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I’ll admit that it took me several chunks of time, distributed across three days, to make my way through the online version of Authenticity and Identity, an exhibition on Jewish artwork curated by Georgetown University professor Ori Z. Soltes. My slow pace wasn’t because the exhibition was boring—in fact, its variety and depth was immersive and thought-provoking—but rather because it was so vast. Authenticity and Identity explores the essence of Jewish artwork from every possible medium and perspective, from young and old to religious and secular. Six substantial sections structure the exhibition. They are not titled explicitly, but the first one covers the biblical era while the subsequent five dissect the many cultural conflicts, personal and societal, philosophical and physical, emerging from the Jewish diaspora. These themes take shape in pieces from artists across the world (20 are from the D.C. area while the other 30 are from Europe, Israel, and other parts of the United States). The vastness of the exhibition’s scope makes room for many messages, but the bottom line is this: The Jewish experience cannot be pinned down in a one-sentence summary, and Jewish art is equally elusive.
When the idea for Authenticity and Identity emerged in 2019, no one knew a pandemic was on the horizon. After becoming a member of the Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region, exhibition director (and City Paper contributor) Robert Bettmann suggested that the group create an exhibition that would explore what it meant to be a Jewish artist in order to grow and support their membership.
“I think American culture is pretty sick with singularity, and wanting things to fit into little boxes that don’t change,” he says. “Jewish artists today arguably deal with less persecution and isolation for their identities than others. Yet many if not all of us involved in the Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region have experienced feeling very discouraged within our professions as artists because of our Jewish identity.”
He teamed up with Soltes and Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Northwest Washington that agreed to host the exhibition in April 2020. The team had just put out a call for submissions when the pandemic hit.
The exhibition was postponed indefinitely, and its creators considered their options—should they launch an online version of the exhibition or wait until they could open in-person? Exploring the former option, Soltes authored a 10,000-word catalogue essay on the themes and pieces on display. This essay gave way to the thorough and in-depth layout of the online exhibition (though the works are also available in person at Adas Israel by appointment), which pairs each work of art with a lengthy and analytical text, longer than the typical museum wall text, extracted from the catalogue.
I found that these captions both expanded and limited my understanding of the pieces at the same time. As a reform Jew whose biblical knowledge could use some brushing up, I appreciated the translations of Hebrew text and explanations of religiously inspired subject matter. At the same time, I noted that in the grandiose description of a “Goy Division” tee-shirt, there was not one mention of the English New Wave band on which the artist was punning. I viewed the piece, a T-shirt depicting the famous parting of the Red Sea in Exodus in the same style as the album art for Joy Division’s iconic Unknown Pleasures, as a statement on the blending of Jewish and popular culture in the late 20th century, an interpretation that fit smoothly into the rest of section four. Soltes, however, connects the piece only to American culture, comparing the image of Israelites gathering before Moses and the parting sea to Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for the seal of the United States at its founding. My point? Building an essay into an exhibition can enrich the viewer’s experience, but even the perspective of an expert is based largely upon personal interpretation. My solution was to learn from the texts while also taking each one with a grain of salt.
Drawbacks aside, I was moved and impressed by the arc of the exhibition. Viewing it from home, I found myself opening up new tabs for web searches on topics like kabbalah and Emma Goldman. There were also moments when I simply paused to absorb the image in front of me and process the wave of emotions it instilled. These were particularly frequent in section 3, a grouping dedicated to “embedding the familial and the personal within the communal,” according to the catalogue. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I found myself stuck on two pieces by Diana Kurz, an artist who creates in-color and dramatically enlarged paintings of photographed family members who were killed by Nazis. I felt the loss and defiance propelling Kurnz to preserve the memory of these distant relatives that the Nazis once sought to erase. At the same time, she and the section’s other artists evoke an experience pervasive for many of us in the United States—the grief and empowerment embedded in our heritage.
A more contemporary issue which Soltes diligently highlights in the exhibition is the question of gender within Jewish identity. “Hanging by a Thread” by Heather Stoltz in section 4, for example, details the precarity of maintaining one’s religious footing as a mother in a historically patriarchal tradition.
“Synagogues do not make it easy for new mothers or mothers of small children and I am now finding that my connection to prayer and the community is slipping away,” the artist writes. “This piece represents the slow erosion of my Jewish identity and how I feel like there’s very little left to keep me connected.”
In an exhibition that focuses on the intergenerational transmission of culture and beliefs, “Hanging by a Thread” and other pieces disprove any notion that Authenticity and Identity is aiming for an unequivocal celebration of some idealized form of Judaism. To be Jewish is, instead, to constantly question one’s cultural and/or spiritual identity and to evaluate the contribution that they make to one’s sense of self.
Though it looks specifically at Jewishness (I say this because it goes beyond the narrow religious connotations of Judaism), Authenticity and Identity explores culture and spirituality in a way that carries weight in a globalized time and space—where do we come from, and how does our heritage impact our experiences as individuals? During a pandemic, when our lives have largely centered around the internet, the tension between space and personhood inherent is this focus is especially powerful. To view Authenticity and Identity is to reflect and challenge one’s own identity, artist or not.
The digital exhibition is available at authenticityandidentity.com through May 14. Free.