Laura Conrad Mandel

Balancing Jewish Joy and Oy

The 2024 CJP x JArts Community Creative Fellows. Credit: Aryeh Blanshay
The 2024 CJP x JArts Community Creative Fellows. Credit: Aryeh Blanshay

A mantra of the past few months has become: it’s hard to find joy in the midst of all the oy. But last week, as I experienced the CJP x JArts Boston Community Creative Fellowship showcase, I found the balance of joy and oy that is so badly needed right now.

In 2020, in a peak Covid pandemic moment when people were desperate for connection but not able to come together, the CJP x JArts Community Creative Fellowship was born. Since inception, the program has inspired thousands of community members and dozens of community organizations through the support of ten Boston-based artists. Each of these artists across diverse artforms applied for the fellowship because of their desire to create significant new Jewish art, to hone the community engagement aspects of their work, and to elevate contemporary Jewish narratives and voices, leaning into the power of art and storytelling to enhance meaningful connections in a fractured world. And because of the pandemic roots, much has been done virtually.

Then, this June, for the first time since we began the fellowship, we gathered with our artists for a showcase and celebration, a l’chaim to their 8 months of work and community engagement. It was a beautiful performance and evening filled with songs and stories at the historic Vilna Shul on Boston’s Beacon Hill.

For the 70 people in the audience and I, we recognized something different – beyond just the beauty of the performances and the celebration of the year, the fellow connections to one another and to other artists in the room was palpable. Through the art and performance, we took a deep dive into the troubling times we are living in as the context and underpinning of this creative process, and then experienced the joy and beauty these artists have created.

The evening illustrated the power of art to connect us, and the importance of creative voices in these complicated and divisive times. Their work is Jewish life and joy expressed, carrying the oy and the sorrow in its roots, while enabling us to find joy in art and shared experiences. This showcase evening illustrated the inspiration and connection of artists that feeds their creativity, and how that in turn can have deep and wide impacts on our communities. As each of our fellows presented their work, I was reminded of why we run the fellowship – of the joy these artists bring to our community and to one another, and the ways in which they can embrace the oy to make space for healing and connection.

Beloved folk musician Lily Henley shared a Sephardic piece she honed during the fellowship, sharing a Jewish language that most notably was informed by the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with people everywhere.

In his work with “singing paintings,” composer and tech artist Yuval Gur shared the most basic of art forms – canvas, paint, and music – to engage community in challenging conversations, expressed through art and technology. And while much of his community facilitation work revolves around ways participants to use art to tell their own stories, Yuval shared his own fears and tensions around the state of Israel and what it feels like to be an Israeli in the US right now.

Alex Salsberg is an accomplished animator, but hearing how he felt compelled to expand his practice to dig more deeply into his own Jewish identity was powerful – amplified by the sharing of his animations that illustrate and beautifully blur the lines of cross-generational relationships.

Deborah Leipziger wrote poetry in and inspired by the Vilna Shul throughout her fellowship. Hearing her read these poems in the space was incredibly moving. Her own Brazilian and diverse Jewish roots weave in and out of the Vilna immigration story, sharing important Jewish and universal stories of immigration that have much wisdom to offer us today.

I’m often going back to what Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College, astutely said to me a few months ago – “artists are the leaders we need in this moment.” In a moment of turmoil and upheaval, these artists’ creative process make space for crucial dialogue around the oy and connection for the joy.

In a moment of darkness and tension, their work elevates Jewish traditions, joy, and pain, crucial ingredients for us all to access today.

About the Author
Laura Conrad Mandel is an artist, entrepreneur, mom, and founding Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts). She currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Council of American Jewish Museums and as co-chair of the Boston Lyric Stage Advisory Council.
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