Nemuna Ceesay and Rabbi Kendell Pinkney at The Workshop’s Memory Seder. Image courtesy of the author.
For this issue of the CANVAS Compendium, we’re excited to turn the keys over to Nemuna Ceesay, a recent alum of The Workshop, a CANVAS grantee network centering the work of JOCISM (Jews of Color, Jewish-Indigenous, Sephardi, and Mizrahi) artists.
Nemuna Ceesay is an accomplished actor, director, and educator. She has performed at Second Stage, The Public Theatre, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival; her TV credits include Bull, Broad City, and Younger. Her directing credits include Associate Director of Broadway’s A Strange Loop. Ceesay also founded The Blueprint, a training program for BIPOC artists. Find out more about Ceesay on her website.
Below, Ceesay explains how The Workshop’s collective memory-themed Seder helped untangle the “threads” of her Judaism.
I’ve taken to telling everyone I know that I’m Jewish. Sometimes it’s met with surprise and delight, sometimes with skepticism, and most recently a very long pause, followed by “congratulations?”
This new M.O. belies my initially complicated relationship to Judaism. My parents bonded over their mutual disdain for their religious upbringings. Although I grew up thinking everyone was Jewish—my neighborhoods and schools were filled with Jews—I never felt like I could embrace it, because none of my classmates or neighbors looked like me. I never felt like I belonged, so I adopted my mom’s indifference: “I’m not religious,” I’d say with pride when invited to a church function or synagogue. (I always said yes to a bar or bat mitzvah though, because they’re a great time.)
The one Jewish thing we did was celebrate Hanukkah. I don’t really understand why my mom held onto the one holiday, but it was an annual reminder of my Jewish roots. I’d memorize the Hanukkah prayer and recite it with pride, and it was the little thread that kept me connected to Judaism.
That thread never broke, but it wasn’t quite strong enough to make me fully claim my Jewishness. For many years I felt uncomfortable in Jewish spaces—there were words I didn’t understand, phrases that felt like inside jokes, holidays I didn’t know the meanings of. But along with my annual encounter with Hanukkah, one other holiday served as an open invitation back to Judaism: Passover.
We didn’t always participate in Passover growing up, but we were always invited to. I distinctly remember getting offers from different families to “come to our Seder,” whether they knew I was Jewish or not. There was always a sense that anyone was welcome, which felt new and comforting. But the thing I loved most about Passover: I never felt stupid. It was clear what the holiday was about, what we were there to do, and how to do it. I didn’t have to pretend to understand or worry about asking a stupid question—the whole night seemed to be centered around asking questions and getting them answered. It was a relief.
I’ve been an actor for as long as I can remember, and because of that, I love stories. Passover is good at stories. Hearing the story of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, I was struck by how that brought together two sides of myself that most confused me as a child—my Blackness and my Jewishness. I knew what slavery was, I knew where Africa was, I knew what a Hebrew was, and I’ve always loved stories of people overcoming obstacles and fighting for their freedom. The stories even included learning what the different foods around the table represented, and I’ve always loved food! It was compelling to my little artist mind and added to the sense of belonging I felt around the Seder table.
When I left home for college, I fell further away from my Jewishness. I just wasn’t around it, so I leaned deeper into my non-religious identity. But those little threads connecting me to Judaism held on. As I continued down my path to self-discovery, my friend, actor Bill DeMeritt, asked me to participate in a Shavuot documentary about being a Jew of Color, I Am Not What I Am. Through that project, I was introduced to Rabbi Kendell Pinkney, who invited me to coffee and eventually asked if I would join the inaugural cohort for The Workshop, a fellowship for JOCISM (Jews of Color, Indigenous Jews, Sephardi, and Mizrahi). In The Workshop, fellows study Jewish texts while developing a project and their careers.
In the spirit of being true to myself and my craving for spirituality, I cautiously made my way back to Judaism in a space filled with other Jewish artists who looked like me. It turned out to be a revelation, a decision that shifted my relationship to my identity deeply. I was very skeptical when we began, especially of studying text. But Rabbi Kendell had us studying the Bible from a place of curiosity, leaving room to both challenge what we were reading and find connections to it. There was room to integrate our relationship to Judaism however we needed to. There was structure, but also freedom. There was community but also individual expression.
The Workshop was the perfect environment for me to explore my relationship to my Jewishness without pressure around what that should look like. I was around other Jews of Color, other artists, all who had their own connection to Judaism—I wasn’t alone in my search for belonging, which ironically made me feel like I finally belonged.
When I reopened the tiny little box labeled, “I’m Jewish,” the memories that flooded back were the memories of Seders—how Jewish friends and acquaintances had opened their doors and reminded me that I belonged. These experiences built up the foundation that I was able to stand on all these years later.
The Workshop theme for the year was Collective Memory, so at the end of our fellowship year, my cohort and I—Lilach Orenstein, Rebecca S’manga Frank, Daniel Terna, Benji Kahn, Avi Amon, Bill DeMeritt—along with Rabbi Kendell, came together for a Memory Seder. We each brought an item of food connected to a personal memory, and we gathered to eat and share the story behind each dish. There were stories about parents who had passed, friends who are like family, and one particularly compelling story from Daniel about working on a fishing boat in high school, befriending an eccentric fisherman, and eating a lot of fried ice cream. We laughed, we cried, and we shared food. Once again, I felt like I belonged. I felt welcome to bring myself, my background, my experiences, and my memories into the space. The best Passover yet.
I’m still exploring what Judaism means to me, but after these experiences I have no hesitation about announcing that I’m Jewish. And I hope to host my own Passovers and include anyone who considers themselves a seeker and a storyteller. I want to take the lessons of Passover into my life as an artist as well, applying them to every space I curate: You’re invited no matter who you are. You’re encouraged to ask questions and tell stories. And bring food.
What could be better than that?
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