Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What Are You Doing Jewishly? Lots!

by Susan Weinberg

We gathered for our last lab of the season both for artist presentations and a special interview session by Josh Awend. Josh is participating in 248, a network focused on Jewish doing. What that means is that it is focused on doing rather than practice. It is not concerned with whether you keep kosher or celebrate Shabbat.  Rather it asks the question: What are you doing Jewishly, ethically, morally? What Josh has chosen to do is create podcasts on Jewish identity to which he hopes others can relate. In this way he explores what it is like to grow up as an American Jew.

So why 248? 248 signifies the number that represents the name of Abraham. It also represents the number for the Hebrew word for particle. We are each particles that form a larger whole in concert with each other. And finally 248 is the number of positive commandments in the Torah. One of our members came up with one additional interpretation, associating it with 24-7, plus one, a step beyond.

An element that 248 focuses on is the growing divide between American and Israeli Jews and its efforts are directed at closing that gap by increasing understanding across these two groups. As a new generation of leadership emerges, it is especially important that there be an understanding of each others' lives and the challenges each faces.

Sheri Klein's visual journal of this session
Several of us volunteered to be interview participants for a podcast and Josh asked us questions related to our Jewish experience throughout our lives. What was your first Jewish experience? he asked. I remembered my grandmother doing the Shabbat blessing, memorable because it was only during the two years that she lived with us that it was said in my home. She was losing memory, but held firmly onto that deeply-embedded blessing. Years later, for a show on family history, I painted her saying that blessing, Memory of Blessing I called it, both hers and mine. I always stood  sideways before that painting as I took my seat at my childhood table. Others remembered a transition from the Unitarian church to a Jewish temple, small Jewish communities where there was not much Jewish practice in the home, dinner with kugel or pot roast, but not labeled as Shabbat dinner and countering comments on Jewish stereotypes when living in environments with few Jews.

What did you experience as a teen? Several of us spoke of confirmation classes in Reform temples, enjoying the exploration and the space to discuss freely, not being told what we had to believe.  Josh concluded with a question about thresholds that we have crossed in sharing Jewish identity. Many spoke of their work for the upcoming exhibition on this theme. My threshold crossing related of course to interviewing elders and creating artwork on their stories, telling the stories of our Jewish community. It has been a threshold I've been crossing for many years as I began to explore Jewish identity and gradually have become a part of the Jewish community.

I was especially struck by the fact that several participants, including myself, came from a more secular vantage point, a topic which we had not discussed directly before. I suspect it is a different world to some extent even to some of our fellow lab participants, growing up in a community with few Jews and often limited Jewish practice. Some of our panel were products of mixed marriages or married a spouse who wasn't Jewish. I thought of the focus of 248 on doing, rather than practice. Practice excludes this significant segment of the Jewish population, doing includes, finding the common ground that unites us.

You can find the podcast here.

For the second half of our session we had two artist presentations. Rochelle Woldorsky focused on the idea of Jewish artists working from their Jewish heritage.The painting that came to mind for her was the work of Larry Rivers, The History of Matzah.
Larry Rivers - The History of Matzah
She shared two projects which temporarily allowed a measure of freedom to Terezin prisoners.  Both had to do with the role that Terezin served for the Nazis in creating propaganda films on the camp. One is Making Light in Terezin, a project that was supported by Rimon. Aired on PBS, this film followed a Minnesota theater group to the Czech Republic where they performed a cabaret piece originally performed in Terezin. The arts provided a threshold to a kind of freedom even within the walls of a concentration camp.

The other project was Liga Terezin, a film project that focused upon the soccer games of the Jewish prisoners, most of whom were ultimately murdered. Juxtaposed with these games are the antisemitic expressions of modern viewers as well as interviews with survivors.

Naamah, Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca
Dina O'Sullivan shared her exploration of the women in Judaism who each represented qualities that enabled them to contribute to the Jewish story. She took us through the stories of Eve, Naamah, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Ruth, Miriam, Esther and Deborah. sharing artwork on each. As she did so, she spoke of the unresolved questions their stories raised for her. All of these women crossed thresholds, facing the unknown, swallowing hard and moving forward. Esther when she told the king of her Jewish heritage and asked for his support, Naamah when she came to terms with her
Leah & Rachel
Queen Esther
husband Noah's crazy plan to gather animals together and head out to sea and Eve when she took that first bite. Along the way they modeled many admirable qualities for the women of today.

And so concludes our final session for the 2017/2018 lab. While the formal labs have concluded we have two important dates that lie ahead, our opening June 21 and a gathering around food on July 12th to share our artwork's story with our fellow lab participants.