5 Powerful Ways to Make Jewish Art Matter

This piece is part of a series on next-generation engagement following a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation). This universal topic is front of mind with Jewish leaders striving to create pathways of inclusion and connectivity to Judaism for “Gen X” and millennial Jews. Each panelist, including this author, has received a Cutting Edge Grant from The Foundation. The multi-year grants of up to $250,000 are awarded to creative thinkers, social entrepreneurs, and innovative organizations to develop and implement transformative programs of high visibility and impact in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Since being established by The Foundation in 2006, more than $15 million in Cutting Edge Grants have been awarded to 84 programs, with a particular emphasis on initiatives to drive Jewish engagement and inclusion.

I was seated on the grass at Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles, thrilled to be surrounded by people from all walks of life: young and old, from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and differing perspectives. Southern California wildfires raged mere miles away, turning the early-evening sky bright orange and the air thick. Yet, for five hundred of us in attendance, our eyes and ears were focused on a concrete stage, L.A. City Hall looming just behind. This was the second presentation of Theatre Dybbuk’s Exagoge, a contemporary adaption of the oldest recorded Jewish play. It followed the world premiere performances at Temple Israel of Hollywood and preceded the staging at the Fowler Museum at UCLA – a local tour in support of its debut.

The production explored our Biblical Exodus story while incorporating contemporary narratives of refugees and immigrants. Exagoge is an adaptation of the first recorded Jewish play, written in the style of a Greek tragedy by Ezekiel the Poet in the 2nd Century B.C.E. Theatre Dybbuk used the existing 269 lines of the original piece to build a work rich in dense and lyrical dialogue, stylized movement, and original musical composition to present experiences of refugees and the disenfranchised from the 18th Century to today. The piece, therefore, highlighted the shared struggles of ancient and modern peoples. It featured the Leimert Park Choir, a program of the Harmony Project, which builds healthier communities by investing in the positive development of children through music. Exagoge is not primarily “entertainment” – meant to comfort, amuse, or thrill. It is a provocation, requiring deep thought on the part of audience members – If they looked at their phones or turned away, they would, in fact, miss something important. Asking for such focused engagement to look at our modern world through a profoundly Jewish lens is not the most obvious way to attract a diverse audience, principally ages 20s through 40s, in the middle of summer. The work was successful, however, not only in terms of attendance from those in the “Next Generation” and beyond, but also as a catalyst for dialogue about Jewish history and the ways in which it illuminates issues in our modern world.

As Theatre Dybbuk’s Artistic Director, a large part of my job is to get curious about the ways in which we impact community members. Why was the Exagoge experience able to encourage such meaningful connections to Jewish wisdom and, by extension, to one another? Perhaps it is because art exists in metaphor and allows us to find our own ways to meaning. Perhaps it is because we partnered with a variety of communities and organizations who share our values, to bring the conversation to them, instead of waiting for them to come to us. Perhaps it is because we didn’t surrender to our culture of distraction, instead offering a chance for deep exploration. Perhaps it is because there were multiple points of entry – Jewish tradition, scholarly investigation, contemporary politics, theatrical virtuosity, and musical expertise among them – allowing for people to interact with the experience in the way which most resonates with them.

Often, the arts are thought of as an augmentation to engagement approaches. They are useful insofar as they support educational initiatives, ritual experiences, and holiday gatherings. What if, in addition to seeing their value as a support for programs, we viewed the arts as intertwined and indispensable pieces of a much larger puzzle – that of a communal life’s journey? At every turn of this journey, we will encounter the new and be confronted with losing the old. We will recall that which hurt us and move towards that which brings us joy. We will grieve the brokenness of our world and foster the possibility of bringing the shattered pieces together. As with any partnership, this communal life’s journey requires us to work in collaboration with each other, not solely from our individual agendas to achieve certain tangible and immediately measurable outcomes. Can I tell you if the audience walked out of Exagoge with a greater comprehension of the exodus narrative? To an extent, sure. But perhaps the larger question is whether those in attendance took a step towards closer connectivity with their fellow Jews and humans? Where there is a door to possible conversation, the arts are great at opening it wide. People will enter and begin to walk together. Where they go cannot be controlled, but it can be encouraged through further creative engagement.

So how do we foster connection, especially among those who feel disconnected? Here are a few specific thoughts:

Adopt a culture of “rehearsal.”

Since Theatre Dybbuk creates theatrical experiences, we spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room. That is the place where we commit to playing without censoring. We try and we fail. We try and we get it almost right. We try and we find the “answer,” only to discover that the answer is incomplete. And then, we try once, or a thousand times, more. What if every engagement approach is a rehearsal – a chance to try?

Present multiple points of entry.

We remove the barriers between education, ritual, tradition, scholarship, and art. Instead, we say they all form one holistic and multifaceted conversation. How can we create more interwoven opportunities for welcoming people into the discussion?

Collaborate.

Who shares our values, if not necessarily our expertise, and how can we work together to create outlets for examination and illumination?

Explore artistic expression’s inherent value to a cultural dialogue.

How am I integrating the arts into my personal/organizational work, allowing investigations of metaphor to help those who participate to make meaning?

Ask a lot of people because they have a lot to offer.

What would our communal life’s journey look like if, in this world filled with distractions, we created more opportunities to dive deep into the waters of our history and our personal beliefs.

To freely paraphrase the great artistic philosopher David Lynch, deep waters are where it grows most dark. But isn’t it also where the marine life is most beautiful?

This story "5 Powerful Ways to Make Jewish Art Matter" was written by Aaron Henne.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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