By Jonathan Rotsztain
Asylum Arts is a beautiful dream made real. Bringing multi-disciplinary artists from around the world together to discuss our practices and professions as well as skill-share, successfully aids artists in building solidarity, inspiring and supporting one another. Asylum creates a context for cross-pollination and collaboration. And the common denominator of a connection to Judaism highlights the unique position Jewish artists hold to create and shape Jewish identity.
I first attended the Asylum Arts Retreat in Garrison, NY in May 2015. The experience was transformative. I was introduced to talented artists and exposed to new modes of thinking, working and experiences of Judaism. In an idyllic setting along the shores of the Hudson River, I was inspired to build my personal and professional practice and further bring Jewish themes into my art practice.
I met Michael Rubenfeld during my initial Asylum encounter. Michael is an accomplished actor, director and playwright. We immediately connected over our shared history and interests. As the only Canadians in a group of almost 80, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that many years later, Michael went to the same high school as my mother did in Winnipeg, that we were both the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and that we use our art practices to explore the trauma of the Holocaust and how it effects our contemporary Jewish identities.
With the generous support of an Asylum Arts grant along with the ROI Community, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Toronto and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, Michael and I spent the last year collaborating on a comic book project. Featuring my artwork, Motherland tells Michael’s autobiographical story of confronting intergenerational trauma and reclaiming Jewish Poland. Our 20 page preview is now available in English and will debut in Polish at this year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków.
Asylum has directly inspired another sequential work. Self-Loving Jew will premiere shortly on Koffler.Digital, a new multimedia storytelling platform launched by Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts. The series of comic strips essays explore Judaism while fostering secular Jewish identity. The first instalment, 10 Commandments, lays out the principles of reclaiming the self-hating Jew aspersion in favour of a confident cultural practice. The first three instalments will appear in June with more to follow.
Motherland and Self-Loving Jew are direct manifestations of the investment and energy I gained by attending the 2015 Asylum Arts Retreat. It was a great privilege to attend this year’s Asylum Arts All-Star edition. Returning to Garrison this May for another retreat was a welcome homecoming. I reconnected with friends made last year while befriending many more talented, dedicated Jewish artists from each of the Asylum’s previous iterations.
So much has happened in the last year. Through Asylum, I’m now part of a large and growing network of global creatives. I am imbued with a deeper sense of and commitment to my Jewish identity. I am collaborating and making meaningful work about powerful Jewish subjects. Following this year’s Asylum reunion, I am more inspired than ever to tell Jewish stories through my art.
Jonathan Rotsztain is a writer, cartoonist and graphic designer in Toronto. Learn more at rotsztain.com