White Fire: The Power of Jewish Learning through the Arts

March 20, 2017

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


This notion of multiplicity of meaning is the core inspiration of the Jewish Artists’ Laboratory of the Midwest. The lab is a network of professional Jewish artists in six cities in the Midwest – Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Cleveland – now in its sixth year. In each city, a group meets twice monthly to study a theme related to Jewish life, and to create works of art for an annual exhibit/showcase based on their study. The artists include painters, printmakers, sculptors, fabric artists, musicians, poets, playwrights, choreographers, mixed media artists, photographers, and more.

The Laboratory offers us two tremendous opportunities in one: 1) It is a way to engage Jewish artists in learning that can strengthen their identities, and create a community of Jewish artists, and, 2) It is a way of bringing Jewish expression to the community at large through exhibits and ancillary programs and activities.

Our “texts” are traditional Jewish texts: Bible, Talmud, and Commentaries. But they are also works of art, modern poetry, music, theater, and video clips among other art forms. We apply the same rigor in discussing the works of art that we do to Torah study. Last year’s theme, for example, was “wisdom.” Our texts included Torah, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Pirkei Avot, and other traditional texts. But we also included the poetry and music of Leonard Cohen, the work of Ben Shahn, popular Israeli songs, and more. And in every case, whether the “text” is the Torah or a painting, we relate it to ourselves as Jews and as artists.

What’s more, we have created a community of Jewish artists in the Midwest. Midwestern artists often feel isolated – as Midwesterners removed from the artistic establishments of the coasts, and as Jews in a Midwestern world of secular artists. For our artists, this has been a profound experience in each individual community, as well as being part of a community of over 100 Jewish artists in the six Midwestern cities. We regularly hear from our participating artists that this experience has changed their lives.

The impact on the overall community, as well, has exceeded our expectations. Hundreds of people come to our openings, and hundreds more see it as a destination, or as they pass through the JCC. At the Milwaukee JCC, it’s particularly exciting to observe the reactions of children as walk past the exhibit in our hallway gallery. They all have a favorite work of art in the exhibit. And they all bring their parents to see the exhibit.

Read the entire article at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Mar. 29, 2017