Ceramic horns by Julia Elsas, a 2018 NJCF fellow. The horns are her reimagining of the ugav, a mysterious Biblical wind instrument. Image courtesy of the artist.
Don’t miss Material/Inheritance: Contemporary Work by New Jewish Culture Fellows opening at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, March 26 — exciting new media, performance, painting, and poetry from 30 artists supported by the New Jewish Culture Fellowship. It’s a exhibition that reinvents Jewish ideas in dialogue with Jewish traditions. Details here.
One day in 2018, Matt Green, a rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn (CBE), received a welcome surprise.
He had recognized that in his Brooklyn community, there were a lot of progressive, unaffiliated Jews who were artists and who believed that art was central to their Jewish identity. Green wanted to create a communal experience for them. He had been in talks with the UJA-Federation of New York about programs he wanted to spearhead over the next decade, including an artist fellowship.
When he found out UJA-NY would fund a pilot arts program, the senior rabbi at CBE, Rachel Timoner, suggested he team up with Maia Ipp, a fiction writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents, for her background in the arts. It ended up being a great match and together they co-founded the New Jewish Culture Fellowship (NJCF) that year, in 2018.
To date, 40 artists have taken part. For the first three years, the fellowship ran locally in New York, but starting this year it was open to artists from around the U.S. Every year, artists who believe their project will benefit from community support are encouraged to apply. Fellows meet about 20 times over the course of the academic year in collaborative settings, both together and one-on-one with Ipp and Green. (This year, the learning component is virtual.)
Each year Green and Ipp choose a theme based on what they see in the artists’ own interests and proposed projects. The current cohort is studying various understandings of “inheritance.” In a group with Ipp, they discuss contemporary texts by Jewish and non-Jewish artists, and share their own works in progress for feedback. With Green, they study canonical texts such as sugyot, or distinct Talmudic matters.
The fellowship—which attracts working artists mostly in their 20s and 30s—also functions as a workshop and incubator for public events. Each fellow gets a $1,500 stipend and can apply for up to $1,500 for an event production budget.
Populating an Island
“NJCF is a laboratory for us to figure out what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century,” says Green.
The goal, he explains, is to have conversations that the Jewish community is afraid to have, whether that’s about Israel/Palestine, class, or gender and sexuality. Ipp and Green believe that artists are in a unique position to lead those difficult discussions.
Green and Ipp wanted especially to create a space for Jewish artists who have been overlooked, censored, or alienated by the mainstream. NJCF cohorts have always included Jews of color and trans, queer, and non-binary artists, as well as artists whose work may be seen as too challenging or controversial for other spaces.
This idea resonated with how filmmaker Danielle Durchslag was feeling when she applied for the 2019-20 cohort. She had been making video work about the political and psychological complexities of American Jewish wealth, specifically work that held a mirror up to the community’s relationship to capitalism. Even when she had promising studio visits, she said curators consistently passed, saying they feared being called antisemitic.
“I had never up to that point even read a description of an opportunity that was that compelling a fit,” she said of NJCF.
Once in the cohort, Durchslag felt an immediate connection to NJCF’s mission, and a sense of community.
“I think of myself as living on a lefty, artsy, Jewy island,” she says, “and it was hard at that time to find other inhabitants of that island.
The 2023 NJCF cohort. Top row: Jett Allen, Mariya Zilberman, Adam Golfer. Middle row: Katz Tepper, Jay Eddy, Shterna Goldbloom. Bottom row: Avi Amon, Liat Berdugo.
A Broader Cultural Moment
In 2019, Ipp published an essay called Kaddish for an Unborn Avant Garde that touches on the inter-generational divide and, subsequently, many of the issues that NJCF seeks to question. The essay also addresses head-on the subject that led to the creation of CANVAS: the eroding of philanthropic support for contemporary Jewish creativity at precisely the same moment that artists and audiences were thriving—and clambering to find one another.
Ipp and Green believe that NJCF is part of a broader cultural moment taking place in New York and around the country. NJCF, alongside other organizations like Jewish Currents magazine, which Ipp helped relaunch in 2018, are engaged in rethinking what it means to be Jewish right now.
Last year, the fellowship had its biggest application pool yet, with over 140 applicants. Eight artists were accepted, working on projects as diverse as graphic memoir, short film, rock-opera, poetry, and sound installation (see image above).
Despite the complexity and reach of the program (they estimate that over four years, their events have been attended by thousands), the fellowship runs on a shoe-string budget. For the first three years of NCJF, Green and Ipp were building the program while also working other jobs. This year, thanks to funding from CANVAS, Ipp was able to take on a half-time role and NJCF hired an alum to be the communications manager.
As NJCF has grown, so have the opportunities for its network of fellows and alumni. Last year the fellowship was featured in Artforum, and this year the Jewish Museum of Maryland is hosting an exhibit of NJCF fellows’ work, Material/Inheritance. The group show runs from March 26 to June 11 and was juried by an exciting panel of curators and arts professionals from the Jewish and non-Jewish art world.
(The connection came from Ipp, who has a working relationship with the museum’s new director, Sol Davis. It’s a demonstration of how arts and culture networks build careers as well as community.)
In 2020, CBE merged with the reform synagogue Union Temple of Brooklyn and acquired its Park Slope building. The space had already been a cultural hub of comedy shows, concerts and a literary series but a flood paused its programming. The formerly abandoned synagogue is transforming into a Jewish cultural center, including studio space for the NJCF artists.
The acquisition, said Green, “represents a big opportunity for us to have a physical location in New York City to house much of the cultural content fellows are producing and to expand the reach of our network.”
Nora Rodriguez, an alum from the second cohort, said NCJF’s collaborative and community-based environment allowed her to think more deeply about her relationship to Judaism.
“I’ve been a part of various fellowship cohorts and normally you go in and meet people and go to a few meetings and leave and don’t really see them again,” said Rodriguez about other fellows. But at NJCF, these “feel like lifelong collaborators and peers and friends.”
Ira Khonen Temple and Laura Elkeslassy, 2021 NJCF fellows who collaborated on Ya Ghorbati, a multimedia album inspired by Judeo-Arab singers released by Ayin Press.
CANVAS supports a number of programs that, like NJCF, act as hubs of creativity for professional artists, providing learning, career development, and community. See our newsletters on LABA, a multinational program using Jewish texts as a springboard for inspiration, and the Workshop, an arts fellowship for Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardi, and Mizrahi. —Ed.
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