Laura Conrad Mandel, executive director of Jewish Arts Collaborate (JArts), recalls the Jewish Artist Beit Midrash began with a conversation she had with artist Caron Tabb. The two had been attending the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in 2019, where they struck up a conversation about networking groups for Jewish artists in other cities. What would it take to launch a Jewish artist beit midrash (often translated as “study hall”) in the Boston area? Mandel immediately imagined such an undertaking as collaborative, so she reached out to Hebrew College. “Hebrew College was a natural partner,” said Mandel in a recent conversation with JewishBoston. “They had been working with Adina Allen of the Jewish Studio Project. Hebrew College has a community of artists and the college’s president, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, connected Rabbi Shoshana Friedman to our project.”
Soon after Friedman was on board, the pieces fell into place. Mandel assembled a leadership team with Tabb consisting of Yiddishist and classical singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and artist Shira Rubin. Along with Tabb, they serve as co-leaders for one of the Jewish Artist Beit Midrash’s three sections. Sophie Krentzman, CJP’s director of arts and culture, consulted on the project and arranged for a grant to support it.
Friedman received her ordination from Hebrew College, where she is now director of professional development for the rabbinical college. She anchors the monthly beit midrash with a 90-minute text study, focused on exploring creativity in Genesis through various midrashim (plural of midrash, meaning “commentary”). “I’m developing the curriculum as we go along, organically responding to discussions in the beit midrash,” she explained. “I’m excited to be focusing on the Genesis story as we look at God’s creativity. We’re finding the divinity and sanctity in the creative process and allowing classical Jewish texts to give us the language and concepts for that search.”
A climate activist and writer, Friedman delights in celebrating the creative process. In the beit midrash, she said she is “paying dedicated attention to creativity, including the scariness of a first draft—facing the blank page, time management and facing a mystery together in the creation of art.”
Tabb currently has a solo show in Boston—“Humanity Is Not a Spectator Sport”—and noted that many of the artists in her group have gathered to share work and “hold a community of ideas and learning between sessions. This is a new community where the exchange of ideas is already happening.”
Tabb is a multimedia artist who “works from a deeply Jewish place. I hope to see artists infusing their work with more Jewish elements because of participating in the beit midrash. We’re on the precipice of an exciting time for Jewish art and artists expressing Jewish identity in the community. A window is being opened for accessing Jewish identity in Jewish arts and cultures in a significant way.”
In “Humanity Is Not a Spectator Sport,” Tabb mines her Jewish South African identity to create a visual response to racial tensions. “The show is a call to action for myself and my viewers,” she said. “It goes between my identity and the universal question of, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Among the exhibits in the show is Tabb’s “Women of Valor Tzedakah Boxes.” She dedicates the boxes to two women—Ruth Messinger and Clementina Chery—who exemplify the mandate written on the tzedakah boxes to “Be the Change.” Messinger has embodied the Jewish value of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) through her work with the American Jewish World Service. Chery founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in 1994 shortly after her 15-year-old son, Louis, for whom the institute is named, was murdered in Dorchester.
Tabb and JArts are planning to build on the idea of tzedakah boxes and transform it into a public art installation in May 2022. “Be the Change” will be a collection of “justice vessels” made by artists of diverse backgrounds. “We’re taking Jewish ritualistic objects to Main Street, USA, and pushing the envelope using themes of tzedakah and tzedek—justice,” said Tabb.
Rubin, who works in sculpture with ceramics and clay, came to the artist beit midrash having taught at Avoda Arts at the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and participated in the Skirball Center’s artists’ beit midrash exhibit. She brings “the knowledge of different program models from around the country for us to adopt [in Boston] and innovate for what resonates for the Boston community.”
Rubin studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and lived in Israel after college, where she “was able to see Israeli art and learn Jewish texts. It was all organic. I was looking for that experience when I came back from Israel.” Rubin is also working on replicating some of the lessons she learned running the Berkshire Institute for Music and Arts (BIMA) for teenagers. Her dream in Boston was to institute a community like BIMA for adults. “I thought about ways to connect and about artists as catalysts of change,” she said. “A lot of great things happen together.”
Russell made the leap a decade ago from classical vocalist to singer, composer and arranger of Yiddish music. He began his journey recording the songs of Sidor Belarksy, an opera singer who performed and recorded Yiddish art songs in the 1920s and ‘30s. Recently, Russell has collaborated with musician Dmitri Gaskin to record an album of songs based on 12 modern Yiddishoems.
Russell said his immersion in Yiddish music and Jewish culture has inspired him to “creative endeavors beyond performing, such as video work, writing essays about Yiddish and Jewish culture, and creativity. I’m a multi-hyphenated creative artist who constantly has conversations within myself and my Yiddish, Diaspora and Black identities.”
Russell asserted that Jewish artists “deserve more respect from the mainstream Jewish American establishment. Art is one of the few things that exist from the past cogently and palpably. We experience the continuity with our ancestors and who we are by experiencing art.”
Russell is committed to expanding Jewish literacy among the beit midrash participants. “The discussion and study of Torah is a great experience for the artist,” he said. To that end, he sees “the functionality of studying Torah as a rebbetzin.” He is married to Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Elohim in Acton. Russell joyfully reclaims the rebbetzin title to pay tribute to the generations of women who came before him. “It’s a point of pride,” he said.