Why Do the Arts Matter?

Response toWhat theNew NormalMight Look Like in the Jewish Community

Photo credit: Nir Landau

By Laura Mandel

A recent eJewish Philanthropy article, What the “New Normal” Might Look Like in the Jewish Community, gave a matter-of-fact snapshot of what we might expect in the new COVID/post-COVID world – most of it aligned with what we’ve seen and felt in the Boston Jewish community.

The article stated, “There will also be a shift in financial support by many funders from ‘luxury’ or ‘elective’ causes and programs, such as arts and culture, to essential activities like addressing food insecurity and health care.” This statement noting funds is inarguably true and necessary. Yes, during a crisis, arts organizations will indeed struggle and face uncertain futures as to “What the “New Normal” Might Look Like in the Jewish Community,” when there is much direct need.

But this statement alone exposes another real issue: despite the power of the arts to share culture in creative and unparalleled ways, the American Jewish community has not taken the arts seriously.

Historically, the arts have been viewed as “nice to have.” But even in this terrible moment, what are people turning to for entertainment, solace, connection, and learning? The arts.

Within the Jewish community, this issue is not typically whether arts and culture matter; the issue is that we’ve made art a 2nd tier priority.

This is a problem.

Throughout history, art has been critical to the survival of Jewish culture and life. Even in Holocaust documentation we find ample documentation of niggunim that asserted identity and incited community; recipes that people kept alive in their minds, dreaming of the day they might bake another challah; artwork by kids in Theresienstadt – an escape from the darkness, if only for a moment.

The role art played in Holocaust survival, is just one example of its power. Art can shine a new light on reality or offer a thoughtful escape from it. Art can be a safe-haven, and a space for us to process the world around us. Especially in the most challenging of times, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks and months, artists show us all ways to make better sense of a complicated world while documenting history for future generations.

And yet, as sophisticated as our American Jewish community is, few of us have stood up for Jewish art.

The premise of the Jewish Arts Collaborative here in Boston is to speak to exactly this challenge. How do we elevate the best artwork that features Jewish values and themes to engage and educate the future?

Over 12,000 people have come together to celebrate the light of Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston since 2015. Art, music, and storytelling fill the famed museum, and the evening hits an apex with a community candle lighting of a custom commissioned menorah. MarthaStewart.com rated it one of the top Hanukkah celebrations in the country.

1,800 people across 30 neighborhoods and five languages all answer the same 4 questions about freedom, and the Jewish Arts Collaborative brought the intention of the Passover Seder to life through the Pathways to Freedom public art project.

4,500 people have connected with Boston area creatives in their studios and kitchens during the Covid crises through JLive virtual program segment.

Just last year, CJP, our Boston area Jewish Federation, added a strategic priority for the first time in many years. In addition to Caring and Social Justice, Israel and Oversees, and Next Generation, CJP took a stand to make Arts and Culture a 4th priority. While it’s easy for me, having spent my whole life in the Jewish arts and culture bubble, to overlook the significance of art – CJP’s shift to include arts and culture in their official slate of community priorities sent a message to our entire community and world, that we in Boston believe in the power of the arts.

Jewish culture is the key to the Jewish future. We see this in study after study, as young Jews connect in more meaningful ways with a Passover Seder than with the Talmud.

In a world where we must be externally facing to stay relevant and strong, there is nothing more welcoming and authentic than art to bring people together across backgrounds.

Art is critical to the transmission of culture, and if we continue to miss that key issue, we will continue to erode the potential of the Jewish future. Art has the (literal) ability to play a key role in a vibrant Jewish future. We just need to believe in it, advocate for it, and support it.

Laura Conrad Mandel is Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative. Laura is a proud Carnegie Mellon fine art alum, and lives in Brookline, MA, with her husband, 2 kids, and Bengal cat.