October 17, 2018

How Jewish is ‘Too Jewish’?


Eugene Yelchin painted his “Section Five” series using his fingers instead of brushes. In the earthy, orangy-brown tones and thick, rounded strokes of paint, the faces he painted emerge blurred somewhat with the background, as if the artist didn’t want them to be seen clearly.

Yelchin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1983, says the series refers to the Section Five part of his passport, where his ethnicity was written. On Yelchin’s passport, it read “Yevrei” — Jew, branding him as a “presumed traitor or security risk.”

“As a result, Section Five burned like a suddenly revealed secret,” Yelchin writes on the artist’s statement accompanying his paintings. “It caused shame and fear. It branded one for life. [The] paintings are infused with those emotions — fear of exposure, shame, anger and sadness. The paintings’ diminutive size recalls passport photos, while the faces are the faces of Jews whose self-identities are formed not by pride but by anti-Semitism.”

“6 TOO JEWISH,” by Elena Mary Siff

Four of Yelchin’s “Section Five” series are on display at the Bell Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Building in a new exhibit called, “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough.” The exhibit explores the myriad ways that Jewish identity is manifested, as well as the emergence of that identity from people who might not feel as connected to their Judaism.

The exhibit is a West Coast answer, so to speak, to “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” an exhibit originally shown at the Jewish Museum New York in 1996. That exhibit focused mainly on stereotypical media representations of Jews.

In “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough,” stereotypes give way to far more personal representations of Jewish identity in the 21st century, and it also explores the ephemeral nature of Jewish identity for some.

The exhibit is the first public offering from the Jewish Artists Initiative (JAI), a project of the Jewish Community Foundation in partnership with the USC Casden Institute and the USC School of Fine Arts. JAI was conceived as a way to identify Jewish artists in Los Angeles and to give the community a chance to support them and their work, both monetarily and in their artistic development. JAI also aims to increase the level of visual arts activity in the Jewish community and to make sure that artists are connected with the community.

“There has never been an [organized] community of Jewish artists in Los Angeles,” said Elizabeth Bloom, who contributed to the exhibition “Lamentation,” six painted panels that make a global statement about war, hatred and bigotry. “There have been attempts made in L.A., but there might have been one or two meetings and things never came to fruition. The ability to apply for funding from The Jewish Federation has given this group a special impetus.”

“In our professional lives there is so much emphasis on the practical matters of getting through financially that the more spiritual dimensions end up getting neglected,” said Deborah Lefkowitz, another artist in the group, who contributed the silver gelatin print, “Untitled,” from the “Light Chambers Suite,” which is a meditation on the sense of the ineffable in our everyday life. “The group provides the forum to really grapple with these and other dimensions and a whole set of issues that we hunger to be in conversation about.”

The current JAI members were chosen by a committee of Jewish curators, such as Victor Raphael, who was curator at the University of Judaism, and Barbara Gilbert from the Skirball Cultural Center. The curators chose a group of 30 communally active Jewish artists from a list of 150, making sure to including emerging, midcareer and established artists from Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrachic backgrounds. Later the group will open itself up to other Jewish artists in Los Angeles, but for the time being, organizers said it was easier to work with 30 people rather than 150.

For the past nine months, the 30 artists have been meeting once a month, critiquing each other’s work and dialoguing about what it means to be a Jewish artist and how Jewish artists can impact cultural life in Los Angeles. They each were invited to contribute a work and write an accompanying artist’s statement to the “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” exhibit; 26 contributed.

Ruth Weisberg, one of the founders of JAI and dean of the USC School of Fine Arts, said the exhibition had twofold purpose.

“It was meant to some extent to answer the “Too Jewish?” exhibition, in the sense that it was going to show a variety of different attitudes and conceptual bents,” Weisberg said. “It was also meant to show the level of activity of [Jewish] artists in Los Angeles.”

The representations of Jewish identity in the “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” exhibit vastly range in conception and medium. There is Eitan Mendelowitz’s “The Ineffable,” which is a computer screen with animated Hebrew letters that move around the screen to attempt to reconstruct the 72-part unspeakable name of God, that if pronounced correctly can animate a golem.

In “Globalization No. 3,” Karen Koblitz created an Islamic ceramic-looking urn decorated with the floral curlicues and pictures of Pokemon. She chose this rather unusual juxtaposition of details to reference the way Pokemon was banned in Arab countries, because of a rumor that “Pokemon” meant “I am Jewish” in Japanese.

“I, the artist, am a Jew, and I make art that includes Pokemon images on work that pays homage to Islamic ceramics,” she wrote in her statement.

Some of the artists, like Elena Mary Siff, and Bloom, paid homage to their dual Jewish-Christian heritage in their work. Siff’s work, “6 (TOO Jewish), 5 (not jewishenough),” a mixed-media collage of two stars, one the six-pointed Star of David, the other the five-pointed Christian star. Siff, whose mother came from the Greek Orthodox religion and whose father was Jewish, said the art represented the fact that she came from neither culture, because she had no religious upbringing at all, yet both cultures can be identified by a simple star shape.

In Bloom’s work, a diptych of six images — a Palestinian woman and Israeli man, a black woman next to a white woman, a Buddhist nun next to a screaming child, all in various stages of grief — is “an unconscious representation of the two sides that formed me” — her Jewish mother and her Irish Catholic father.

For some of the artists, the group and the exhibition was the first time that they thought about the way their Jewish identity impacts their art; others saw the group as a way to bolster the role that the artist plays in Jewish life.

“I didn’t dare explore my Jewish identity in Russia,” Yelchin said. “For me, being asked to join this group was a huge deal, because I come from a place that didn’t encourage that kind of context, so in a way, I was craving it.”

“Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” can be seen at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Bell Family Art Gallery, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free. 9 a.m-5 p.m. (Mon.-Thurs.), 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (Friday) The exhibition runs through Dec. 31. For more information, call (323) 761-8200.