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Jewish Journal

Hello Torah, Please Welcome Art

by Gaby Wenig

October 30, 2003 | 7:00 pm

A newly religious female artist came to Chana Rochel Shusterman and told the Orthodox counselor that she was torn between her artistic drive and her religious sensibilities.

"I've stopped painting," said the artist. "My favorite subject to paint is intimacy, and now that I am Orthodox, I just don't feel that painting intimacy is appropriate."

Shusterman's advice? Continue painting, but re-adjust her notions of intimacy.

"I told her, there can be great intimacy in two clothed women sitting and learning to talk to each other, and it can be through nuance that you show the 'innerness,'" Shusterman said. "That turned her understanding of what was possible and she began to paint again."

For many religious artists, this painter's dilemma -- the conflict between art, with its concentration on ego, and religious Judaism, with its devotion to Torah -- is not an anomaly, but a constant struggle. How does one reconcile fealty to talent and personal expression, with loyalty to a religion that is by its nature, didactic and restrictive? Is it possible to remain true to both and produce art, not kitsch? Beyond the philosophical considerations, there are practical ones, too. Can one be a true artist and not be immodest or perform on Shabbat?

Yes, say the women of Netivot Women's Torah Study Institute, who are at the forefront of combining art and Torah to produce an enhanced experience of both, and are encouraging members of the community to learn how to do the same. On Sunday, Nov. 2, Netivot is having a "Yom Iyun on Torah and the Arts" (intense day of learning), which will include acting, writing, dance and music workshops that all focus on Torah and serving Hashem, followed throughout the year by a series of courses on the same. The project is called "Parochet, Revealing Torah Through the Arts," and its aim is not to produce performers, but to facilitate people in fusing their talent with the spirit of Torah.

"I feel that we are trailblazers," said Robyn Saxe Garbose, who trained in drama at Julliard. "Los Angeles is fertile territory [for this]. New York is stuck in intellectual elitism which definitely permeates the artistic community, but I think there is an openness here -- what New York would describe as 'granola eating' -- that they don't have, and it's pioneer territory for new ideas and a merger of creativity and consciousness."

Garbose is going to be presenting the "Spiritual Transformation Through Acting" workshop at Parochet, and like the other presenters, she was forced to reassess her artistic drive after becoming religious. Garbose had been an accomplished theater director when she became baalat teshuvah, and suddenly she found that that career was no longer satisfactory to her.

"You can't work at the theater and not work on shabbos," said Garbose. "I was directing plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and contemporary writers but [when I became religious] I felt that there was nobody who was resonating anymore with my experience of the world and where I wanted to go."

So Garbose started writing her own plays and founded Kol Neshama -- a day camp-cum-religious all-women's theater company -- to perform them.

The other Parochet presenters found themselves on similar paths -- they were all forced to reassess accomplished careers when their newly found religion no longer intersected with their art. Vanessa Paloma, who will conduct the music workshop, found that becoming religious meant she could no longer attend singing auditions or performances on Shabbat. But instead of that holding her back, it forced Paloma into a new direction -- studying and teaching Ladino and Jewish music.

"[Being religious] encouraged me to organize and to do my own projects, not other people's," Paloma said.

Joelle Keene, a journalist who will be presenting the writing workshop, found that when she became religious, her previous writing subjects no longer mattered to her and she only wanted to write articles about God, Torah and spirituality.

"I would send them in and the editors would call and say, 'This is beautiful, but it doesn't fit -- we don't have a God section in the paper,'" said Keene, who took her talents elsewhere, becoming associate editor of OLAM Magazine, a spiritual publication, and writing religiously appropriate musicals for Garbose's theater company.

These women don't aim to become religious Picassos or Madonnas -- instead, they want art and Torah to have a symbiotic relationship with one another, where each is necessary to the other.

"We can't use the talent that God has given us to be in service of other things, like materialism," Keene said. "We have to serve God with what He has given us. Arts are part of the humanity that God gave us. If you close it off from Judaism, it [Judaism] is not complete."

The "Yom Iyun on Torah and The Arts" will take place at Yeshivat and Kehillat Yavneh, 5353 W. Third Street, Los Angeles, on Sunday, Nov. 2 from 12:30-6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 286-2346 or go to www.netivot.org .

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