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Judaism Through The Arts

By Jared Newman
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
August 11, 2006

Saul Chernick wants to put ads in the Village Voice and on Craigslist offering individualized tattoos for Jews based on their religious experiences. He wants to conduct interviews, design the tattoos, go with participants to get inked and document the entire process as a work of art.

Julie Seltzer is thinking about writing a rock musical about religious extremists bent on rebuilding the Jewish Temple.

Jeremiah Lockwood and his band, The Sway Machinery, want to roll the Lockwood family’s cantorial traditions into rock and world pop music.

These young artists may each receive up to $45,000 in stipends and grants from the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. The fellowship program, which was just announced, seeks New York-area musicians, visual artists and performing artists with big, edgy ideas for art projects with Jewish themes.

Twelve artists will be selected for the fellowship, which was kick-started by a $1 million donation from UJA-Federation, the largest they have given to an arts organization. In addition to the grant money, the artists will share ideas, go on retreats out of the city, and receive feedback and mentorship over two years. For example, a painter might get hooked up with an art gallery, and a musician might get to work with a producer.

The only catch is that artists have to be between ages 22 and 39. Frustrating as that may be for 40-year-olds, Rebecca Guber, the fellowship’s project director, explained that young artists are usually in greater need of the resources and are more capable of attracting young audiences.

Guber said that UJA-Federation’s donation signifies “a serious dedication on the part of the mainstream Jewish community to recognize that arts and culture are making a huge impact on people in the young adult age range.” In other words, the Jewish community has started to realize that one of the best ways to reach out to young Jews may be through arts and culture.

A recent study by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture — one of the fellowship collaborators, along with JDub Records and Avoda Arts — found that young Jews, even those who avoid synagogue and JCC memberships, read Jewish books, listen to Jewish music and attend Jewish concerts.

The events that form the core cultural experience for young Jews aren’t overtly Jewish, either. The study noted that unaffiliated Jews were most comfortable in secular venues, watching bands that blend Jewish music with other genres, like hip-hop and jazz. Some who were interviewed for the study described Jewish organizations by comparison as “bland” and “conformist.” One interviewee described Jewish life as “cultish.”

Bill Bragin, the director of Joe’s Pub, an offshoot of the Public Theater that often hosts Jewish events, said that hybrid bands like Pharaoh’s Daughter and Balkan Beat Box are appealing because they allow the audience to enjoy the music even if they don’t know the material. “I think the reason that [those groups] are so great is that they can serve multiple audiences at the same time, and they can bring new people in,” he said.

The goal of the Six Points Fellowship is to generate more of those kinds of events, and to allow artists to create edgier, more engaging Jewish art. Still, some artists, like Saul Chernick, are a little hesitant to jump into the “Jewish Artist” category. “I kind of had to give him a little nudge about thinking about applying, because he instantly had the ‘I don’t want to pigeonhole my work’ pushback,” Guber said. “What we’re trying to do is not pigeonhole Jewish work.”

Guber said that the $45,000 package should be enough to lure a lot of Jewish artists who haven’t explored religious themes in their work. Guber said that as of last week, about 140 artists had contacted her, and about 45 had signed up for a workshop next week to help navigate the application process.

If everything goes well, Guber wants the project to grow. “We want this to happen in Philly, and I can tell you a lot of artists from Philly have contacted me,” she said. “We want this to happen in L.A., and we know there are a lot of artists in L.A. who would be interested.”

Perhaps in sympathy for the elder artists who were barred from applying, she added, “And we also want this to grow to other age groups.”

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