For American Jews, one of the more exciting developments in recent years has been Jews of Color asserting their presence. It’s good for a number of reasons: because it’s always healthy to investigate diversity, and because it’s a simple fact of the American Jewish community: one estimate puts the number of non-White Jews at around 8%, or around 600,000 people; another says it’s closer to 12-15%, or about 1,000,000.
And yet despite the numbers, Jews of Color often feel unwelcome in Jewish spaces. As for arts and culture, our focus at CANVAS, we have noticed that many organizations are opening their doors to Jews of Color and actively seeking more diversity among participants. But diversifying doesn’t solve everything.
Kendell Pinkney has direct experience of the issue. As a theatre artist, a Jew of Color, and rabbinical candidate at Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), he noticed that in arts and culture settings, non-White Jewish artists can feel “pressure to represent their background rather than foregrounding their creative work.” At the same time, the viewer’s inability to look beyond the race or ethnicity of its creator means they lose the specificity of the artist’s vision.
Pinkney saw the need for a Jewish arts and culture network that could move beyond these constrictions: an “art-forward” place where people were not “exoticized by virtue of their presence, where their identity isn’t on the line, which can be a liberating process.” At the same time, he wanted a place where Jews of Color, whatever their level of observance, could investigate Judaism and their own relationship to it.
Hence The Workshop: an arts and culture fellowship for JOCISM (Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardi, and Mizrahi). Now in its first year, The Workshop is a program in which its seven inaugural fellows develop new work, study Jewish texts, and develop their careers with a mentorship program that pairs each fellow with an experienced person in their field.
Workshop fellows meet once a month, with four or five sessions devoted to studying Jewish texts on the theme of collective memory, such as the Creation and the Noah story. The remaining four or five sessions are salons for fellows to present and discuss their work.
Pinkney’s organizational skills have been key in creating support for The Workshop: its core partners are JTS and its Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice; Reboot (a CANVAS grantee); JCC Harlem; and Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts. The Workshop also receives funding from CANVAS.
Art first (with career development)
There are a lot of moving parts to the Workshop, but Pinkney wants fellows to feel supported and free to create whatever they like: “The Workshop is art first,” he said.
The emphasis on creativity has been exciting for the fellows. Nemuna Ceesay has been relishing the opportunity to hone her own project, an untitled mockumentary TV series about actors in training, with another current Workshop fellow, actor William DeMeritt.
Ceesay is an experienced working actor whose credits range from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Broad City. She is also the associate director of the musical A Strange Loop, coming this spring to Broadway. Despite these accomplishments, Ceesay is finding the fellowship, with its mix of disciplines, a great help in developing her first TV project.
“We’re all in different facets of art,” she said. “I am usually around other actors, but now I’m in a room with a photographer and a dancer and a sound designer, and they bring such a different perspective.” Having “access to their brains” is helping Ceesay and DeMeritt clarify their ideas as they work towards their goal of a pilot script and a pitch doc (a document that outlines the premise, characters, and plot of a TV series).
The career development aspect of The Workshop is also a big deal: Ceesay has been working with Rebecca Arzoian, who is President of Television for Smokehouse Pictures, George Clooney’s production company. (This mentorship, as with the others, were facilitated by Reboot.)
“She broke down what actually goes into a pitch doc, which was amazing,” Ceesay said. “And suddenly I’ve got this connection with someone who buys TV shows.”
Lilach Orenstein is an Israeli-born choreographer, performer and producer also enjoying The Workshop’s artistic rigor and nurturing atmosphere. She is the co-founder of MOtiVE Brooklyn, a community-oriented space in Dumbo providing tailored artist services for movement-based practitioners.
For The Workshop, Orenstein is working on a project which explores the objectification of the female body through the lens of Lilith, who, according to the Midrash, was created before Eve, as Adam’s equal.
“It’s such a blessing to have multiple viewpoints,” Orenstein said. “They’re coming from diverse fields of the arts, and the cohort’s feedback helps me to engage with different perspectives, which sharpens the message I wish to convey.”
As for mentorship, Orenstein, who considers her work as “between activism and art,” sought guidance from an activist. Orenstein’s mentor is Libby Lenkinski, Vice President for Public Engagement at the New Israel Fund, which works to expand minority rights in Israel.
“I’m working to create residencies at MOtiVE for movement-based Palestinian artists, among others,” Lilach said. “I want to empower multiple perspectives, as complicated and controversial as they might be, in order to create the conditions for freedom and equality at this residency.”
“Wonderful Discoveries” in Jewish texts
The Workshop is a fellowship for Jewish People of Color, who are often unacknowledged, if actively alienated, by the larger Jewish community.
Ceesay said, “I have never been a practicing Jew or felt integrated into the Jewish community. I felt so alone before. Now I’m in the room with Jews of Color and connecting with them as artists and fellow people. The most amazing thing is being more connected to the culture and community of Judaism.”
“I’m enjoying the texts because I’m constantly surprised,” Ceesay continued. “I had a lot of preconceived notions, a bias against it. But the texts are not what I thought at all. I thought it was all much more clear and concise than it actually is. Instead it’s jumping around, contradicting itself. And that’s cool because anything confusing and vague inspires art and creativity and innovation.”
Orenstein is finding that studying is helping her puzzle out her own relationship to Jewish texts. Her mother is Yemeni, her father an Ashkenazi who grew observant after her parents divorced. Her exposure to Jewish texts was from her father’s literalist perspective, so she was surprised by The Workshop’s humanist, literary approach.
“Even the possibility that it’s only a story was remarkable for me,” she said. “And it’s fun because it’s a group of artists interpreting the Bible. Every word, every sentence, every person had a different interpretation, which was amazing, and we laughed, and we heard each other.”
Avi Amon, a composer and sound designer, is finding inspiration in the close study of Jewish texts.
“The act of diving into minutiae is an artistic project itself,” he said. “We’re looking at one passage of Bereshit and asking, ‘How much can we draw from this?’ And the answer is, ‘An infinite amount.’ I create one musical phrase, and I ask myself how much can I draw out, and the answer is it’s infinite. The moment that you have to be creating something is sacred, and the rigor of diving into a text leads to wonderful discoveries.”
In The Workshop, JOCISM artists have a place where, as Pinkney put it, “They don’t have to edit themselves in certain ways as when they step into predominately White Jewish spaces.” At the same time, it’s creating concrete opportunities for the artists, as well as a network that transcends disciplines—every fellow we spoke to mentioned how inspired they were by the opportunity to collaborate, now and in the future.
Pinkney himself is inspired by this power of connection. It was amazing “how close people were by [just] the second session,” he said. “People always stay longer.”