Jewish Artists Lab Blog
Seamy. See Me.
It never fails. You remove a load of laundry from the washer or dryer only to find that random items have managed to turn themselves inside out. You know you didn’t put them in that way, but a few t-shirts and one leg of a pair of pants emerge inexplicably convoluted. It’s almost as if they had a defiant mind of their own.
One explanation for this turncoat behavior is that clothing is simply inclined to seek its most natural state of being: It was constructed seam-side out as its pieces were being sewn together. So, the act of wearing something smooth and perfect, seams turned inward, is actually in direct conflict with clothing’s preferred posture.
We humans are maybe not so different from our laundry.
We work very hard to develop a sleek outward appearance that masks our own raw experiences, personal biases, uncertainties about life, and uncomfortable personality quirks. Resisting the urge to expose our true emotional innards is a display of “socially acceptable behavior” that helps us blend into a crowd, speak politely, and fit in. But such “right-side-out-ness” may rub abrasively against our natural grain.
And so we find our escape in the great Laundromat of artistic pursuit. It is the spin cycle of life in which we come clean and expose some of our seamy side. Our art helps us recognize that the entire world is a rumpled ball of twisted threads and inside-out notions that must be acknowledged before they can be rectified. And so we set to our task of cosmic laundry folding.
I have vivid recollections of how I connected with textile arts and music. Both gave me a creative refuge as I grew up in a family that was strongly Jewish but decidedly dysfunctional.
From my earliest memory, I was attracted to the tactile qualities of cloth: Itchy wool? Couldn’t tolerate it. Still can’t. Shiny silk? It was my schmata of choice as a toddler. I remember the little square of blue nylon taffeta that I clutched in my crib. Rubbing its smooth surfaces together between my thumb and fingers was a sublime comfort as I drifted off to sleep. “Silking” my little swatch served as a salve to the roughness of the discord around me. I later learned to sew from my mother, and, like her, to escape into a sewing project as a retreat from the shredded fabric of real life.
Music was also my solace. Playing guitar to the recordings of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, and internalizing Jewish music I learned at Herzl Camp, USY, and synagogue, I immersed myself in songs that brought comfort and catharsis, and that allowed me to close the door to my bedroom and wall out the festering unease just outside.
Happily, my peaceful, love-filled adult life bears little resemblance to the turmoil that defined my youth. But internal conflicts and eternal questions continually roil to the surface, even in the calmest of waters. What is real? What is right? Is there really a God? How do I define myself as a person or as a Jew if I question any of it – or all of it?
Again (or still), I seek haven in textiles and music. Both offer palpable ways to examine and reimagine life, to connect with other equally conflicted humans, and to bring beauty, comfort, and healing to frayed emotions and ragged edges.
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag said, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” While his words referred to the universality of the Torah, he might just as easily have been alluding to a basket of freshly laundered clothing – or to the artistic expressions that emanate from being human in a world that is always turning itself inside out.
The Introductory Exhibit
This week our introductory exhibition will go up at the Jewish Community Center. Each of our photographs will be hung with a short statement of our artistic vision or purpose. In addition, each of us took our images and turned them into an expression of ourselves. We might be hoping you see our light shining through or perhaps the piece is to hide what is really inside us. As for mine in particular, the image I created represents all of the ideas of artistic expression I have going on inside my head and can’t be seen from the outside. I have come to expressing myself artistically just over the last couple years and even more dramatically over the course of the last year through my Doodle of the Day Project where I post on Facebook and Instagram a new, abstract minimalist drawing each day. I will conclude the project on January 30, 2017 with the posting of the 366th doodle.
There are times when I feel that there are things inside of me that must get out, that I have to create something, draw something or make something. It might be one of my doodles, or a t-shirt or a cocktail. It can come on like a manic episode. I can’t sit still. I’ve got to do something to release this creative energy that is bubbling up like a volcano inside of me. My artist statement says something to the effect that I never know what is going to come out of my mind. As part of our program, Rabbi Shaya Katz provides his rabbinic insight to our discussions. As each of us presented our self-portraits, Rabbi Katz was very quickly able to tie our works to some aspect of Judaism. I found what he related to me as quite profound. The quote was from Hillel and said “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.” Meaning do not think you really know yourself until the day you die. Never stop trying new things. Never stop exploring and developing your talents or finding new talents that you didn’t even know you had. This is what I intend to do.
Sophie and Sy
The young woman in this artwork is the grandmother I never met—Sophie Eigles. I created this collage (in 2006) as a way of working through my sadness and regret about not having known her. She was seventeen in this one picture we have of her, and filled with life. Her beauty parallels that of the “Hagia Sophia” (Istanbul) in the middle of a sunlit day (in the bottom of the collage).
A few years after my grandparents married and began their family, Sophie began struggling. Her mother and sister lived on the same block and tried their best to help her manage her family and life, while also managing their own. After the birth of her fourth son, the dark veil of schizophrenia descended and she was institutionalized, tearing her family apart. For the next thirty years she remained in the institution, until her death. The “Hagia Sophia” at sunset represents my grandmother’s second half of life (in the top of the collage). She moved from being a productive mother and wife, daughter and sister, into a world of her own. Sophie no longer belonged in her Jewish family and community.
My dad, Sy Eigles, was nine when he and his brothers were placed in foster homes. He moved from one foster care home to another and was abused by a religious Jew who was mentally ill from mustard gas in a previous war. Sy was devastated by what happened to him and his family. Raised a practicing Jew, he ceased to believe in a divine being since, from his perspective, there couldn’t be GOD when there had been the Holocaust and the destruction of his mother’s mind and their family. I remembered him telling me how he’d sometimes look through open curtains at night as a child and see families together and wish they were his. He longed to have a family that was safe and secure.
After the Air Force, dad traded big city life, which he wanted to leave behind, for a steel town in Illinois with my small town mother, Bernadine. Together they created the family they both wanted. In the factories, my dad experienced prejudice and discrimination being the only Jew. I learned to keep a low profile about being Jewish and never felt that I belonged in the town that had so few Jewish families. Given my dad was a blue-collar worker, we weren’t a part of the tiny Jewish community either. I did feel like I belonged in my own family with my parents, my brother, my mother’s parents and her brother. Little by little over the years, I’ve learned to be much more comfortable in being who I am. I’m open about being Jewish and feel that I belong in my family with my husband, stepchildren and their families, my friends and my colleagues. As I’m exploring this topic through JAL, I find it intriguing to think about the many situations in which I live and work and when/where/how I may or may not experience a sense of belonging.
Resilience and the 2016 Presidential Election - Using Creativity to Move Forward
Resilience. Regardless of whomever won the incredibly contentious US presidential election of 2016, Wednesday, November 9th was going to be a tough day in our nation’s history. Why? The virtual split in this nation, as illustrated in the almost evenly cast votes paints the true picture of a nation divided. This isn’t the first time the US has felt deep divisions, and it won’t be the last. We survived in the past. We grew from our conversations, our civil war, our protests, our disagreements, our errors, and our problems.
Rather than mourning for what we could have been had the election swayed differently, how can we use our creativity and our freedom of speech to continue creating that world we imagined for ourselves? The days following this historic election have been filled with a nation in disbelief, protestors from across the country disagreeing with the outcome, and incidents of hate crimes dotting our landscape. Sadly, this most likely would have happened regardless of which candidate won. According to the election results, it was only a matter of 50,000 or so extra Clinton voters over three of the swing states that might have altered the outcome (that is roughly the size of an average football stadium crowd). Only half of the eligible voters in the US showed up at the polls for this historic election. Where was everyone else? By not voting, they actually voted for THIS.
To the Clinton supporters, I am going to ask you a hard question: Is it possible that a Clinton win might have offered an opportunity for business as usual in your life, because you knew that someone on Capitol Hill was going to bat for you? Is it possible that a Clinton win would have given you a “hall pass” to not really get involved for change, because someone else would be doing that on your behalf?
To the Trump supporters, I am going to ask you a hard question: Is it possible that a Trump win might offer an opportunity for business as usual in your life, because you know that someone on Capitol Hill is going to bat for you? Is it possible that a Trump win will give you a “hall pass” to not really get involved for change, because someone else will be doing that on your behalf?
Unleashing our creativity might seem like a lukewarm solution to the current climate, but creativity might be the best and only way to move forward. How can a person with zero experience in serving in a public office suddenly be elected to become the next leader of the free world? If Donald Trump can do that, what kind of untapped potential might we have to do something, big or small, in our own lives? This paradigm shift is suddenly offering everyone an unusual opportunity to reexamine everything. If we can take the time to see this as an unusual opportunity for mobilizing ourselves and our first amendment rights, we might be able to reverse the climate of hate that brewed over this campaign.
The Oxford English dictionary defines creativity as, “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” Apathy will perpetuate the fissure so strongly felt on both sides of the divide. Misguided anger will also perpetuate the problems clearly present in our nation. It is in this swampy, murky space we must recreate something new if we are to shape the nation we want our children to thrive in. The creative process offers us to an opportunity to sublimate our raw emotions into something bigger and better than we might currently be able to imagine. Real solutions and coherent communication can only happen when we engage beyond the “fight, flight or freeze” responses to things happening around us, and tap into the higher part of our brains (the pre frontal cortex or part that separates us from the animal kingdom).
The real thing at stake in this brand new era is our first amendment right of freedom of speech. How will journalists fare in this new climate of a president extremely hostile to negative attention? Will news outlets criticizing Donald Trump be squashed and blacklisted? Should we sit by idly and wait to see what happens? No. This is the time to make your voice heard. How? Express yourself. Reach out to people around you. Decide how you can make your own community a better place. This does not have to be in a political realm. Waiting to see what might unfold is following the same crummy path as the folks who didn’t show up on election day.
As a nation of citizens who have exhibited resilient behavior for 238 years, I am confident that as we awake from the shock and utter surprise of our current situation, we will pull up our bootstraps, dust ourselves off, look around and ask what the heck we can do to create the type of nation we would like to live in. This change must start in our own imaginations, and then materialize through ideas and action. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” There are about 725 days until midterm elections of 2018. What can you do in that time period to connect to and transform your surroundings?
-Image above is a hand cut paper cut created by this writer, Sherri Jacobs, MS, LMFT, MA, ATR.
Of Hope and Candlesticks
First, Chaya Steinberg saved herself. She packed up three heavy brass candlesticks, a mortar and pestle, and a samovar, tied her babushka, and fled her little shtetl in Holynka, Russia. The year was 1910, and my grandmother arrived in America when she was 20 years old. She was an orphan, carrying the Shabbos candlesticks her mother lit before she died of cholera when my grandmother was only 6. My grandmother crossed an ocean separating the old Jewish world from the new, but her love for her family glowed in the light of those candlesticks.
Twenty years later, in the 1930‘s, my grandmother – now married and with three grown boys – began saving other Jews. She remembered what it was like to be an orphan, and became a “mother” to Jewish orphans in Rochester, N.Y. Those were Depression years, my Grandpa Sam was often laid off as a carpenter building radio cabinets, and my Bubbe earned money from a Jewish orphanage taking care of children in their home. If you knew my Bubbe, you knew that the money she earned was incidental. My grandmother was a strong, blustery woman with a huge, warm heart, and she loved those boys just as if they were her own. My grandmother also joined Pioneer Women, the Zionist women’s organization that helped women and children in Palestine. She would go on to visit Israel years later, after the dream of a Jewish homeland came true in 1948.
After World War II ended and thousands of Holocaust survivors fled displaced persons camps and shtetl ghost towns, Chaya Steinberg (now Ida Goldstein) welcomed them into her home. As a little girl, I watched my grandmother set the table for two men with dark numbers tatooed on their forearms and serve them steaming bowls of lokshen soup.
I never forgot what my Bubbe did for other Jews, and when she was dying, I asked my father if I could have my grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks, for they represented more than just candlesticks to me. They represented a link not only to my grandmother and her grandmother, but also my Jewish heritage.
Jewish history is filled with stories of anti-Semitism, and of wandering from one country to another in search of a better life for one’s self and one’s children. It is also the story of triumph, against all odds. For instance, a Jewish immigrant named Albert Sabin was born in Bialystok, Poland, not far from my grandmother’s shtetl. If it hadn’t been for Sabin and another son of Jewish immigrants, Jonas Salk, we would not have a cure for polio, and children would still be waking up to find out that they can no longer walk.
When we were asked to share one of our most precious possessions with the other artists at our last Midwest Jewish Artists Lab meeting, I held up my grandmother’s candlesticks.
And this past week, I flew to Israel on a mission with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The most moving moment for me was at an army training center in Beersheva, in the middle of the desert. There, hundreds of young soldiers stood at attention in an open square as Israeli flags flapped in the breeze. A girl with long black hair stood on stage and led everyone in singing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
Wherever a Jewish soul stirs, there is a hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
I had sung this song many times before outside the country, but inside it was even more poignant. There I could see desert rock, prickly shrubs, and the barren land that Jews had fought for. Died for. And helped bloom. And there, right in front of me, were the young souls who were asked to protect this Jewish homeland and keep the hope of remaining a free country in this homeland alive just as their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers had done before them.
My grandmother made this journey to Israel 60 years before me. Ad it was she who taught me to love these people and help keep their hope alive.
Welcome to the Midwest Jewish Artists Lab Blog!
Welcome to the shiny new website of the Midwest Jewish Artists Lab! Let me give you some fast fact about this exciting project.
1. What is the Midwest Jewish Artists Lab?
- It’s a 6-city program engaging over 80 professional Jewish artists in Kansas Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis (Jewish Community Centers); Madison (Hillel) and Chicago (Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership).
- It’s an “explore-create” program within each city, as the artists (“Fellows”) meet with educators once or twice a month in a non-religious but intellectually challenging environment to explore Jewish sources related to an annual theme that we’ve all agreed on.
- It’s a community engagement program in which the Fellows share their work with the public. Last year in Kansas City, we offered public workshops in addition to our final exhibition and performance, to get people of all ages involved.
2. What is this year's theme, and how did you get artists in five cities to agree on it?
After a month of submitting ideas and voting, we landed on the following theme:
We've already begun to explore this rich theme. Watch for our first, very personal, exhibition in January!
3. What is your mission, for the artists and our community?
- Great question! As a first task, this year, our group created a Purpose Statement. Here it is:
Our purpose is to inspire each other and nurture the unique potential of every member through heartfelt words and deeds, in order to create fellowship within our group and leave a meaningful imprint in our community.
Together we will:
Use our meetings for dialogue that generally revolves around the Jewish theme and specifically focuses group feedback on our evolving individual/collaborative work.
Use discussion that are on our theme-based creations- to purposefully influence more cohesion/interconnection between our works at our group exhibition.
Individually, we will:
Listen with open hearts
Own responsibility for the well-being of the group and the forward progress of our learning
- Like any call to action, this is a living statement, subject to ongoing gut checks and edits!
4. Sounds like a cool project. How do I keep up with what you're doing?
Easy! Visit us at kcjal.org every week! Do more than just "keep up" - send us your comments (you can comment on these blog posts) - we'd love to hear from you! And please attend our events and support our participating artists!
JAL Project Director