LABA: Global Artists Delve into Jewish Texts

Dan Friedman
Tirtzah Bassel's “The Birth of Venus Barata, 2020.”

The study session was online, 53 faces in little Zoom boxes. And yet the atmosphere was electric. For a special Rosh Hashanah session, Ruby Namdar, Torah teacher and acclaimed novelist, was taking LABA fellows from across the world through the “Big Bang of Jewish identity” (Genesis 32) — when Jacob, after a “dreamlike” wrestling match, is renamed Israel. 

“What does it actually mean to be God wrestlers?” he asked. “And if we are not theologically inclined, what is the modern, secular translation of this idea?”

“He receives the name as a rite of passage,” said Yael Citron from Tel Aviv. “You get to be called Israel after you’ve wrestled God. Or yourself. You have to earn your name. Or the community you belong to.”

“When you say ‘wrestling’ it makes me think of martial arts or dance or when boxers spar,” said Adva Weinstein, also from Tel Aviv. It’s a moment of play and listening. There’s a lot more than just force overcoming force.” 

“Yes,” said Namdar. “It could also mean if you wrestle against the creator, you are not accepting the way creation works. If you want to change creation and make it better, not accept the injustices of the world, that is a way of struggling against God.”

LABA calls itself “a laboratory for Jewish culture,” which it is, but that doesn’t quite explain this spirited and far-reaching arts organization. 

Study sessions are at the heart of LABA, when ten fellows — visual artists, writers, musicians, theatermakers, and more — meet in person at their local “hub” once per month to pore over a Jewish text. The fellows then use the text as inspiration for new work. (The above was a special Rosh Hashanah session for alumni.)

The study sessions are traditionally held in person at the 14th Street Y in New York City — the founding hub — with lots of food, drink, and talk. One of the wonderful things about LABA is that the level of Jewish education doesn’t matter. Some fellows had had intense cheder educations; for others it is their first exposure to traditional Jewish texts. 

The mixture can lead to spirited discussions. Namdar feels a session is successful when the group dives into “the open wounds of a text,” confronting its knotty ethical issues, engaging with its internal contradictions, and leaving the fellows excited and ready to create.

Every year LABA focuses its study around a theme. The 2021 theme was “Chosen,” focusing on how the concept collides with our modern notions of egalitarianism and fairness. For “Chosen,” the fellows studied Cain and Abel, the revelation at Sinai, and the great Talmudic tales of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. Previous themes have included “Paradise,” “Eros,” “Mother,” “Beauty,” “Humor.”

The sessions can be intense, lively, and fun — Namdar refers to the tone as “serious playfulness.” But the new creativity inspired by the study sessions is just as important. Work inspired by the fellowship experience may be featured in the LABA Journal; performing artists can try their material before an audience at LABAlive. Theater pieces are developed and sharpened through LABA’s 2nd Stage program, and LABA fellows are enthusiastic participators in the yearly Tikkun, an all-night festival of Jewish culture and learning on Shavuot (due to COVID, last year’s Tikkun was virtual).

In this way, LABA forges connections with the local community and creates a lasting community of Jewish arts creators.

Connecting artistic inquiry to Jewish tradition

A lot of interesting and challenging work has grown out of LABA. One notable example is that of dancer and choreographer Hadar Ahuvia who first started developing her piece, Everything You Have Is Yours, about the complicated history of Israel folk dance, as a LABA fellow studying texts on the theme of “Other.” The piece was featured in The New York Times.

Playwright and screenwriter Brooke Berman was thrilled by her LABA experience. 

“I did really good work in LABA,” she said. “I loved the readings and the lessons and parsing texts with Ruby. The sessions helped me connect my artistic inquiry to Jewish tradition. Our theme was ‘Mother,’ and we read the stories of Hannah and Tamar which got me thinking about the archetypal mother from a Jewish perspective versus the contemporary role. These ideas went into my play Hurricane about a former riot grrl stranded by Los Angeles motherhood.” 

Tirtzah Bassel, an artist from the “Blueprint” cohort, benefited from an “ongoing substantive artistic discussion” that allowed her to bring her Jewish background and her artwork into dialogue with each other. 

Although there’s nothing overtly Jewish about Bassel’s Canon in Drag project, it is deeply influenced by her time at LABA. The project is a “a series of paintings in the style of iconic works,” such Sistine Chapel frescoes, that are altered and gender-flipped. (The image above is a detail of “The Birth of Venus Barata, 2020.”) Ironically the Jewish context of the LABA sessions helped her understand how to think about classical art and Italian chapel frescoes, using a Christian model for a non-Christian series of artworks.

Some fellows have had intense cheder educations; for others LABA is their first exposure to traditional Jewish texts

A scrappy organization with a long reach
From its very beginning, LABA was about putting culture in the heart of a community. 

LABA was first launched by Stephen Arnoff in 2007, the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y at the time. Arnoff, along with Anat Litwin and Basmat Hazan, created the basic structure of using classic Jewish texts to inspire art and dialogue.  
When LABA started, it was a bold idea for an institution like the 14th Street Y. Almost fifteen years later, LABA’s study sessions, art shows, and performances have become an intrinsic part of the Y, making LABA itself a presence and draw for the East Village Jewish and artistic community. 
More than 200 artists and writers have been through the program. And LABA fellows are now working to replicate the model in other cities, with “hubs” in the East Bay (in the San Francisco area), Berlin, and Buenos Aires.
One proof of LABA’s success is that 15 years after its founding, it is run by former fellows. Strauss, who runs East Bay, was a LABA fellow, as was Ronit Muszkatblit, who is now Director of LABA Global. Mirta Kupferminc, Director of Buenos Aires, and Laura Beatrix Newmark, Director of LABA New York, both embraced leadership positions after having participated in the program.
Still, despite its ambitions, as East Bay director Elissa Strauss noted, LABA is a “scrappy” organization that survives on passion, determination, and local funding.
Each hub has different ways of carrying out the LABA mission, but they all share two principles. The first is that the artists must meet to parse Jewish texts. The second is that the hub must exist within a larger Jewish community — for LABA East Bay it’s the East Bay JCC, for Berlin it’s the Fraenkelufer Synagogue. (LABA Buenos Aires lacks in an institutional connection.)
The main — and intended — effect of having LABA in these spaces is that there is a natural, welcoming space to present productions from current or previous fellows. 
As Anne Germanacos, a major funder of LABA East Bay notes, “One of the great joys of LABA is that it brings together local people.” As an artist and a writer who has spent much of her life in Greece, she understands the scaffold and structure that LABA provides to “see one another and be with one another and aid in cross-fertilization.”
Of course, the pandemic complicated things. Community centers were hard hit by COVID. LABA’s administrators took pay cuts and the fellows missed the in-person experience — last year’s “Humor” cohorts were on Zoom. 
One interesting result of the pivot to Zoom, though, was that it allowed for easier contact between LABA hubs. They shared curricula and held joint sessions. In a time of isolation, LABA artists nevertheless forged new connections between Jewish creators on the East and West Coasts of the U.S. and in Argentina. Just one example: Sara Felder, an East Bay fellow, and Yehuda Hyman a New York fellow, collaborated on The Name Game, a play on naming and Jewish identity.
LABA’s administrators plan to bring the model to other communities. Global Director Ronit Muszkatblit says, “We have a lot of really exciting plans for the future. We’re creating new hubs in Tel Aviv, Toronto, and LABA ESP, for Spanish-speaking countries. We’re strengthening the hubs we already have, and we want to keep building global connections between hubs with artistic project support and artist and scholar exchanges. 
“It’s really a ‘think-local-act-global’ thing. We revitalize and energize local Jewish artists and communities, and we encourage LABA fellows to make connections between their communities.”
LABA is currently accepting applications for its 2022 season, themed “Broken.” You can access it here.

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