Art for Life: Give Me Art, or Give Me Death

by Deborah Plum

3988638662_98ef9c5a8cOmanoot o’namoot: art or we die. This play on words, found on an Israeli bumper sticker, demands that we reflect on how crucial art is to our existence. Art is one of the most accurate records of human history, a powerful form of cultural diplomacy, and a valuable educational tool. The arts offer a universal language that can connect people worldwide regardless of religious belief, political preference, or economic status. Anyone can benefit from both creating and experiencing art. Yet somehow it is funding for the arts that is often the first to be cut in the face of financial difficulty.

Too often the arts are seen as a luxury to be consumed and enjoyed only by the elite or as an extracurricular part of education. In schools across the globe, classes in the creative arts play smaller and smaller roles every year, and often only students with natural talent are encouraged to view art as a primary focus of study. As nonprofits and artists across the Jewish world face the threat of funding cuts and the disappearance of art programs in this economically unstable time, we should think twice about where we cut corners and what is essential.

Art production typically has not been considered a “Jewish” trait or trade in the way that Jewish literacy and academic intellect has. Aside from music, art also has not been highly prized in the Jewish world in terms of its spiritual value, in part due to the religious law prohibiting visual depictions of God.

Over the last century, as the Jewish people’s physical security has strengthened while the challenges to our sense of peoplehood have increased, the extent to which we are able and need to explore alternative avenues of identity and selfexpression have widened. This exploration is evident in no greater capacity than in the arts. Jewish texts, themes, and stories are being melded beautifully into modern music, film, and visual art – at once inspiring us to deepen our Jewish journey while challenging our preconceived notions. From singers such as Matisyahu and Ehud Banai, who weave ancient Jewish liturgy into their songs, to visual artists like Adi Nes, who restage biblical stories in a modern context as a biting critique, and Academy Award-nominated films such as Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir – throughout the Jewish world, art is being used as a bridge between past and present, the physical and the spiritual, and to point to the ideal while holding a mirror to reality.

Contemporary Israeli music, film, and visual art represent an authentic and complex look at Israel’s dynamic culture. Israeli artists grapple with contemporary and historic issues, secular and religious conflicts, politics, and personal trials and tribulations in an eloquent, enlightened, and attractive way. As popular Israeli musician Avraham Tal once said in an interview for Omanoot, “Israel doesn’t have its own culture; we have our religion, but our culture is mixed… We grew up listening to MTV, so that’s an influence. Then you hear your grandfather sing at the synagogue in a Moroccan style and everything together becomes authentic Israeli music.” It is just this courageous remixing of MTV and Moroccan Jewish chazanut (cantorial melodies), a dynamic mosaic of past and present, that has the power to shake conventional conceptions of Jewish identity and culture and allow Jews today to feel more ownership over both.

Art is one of the oldest forms of social commentary, one that inspires, evaluates, and sustains us. The decision to fund or support arts programming and organizations only in times of financial security is a mistake that sends a message that art is only for those who can afford it and that it is less important than other forms of expression or education. When arts funding is cut, the impact is felt not only by artists, but also by those who miss opportunities to experience the arts through museums and other cultural institutions and events. It hurts the organizations that fund, promote, teach and develop the arts – the very places that have the power to improve the face of our communities and to empower younger generations by offering new and creative ways to learn, teach, explore, and connect with others.

However, it is not only up to philanthropists to ensure the survival of such organizations and to support the arts. During what many view as a dark and scary financial time, it is up to us to purchase, explore, and experience Israeli and Jewish art and to ensure that it is integrated into educational programming and spiritual dialogue as a core aspect of Jewish expression and education.

The arts can bind our people together, and we must make the decision to weave the arts into the fabric of our daily lives, for to forfeit art would be to forfeit life itself. Omanoot o’namoot!

Deborah Plum lives inTel Aviv and is the Co-Founder and Director of Development for Omanoot. To learn more, visit

Image: Where shall we go for arts funding? Photo by Tamar Tal.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Philanthropy issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.