A “drash” given this morning at GWU Hillel, Lisner Auditorium. Wishing everyone a very happy new year.
Art and Judaism and the Case for a Holy Fusion
It’s wonderful to be with you today, to pray and sing and usher in the new year with family, friends, and this new community for us here at George Washington University. Let’s appreciate the intimacy of what’s to come (even the irony) of me standing before you, fresh off the plane from Israel and Italy – where my daughter and I joined a mostly-fully-represented extended family to the scene where my mother, her sister, their mother and 1000 other Jews trekked into the Alps of Italy in early September, 1943 to escape deportation from Southern France. We were re-enacting their trek in a Memory March (our “legs were praying” indeed, just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1965 when he joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and political figures in a third—and finally successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, to demand voting rights for African Americans at the Alabama state capitol; and my heart was full of inspiration from the fellowship with church-affiliated citizens of Saluzzo who hosted us); a weekend’s worth of ceremonies, all of which followed a three-day jaunt through Israel joining the tour of WOODY SEZ: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOOD GUTHRIE… It was a whirlwind Jewish week synthesizing art and family, memory and present-day consciousness; strengthening old bonds and forging new ones.
Today I come before you, a tad disoriented, publically worshipping for the first time in months, which feels momentous, to have been away from a prayer service (if not a synagogue—we toured several in Italy) and then be bestowed with this honor—the qualifier being that although I immerse myself in the world of Jewish drama—and I work in a Jewish Community Cultural Arts Center everyday—perhaps I don’t spend a deep enough time meditating on the full meaning of the spiritual component I’m immersed in—I’m so focused on the craft, the sustaining of the art—but what of the “J” in Theater J? Can I find it in the art I help produce? I’m going to reflect on that, as we consider the assigned topic—what Cantor Mishkin has charged me to address: “Art & Judaism,” to which I’ll add the sub-title: “A Dialectical Dance (or Holy Fusion).”
Doug Mishkin is a new friend. We bonded last fall over our common debt to Woody Guthrie. I fell in love with Doug’s great song, “Woody’s Children” and the amazing video of it which was released last year in celebration of Woody’s Centennial. We realized that the love of one artist bespoke a lot of other common passions (a kind of Jeff-Bezos/Amazon.com affinity match, “If you liked this, you might like…” only without the diabolical algorithms). Doug and I discovered connections ranging from youth group song-leading, to civil rights history, to the lyricist who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” There’s something to this: If you’ve got a work of art in common, you might share other things—values, ethical principles—and through the love of a single piece of art you forge relationship, and as that extends to others, community is assembled; and the structure of our religion–with its cyclical rhythms and rituals, sustaining the community, year after year, ritual and repetition bound by passion and deep feeling–is fortified. Without deep feeling, intentionality, or kavanah, there is only law; only compulsion; practice devoid of light. The Arts have been a gateway for bringing light and repetition together; a portal through which we can connect to our heritage and have it resonate musically in the modern world.
And yet “The Arts as a Gateway” has become a familiar trope. It’s “The Spoonful Of Sugar” Approach; Sweeten things up with story, a melody or a decorative aesthetic. But to others, the arts are an end to themselves—not just additive—but a sustaining framework of meaning extolling the miracle and relentless fury of creation (natural and human). There are atheists for whom Art is their religion; for whom the theater, or the concert hall, is The Temple. I’m here to fuse the notions; that the arts lead us back to more meaningful Jewish engagement (back to the synagogue, even), yet are to be understood (and respected) as more than a mere stepping stone. Jewish arts provide continuity and community; literacy and regenerative vitality. And in that word vitality, we see a material and spiritual life-line; an instrument for keeping our Spirit Alive.
So then don’t we adequately fund it? Why don’t we make the arts a communal priority? Why doesn’t a new generation of donors and daveners give a darn about Jewish Arts? Because there is evidence suggesting that they don’t. There’s even a rare few who feel some Jewish arts should be de-funded! Specifically, that the theater I run should be de-funded! Or that I should be. But we’ll get to that…
Let’s pose some more specific questions and ask if it’s really so important; this marriage of Judaism And The Arts. Compared to, what? Bible Study? Meals on Wheels? Financial support for the state of Israel? Synagogue building maintenance? All of these are important too. What’s so special about Art?
Has a work of art ever led us to a more Jewish sense of self? We’ve all been moved by art, sure. But the question is, in what ways does loving Woody Guthrie lead to my praying here in Lisner? Which artists have left us spiritually elevated? Gerswhin? Copeland? Bernstein? Rothko? The bittersweet laughter of Wasserstein…? And as I’m listing and thinking about the importance of art in our lives, I’m reminded of another Woody—Woody Allen—and his famous list uttered into a tape recorder just before the end of his 1979 movie “Manhattan.”