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An Exhibit Opens a Window on Being Black and Jewish
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An Exhibit Opens a Window on Being Black and Jewish

Artists of color will explore themes of identity and belonging in a panel pegged to a show of probing photographs.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

  • Detail of Witness by Ella Cooper currently on view at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto. Photo: Morris Lum
    Detail of Witness by Ella Cooper currently on view at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto. Photo: Morris Lum
  • Artist Ella Cooper in front of her installation, "Witness," at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto. (Yvonne Bambrick)
    Artist Ella Cooper in front of her installation, "Witness," at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto. (Yvonne Bambrick)
  • FENTSTER gallery visitors taking in Ella Cooper's installation, "Witness." (Yvonne Bambrick)
    FENTSTER gallery visitors taking in Ella Cooper's installation, "Witness." (Yvonne Bambrick)
  • The FENTSTER gallery's window is an ideal setup for displaying art in the age of Covid.
    The FENTSTER gallery's window is an ideal setup for displaying art in the age of Covid.
  • Detail of "Witness," an installation of photographs by Ella Cooper currently on view at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto.(Morris Lum)
    Detail of "Witness," an installation of photographs by Ella Cooper currently on view at the FENTSTER window gallery, Toronto.(Morris Lum)
  • “I’m not crying because I’m Black and I’m Jewish,” said Ella Cooper. “I’m crying because I, like so many others, have experienced displacement and longing." (Morris Lum)
    “I’m not crying because I’m Black and I’m Jewish,” said Ella Cooper. “I’m crying because I, like so many others, have experienced displacement and longing." (Morris Lum)

Ella Cooper, an award-winning photographer, performance artist and racial activist based in Montreal, often considers herself an “incognito Jew.”

“To the world I’m Black,” she told me during a phone interview. “I wasn’t interested in being interrogated in Jewish spaces about how exactly I was a Jew.”

So for Cooper, having her photography featured in a new exhibition about the intersection of Judaism and Blackness is a first. Cooper’s photographic self-portraiture, titled “Witness,” is the focal point of a current exhibition in Toronto’s FENTSTER window gallery (“fentster” means window in Yiddish), curated by Jewish culturist Evelyn Tauben.

Ella Cooper

“I wanted to stamp the space as a place for Jewish projects,” said Tauben, who opened the exhibition space in 2016. The space, which is visible form the street, turned out to be perfectly suited for the age of Covid-19. “At the start of the summer, we realized things would not be going back to normal,” she said. “We wanted our next exhibition to feel part of the new reality we were living in.”

With racial unrest and civil protests reverberating from south of the U.S.-Canadian border, Tauben decided to “seize the moment” to talk about race in the context of the Jewish community. “Now is the moment — don’t waste it,” she told herself. “I realized we were long overdue for more diverse stories about the Jewish experience.”

In an online event scheduled for Dec. 2, Tauben will convene a panel of Black Jewish artists for an in-depth conversation about Judaism and race, using Cooper’s portraits as a jumping-off point. The event will be among the first to specifically bring together Jewish artists of color, Tauben said. The artist convening is sponsored in partnership with No Silence on Race, a group that pushes for racial equity and inclusivity in Jewish spaces in Canada. The online panel is cosponsored by a series of organizations, including KlezKanada, Museum of Jewish Montreal, The Jewish Theological Seminary, Asylum Arts, Reboot and Jews of Colour Canada.

Kendell Pinkney, a Brooklyn-based theater artist of color and fourth-year rabbinical school student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will be moderating the event. (Pinkney was among The Jewish Week’s 2017 “36 Under 36” honorees.)

Kendell PInkney

“I’ve always found myself drawn to places where people don’t fit in,” said Pinkney, 34. Among Jewish artists of color, he feels fully understood. “While the conversation of Black identity and Jewish identity is au courant, that’s not our approach,” he said with regard to the upcoming event. “There is something more substantial about wrestling with these identities in the context of art. As artists, not just as Jews and people of color, we need a place to explore and create without being told ‘this is how you must relate to something.’ There is no ‘authentic’ blackness or Jewishness.”

Actor, writer and director Rebecca S’manga Frank, previously of Brooklyn, will join Pinkney and Cooper at the upcoming event. She will be reading a poem about the death of her father, a Black man from Swaziland (now Eswatini), whom she lost at a young age and whom she struggled to memorialize within the traditional Jewish framework of the mourner’s kaddish.

Rebecca S’manga Frank

“Somehow the conversation around spirituality didn’t seem big enough then to cover him,” she reflected.

The “feeling of kinship” she looks forward to sharing with her fellow Jewish artists of color is a “rare experience,” she said.

“I’m never just a Jewish artist — I’m a Black Jewish artist,” she said. Growing up attending a Reform synagogue and Hebrew School in Santa Monica, Cal., S’manga Frank said she grew accustomed to being “othered,” even in her progressive community. “I felt so Jewish — I am so Jewish — but I always felt I had to prove my Jewishness growing up.” She referred to the experience as “constantly having to flash my Jewish card.”

“It was always a struggle to be seen in the way I knew I wanted to belong,” she said.

I felt so Jewish — I am so Jewish — but I always felt I had to prove my Jewishness growing up.

Today, she feels more emboldened and does not feel the need to affirm her Jewish identity to others. “Racism in this country is the issue — if there are no people of color in your Jewish spaces, I don’t have to fix myself, you have to fix your shul.”

Cooper, who identified herself as black But not as Jewish in her artistic career thus far, said she is intrigued by the challenge of coming “out” as Black and Jewish.

“I am a Jew, but I’m not comfortably ‘out’ as one in a way,” she mused. “This will be my first time around other black Jewish folks. I think the experience will be healing.”

She hopes the self-portraits displayed in the window exhibition will go beyond outward identity and speak to the “deeper human emotions we all go through.” In several of the portraits, she is crying.

“I’m not crying because I’m Black and I’m Jewish,” she said. “I’m crying because I, like so many others, have experienced displacement and longing. I’m explored what it means to be naked from an emotional standpoint, with identity mixed into that.”

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