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The Artistry of Olim

Today's blogpost was written by Rachel Wansker, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.

I sit on the floor of a charming art studio in a secret whimsical pocket of Tel Aviv. Everyone is dressed as a child. There are grown adults playing “the chocolate game”, an English childhood game in which you try and eat a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork whilst wearing the funniest set of clothes possible. I lean over and talk to the man sitting next to me. I compliment his glasses and he complements mine. We decided to switch glasses for the time being. Trying a new identity on for size. For me, this is the feeling of making Aliyah. Trying on a slightly new identity. Adjusting to the specific variation of Jew. The version of Jew that means, ‘Israeli’, the one that maintains and admits to the complexities of Zionism, whether one likes it or not.

As an artist in a foreign land, I have continually sought out every opportunity I have to connect to the art scene in Israel. Previous to my time with Yahel, I had this idea of the newly emerging Jewish Identity that I would somehow come out with. As I spend more time here, my inner artist refuses to quell. I wanted to see art, but I also wanted to understand it and to be able to afford it. So I went to see the local English speaking art events. The community theatre, the youth-driven movements and the open mic nights, site-specific performance art pieces, and the drunken art history lessons. I longed to see the raw grassroots, made up stuff. The work that is produced with 50 shekels and some helpful friends. What most of the world might call, “weird theatre”. To me, this is the art just asking to be made. The art that defies all odds to find an audience. My favorite kind.

Here’s what happened. I met the artists. Artists who all had made Aliyah. These were Americans, Englanders, Germans, Australians, Swedes and a horde of other communities that have decided to take the leap. Why come to Israel to be an artist? Was this an art driven decision? What are the nature and aesthetics of the kind of art Olim are making? I asked.

One such occasion was on a night when I attended an all English stand-up comedy event, organized by local Comic Jeremy Feldhamer. The experience really brought me home. Not only because of the American atmosphere of the bar, ever charming and delightfully named, “The Dancing Camel”. It wasn’t just because I'm used to spending my time with stand-ups and improvisers. It was also because the comedians were able articulate some of my shameful inner thoughts about the conditions and culture of Israel. One comedian, spent much of his set, complaining about the showers and the dating scene. Another took time to honestly criticize his religious upbringing and the strangeness of the Jewish lifestyle. Many if not all of the comics, spoke about their own ambiguous relationship with the conflict and their thoughts on Arab/Jewish relations. But there were also Jokes. Best of all Jokes. “Being a religious Jew influences my comedy a lot”, Says Feldhammer, “It is actually a struggle. I want to be real and also show people that religious Jews are people too. We think about and struggle with the same things as everyone else. I also like to get people to realize that there are also many kinds of “religious” Jews. We don't all fit into a cookie cutter mold. At the same time if I make a dirty joke my religious side can make me feel guilty. But it’s ok, Judaism and guilt go hand in hand”.

My favorite thing about Jeremy is that he provided a platform, one of the hardest things for artists to find. I can’t help but admire an arts initiative when I see one and his pluralist perspective seems to give room for an opportunity for every brand of comic.

Do you remember the Chocolate game? I had the pleasure to play the chocolate game at an event called Kesem’s Cabaret, a beautiful whimsical night filled with storytelling, dance and performance art. The other joyful thing about this event? It was a BIRTHDAY PARTY. Enter the ethereal Charlie Kesem. A storyteller from London England. Kesem is also the founder of her own storytelling collective called Kesem Storytelling Collective. “When I got here the storytelling world for younger people was less active here/almost non-existent,” Says Kesem, “So I felt like there was a space for me to bring the stuff I had gathered and learned. But I always found people to be very up for new and engaging things. I’m driven by stories, by the fact that stories make connection. I also feel connected to the idea of stories as ancestry, not specific to this country, going back to a long time ago when we were connected to nature when stories would have been a part of how to learn”. When Kesem decided to transform her birthday into a Cabernet of childhood proportions, she invited artists from all over to come and perform their talents, everything from music to belly dancing, to painting with yoga. Kessem provided it. “The Cabaret, for example, is a connection and gathering people together with a lot of heart, sharing people’s talents and going through a fun experience together.” And indeed, I felt connected, I was even pulled up in the middle of a story to play one of the characters (a sad cut up jellyfish blob, but that’s a story for another time) fully immersing myself in that spiritual connection between story and audience.

Rachel as the jellyfish blob at Charlie Kesem's Cabaret

Another cool thing? This event was held at an art studio in Tel Aviv that houses “Artopus Collective”, in this studio a group of twelve artists practice their craft. Artopus also hosts a cornucopia of events from drawing classes, to Drunk Art History Lectures. One such artist, is the decisive and witty Shachar May, a painter and art historian from Livingston New Jersey who hosts these lectures and also displays her thoughtful and dynamic works, along with the walls of the studio. “I didn't come to Israel to make art. Says May, I was working in social justice back then, and I came to Israel to volunteer with underprivileged communities. I wound up volunteering for five months in a psychiatric clinic for refugees and asylum seekers. I'd never been particularly Zionist, or religious, but I am half Israeli and I felt a responsibility to form my own opinion about Israel. I came with questions that were never answered. Nothing is black and white here, only shades of gray (the same is true of good art). I stayed for the people, the warm familial vibe, and through that I found the freedom to start making art seriously. I got this incredible opportunity to be part of the founding group of an art collective, Artopus. The studio space and the support of all these other artists gave me the opportunity to start taking my art and my dreams seriously. Israel is a small scene. A lot of local artists find it frustrating, but I find it fertile. It's a greenhouse and a really warm place for a newcomer to be supported while they grow. Not to mention, there's a wealth of ideological and philosophical "problems" - incredibly complex moral and existential questions woven into the day to day existence here. No matter how you approach them, they're food for art. Ambiguity is the root of all art, and we're in no short supply here.”

I LOVE May’s mention of this idea of ‘ambiguity’, because that is exactly how it feels to be a child of diaspora; ambiguous. How are we supposed to feel about the conflict? Am I a Zionist and what does that even mean? Am I a bad person if I choose one side or the other? Are there even sides? My last artist would like to remain anonymous, but I've gotten to see some images of their work online and it is kick ass. Their work is violent and static, but also vibrant and in a way that is profoundly spiritual and cathertic, especially in regards to the Jewish experience. Their work truly blows me away. What draws me to this particular artist, is their boldness in addressing head-on, the complex relationship that diaspora Jews all inevitably face. The artist’s work has this to say about the conflict, “My work is mostly oil paintings and some collage, and in my practice I deal with architecture of Palestinian homes and Jewish settlement homes in the West Bank, Diasporic Jewish identity, ironies in the aesthetics of the US-Israel relationship, and abstract notions of organizing space (in pondering how land is colonized and distributed). Besides this place being the space in which I get all my content (aside from the components relating to America). But even throughout all of the interviews and the events, I found that not one person came to Israel for the art, but rather for other personal, spiratual and financial reasons. Our mystery painter says they made Aliyah because “I wanted to gain the right to vote for parties that support a two-state solution and who are actively working towards a peace deal. I am active in groups and collectives that are critical of Israel and oppose the occupation, such as, All That’s Left and IfNotNow. It is good to clarify, that the artists are not anti-Israel, but has their own unique relationship with the Jewish state. “Recently people had been questioned and held up at the airport and not let in because of the Anti-BDS law, so I didn’t want that to happen to me because I love Israel and I will be coming here back and forth for the rest of my life.” I too feel this complexity as an artist, I wonder if my art has an obligation to address these complex political issues or if it's even safe to do so. Lastly, the painter had this to say on the subject of Aliyah, “I am at a point in my career in which I am not sure I want to be associated with Aliyah, or my art to be associated with Aliyah since I did not make Aliyah for any Zionist reasons whatsoever”. I think that is fair to say. Many of the Jews who come to Israel will never be die-hard Zionist, but we also have the right NOT to know what we 'are' in the first place.

I will always be an artist. Where ever I am. At first, I saw this nine months of volunteering as an opportunity to take a break from acting and attend to my spiritual and Jewish Identity, as well as explore my passion for social change. Thing is, that lasted about a week. I feel a bit foolish to think that I would possibly put away my artist. She is loud and creative and needs constant feeding! These identities of mine are all deeply entangled and I am unique because I am all of them. What an absurd notion, to put away a piece of ones’ soul! It never works that way. They need each other desperately. While I don’t see myself making Aliyah anytime soon, I take great pride in being a part of an unstoppable international community of Jewish artists, whether that’s here in Israel, or anywhere else.

Shalom aleichem Y’all! Thanks for reading!

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