Judaism, the Dream-Killer? Time for a New Story.

“They tell me it’s so nice that I have an outlet. That’s what they call it. An outlet, like a toilet. They think my art is something I need to get out of my system. But my art is me."

So I love those stories about women who used to be rising stars on Broadway or singers about to sign with Sony or actresses who had just met with Spielberg – and then became frum. I love them because:

  1. I myself am a performing artist (multi-hyphenate, from voice lessons to theater major, baby). Performing arts people are my kind of people.
  2. Those girls got spunk. Those girls know how to hustle. It isn’t easy to become almost-famous. You don’t just lie on your couch and suddenly get a phone call from an agent.
  3. They gave it all up for an even bigger dream. Sacrifice, idealism, the big picture – I love women like that.

But you know what bugs me? It bugs me that is where the stories ends. “I became frum and lived happily ever after.” Because there is not really any good reason why the frum performing artists can’t perform. Classic Judaic sources don’t forbid creativity, they encourage it. The issue isn’t Judaism proper, it’s religious Jewish culture in the 21st century.

Plus, it looks bad for Judaism. Judaism, the dream-killer. Judaism, where your hopes go to die. Judaism, the graveyard of wishes, rainbows, and sparkly eyes.

I want those stories to be the beginning, not the end. “I became frum and then went on to…” Why aren’t we welcoming our performing artists to Jewish life with wide-open arms for the skills and strengths and vision they bring to the culture? Why are we accepting a Jewish culture based on fear of outside influence, fear of anything labeled (often mislabeled) ‘secular’, fear of the unknown?

I know, I know, I know: the Holocaust. That’s why. Six million reasons why, to be exact. Not to mention the fallout, the White Holocaust, millions and millions more Jews lost to ignorance and assimilation, family trees going back thousands of years cut off at the root as Avi goes off to marry Christina. Yes, we are living in a post-traumatic stressed-out nation. But it’s time, isn’t it? It’s time to get better. We’re ready now. We’re ready to stop being so scared. At a certain point fear goes from protective to suffocating. Are we there yet? You tell me.

One of the most poignant stories I have ever heard about Jewish life and the arts came from an unexpected party in that said storyteller is both not a woman, and works as Creative Director of a busy and illustrious Jewish company. What does he have to say about struggling with the complex relationship between Judaism and creativity, you ask?

Well, listen to this: “They tell me it’s so nice that I have an outlet. That’s what they call it. An outlet, like a toilet. They think my art is something frivolous, a weakness, something I need to get out of my system so that I can get back to what really matters. But my art is me. I don’t want an outlet. I want to be seen for who I am. I want to be valued for who I am.” This man didn’t sound angry. He sounded tired. He sounded quiet. He sounded worn down.

So I ask you, girls. Can we please stop referring to the arts, especially the performing arts, as something for which we need a toilet an outlet? Can we please stop congratulating each other for having somewhere to stick that mess so that it doesn’t get in the way of “real” life? (Whatever that is, by the way – let me know if you figure it out because I’m still trying.) In all seriousness, can we please stand up and be counted as quiet, non-violent, modest but still fierce and cheerful members of the revolution? Because to make some space for Jewish women to get creative, not as an outlet but as a celebrated, valued, full-fledged arm and leg of what it means to live a frum lifestyle, is gonna take some commitment.

We need to address the technical issues – renting out theater spaces for performances, doing the nitty-gritty legwork to form organizations and foundations and clubs that facilitate creative activity and display, all the hassle of marketing and communications and bladibladiblah that goes into making the world go ‘round in a practical fashion. But we also need to address the soul of the thing. Is creativity – color, laughter, being kind of silly, maybe a little weird, out of the box, fun and juicy and a tiny bit wild-in-a-good-way – a vibe we choose to normalize or to ‘other’, as in, “Oh, she’s the ‘creative type’ – you know what I mean.”

We are all the ‘creative type’ in our own way, whether that way happens to involve paints or cameras or pens or clay, or that way involves dancing, singing, and other forms of self-expression! Show me a woman who doesn’t enjoy at least one of those activities and I will show you a woman who is lying to herself. (Or is my good friend Cindy whose enormous creativity expresses itself primarily through a passion for all-women’s flag football – but that counts, too.)

It all counts. It’s about feeling fully alive, having interests, having something interesting to talk about at the Shabbos table. It’s about making friends and forming bonds and having adventures not in order to get away from our obligations and responsibilities as Jewish wives and mothers (or fabulous singles, professionals, divorcees, and all the rest of us), but nourishing our capacity to carry all those responsibilities with aplomb, with some verve, with a little bit of sunshine and style.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. See you at the next 100 Fun Things event. I’ll be the one wearing colors, not just black, writing a new and continuing story that doesn’t end with Judaism but begins there.

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