Toward an alternative future for Jewish art

WHO CARES ABOUT JEWISH ART, and where does it belong? The category has long faced a problem wherein work is either too Jewish—too niche, too religious, too rootless-cosmopolitan—or too secular, too queer, too political (often code for too anti-Zionist). Jewish spaces censor their own; non-Jewish spaces are afraid to engage. For artists, there’s often a question of what language one has to speak to obtain funding: a question of whether one can show up as their whole self. In her 2019 essay “Kaddish for an Unborn Avant-Garde,” Maia Ipp calls for a revitalization of the visionary in Jewish art, describing Jewish American philanthropy’s interest in sponsoring projects that support ties to Israel and Holocaust remembrance to the exclusion of forward-thinking or dissenting Jewish cultural production. “Art in the Jewish community today is seen mainly as a tool for education or didactic nostalgia,” Ipp writes. “So much contemporary Jewish art doesn’t challenge; it pacifies [and] reinforces dominant, often flawed, normative messages within (and importantly outside) our community.”

Yet a sea change is underway, largely driven by those who have diagnosed the problem as it presently stands in the contemporary landscape of Jewish art. Artist and filmmaker Danielle Durchslag has identified a new artistic movement “blowing up and radically expanding the idea of Jewish allegiance.” As Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky has recently written, “Jewish radicalism has always been a cultural project as much as a political one.” But the intertwined culture and politics of Jewish radicalism are considered marginal to “mainstream” Jewish life. Conversely, when cultural production in a radical Jewish tradition makes its way outside of Jewish spaces, its Jewishness is often masked, illegible, or treated as incidental.

“I cannot count,” Ipp writes in “Kaddish,” “how many brilliant young Jewish artists and activists I know who are rigorously engaged with Jewish life who assume (rightly) that they would never be given access to mainstream Jewish professional networks, fellowships, grants, or leadership roles.” In recent years, artists have been organizing and expanding new grassroots sources of support. For example, the New Jewish Culture Fellowship, directed and cofounded by Ipp (who was also on the team that relaunched the leftist magazine Jewish Currents), is open to applicants outside of New York for the first time this year. We can also look to “Years of Radical Dreaming,” which showcases radical Jewish art and culture in a Hebrew calendar. That project started in a living room in Philadelphia in 5777/2016 (I drew the first cover and helped the founders pack orders that first year) as a way of marking Jewish time without resorting to twelve pages of Jerusalem skylines, while also paying artists who struggle to find funding. Six calendars later, the organizers are developing a co-op model to expand support for Jewish culture workers, particularly queer and trans Jews, Jews of color, and Jews with anti-Zionist and far-left politics who are estranged from conventional patronage networks. Projects like these are good news for Jewish artists sitting uncomfortably in the spaces between contemporary art, dissident politics, and the mainstream Jewish community, and good news for a Jewish futurity where assimilation and exclusion have no quarter.

View of “Havruta,” 2022, Heaven Gallery, Chicago. Photo: Guanyu Xu.

Several recent exhibitions and a growing number of alternative organizations indicate a break from the survivalist and backward-looking models of conservative institutional Jewish projects that have long narrowed public perceptions of Jewish culture. There is also, perhaps, new space for the particularity of modern Jewish life in contemporary art venues as exhibition makers begin to take braver stances in conversations about the ethics of arts funding and their relationship to cultural boycotts and political violence. Liam Ze’ev O’Connor, one of the curators of “Havruta,” a group show which opened at Chicago’s Heaven Gallery last October, wants to challenge the often limited popular understanding of what Jewish art can be: “Some people want to say, ‘Well, Jewish art is about the Holocaust, Jewish art is Judaica . . .” Yevgeniy Fiks, a cocurator of this year’s first Yiddishland pavilion at the Venice Biennale, told me something similar. “Very often, contemporary Jewish artists are placed in Jewish museums in Europe, next to the Holocaust memorial, next to sites of destruction of European Jewry,” he said. “But what about other contexts for Jewish artists?” Yiddishland cocurator Maria Veits adds that Jewish art needs “a more international stage, a more intersectional stage, and a more contemporary art stage.” The definition of “Jewish art” is expansive: It can mean art by Jewish artists, art with Jewish themes, art created using a Jewishly inflected methodology. For example, “Havruta” takes its name from the traditional approach to Torah study and applies it as a method for facilitating artmaking: Havruta is the act of learning with a partner, of forming meaning through mutual textual discovery and discussion (and the time-honored Jewish methodology of vigorous disagreement). O’Connor and cocurator Shterna Goldbloom selected Jewish texts dealing with the conception of time, pairing fourteen artists to create new work in dialogue with each other over a period of about nine months. In their collaborative piece Tethered, 2021, Isabel Mattia’s sculpture, a glass vessel holding equal volumes of lamb’s blood and the artist’s breast milk, was presented alongside Hannah Altman’s photographs of Mattia on the sculptor’s farm. Altman’s series first shows Mattia pregnant and ushering the farm’s lambs into the world, then culminates in an intimate portrait of the artist with her own child. Altman called the collaboration “beautiful kismet”; Mattia describes it as “call-and-response.”

Hannah Altman and Isabel Mattia, Tethered, 2021, archival pigment photograph. Sculpture: glass, lamb’s blood, breast milk.

An expanded Jewish arts and curatorial practice depends on bringing in the previously excluded and drawing on existing, overlapping networks of those who have already been holding space for Jewish art. For example, “Havruta” curator and artist Goldbloom, whose own photographs offer a nuanced and deeply loving exploration of LGBTQ+ Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews’ complicated relationship to religious community, also has work in “Yiddishland.” It’s tempting to play Jewish geography, easy to joke that every leftist Jewish culture worker would of course know of each other. But as Lang/Levitsky writes, “There is, truly, always more out there . . . we stay connected by sharing what we find.” For example, Goldbloom connected sculptor Val Schlosberg, whose work appeared in “Havruta,” to curator Liora Ostroff, who developed the 2021 show “A Fence Around the Torah: Safety and Unsafety in Jewish Life” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. In the Chicago exhibition, Schlosberg’s clay vessels were paired with hand-dyed and woven cloth and basketry pieces by Olive Stefanski. Their works staged a conversation about Pirkei Avot, a foundational text of Jewish ethics from which the Baltimore show takes its name: “Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.” The idea of shared study reaches across the shows. “I think there’s also something profound about the way that both of these shows are grappling with inherited text,” Schlosberg wrote to me. “My work is really deeply shaped by wrestling with ways to read Torah as a living text, trying to find life and liberation and cocreate with inherited textual cultures.”

When cultural production in a radical Jewish tradition makes its way outside of Jewish spaces, its Jewishness is often masked, illegible, or treated as incidental.

I grew up in Baltimore and was both surprised and delighted that “A Fence around the Torah” happened where it did. Until now, the Jewish Museum of Maryland has primarily hosted exhibitions about Jewish history, and is supported by The Associated, a federation of Jewish agencies that encompasses much of Maryland’s institutional Jewish life. The show is exciting not only because it’s such a departure from what the museum has done in the past but because, despite Zionism being central to the mission of the Associated, “A Fence Around the Torah” included explicitly anti-Zionist work and work by anti-Zionist artists. Schlosberg’s clay vessels, for example, are exuberantly painted with references to Jewish mysticism and collective liberation; angels and biblical texts entwine with frolicking queers, burning cop cars, and Palestinian flags. Filmmaker Danielle Durchslag’s video collage Dangerous Opinions, 2019, mines the 1988 film ​​Dangerous Liaisons to create a satirical comedy about a wealthy Jewish heiress who is socially shunned after she is overheard criticizing Israel. Durchslag told me, “I make passionately Jewish work [that] most Jews don’t like.”

Danielle Durchslag, Dangerous Opinions, 2019, video collage, color, sound, 2 minutes 22 seconds.

The show also supported the creation of Disloyal, a fantastic podcast, hosted by the JMM’s director of communications and content, Mark Gunnery, which asks: “What does it mean to be loyal or disloyal, to a people, to a state, to an idea, to an artistic practice, to a family, to a political commitment?” Ostroff’s curatorial statement for “Fence” calls for a recalibration in those commitments. “American Jewish communities and institutions must, on one hand, respond to rising antisemitism and white supremacist violence, and on the other, acknowledge the ways that Jewish institutions have created physical and emotional danger for marginalized community members and neighbors marginalized by white supremacy and systemic oppression,” she writes. The museum hosted community talkbacks on questions of policing, safety, and inclusion while developing the exhibition, which created both an outlet for possible anxieties and a forum for the increasingly intersectional and politically diverse face of Jewish life. This shift at the Jewish Museum is taking place under the tenure of executive director Sol Davis, who came from the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center in Tucson, Arizona, in 2021. Thinking beyond the stewardship of objects, Davis sees his role as that of a facilitator who can turn the space over to different communities, reimagining the museum as a living entity in and for Baltimore. Ostroff told me that whatever misgivings the museum board may have had about the show, they were excited by its draw. “The board was like, ‘I’ve never seen so many young people here!” Durchslag told me, laughing. “They were so delighted and visibly thrilled that young people were engaging and making work [about Jewish themes], and also found our work repugnant.”

lla Ponizovsky Bergelson and Anna Elena Torres, Pseudo-territory, 2022, augmented reality sculpture. Installation view, German pavilion, Venice, 2022.

“Yiddishland,” at this year’s Venice Biennale, is not a physical pavilion; like Yiddishland itself, it is an imaginary place. It disperses itself across other national pavilions, existing at once inside and beyond their borders. “I really like that it doesn’t have its own space,” said cocurator Maria Veits, who conceives of “Yiddishland” as a transnational project that gives a platform to Jewish artists without identifying them with any particular country, while at the same time subverting the structure of the Biennale. For example, the augmented reality project Pseudo-territory, 2022, by Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson and Anna Elena Torres, was accessible via QR code in the German pavilion; it represented both a hacking of the German pavilion and a conversation with its curators, if not a collaboration per se. When you scan the QR code, the object that appears is a roiling nebula of fire-toned symbols, Torres has previously called “linguistic Cubism.” Drawing on multiple alphabets (Yiddish, English, and Proto-Canaanite) intertwined into a maze-like pattern, the repetition of the term “pseudo-territory” in multiple languages requires the viewer to parse several angles simultaneously. “An abstract land is the perfect place for imagining new kinds of dreams and hopes for change within Jewish communities,” Shterna Goldbloom said of their participation in the pavilion. “Though I grew up in a Yiddish environment, I don’t speak the language anymore, and have struggled to define my relationship to a passive language of childhood. But knowing how so many other queers and anti-Zionists find potential in the language makes me glad to find company there.”

Zionism as a political movement argues that Israel is a project of national self-determination that can encompass all Jewish life past, present, and future—the negation of the diaspora (literally translated from שלילת הגלות) is a central tenet of Zionism. “Yiddishland,” by contrast, insists upon the significance and centrality of diasporism to Jewish history and futurity; the beauty and possibility of doykeit (the political principle of fighting for collective liberation across difference in diaspora, which literally translates to “hereness”); the pluralism of Jewishness but also the prevailing impact of Jewish people, culture, and art on the sites of diaspora. “Yiddishland” is not trying to capture all of the diversity of Jewish languages or ways of being, but it’s certainly gesturing toward an expanded geography. Fiks describes it as “a place shared by Jewish and non-Jewish people; an alternative map of Eastern and central Europe.” (A “non-Jewish resident of Poland,” he explains, “is also residing in Yiddishland.”) It charts new territory for belonging, the tension between universalism and particularity, the desire for affinity and potential for solidarity outside of exclusionary structures. Veits asks, “Is [Yiddishland] a network state? Is it a community state? Is it a state at all? Can it provide an alternative project?”

Avia Moore, Take My Hand: Yiddish Circle Dances in Venice, 2022. Performance view, Giardini, Venice, 2022.

“Yiddishland,” with its expansive moral imagination and nuanced questions about Jewish national belonging, has garnered less attention than one would hope, particularly from the art world and especially in contrast to the concurrent controversy roiling Documenta 15, the 2022 iteration of the exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. The outcry has largely focused on the depiction of antisemitic stereotypes in People’s Justice, a 2002 work created by Indonesian collective Taring Padi in response to the 1965 genocide and fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 in Indonesia—but has unfolded into a debate over the inclusion of Palestinian artists and solidarity politics, the German stance on BDS, and present-day relationship of Germany to antisemitism in an environment in which critique of Israel and support for Palestine is increasingly criminalized. The most recent Documenta outrage concerns a caricature of an Israeli soldier being kneed by a woman; the portrayal belongs to a 1988 Algerian feminist brochure that was displayed in an explicitly archival setting by the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie. Yet in June, Germany’s top court ruled that a plainly antisemitic thirteenth-century sculpture, called the Judensau, can remain on public display in Wittenberg, as Germany displaces antisemitism as an external problem, brought into the country by undesirable migrants and improper subjects. As Berlin-based artist Virgil b/g Taylor told me, “there remains a disinterest in projects that are actually revitalizing Jewish discourse and culture in Europe in favor of a mandate to protect the imaginary interests of an abstract Jewry that is almost entirely conflated with Israel and the memory of Germany’s murdered Jews.” In contrast, one might look for direction from the vibrancy of an active, living diasporic Jewish art world.

Art cannot open borders, abolish apartheid, or end ethnonationalism and complicity with state violence. But it can contribute to the building of a counternarrative, to the construction of a different path, a different place to turn toward. On the Disloyal podcast, Liora Ostroff said, “I think that [“Fence”] shows us how we can ground contemporary art in Jewishness, and I also think Jewish artists have a unique set of tools to challenge dominant narratives in our communities and inspire change and transformation . . . Jewish institutions have largely ignored the power of contemporary Jewish artists or been afraid of it because artists have politics and artists will go off the cuff, but there is no living Jewish culture without the arts.” 

Solomon Brager is a cartoonist and writer living in Brooklyn. Their first book, Heavyweight (William Morrow), is forthcoming in 2023.


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