“My Mind Is Swiss Cheese”: Jewish creatives on staying productive during the never-ending pandemic

Gordon Haber

From Arlekin Players Theatre’s Witness: Lauren Elias, Anne Gottlieb, Gene Ravvin, and Nathan Malin. Arlekin produced several acclaimed virtual theatre pieces during the pandemic.

Every week, as I put together this newsletter, I am astonished by the continuing creativity from Jewish artists and writers. In a time of political uncertainty and rising antisemitism, during a global pandemic, people keep creating, investigating their heritage and identity in interesting and meaningful ways. 

The thing is, though, for artists and writers, creativity is always difficult. I’m not referring to the cliché of the tortured artist. I mean the constant balance between developing new work and earning enough to keep the lights on. And I mean, for many, the added concern of staying present for their children. It’s a difficult path under the best of circumstances; in 2022 it’s even more difficult.

It’s clear there is an audience hungering for Jewish arts and culture: our grantees tell us that engagement for their online offerings—literary, visual, musical, and theatrical—is through the virtual roof. But we’ve yet to address a simple question: how Jewish artists and writers manage to keep creating during this stressful historical moment. 

“You have to work hard to fill that void.”

A support system was crucial for nearly every artist and writer I spoke to.

“One thing that’s been missing is community, and you have to work hard to fill that void,” said Aaron Hamburger, a D.C.-based fiction writer. “I was lucky in that I was already in a really cool writers’ group. We meet on Zoom and exchange work and discuss it. So I always knew I’d have to write another chapter of my novel, whether it was good or bad.” (Hamburger’s novel Hotel Cuba will be published by Harper Perennial in 2023.)

One creative team found their mojo by exploring a new form together. Julia Vogl and Gabriella Willenz are visual artists who teamed up to create The Eve & Adam Project, a one-hour experimental audio-play that re-examines the story through a feminist lens.

At the start of the pandemic, things looked grim: Vogl, who lives in London, had five cancelled projects. Willenz, who now lives in Israel, was in sheltering-in-place with a baby and a four-year old in Berkeley, California. They were brought together by the collaboration groups set up by Asylum Arts, and they realized that they wanted to try a new medium.

“When everything moved online, a lot of visual art seemed flattened and low-res,” Willenz said. “We wanted to create something where we could control exactly how people could experience it.”

“We discussed every single second and word of this final product together,” Vogl said. “When you have someone in it with you, someone who also wants it to be good, that’s a great motivation.”

Even the suggestion of a partnership was helpful for Jeanne Heifetz, a New York-based visual artist who had been “out of the studio for months.” When a writer friend mentioned her accountability group—writers meeting to set goals and discuss their progress—Heifetz asked a friend if she’d be interested in starting an accountability partnership.

“Even though we were just in the ‘talks about talks’ stage, I thought, ‘Shit, if we’re going to do this, I’d better make some new drawings. I started with five. We never did the partnership, but the series is still going.” 

“I just really needed to escape my family.”

One issue that came up frequently, particularly for the women I spoke to, was childcare. The American system is not well set up for childcare during the best of times, and the pandemic placed additional pressures on artists with children. 

Willenz had an interesting approach for continuing her individual practice while working on Eve & Adam and caring for two small children: “I really tried to lower the bar. I just let myself do stuff. Just going to the studio felt like a win.” 

Rachel Dodes, a New York-based writer with one eight-year-old son, had a harrowing experience. Her husband Josh Wortman “has the dubious distinction of being the first person hospitalized in Suffolk County for Covid. In March 2020, just as everything was locking down, he got sick. We were literally in survival mode for a while, and when he got out of the hospital I was so distracted by anxiety and gratitude I couldn’t be creative.” 

Dodes found the impetus to work when she was invited to write about the experience for Vanity Fair. Then as her husband’s health returned, Dodes could focus, at least part-time, on a project with writer Lauren Mechling, “a bonkers time-travel novel that was not about the pandemic. It was an escape from our grim reality, and we had a lot of fun.” (Dodes and Mechling are currently shopping for representation for the book.)

Another collaboration: Nope, her popular podcast with Brian Hecht, in which “a couple of New York Jews” vent about the news. Although it’s on hiatus—“we needed a break”—they put out a podcast almost every week in 2021. 

Dodes expressed gratitude that she was eventually able to be productive because she had help—her parents were nearby, and she had a trusted babysitter. And she found a new way to get organized: bullet journaling, a productivity system

“It completely transformed my life and made me more efficient. My mind is Swiss cheese. If it’s not written down, I won’t do it. A bullet journal is great because it’s all analog, and it really helps you manage the madness.”

Lauren Grodstein, a Moorestown, N.J.-based writer with a 13-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, made similar points about the act of creation as a kind of escapism. She found solace, ironically, in working in a novel set in the Warsaw Ghetto.

“I just really needed to escape my family,” she said. “I love them. But everybody needs a little space, and I was eager to escape via my imagination. So even it was a bleak escape, it was enjoyable to be elsewhere. It was just very good to have purpose.” (Her novel, whose working title is We Must Not Think of Ourselves, will be published by Algonquin in 2023.)

Like many female artists with children, Grodstein had to work around her family’s schedule: “My husband’s job had to take precedence because he had people to be accountable to. I didn’t have that because I wasn’t teaching. But my husband was really good. He helped a lot. I have friends whose husbands behave as if shit wasn’t falling around them. And those women are broken now.”

“The pandemic is the inspiration.”

For all the struggles of Jewish artists, some plowed ahead without hesitation, and ultimately even enjoyed some success.

“I don’t want to sound like an arrogant schmuck,” said Igor Golyak, artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre, based in Needham, Mass. “But there was never a thought about stopping. ‘You had a baby born, you got married, you had a pandemic. Why did you keep creating?’ How could you not?”

For Golyak, it helped that theatre is a collaborative medium—and that he didn’t have far to go to find a collaborator. In 2020, during those first uncertain months of the pandemic, he began work on State vs Natasha Banina, an interactive piece featuring a fierce performance from Darya Denisova, Golyak’s partner.

“We put the baby in one room and the dog in the other, and we worked in the living room,” Golyak said. “We drew on the walls.”

The result of that focus and determination won Arlekin Players its first New York Times Critic’s Pick—for many artists, the ultimate stamp of approval.

In more recent works, Golyak explored feelings of powerlessness and isolation, likening it to the latter years of Anton Chekov: “He was dying of tuberculosis, and he knew it. He had no agency, control over his own life was taken away from him, and he’s writing about characters who have no agency in plays like The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, where things are happening on their own for no reason.” 

The result was the “virtual theatre” piece chekovOS/an experimental game/, with Jessica Hecht and Mikhail Baryshnikov—and Arlekin’s second New York Times Critic’s Pick.

“An event like a pandemic is the inspiration,” Golyak said. “There is something happening to humans that we need to express, discuss, understand. It’s as if you’re performing surgery on yourself, and it hurts initially, but you need to open the wound.”

“A uselessness machine”

As a writer and editor, I had a surprising mix of emotions while researching this piece. On the one hand, it was encouraging to see so many smart, talented people bring their work into the world despite so many obstructions. And it seems the CANVAS model of supporting networks and collaboration is working. 

On the other hand, while everyone expressed some level of exhaustion, all of the above examples can be considered success stories—in some sense the usual narrative of artists triumphing over adversity.

D. Strauss, a Berlin-based music writer, has a different story. He has been unable to pursue anything creative, referring to himself as “a kind of a uselessness machine.” I suspect there are many artists and writers in Strauss’s situation, but they were perhaps unwilling to come forward out of embarrassment or a desire for privacy or some combination of both.

If there’s any lesson in the above, it’s that, to paraphrase John Donne, no man or woman is an island. Artistic collaboration isn’t for everybody, but some form of accountability—even in the mildest way possible—can be the way forward. 

If you’re looking for ways to help:

  • Donate to Pen Parentis, a spectacular organization providing support to writers with children, including accountability groups. Or contact a local writing group and ask how you can help—maybe you have a space you can donate for meetings or underwrite the rental.
  • Donate to Asylum Arts, which runs the Peleh Residency, a retreat specifically for artists with children. 
  • Underwrite scholarships at local JCC childcare centers, Jewish schools, or Jewish summer camps specifically for the children of working artists and writers.
  • Buy stuff! Purchase the books that excite you; if the venue has Covid precautions, catch some music or go to the theatre. (If you’re not quite ready for public gatherings, buy a ticket for someone who is.)

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