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Madison conference probes Jewish identity in art, artists
April 27th, 2007
Madison — Milwaukee-based digital artist Beverly Richey decided to go to Madison this week primarily to meet a friend.
That friend had said she would be attending the conference “Practicing Jews: Art, Identity and Culture” that the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mosse/ Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies hosted this week. So Richey decided to go to the conference as well.
But after she attended the weeklong conference’s first day Monday at the university’s Pyle Center, Richie was glad to be part of the event.
She heard ideas and observations that “will affect my thinking about my own work,” said Richey, who is Jewish.
She was not the only one of the 96 people present Monday who felt that way.
Judith Brin Ingber is a dancer, choreographer and dance historian, based in Minneapolis; a veteran of Israel’s Inbal Dance Theater; and author of a forthcoming book of “Perspectives on Israeli and Jewish Dance.” She came both to learn and to make a presentation scheduled for Thursday.
“This is totally world class,” she said, noting that the event brought together 49 presenters who are “absolutely top people” from “all kinds of disciplines.”
At Monday’s sessions, “everybody said something provocative” that can “apply to anybody thinking today about what is identity and Jewish identity.”
The event even attracted at least one non-Jew. Eleanore Tollman of Madison, a Catholic-raised student in her 50s, told The Chronicle she wanted to attend to learn to understand her Jewish friends.
Among her lessons is the understanding that Judaism “is a culture and a nationality” as well as a religion; “You can’t just ask somebody, ‘Tell me about being Jewish,’” she said.
She recalled one Jewish friend especially, a man who married the daughter of a Protestant minister, who told Tollman that he would never convert despite pressure from his wife’s family. Though he was not religiously observant, he was exploring his family’s history.
Tollman said she had told this friend that he was “not really Jewish” if he was not practicing. But the conference helped her understand that “I shouldn’t have derided him” because “he was identifying through his family historyâ€¦ I see there’s different sides” to being Jewish.
Crack of a whip
The conference was the brainchild of Douglas Rosenberg. He is associate professor in the UW-Madison’s art department, an Emmy-nominated video performance and installation artist, and director of the Jewish studies center’s Conney Project on Jewish Arts.
This project, which sponsored the conference, was created in 2005 via a $500,000 grant from retired Madison businessman Marvin Conney and his wife Mildred. According to a UW-Madison release, the project is intended to be “a major center for both art and scholarship.”
In his opening remarks Monday, Rosenberg said the conference was intended to “look at how the particular education of Jewish artists and scholars” has or has not “seeped into and colored their practice.”
He posed an analogy of a whip, in whose handle and length one finds debates over such matters as multiculturalism and feminism, but at the tip, “the snap point,” the place where the traveling energy “turns to sound, there sits Jewish identity” and “discussion about Jews and art in the contemporary era.”
That discussion led off Monday with such speakers and topics as:
• “Tolken medievalist” Kalman Bland of Duke University protesting against the higher value placed on texts and prose and storytelling in traditional Jewish culture, as opposed to other arts; and challenging the traditional understanding that Judaism and Jewish culture historically disdained visual art.
• Video artist Shalom Gorewitz of Ramapo College of New Jersey describing biblical-verse-based paintings by Jill Nathanson and the effect of their placement in a meditation room of a Manhattan Jewish community center.
• Chicago-based Rebecca Rossen, who is working on a book called “Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance,” showing how some modern Jewish choreographers have explored Jewish masculinity through dances taking off on stereotypes about Jews from vaudeville.
• Art historian Paula Birnbaum and artist Sharon Siskin, Jewish women on the faculty of the Jesuit Catholic University of San Francisco, describing how they taught a course on Jewish women in the arts to a group of almost completely non-Jewish women.
The first day of the conference concluded at Madison’s Overture Center with a dance concert, “Moving Bodies: Performing Jewish Identity,” featuring dancer-choreographers former Wisconsinite Liz Lerman (see below), Nina Haft and David Dorfman, with help of special student Ariele Riboh.