to reference an Israeli film allows our identity to become that much richer, and Judaism, Israel, and Zionism is a living-breathing thing,” says Edoe Cohen of Omanoot.com.
As attendance at events screening Israeli films, exhibits of visual art based on Talumdic text, and high intensity concerts in Hebrew and English increases, so too should our facilitation of educational dialogues around the Jewish themes of that work. This is a profound opportunity to open up nuanced discussion regarding critical issues of Jewish peoplehood and identity. We yearn for these conversations, and the arts have always been a place where these experiences can take shape.
Yet for those who do not already self-identify as Jewishly affiliated or artistic, accessing these opportunities can be challenging. Currently, Jewish artistic creators and consumers often find themselves within the same preexisting community, and the need for expansion to those beyond that circle have not been met.
It is the responsibility of those working in the field of Jewish art to both reach out to new audiences as well as to develop programming that supports learning at artistic events. It is not enough for Jewish artists to produce Jewishly; we must encourage Jewish consumption, knowledge acquisition, and the support of engaging with new ideas within diverse group settings. By utilizing art as a tool to strengthen individual Jewish identity and the complexities of a Jewish peoplehood, we allow creative thought to deepen who we are.
Yael Miriam is a Brooklyn-based performance artist and educator. She recently returned from living in Tel Aviv as a recipient of the Dorot Fellowship.