Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity and to learn skills to assist their career development.
“We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” said Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. “If you provide artists with a platform, encouragement and support, these are rich and meaningful ideas that many artists want to grapple with. Especially for the younger generation who are not engaging in Jewish life in a traditional way, we need to create more and more opportunities to engage with Jewish ideas that are different and exciting.”
The March 23 to 26 event in Garrison, N.Y., was the flagship event of Asylum Arts, a global network of Jewish artists launched last fall with the support of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Righteous Persons Foundation.
While Asylum Arts supports the inner searches of young Jewish artists, the new network is not prescriptive about who is a Jew.
“Everyone at the retreat had applied for and chosen to be at a Jewish artist gathering; for us, that is what Jewish community is — it is to opt in and want to be part of something,” said Guber. “We allow everybody who wants to be there and has a commitment to exploring Jewish identity.”
The artistic pursuits of retreat attendee Aaron Samuels reflect his upbringing in a multiracial household in Providence, R.I.
“I write a lot about identity intersection, and being Jewish is one of the identities that I spend a lot of time writing about, specifically about the intersection of race, religion and gender,” he said.
His father, raised a Protestant, is part African-American and part Jamaican. His mother, who came from a mixed Russian and Polish background, was raised in an Orthodox community in New York, but she distanced herself from Judaism because of the sexism she perceived growing up. Yet when Samuels was in third grade, she made a conscious commitment to bring Judaism back into her and her children’s lives.
Samuels attributes this largely to his mother’s coming to understand the multiplicity within Judaism.
“Even if some parts are sexist, some racist and some toxic, there are some parts that can be brilliant, whole, community oriented and amazing,” he explained. As a result, Samuels himself developed a trifold Jewish affiliation: studying six hours a week in a Conservative religious school; singing with the HaZamir choir, out of the Conservative Temple Emanu-El of Providence; and participating in a “chavurah group outside of the temple that was radical.”
A writer, poet, and spoken-word performer, Samuels said his Judaism is intertwined with his race.
“I have been the only black person in a room full of Jews and the only Jew in a room full of black people,” he said. “I can understand both sides of that divide.”
Having spent time in other artist communities, including ones of color, he saw the Asylum Arts Retreat as an opportunity “to be around other people for whom their Jewishness was part of their artistic identity.”
Another retreat participant, Lauren Zoll of Indianapolis, has always been involved with Judaism. She recalls being influenced at age 17 by a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod HaSharon, Israel, who interested her in mysticism.
“I did a lot of looking into mysticism, knowing I had to think in multiple perspectives,” she said. “As an artist you are spiritual because you have to be ready for and aware of these connections that are around you. If one thing doesn’t work, you are constantly thinking, open to sights, sounds, words and people for the next step.”
In 2011, Zoll participated in Germany Close Up, a program that brings young North American Jews to experience modern Germany. While there, she did an art project that involved wearing white canvas shoes to places of terror she visited: a concentration camp, a deportation center, the town of Wannsee, where the “final solution” was conjured up, and a passion play in Bavaria.
“After each day I photographed the canvas shoes to document the dirt that had accumulated,” she said, explaining that she was examining what “dirt” and “dirty” mean, not literally but metaphorically. She then collaged prints of the dirt images.
“It was strange because it came out kind of beautiful, which was disturbing,” said Zoll.
Explaining what drew her to the Asylum Arts Retreat, she said, “I feel like when I have done Jewish events or groups, I don’t feel like there are many artists in there, and I thought, wow, this is so unusual — a group of all artists, all Jewish. I have to go.”
Rebecca Ora, a retreat attendee who is a doctoral student in film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, works in experimental nonfiction.
Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Ora and her six siblings were raised Modern Orthodox, her father an Israeli whose family has lived in Jerusalem for generations.
“While I would not at all call myself religiously observant, I am well educated, fluent in Hebrew, and my boyfriend is an Israeli,” she said.
Ora’s work is inspired by conflict, often centering on Israel and Jewish identity.
“It is also how I was raised,” she said. “The way you can show you love or care about something is by arguing about it.”
As part of a master’s degree in social practice at the California College of the Arts,
Ora took part in a summer program at an art school in Gothenberg, Sweden. Her final project was based on a major riot that had occurred outside of a tennis match between Israel and Sweden in the southern part of the country three months earlier. Most of the 7,000 rioters were Swedish immigrants (largely Muslims) or neo-Nazi youths.
“The riot raised issues about the international reception of Israel and whether anti-Israelism was separable from anti-Semitism,” said Ora.
For the student show, she created a series of seven videos that examined what it is like “to be an artist in an interactive, globalized world where you can’t pretend you don’t have background.”
“This cannot be a neutral nomenclature,” she said. “With my being Jewish and raised in a modern Orthodox home and having been in Israel for a year, I could not come to this place and be seen as neutral.”
For her doctoral thesis, Ora is planning a film based on a 1935 to 1940 German expedition to Brazil that attempted to colonize parts of the Amazon Basin under Nazism.
“I want to make a strange and unsettling film of the history of World War II that, even with the atrocities, has become familiar to us,” she said. “I think it should remain shocking.”
As they left the Asylum Arts Retreat, Guber said many artists told her how strongly the event had affected them.
“In leaving,” said Guber, “they were knowing so much more about themselves, what being Jewish can mean and how it can interact with their lives; and they were feeling deeply supported in being out in the world as an artist.”