My process begins with story. In my current series on Jewish Identity and Legacy I review the interviews that I’ve done and see what speaks to me. Fannie, who I referenced in the earlier blog entry is very much a story teller and also deeply involved in her Jewish heritage. She speaks with energy and passion so her stories drew me in.
During my first interview with her she began to expound on Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit is defined as Jewish character or a Jewish way of life.
Because if you’re Jewish and you don’t display or tell or show that you are Jewish, you’ve lost it and then we’ve lost it, we’ve lost something. I don’t like people who are ashamed of being Jewish.
Here she referenced someone who she knew who she felt was uncomfortable with being Jewish as she mimicked, “Don’t act like that, act nice, act normal.”
What is acting “like that?” I asked.
Well you see, you don’t flip an accent, and you don’t say a joke and you don’t say a Jewish word, you don’t say Oyyyyy. You don’t use expressions like that. And when you’re with me you walk straight, you don’t wiggle around. And you don’t sort of show so that they know you’re Yiddish.
I would use my hands, I still do today, I use my hands. And maybe I don’t walk just prim and proper.
I was amused at the energy with which she expressed these sentiments, but understood that she was speaking of that very energy and spontaneity as Jewish characteristics. I often have reflected on the fact that I have always had many Jewish friends, even when I was not actively engaged in a Jewish community. The common thread was often the very traits that she referenced.
But it was more than personality traits. She explained, “It’s everything, it’s everyday. Yiddishkeit is everyday. You can’t just put it aside before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yiddishkeit has to be spontaneous, it isn’t locked in little cubby holes.
It’s a way of living, it’s a way of living.
It’s part of being part of the synagogue, no matter which one it is, it’s part of being body and soul of everyday living and believing of what they do and knowing what it is Tzedakah and Mitzvah. Those are natural words and natural things, they are things that happen and you make them happen and you learn to give from the time you’re that high. It just comes naturally and it has to and that’s Yiddishkeit.
In painting this I began with the idea of cubby holes, compartmentalization versus spontaneity. I built up a background of color and squares. First with words spilling out of them, then painting over that early effort to create a waterfall of words, only later noting that it resembled a prayer shawl. The words I used are the words that have meaning to me and are very much about Jewish values. You can find the words Mitzvah (Good Works), Tzedakah (Charity) and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) spilling forth from the waterfall that pools at the bottom of the painting. What else conveys spontaneity? Hands, those hands that gestured throughout her riff on Yiddishkeit. The irrepressible energy she couldn’t contain. So I painted them in, but they seemed a bit disembodied so I sketched in her face as well. I hadn’t planned on a portrait, but Fannie’s energy found its way in, almost as if her hands parted the painting and the rest of her followed.
Is it done yet? I'm not sure. Normally I like to live with a painting for awhile before I decide it is finished, but I hang a show tomorrow and would like to include it. So for now it's done, always subject to future revisions.
This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.