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Courting The Fringe

Courting The Fringe

First-of-its-kind Jewish artists retreat looks to birth an international creative community.

Garrison, N.Y. — The gathering itself was like an experimental art form, the art being Jewish outreach.

For three days last week, 65 multidisciplinary Jewish artists from around the world met in this Putnam County town along the shimmering Hudson River, which spawned a visionary school of landscape painters of its own in the mid-19th century. The visual artists, composers, playwrights, choreographers, filmmakers, screenwriters, photographers, poets and writers were brought together at the Garrison Institute by ROI, a global community of Jewish innovators, and the New York-based Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. And the organizers of the first-of-its-kind Asylum International Jewish Artists Retreat guessed right that the Hudson might work its magic for a new generation of artists.

But it was a tough task they set for themselves.

In what way, for instance, does a fully-funded artists retreat respond to the question that keeps Jewish leadership up at night; that is, how to get the next generation to plug in with enthusiastic, rather than dutiful, loyalty to its heritage? This challenge takes on unusual contours when it comes to a diverse group of high-caliber, independent-minded international artists.

Justin Korda, executive director of ROI, sensed the paradoxical nature of the challenge, saying that he was reaching out to “the fringe of the fringe.” Jews have always emphasized community, but artists are most often unaffiliated souls dedicated to a personal, rather than a specifically Jewish, calling.

But Korda, with guidance from Rebecca Guber, director of the Six Points Fellowship, believes they can bring artists into a Jewish circle in an innovative, non-coercive way. The idea was to have the artists’ and the community’s concerns blur into a synergy so seamless that one would naturally nurture the other. Rather than impose a Jewish agenda, Korda allowed that “the participants are the content.” The whole idea, he said, was to make room for “open spaces, networking with each other, creating the conditions for the magic to happen.”

The buzz animating the opening night’s pop-up gallery promised quick dividends on Korda’s hunches.

The 65 artists, all chosen for outstanding work in their fields, circulated in the open space as films interweaving all of their work were projected on several screens. “This is fantastic. It’s like walking into a gold mine!” Belgium-based theater artist Noemi Schlosser enthused. She added, “There is so much open-hearted, thoughtful feedback. It is so reinvigorating.”

Jake Marmer, a New York-based poet who likes to explore the polyrhythmic, multi-vocalism “common to jazz and the Talmud” agreed. “I learned a great deal — anticipated and unexpected, artistic and personal, major things and small ideas that will make my life as an artist more intense.”

The retreat organizers had participants break into small groups, in which they discussed their immediate needs to progress artistically. They looked like good friends vibrantly engaged over a coffee break, but Guber carefully curated each breakout group to maximize the possibility of creating synergy between former strangers. As Marmer described it, “I deeply bonded with a few folks, and some of the conversations that erupted will translate into collaborations.”

In this way, the stage was subtly set for fortuitous meetings. Sometimes the meetings planted seeds of ideas; sometimes, as in Schlosser’s case, they produced more developed plans of action. Matti Kovler, a Russian-born Israeli now living in Boston, will be composing music for her production of “Andromac” by Racine, and Schlosser will direct his musical theater piece, “Enosh,” the story of Sabbatai Zevi, the Sephardic kabbalist and false messiah. She will also be teaming up with Israeli singer and choreographer Barak Marshall for a new piece inspired by “Dr. Zhivago.”

“This will be my first co-production with a dance company,” Schlosser said, “and I never would have met Barak outside of Asylum.”

The idea was that “meeting someone in the next phase of artistic life who is already doing what you dream of doing may well make more impact than admiring a Chagall,” said Deb Krivoy from Avoda Arts, a parent organization of Six Points. It is in this way that the network of artists becomes a living organism, transmitting skills and insights, much in the traditional manner of intergenerational Jewish learning.

At the retreat, the Jewish element did not overwhelm, but like some invisible glue, its presence seemed meaningful.

The offering of objects — and in some metaphoric sense, the whole gathering — was likened to the biblical Jews converging at the mishkan, the portable dwelling place for the Divine, each offering a personalized gift of the heart. As in the Bible, the collective is assumed to yield something greater than the sum of its parts.

The retreat’s own scholar-in-residence, Alison Laichter, had a wake-up note slipped under every door with an excerpt from the traditional morning prayer. “Artists benefit from gratitude, also a Jewish value,” she explained. Anthony Russell, an Oakland-based African-American Jew-by-choice and operatic bass, who invented a hybrid of Yiddish song and Negro spiritual, spoke passionately of “connecting to a past that can still heal.”

Sasha Soreff, a choreographer from Brooklyn working on a piece called “Hineni,” which she described as “about a sacred calling and having to show up whether you are ready or not,” led a peer workshop on collaboration. The opening exercise had pairs of participants facing each other from either side of a blue line. The idea was for one partner to cajole the other to his or her side of the line, without using words. A man stared unblinking into his female partner’s eyes, a woman opened her arms invitingly, another guy grabbed his partner and tugged hard, a performer turned around and stuck out his backside among lots of laughter. Soreff then asked what makes collaboration successful. “Is it achieving your ends by any means or might it be about deeply understanding the other?”

In another peer workshop, London-based Jacqueline Nicholls had participants embroider on linen with a red thread, as she often does in her craft-based work. As they sewed, she talked about the red thread tied on the sacrificial scapegoat that is thrown over a cliff to atone for the people’s sins. One of the artists sighed, “I guess they weren’t vegan.” Nicholls confirmed the centrality of animal sacrifice but emphasized how, “It takes us into that liminal space between life and death where creation is born,” explaining that, “different things allow a people to go on living.”

Gathered in clusters over hot tea or stepping outside to the veranda to admire the view of the Hudson, others agreed that the vibe was unusually collaborative. “Everyone was open-hearted and willing to share,” said Polina Barskaya, one of the 16 Russian-born artists scouted and sponsored by Genesis, a philanthropic group whose mission is enhancing Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.

The Asylum organizers also addressed the nuts and bolts of living a successful artist’s life.

The retreat offered expert-led sessions on fundraising, legal issues, marketing and financial management. Schlosser exclaimed, “We could even talk about the terrifying issues of surviving as a creative artist. They taught us new tools outside our normal expertise, like how to do a budget, get sponsors, secure bookings.” She added, “You know what they say: ‘Instead of giving someone a fish, teach the person how to fish on their own.’”

Schlosser happened to be quoting a classic Jewish guideline about spreading good works. But the question of whether she knew it or not seemed secondary to the contagious sparkle arising from the river and animating all the assembled in what may yet become an emerging community of Jewish artists.

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