What makes a piece of art “Jewish”?
Must it consider a subject with an explicitly Jewish theme? Does it have to be about Israel, or the Holocaust, or bear a Jewish symbol, or reference some other idea with great cultural cache? Must the work of art deal in bar mitzvahs and bagels and the Torah or a Jewish text to hold within it the essence of Judaism? Or can an artist and a participant learn something, improve upon something, contribute something to a rich cultural and religious Jewish life by focusing not on what makes us different, but rather, by the close examination of where the edges of one idea bleed into another?
Liz Lerman, a world-renowned choreographer, activist, educator, founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and a Covenant Foundation grantee, has been thinking about these “porous borders” as she debuts her latest creation, the theatrical dance production “Healing Wars” which opened at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in June 2014.
“We recognize a piece as being Jewish if its about something Jewish—like the shtetl, or anything we [as a community] have come to decide is a Jewish subject matter,” Lerman said, when asked if her latest work might fall under the rubric of ‘new Jewish text.’ “But lets start with the most essential premise: I’m Jewish. Therefore, anything I do is Jewish too. If I’ve made that piece, then it has to be Jewish.”
“We need to get ourselves out of the “box,” she says. “I have been at various times in the Jewish box, the modern dance box, the post-modern box, the female box, the middle aged female box and soon to be the old-female-white-girl box…I am all those things.”
The same might be said of Lerman’s “Healing Wars.” To call it a dance performance is reductive, and ignores the visuals, the music, the drama, the cinema and the spoken word of the piece. Rather, “Wars” refuses to be defined solely as one thing. At the beginning, in a backstage pre-show, audience members wander through a “living gallery” of portraits—one performer portrays Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and a volunteer nurse in the Civil War, as she sorts through letters to soldiers. Another “portrait” shows a soldier suffering from what today would be defined as PTSD. He sits in a rocking chair, locked in an attic, as black and white images of violence are projected onto his head via an old-fashioned reel. As audience members wind around the gallery they end up on the stage, where they encounter the actor Bill Pullman, emcee of the performance, in conversation with Paul Hurley, a war veteran and an amputee, who also dances in the show. Pullman and Hurley are engaged in a conversation about Hurley’s service in the U.S. Navy and the attack in Bahrain where he lost his leg.
One witnesses all of this before the dance portion of the performance has even begun. From the moment audience members enter the theater, they are pulled out of their lives and confronted with the “unrest,” as Lerman puts it, that forces one to consider, evaluate, and hopefully, leave the theater perhaps a bit more impassioned to act toward change.
While the content of “Healing Wars” is not explicitly Jewish, the ideas and motives of the piece most certainly are. Part of the Civil War project, which commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, “Healing Wars” considers the experiences of the healers who treated both the physical and emotional wounds of those in battle. Here, as audience members watch dancers and actors portray both the wounded and those who heal them, one can’t help but meditate on ideas of loyalty, compassion, struggle, and resiliency. These are all Jewish ideals. These are all Jewish values.
Then there are the interrelated concepts of loss and death, central to this performance, widely explored and addressed within the laws and customs of Judaism, and ever present in our daily news feed. One can’t help but see “Healing Wars” through the prism of the international conflicts of today, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the performance directly addresses. For as the initial run of “Healing Wars” closed in DC, the political situation in Israel rapidly destabilized. Children in Israel and in Gaza cowered in bomb shelters as sirens blared, just as Lerman’s dancers cowered on the stage under the thunder of staccato drum beats.
“The wars are different but the functions don’t change,” Lerman asserted. “A soldier is a soldier and a mother who loses her son is the same as any mother who has ever lost a son in battle. I see “Healing Wars” as an effort to bring the civilian community to its senses about what its like to be at war for this long,” she offers, upon considering the effects of the performance. “I think we’ve numbed ourselves to the fact that it’s happening.”
There’s also the question of what happens after; after war, after death, after the shooting stops and there’s an eerie calm on the battlefield. To begin to try and answer this, Lerman created two characters that represent spirits—one, portrayed by Samantha Speis, is tasked with helping soldiers die and escorting them to “the other side.” This spirit is tired, she’s restless, but she’s also ever-present, on stage in most scenes, gently coaxing the dying toward death.
And then there’s the character portrayed by Keith A. Thompson. He is a wanderer, a former slave. Audience members watch him flit lightly on his toes, floating above the rest, his presence almost ethereal.Lerman explains that in her research she learned that freed slaves often buried the dead in an effort to earn money during the Civil War.
“I see him as Elijah,” Lerman confides, when asked about Thompson’s character. According to the rabbis of Talmudic times, Elijah was a prophet who escorted souls to heaven or hell, and the only hero from the bible who never dies, but rather, leaves the world on a fiery chariot, destined to return when the messiah comes. Some might also see Thompson’s character as a one-man chevrah kadisha, aided by the female spirit, who is perhaps a re-invisioned shechinah.
The multiplicities in Lerman’s work cross the boundaries we routinely erect around social status, religion, race, ethnicity, gender and age. Instead, audience members are free to ponder interconnected ideas, which is precisely as the artist intended.
“Inquiry, questioning, searching for truth, these are pursuits that are shared—by scientists, artists, rabbis—even if we go about it differently, we’re all on that same quest,” Lerman says, though she notes that she feels a certain pride in how Judaism is set up to encourage such questioning. “What [Jews] have to offer is that we’ve thought about and written about moral questioning. Yes, this inquiry may be true of all people, but Judaism has multiple systems within our books to come upon the problem again. Are we being compassionate enough? Are we taking care of each other, enough?”
Lerman wants the art to change you, and its impossible to leave a performance of “Healing Wars” without feeling even a little bit changed. Whether its watching Paul Hurley gently slide his prosthetic limb under a bench and give his full weight to Keith Thompson in a beautiful duet dance, or listening to Bill Pullman argue with the spirit about who shall live and who shall die, or watching footage of American soldiers in Iraq as they stare death in the face and release tension by dancing to a Lady Gaga song. The sights and sounds of this work shake the audience out of complacency.
“I’m interested in people’s potential to create meaning out of their own lives and out of the world around them,” Lerman says. “I’m interested in understanding the way in which one’s own knowledge can be revealed to them through art and how one might emerge from that experience renewed, reconnected, or willing to do something…to realize they have some power in themselves.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project