Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Jewish identity is daily creation
April 27th, 2007
Madison — In 1965, now renowned dancer/choreographer Liz Lerman left Milwaukee to go to college. When she came back to visit, she had an unpleasant surprise: the elm trees along the street she grew up on had all been cut down because of the plague of Dutch elm disease.
Soon after, back in college, Lerman received a call from her mother, who was “yelling with righteous anger.” The local authorities had decided to plant only maple trees in place of the diseased elms; and her mother predicted that “in 30 years there would be a maple disease” that would decimate these trees also.
That story “made me think about diversity” and “how we build our strength,” said Lerman.
And this was just one of the parables from her own life and career that Lerman told to the audience at the “Practicing Jews: Art, Identity and Culture” conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Monday.
In another example during her presentation on “Creation as a Daily Act: Jewish Identity in the 21st Century,” Lerman told how she spoke to members of the American Banking Association about creativity — and how some of that audience showed that many people’s definition of the term is “too narrow.”
When she asked the bankers in the audience how they had been creative in their work, at first no one spoke; then one said he had founded his own bank. This man thought creativity only meant originality, said Lerman; but in fact, “there are thousands of ways to be creative. Originality is great, theme and variation is even better.”
Later on, another banker said to her, “This is all very good, but at the end of the day, the numbers have to add up.” To which she replied that in her profession, at the end of the day the dancers have to know when to stop together.
Again, this banker had a misperception that creativity has to be “wild, undisciplined, anything goes,” Lerman said. Moreover, “parts of the Jewish community feel the same way.”
Lerman also recalled that when she was 8, a neighbor child bit her. “I was upset, angry and ashamed,” and she waited for her mother to come home to tell her about it.
However, the bite mark began to fade before her mother returned. So Lerman bit herself on that spot several times to preserve it.
That story reveals “the nature of [basing one’s identity on] being a victim” and “what we have to do to sustain it over time,” Lerman said.
“I don’t think we [Jews] can cast our identity on the fact that bad things happened to us. It just isn’t going to work.”
“The question for me, one of many, is if we’re not going to do that, what are we going to do?” she said.
Lerman founded the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976. This company is based in the Washington, D.C., area; and has “equal commitment” to creating dance for concert performance and to doing workshops in the greater community in institutions ranging from nursing homes to synagogues. “Art does not just live on stage,” Lerman said.
She has received honors ranging from the American Jewish Congress “Golda” Award to a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” While her work has “cycled in and out of Jewish subject matter” — including “The Good Jew?” (1991) — she said that she thinks “all of my work is Jewish.”