Thursday, September 15, 2016

Masquerades and Humor

We recently convened over seventy artists representing six cities for our 4th Jewish Artists’ Lab retreat.  Having previously met in Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, we now had the opportunity to expand to one of our newer labs in Kansas City.  One of my favorite aspects of the retreat is the opportunity to interact with artists from other labs. We welcomed many familiar faces and introduced ourselves to new ones.  We also enjoyed getting to know the city better and Kansas City proved to be a place filled with interesting museums that could easily have occupied more of our time.

We began our gathering at the JCC where we visited with our fellow artists and viewed the Kansas City lab show. It was a bit of a preview for the Pecha Kucha yet to come.

Our keynote began that evening with Arlene Goldbard, author of The Culture of Possibility.  Goldbard's focus is on the importance of culture and art in America and she addressed ten reasons art plays a critical role in our society.  She had a receptive audience in a room of artists for a perspective that advocates the role of art in opening us up to possibilities.  She told me that she hoped to write an essay on this topic and will share it with us when it is available, stay tuned.

After her talk we broke for Story Circles.  We were each asked to tell our group a story that spoke to topics about the role of creativity in our life.  Those of us in the listening role were asked to focus on listening rather than engaging directly.  I found that early interaction made a number of attendees memorable to me by sharing something that mattered to them.

Then it was time for the Pecha Kucha, one of the highlights of this retreat. The Pecha Kucha was an opportunity to share six images in 90 seconds to introduce ourselves and our work to the group.  While nervously approached by many, it received rave reviews as this was something which we hadn’t fully addressed in past gatherings.  I found that I appreciated learning more about those in other labs, but also those within my own city.  While we often know the work artists present in the lab, it was a valuable opportunity to learn more about their work outside of it.

Retreats are always jammed with activities and our one full day was no exception. If I were to characterize it, I would say it was devoted in large part to the performing rabbis.  I am beginning to appreciate the range of talents that rabbis bring to their role, it seems they have to be able to carry a tune and a bit of theatrics also proves useful.  Rabbi Glickman of Beth Shalom spoke to us on American acting that originated in the Yiddish theater and was influenced by the Moscow Arts Theater and the Group Theater (Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg).  Rabbi Glickman trained in theater before joining the rabbinate.  He began the discussion by referencing "Umanute" which means "art" and "Emonai" which means "faith".  Both come from the same root as "Amen" and are about deep emotional truths, having a belief that is not provable.

He shared a number of passages from the Tanach that involved disguise and deception through costume.  These included such favorites as Joseph when he is in the employ of the Pharaoh and is incognito when he encounters his brothers (Genesis 41:41-46, 45:1-3), Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38:14-25), Saul and the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:6-14) and the Jacob/Esau narrative (Genesis 27:15-27).  We discussed the reasons behind disguise.  Joseph's rather theatrical presentation echoed Pharaoh's masquerade of God. Pharoah needed his advisors to be "gift-wrapped" to promote that belief.  Joseph was given the name Zaphenath; Zaphenath means "a hidden thing".  The wife he was given was named Asenath which means "something that has to be deciphered".  There were many layers of masquerade in this text.  I found myself considering that masquerade is very much a part of being an outsider passing as an insider.  In the vein of theater I thought of the many actors who report they are shy, but not on stage.  That external shift through costuming can begin to cause an internal shift.

The take away that I found fascinating is that disguise was so integral to the flow of Jewish history.  The child of Judah and Tamar became the ancestor of Ruth and David and had it not been for disguise we'd be speaking of Abraham, Issac and Esau. 

Glickman concluded with the very thought-provoking statement that written Torah is to oral Torah as a book is to a story.  Transmission of story is done person to person.  Story is the virus and we are its host.  When there are no people, there is no story. 

One of our other presenting rabbis was Rabbi Moshe Waldoks who talked of Jewish humor as a response to injustice and as a vehicle of breaking barriers that divide communities. He rejected the idea that Jewish humor is laughter through tears and argued that it is also more than we suffered and then we moved.  Neither did he feel that it was based on self-deprecation.  Rather it was the art of parody, of taking an established known entity and turning it on its head to find a deeper truth.

He related humor to the art of Midrash where we seek something in the text, pull it out and make it our own to arrive at a different understanding.  Humor is to awaken us and is by its nature anti-authoritarian.  He noted that you can't have a sense of humor and be a fanatic as you must hold two different thoughts at the same time. You have to be able to understand someone else's perspective.  Humor is also used to create social cohesiveness in a group by scapegoating. He took us through the evolution from Jewish mother (and mother-in-law) jokes to Jewish American Princess jokes.  Once they moved outside of Jewish groups, they began to die out.  Such jokes can only be told by insiders lest they carry an anti-Semitic tinge.

Many Jewish people were the foundation of radio and television even if the content wasn't Jewish.  There was word play and fast talking that began to create a comfort with a Jewish style.   This allowed us to acculturate and allowed others to accept us without even being conscious of the underpinnings that made that possible.

I found myself contemplating our theme of Outside: Inside.  While the discussions were often not tied back to the underlying theme, they did address the theme of otherness through masquerades and humor. Masquerades create boundaries and bridge boundaries, humor can create boundaries or dissolve them.  We've begun to circle around our topic.

Coming next.... the Barcelona Haggadah and Artist as Other

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